By the time he sat down to pen “The Snow Queen” in the early 1840s, Hans Christian Andersen had already published two collections of fairy tales, along with several poems that had achieved critical recognition. Fame and fortune still eluded him, however, and would until his fairy tales began to be translated into other languages.
“The Snow Queen” was his most ambitious fairy tale yet, a novella-length work that rivaled some of the early French salon fairy tales for its intricacy. Andersen, inspired by the versions of The One Thousand and One Nights that he’d encountered, worked with their tale-within-a-tale format, carefully and delicately using images and metaphor to explore the contrasts between intellect and love, reality and dream; he also gently critiqued both stories. The result was to be lauded as one of Andersen’s masterpieces.
Its biggest inspiration was the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon. Like Beauty and the Beast, this is another retelling of Cupid and Psyche. Andersen probably heard a Danish version from his grandmother; he may also have encountered one of the tale’s many written forms.
In it, a White Bear promises to make a family rich if he can marry their young daughter. The father agrees, and the girl follows the Bear to his enchanted castle in the north. Each night, he joins her in bed, but in the darkness, she never sees him.
As in Beauty and the Beast, the girl misses her family and begs to return home. Her family, who, I might add, were just fine with the whole marry the bear thing, suddenly realize that this situation might suck since if her husband won’t have the lights on at night, he must—he must!—be a troll! OR, YOU KNOW, THE BEAR YOU ORIGINALLY SENT HER AWAY WITH. I’m not convinced that a troll could be much worse. Anyway, as in Cupid and Psyche, the girl decides to take a look in the light, waking him up. The good news is, because this is a fairy tale, he’s a handsome prince. The bad news is, since she tried to find this out, the bear prince now must marry a troll princess—unless the girl can journey to that enchanted land, and save him. To add insult to injury, he points out that if she had just endured the current situation for one year, all would have been well. Would it have killed you to tell her this in the first place, bear? Well, since this is a fairy tale, maybe, but still.
Basically, the theme of East of the Sun, West of the Moon is that life really, genuinely sucks and is extremely unfair: here, the result of obeying her parents (her mother tells her to use the light) and trying, you know, to find out what exactly is in bed with her leads to endless months of wandering around the cold, cold north, even if she does get help from three old women and the winds along the way.
Andersen took this story, with its themes of transformation, sacrifice, long journeys and unfairness, and chose to twist several elements of it, adding themes of temptation and philosophy and intellect and Christian love and charity.
“The Snow Queen” is told in a series of seven stories. In the first, a troll (in some English translations, a “hobgoblin,” “demon,” or “devil”) creates a mirror that distorts beauty. The mirror breaks, sending fragments of its evil glass throughout the world, distorting people’s vision, making them only able to see the worst in everything. The troll laughs—
—and that’s pretty much the last we hear of the troll, setting up a pattern that continues throughout the novella: in this fairy tale, evil can and does go unpunished. It was, perhaps, a reflection of Andersen’s own experiences, and certainly a theme of many of his stories. By 1840, he had witnessed many people getting away with cruel and unkind behavior, and although he was certainly more than willing to punish his own protagonists, even overly punish his own protagonists, he often allowed the monsters of his stories to go unpunished. When they could even be classified as monsters.
The second story shifts to little Kay and Gerda, two young children living in cold attics, who do have a few joys in life: the flowers and roses that grow on the roofs of their houses, copper pennies that they can warm on a stove and put on their windows, melting the ice (a lovely touch), and the stories told by Kay’s grandmother. At least some of these details may have been pulled from Andersen’s own memories: he grew up poor, and spent hours listening to the stories told by his grandmother and aunts.
Kay sees the Snow Queen at the window, and shortly afterwards, fragments of the mirror enter his heart and eye, transforming him from a little boy fascinated with roses and fairy tales into a clever, heartless boy who likes to tease people. He abandons Gerda and the joy of listening to stories while huddled near a warm stove to go out and play with the older boys in the snow. He fastens his sled to a larger one that, it turns out, is driven by the Snow Queen. She pulls him into her sled and kisses him on the forehead. He forgets everything, and follows her to the north.
