A Study in Snow
I am certain Thalia will grow to be a scholar. At her tender age, she has begun to do research. Her mother is planning to take her to see Disney’s Frozen, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Therefore, Thalia set down her Grimm and picked up Andersen for me to read to her.
The Snow Queen is long and tough going. Andersen broke it down into seven “stories”—chapters in a way. Thalia and I read the tale over three nights. Twice I carry her off to bed. Tonight she pilots herself and her teddy from my study with the declaration, “I like the devil’s mirror best.”
The first story tells us of the devil’s mirror, which has the power to make good things look small and insignificant, while bad things look large and important. Thoroughly entertained by the mirror’s effect on humans, some demons try to carry the mirror to heaven to confound the angels. It slips from their grasp, shattering into millions and millions of slivers that lodge themselves into the eyes and hearts of people, distorting their vision of the world.
In the second story, we are introduced to Kai and Gerda, two poor, neighbor children who share the shelter of a rooftop garden and each other’s companionship.
The boy, Kai, gets slivers of the devil’s mirror in his eyes and heart, and is easily abducted by the Snow Queen, who whisks him off to her castle. There he remains, cold, alone, and oblivious to his former life.
In story three, hearing the rumor that Kai drowned in the river, Gerda gives the river her red shoes in return for Kai. She ends up being swept way and into the company of a benevolent witch. Gerda stays in a flower garden where it is always spring, but the witch takes away all memory of Kai. The flowers, in an odd aside, tell Gerda their stories. Finally, a rose reminds her of Kai, roses having been in their rooftop garden. She is off again on her search, the roses assuring her Kai is not among the dead. At this point Thalia falls asleep.
On evening two and story four, a crow tells Gerda he thinks he knows Kai, but the lad turns out to be a prince. The prince and his princess help Gerda by giving her a golden coach in which to travel. It is immediately set upon by robbers (story five), who kill the coachman and the footmen. The old robber woman wants to eat Gerda, but the robber daughter claims Gerda as her playmate. After hearing Gerda’s story the robber girl arranges Gerda’s escape, giving her a reindeer who knows where the Snow Queen’s castle stands. Despite all the action, Thalia nods off.
Story six involves a few minor encounters, followed by Gerda’a arrival at the castle (story seven). There Gerda finds Kai and washes away the glass slivers with her tears. Reunited, Gerda and Kai dance about as ice shards spell out the word “Eternity.”
Returning through warming lands they get home during summer to find they are a grown man and woman. The story concludes with two phrases, one from the Bible, “Except ye become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God,” and the other, words of the old song:
Roses bloom and cease to be,
But we shall the Christ-child see.
Thinking it is my time to do research, I leave the study to use my daughter’s computer as she puts Thalia to bed. Watching the trailer for Frozen, I keep in mind the themes of the fragility of memory, abiding friendship, and trust in God’s goodness that run through Andersen’s story.
I find the parallels between Frozen and The Snow Queen to be the following:
There is a reindeer.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2013 The Snow Queen – Part Two
Death by Definition
It is fair to say Frozen draws its inspiration from The Snow Queen, if only at the start of the movie project. Walt Disney himself considered animating Andersen’s story back in the 1940s. The project was picked up, rewritten, and dropped a few times before coming to fruition.
Both the Andersen story and the Disney production are considered to be fairy tales, but are they? What is a fairy tale?
Often the fairy tale is seen as a subcategory of folktales, its identifying element being magic. Whether I accept fairy tales as a subcategory or not, in either case the tale should not have a known author.
Stories that fulfill the above definition are solidly fairy tales, but these restrictions eliminate the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales. With a little historical investigation I find, in many cases, the Grimm stories were inspired by older fairy tales, but rewritten, sometimes changing substantially between editions, to appeal to their contemporary audience. Charles Perrault’s Tales of Mother Goose is of the same ilk, rewritten for his audience, the French court of the1690s. This is to say, both these works are authored.
But have not all storytellers put their marks on the stories they told, creating for us the variants to be collected by folklorists? Is the only difference that they did not write their versions down and put their names on them?
Obviously, I need to expand my definition to include the works of Perrault and
Grimm, or I would look silly and out of step with literate society. I need only qualify and label such works as literary fairy tales.
When I come to Hans Christian Andersen, I hesitate. Are his works literary fairy tales? His stories, too, are inspired by fairy tales, but he takes them far beyond their usual form. He gives voice to inanimate objects such as tin soldiers and fir trees, he will start stories with dialog, and at times not include magic as an element.
