Episode 23. Snow Queen.
“The Snow Queen” illustration by Elena Ringo.
The tale of the Snow Queen is one that I am rather unfamiliar with, aside from seeing her represented in Narnia, which stayed very true to the original tale, from what I remember of the film. This episode is another listener suggestion, thank you everyone who has recommended topics so far as it really helps me keep going when my brain doesn’t want to work with me!
The Snow Queen was written by our good friend, Hans Christien Anderson, and was originally published in 1844. It is one of Anderson’s longer tales and is told in seven parts. The story, in all, is a tale of the struggle between good and evil.
The story begins when the devil comes to earth disguised as a troll. He carries with him a mirror that only distorts reflections and turns them into visions of badness and evil. A person’s worst traits are all that is reflected when someone peers into the mirror, or once beautiful and lush landscapes appear as cold and dank as “boiled spinach”, Anderson’s words, not mine. I personally like spinach.
The devil was a headmaster at a school for trolls, and he recruited his fellow trolls to help him to play a trick on God and the angels by bringing the mirror to heaven. He had hoped to make fools of them all, by changing all their innocence and beauty into visions of evil and ugliness. The devil was out of luck, however, as the higher the mirror rose, the more it began to laugh and shake until it suddenly burst and shattered into millions of pieces, no larger than grains of sand, and settled all over the earth.
Years later, we learn of two close friends, Kai and Gerda, who lived so close that you could travel from one home to the next just by jumping over the house’s gutters. Kai and Gerda were raised so that they became as close as siblings. They would often spend days together tending a rose garden in a window box they had built together. The roses were such a special part of Gerda and Kai’s friendship, that roses always served as a reminder to Gerda of her love for Kai. The two would play and read stories while Kai’s grandmother would tell them tales of the Snow Queen. The Snow Queen was woman who was ruler of snow and winter, who would appear where snow gathered most heavily. Just as bees had a ruler, she would say, the Snow Queen was ruler of snow bees, or rather, snow flakes that look like bees. They were her guardians and protectors.
Kai was sitting in the window one day when he saw the Snow Queen herself, who beckoned him to her. Afraid, he backed away from the window until she was gone. Though, later, on a warm summer’s day, a breeze picked up and blew shattered pieces of the mirrors glass into Kai’s heart and eyes, causing him to see only as he would through the mirror. Everything became distorted and evil and bad. He smashed apart the garden he tended with Gerda, and insulted his grandmother, as he no longer saw any good in the world. He left them both heartbroken and confused. The only thing that was beautiful to Kai was the snow bees.
The following winter, Kai took his sled out to the snowy market square to play, as all the children would do. He hitched his sled to the beautiful white carriage of the Snow Queen, who was disguised as a woman wearing a heavy white coat. Once they were outside of the border of the city, the Snow Queen revealed herself to Kai and kissed him twice. Once, to numb him from the cold, a second time to make him forget Gerda, his family, and his life before. A third kiss would kill him. She then took Kai to her palace outside the city, to keep him for herself.
The people of the town assumed that Kai had died when they couldn’t find him in town. They assumed that he had fallen into a river and drowned and did not look for him any further. Gerda, heartbroken over the disappearance of her friend, went to search for Kai alone. She offered her new red shoes to the river in exchange for Kai, but when the river didn’t take her shoes as a gift, she learnt that the river hadn’t taken Kai. Next, Gerda visited a witches home with a garden of eternal summer. The lonely witch wanted Gerda to live with her forever and so she made Gerda forget about Kai and knowing that the roses in her garden would remind Gerda of her friend, she made them all sink beneath the earth. A while later, forgetting the roses herself, the witch entered the garden with Gerda, wearing a rose on her hat. Gerda saw the rose on the witches hat and remembered her dear friend, Kai. Gerda’s tears fell upon a rose bush beneath the earth that rose up and told her that while it was below, it could see all the dead of the earth and Kai was not among them.
Gerda fled the witch’s home and came across a crow who told her that Kai had been taken to the Snow Queen’s palace. Gerda began her journey to a nearby palace palace but on arriving there, she found only a prince and princess. She told the couple her story and they prepared her a beautiful coach and warm clothes.
Gerda was caught on her travels by a band of robbers, of which there was a little girl. Gerda befriended the little robber girl, whose pet doves told her they saw Kai being carried away by the Snow Queen to Lapland. The little robber girl gave Gerda her reindeer who had come from Lapland and would be able to take her there, and together they went.
Along the way, they stopped at the Finn woman’s home, who told the reindeer that the secret to saving Kai rested in Gerda’s heart. She said,
I can give her no greater power than she has already… Don’t you see how strong that is? How men and animals are obliged to serve her, and how well she has got through the world, barefooted as she is. She cannot receive any power from me greater than she has now has… her own purity and innocence of heart.
Gerda finally reached the Snow Queen’s palace and was halted by the snow bees that guard it. She said the lord’s prayer, her breath took the shape of angels who resisted the snow bees and allowed Gerda to enter the palace. Gerda found Kai frozen on a river called the Mirror of Reason, upon which the Snow Queen’s throne sits. The Snow Queen herself was absent. Kai had been given pieces of ice to form a word that the Snow Queen told him to spell. If he was able to spell it, she would release him from her power and gift him a new pair of skates.
Gerda ran to Kai and kissed him, the warmth of her heart and her tears burnt away the splinters of mirror in Kai’s heart. Kai, himself, began to cry, which cleared the shards of mirror from his eyes, and released him from his curse. He recognised Gerda immediately and they began to dance in joy, rearranging the ice shards on the river. They fell down together, tired from dancing, and in the ice was spelled the word “eternity”, the very word Kai needed to spell to be freed.
Kai and Gerda escaped the palace, and with the help of the reindeer and the friends they made along the way, made their way back to their town. Upon returning, they saw that nothing there had changed but themselves. They had grown.
Kai’s grandmother closes the tale with a passage from the bible, reading,
Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.
Fairy tales often have a theme of good defeating evil, a nice break from what tends to happen in our own reality. Whether they serve to provide moral guidance or simply entertainment, a reader can always take something away from a tale.
This fairy tale has been adapted in film, theatre and TV. The most popular adaption I’m sure every parent is familiar with is Frozen, which takes the Snow Queen and takes her from evil to misunderstood. The story remains though, that a person can be saved by love. While love can’t cure all, it can help save someone from their isolation.