The text rather strongly hints that this is a bit more than your typical journey to visit the fjords. Not just because the Snow Queen is a magical creature of ice and snow, but because the language used to describe the scene suggests that Kay doesn’t just freeze, but freezes to death: he feels that he is sinking into a snow drift and falling to sleep, the exact sensations reported by people who almost froze to death, but were revived in time. Gerda, indeed, initially believes that little Kay must be dead. 19th century writers often used similar language and images to describe the deaths of children, and George MacDonald would later use similar imagery when writing At the Back of the North Wind.
On a metaphorical level, this is Andersen’s suggestion that abandoning love, or even just abandoning stories, is the equivalent of a spiritual death. On a plot level, it’s the first echo of East of the Sun, West of the Moon, where the prince is taken to an enchanted castle—or, if you prefer, Death. Only in this case, Kay is not a prince, but a boy, and he is not enchanted because of anything that Gerda has done, but by his own actions.
In the third story, with Kay gone, Gerda starts to talk to the sunshine and sparrows (not exactly an indication of a stable mental state), who convince her that Kay is alive. As in East of the Sun, West of the Moon, she decides to follow him, with the slight issue that she has no real idea where to look. She begins by trying to sacrifice her red shoes to the river (Andersen appears to have had a personal problem with colorful shoes), stepping into a boat to do so. The boat soon floats down the river, taking Gerda with it. Given what happens next, it’s possible that Gerda, too, has died by drowning, but the language is rich with sunshine and life, so possibly not. Her first stop: the home of a lonely witch, who feeds Gerda enchanted food in hopes that the little girl will stay.
The witch also has a garden with rather talkative flowers, each of which wants to tell Gerda a story. Gerda’s response is classic: “BUT THAT DOESN’T TELL ME ANYTHING ABOUT KAY!” giving the distinct impression that she’s at a cocktail party where everyone is boring her, in what seems to be an intentional mockery of intellectual parties that bored Andersen to pieces. Perhaps less intentionally, the scene also gives the impression that Gerda is both more than a bit self-centered and dim, not to mention not all that mentally stable—a good setup for what’s about to happen in the next two stories.
In the fourth story, Gerda encounters a crow, a prince, and a princess. Convinced that the prince is Kay, Gerda enters the palace, and his darkened bedroom, to hold up a lamp and look at his face. And here, the fairy tale is twisted: the prince is not Gerda’s eventual husband, but rather a stranger. The story mostly serves to demonstrate again just how quickly Gerda can jump to conclusions—a lot of people wear squeaky boots, Gerda, it’s not exactly proof that any of them happen to be Kay!—but it’s also a neat reversal of the East of the Sun, West of the Moon in other ways: not only is the prince married to his true bride, not the false one, with the protagonist misidentifying the prince, but in this story, rather than abandoning the girl at the beginning of her quest, after letting her spend the night in the prince’s bed (platonically, we are assured, platonically!) the prince and princess help Gerda on her way, giving her a little sled, warm clothing and food for the journey.
Naturally, in the fifth tale she loses pretty much all of this, and the redshirt servants sent along with her, who die so rapidly I had to check to see if they were even there, when she encounters a band of robbers and a cheerful robber girl, who tells Gerda not to worry about the robbers killing her, since she—that is, the robber girl—will do it herself. It’s a rather horrifying encounter, what with the robber girl constantly threatening Gerda and a reindeer with a knife, and a number of mean animals, and the robber girl biting her mother, and then insisting that Gerda sleep with her—and that knife. Not to say that anything actually happens between Gerda and the girl, other than Gerda not getting any sleep, but it’s as kinky as this story gets, so let’s mention it.
The next day, the robber girl sends Gerda off to the sixth tale, where she encounters two more old women—for a total of three. All three tend to be considerably less helpful than the old women in East of the Sun, West of the Moon: in Andersen’s version, one woman wants to keep Gerda instead of helping her, one woman can’t help all that much, and the third sends the poor little girl off into the snow without her mittens. Anyway, arguably the best part of this tale is the little details Andersen adds about the way that one of the women, poverty stricken, writes on dried fish, instead of paper, and the second woman, only a little less poverty stricken, insists on eating the fish EVEN THOUGH IT HAS INK ON IT like wow, Gerda thought that sleeping with the knife is bad.