If I accept Andersen as a writer of fairy tales (and I must or suffer well-deserved stares of incredulity), I feel obliged to create a subcategory to my subcategory. Grimm and Perrault drew from a reservoir of tales; Andersen included into the flow his own imagination. I will call his works überliterary fairy tales.
Not all of Andersen’s stories begin with “Once upon a time” or “Once there was.” Many are contemporary in setting. For us that was a long time ago, but not when they were written. Can there be modern fairy tales, a twenty-first century fairy tale?
I need to accept that a fairy tale can still be written. As proof, sitting on the table in my study is a copy of My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales,edited by Kate Bernheimer. Disney’s Frozen is further proof.
I can solve my dilemma by creating a new sub-sub-subcategory. I now witness the neo-überliterary fairy tale.
What comes to my mind is the Ukrainian folktale The Mitten. A boy loses his mitten on the coldest day of the year. A mouse takes up residence along with every other animal that comes down the trail. By the end, the mouse, a frog, an owl, a rabbit, a fox, a wolf, and a boar have squeezed themselves into the warm mitten that creaks, groans, and stretches, with its seams popping. Over the rise comes a bear.
My attempt at a definition for my beloved fairy tales now lies in pieces as the mitten did in the snow.
Fairy Tale of the Month: December 2013 The Snow Queen – Part Three
A Garden Encounter
I have to confess, my meeting with Hans Christian Andersen in Miss Cox’s garden did not live up to my hopes.
In the bitter cold I nearly froze to death, as I waited on the bench. Finally, his tall, awkward form loomed in the arch of the garden entrance. He greeted me in Danish, then in German, and then, I think, in Italian. Andersen enjoyed traveling. In his amiable wanderings, he covered most of Europe. He also visited England where his fairy tales were more popular than in his native Denmark, despite the tales being badly translated. I knew he was a friend of Charles Dickens, so imagine my embarrassment when I realized he spoke not a word of English. I, who rarely venture ten miles from home, speak no other language.
There we sat on the bench, a world apart. I am sure he felt out of place, yet, that is the story of his life.
The son of a cobbler and a washerwoman, he entertained notions of being an actor, a dancer, or a singer. He hung around the theater in his hometown of Odense. Outwardly inept and inwardly confident, he cut a strange figure. He possessed an adequate singing voice, which became the calling card that got him into the houses of the local upper class as part of the entertainment for dinners. He liked what he saw.
At fourteen he departed for Copenhagen to join the Royal Theater. They told him to get a job. Even after his voice changed, ending his singing career, he persisted in acting and dancing, for which he had no aptitude yet for which he maintained a continued desire.
Still trying to find a place in the theater, he turned his hand to playwriting. Two plays were quickly rejected by the Royal Theater, although Jonas Collin, the financial director, saw a spark in the young Andersen that suffered from a lack of formal education.
Collin arranged for Andersen to enter grammar school. The seventeen-year-old Hans sat in a class of eleven-year-olds, becoming a natural lightning rod for his schoolmaster’s animosity, who heavy-handedly forbad his older student from such upper-class pretensions as creative writing. Andersen suffered four years of this treatment, falling into depression.
Years later, in the 1840s, after achieving literary and financial success, he still did not find his place in society. Moving among the upper class and even royalty, he remained in the minds of his new acquaintances the son of a cobbler—an oddity. Even his benefactor and adopted family, the Collins, addressed him formally, never intimately.
Andersen did not help matters. He persisted in falling romantically, sometime publicly, in love with unattainable women and men, notably the famed singer Jenny Lind and well-known dancer Harald Scharff.
Andersen found his place in establishing a body of writing that appealed to children and adults and that has neither clumsy moralism, nor needless florid description, as writing meant for children tended toward in that period (and beyond). His tales resounded with human experience, drawn from his own internal and external struggles, cast in the form of little mermaids, tin soldiers, and match girls. The stories were a mix of heartfelt emotion and social commentary. There really had been nothing like it before. He influenced future writers such as Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame, and A.A. Milne.
But for the moment, Andersen and I sat staring at each other. He put up a finger, the internationally-recognized sign for “wait,” took out a piece of paper and scissors from his inside coat pocket, and, folding the paper in half, skillfully and quickly cut away until he depicted two swans facing each other. He handed it to me as if that had been the purpose of his coming, then hastily escaped the confines of the garden.
I will treasure the paper cutting.