This tale also has my favorite exchange of the entire story:
“….Cannot you give this little maiden something which will make her as strong as twelve men, to overcome the Snow Queen?”
“The Power of twelve men!” said the Finland woman. “That would be of very little use.”
What does turn out to be of use: saying the Lord’s Prayer, which, in an amazing scene, converts Gerda’s frozen breath into little angels that manage to defeat the living snowflakes that guard the Snow Queen’s palace, arguably the most fantastically lovely metaphor of praying your way through terrible weather ever.
And then finally, in tale seven, Gerda has the chance to save Kay, with the power of her love, her tears, and her prayers finally breaking through the cold rationality that imprisons him, showing him the way to eternity at last. They return home, hand in hand, but not unchanged. Andersen is never clear on exactly how long the two were in the North, but it was long enough for them both to age into adulthood, short enough that Kay’s grandmother is still alive.
Despite the happy ending, a sense of melancholy lingers over the story, perhaps because of all the constant cold, perhaps because of the ongoing references to death and dying, even in the last few paragraphs of the happy ending, perhaps because the story’s two major antagonists—the demon of the first tale, the Snow Queen of the last six tales—not only don’t die, they’re never even defeated. The Snow Queen—conveniently enough—happens to be away from her castle when Gerda arrives. To give her all due credit, since she does seem to have at least some concern for little Kay’s welfare—keeping him from completely freezing to death, giving him little math puzzles to do, she might not even be all that displeased to find that Gerda saved him—especially since they leave her castle untouched.
The platonic ending also comes as a bit of a jolt. Given the tale’s constant references to “little Gerda” and “little Kay,” it’s perhaps just as well—a few sentences informing me that they’re adults isn’t really enough to convince me that they’re adults. But apart from the fact that Gerda spends an astonishing part of this story jumping in and out of people’s beds, making me wonder just how much the adult Gerda would hold back from this, “The Snow Queen” is also a fairy tale about the power of love, making it surprising that it doesn’t end in marriage, unlike so many of the fairy tales that helped inspire it.
But I think, for me, the larger issue is that, well, this defeat of reason, of intellectualism by love doesn’t quite manage to ring true. For one thing, several minor characters also motivated by love—some of the flowers, and the characters in their tales, plus the crow—end up dead, while the Snow Queen herself, admirer of mathematics and reason, is quite alive. For another thing, as much as Kay is trapped by reason and intellectualism as he studies a puzzle in a frozen palace, Gerda’s journey is filled with its own terrors and traps and disappointments, making it a little tricky for me to embrace Andersen’s message here. And for a third thing, that message is more than a bit mixed in other ways: on the one hand, Andersen wants to tell us that the bits from the mirror that help trap little Kay behind ice and puzzles prevent people from seeing the world clearly. On the other hand, again and again, innocent little Gerda—free of these little bits of glass—fails to see things for what they are. This complexity, of course, helps add weight and depth to the tale, but it also makes it a bit harder for the ending to ring true.
And reading this now, I’m aware that, however much Andersen hated his years at school, however much he resented the intellectuals who dismissed his work, however much he continued to work with the fairy tales of his youth, that education and intellectualism was what eventually brought him the financial stability and fame he craved. He had not, to be fair, gained either as he wrote “The Snow Queen,” which certainly accounts for the overt criticism of rationality, intellectualism and, well, math, and he was never to emotionally recover from the trauma of his education, and he had certainly found cruelty and mockery amongst the intellectuals he’d encountered, examples that helped shape his bitter description of Kay’s transformation from sweet, innocent child to cruel prankster. At the same time, that sophistication and education had helped transform his tales.
But for young readers, “The Snow Queen” does have one compelling factor: it depicts a powerless child triumphing over an adult. Oh, certainly, Gerda gets help along the way. But notably, quite a lot that help comes from marginalized people—a robber, two witches, and two crows. It offers not just a powerful argument that love can and should overcome reason, but the hope that the powerless and the marginalized can triumph. That aspect, the triumph of the powerless, is undoubtedly why generations have continued to read the tale, and why Disney, after several missteps, transformed its core into a story of self-actualization.
Top image: Detail from a Belarus postal stamp commemorating the 200th birthday of Hans Christian Andersen
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.