Fairytale Subversion: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”
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 (more known in the Anglosphere as The Duke of Norroway).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 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 (especially her mother) 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, 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/The Duke of Norroway 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 "sorcerer") 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 Kai and Gerda, two young children living in cold attics, who do have a few joys in life: the roses and other flowers that they 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 Kai’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.
Kai sees the Snow Queen at the window, and shortly afterwards, fragments of the mirror enter his heart and eyes, transforming him from a little boy fascinated with roses and fairytales 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 Kai 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 Kai 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, to death. Only in this case, Kai is not a prince, but a common boy, and he is not enchanted because of anything that Gerda has done, but by his own actions.
In the third story, with Kai gone, Gerda starts to talk to the sunshine and songbirds (not exactly an indication of a stable mental state), who convince her that Kai 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 KAI!” 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 pair of crows (a wild male and a tame female), a prince, and a princess (both equally young, good looking, and especially intelligent). Convinced that the prince is Kai, 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 Kai!—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 that she keeps as pets, and the robber girl biting her mother (or grandmother, depending on the version), 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 strength of twelve men!” said the Finland woman. “That would be of very little use.”
What does turn out to be of use: saying her prayers, 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 Kai, 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 young adulthood, short enough that Kai’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 Kai’s welfare—keeping him from completely freezing to death, giving him little maths 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 Kai,” 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 wild crow—end up dead, while the Snow Queen herself, admirer of mathematics and reason, is quite alive. For another thing, as much as Kai 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 Kai 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, maths, 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 Kai’s transformation from sweet, innocent child to cruel prankster and indifferent perfectionist. 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 maiden, 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.
According to the expert opinions of the kids next door, Frozenis not just the best Disney movie ever, but the best movie ever ever ever.
Which is one reason why I hesitated to include it in this read-watch: that expert opinion has also led the kids next door to play the English and Spanish soundtracks from Frozen at high volume on a regular basis, and, far worse, sing along with both. By the fifth rendition of “Do You Wanna Build a Snowman/Hazme un muñeco de nieve” during a Florida August, I was ready to hunt down the songwriters and bury them in snowmen myself. Plus, I had the excuse that Frozen, despite a credit that reads “inspired by” Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, departs so far from that novella that the film is usually credited as a Disney original.
So skipping Frozen was the original plan—until, that is, I happened to reread The Snow Queen for other reasons, and realized that, in spirit, Frozen may be probably closer to its original source material than anything we’ve seen so far in this reread.
Disney animators had thought about adapting The Snow Queen as far back as 1937, when it was suggested, along with several other fairy tales, as a potential follow-up to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In many ways, the story—a small girl heads off to the north to try to save her young friend, Kai, captured by the Snow Queen after his heart was pierced by a shard of evil glass—seemed perfect for a Disney adaptation. The original story even had talking animals and flowers—Disney staples—a few witches, and a prince and princess. It virtually screams “adapt this, Disney.”
But those screams did little to help Disney adapt the story. Part of the problem—a huge problem—is that the original story arguably has too many villains: the demon who creates the original evil mirror, the witch who briefly enchants and imprisons little Gerda, the robbers, and, of course, the Snow Queen herself. But also arguably, the original story hardly has any villains at all, or at least satisfactory ones. The witch enchants Gerda out of loneliness, not malice; the robbers end up helping little Gerda; and the Snow Queen is less evil and more merely a force of nature. Indeed, at one point the Snow Queen even argues that she’s helping agriculture, and she—arguably—even helps to save Kai, by pulling him away from the dangerous sledding that almost kills him.
Granted, that’s from her viewpoint, and the text rather heavily implicates that the sledding and the snow might indeed have killed Kai, forcing Gerda to not just save Kai, but bring him back from death. But even in that reading, the Snow Queen lacks the malice Disney wanted from its villains. That left only the demon—who vanished at the beginning of the story. And although Disney had been willing to give audiences a glimpse of a demon in Fantasia (Chernabog), the company was not yet willing to feature a demon as the main villain of a full length animated film.
Nor was anyone at Disney particularly interested in using ice as a metaphor for reason, much less focusing on the battle between Love and Reason in the late 1930s and early 1940s. They faced other, more urgent battles. The moment slipped by. By the 1950s, Disney lacked the financial resources to animate the delicate images of frost and snow fairies as they had to such great effect in Fantasia. With no script, and no ability to animate the script, even if they had one, the original concept art was quietly filed away.
Animators took another look at The Snow Queen during the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s, but once again, nobody knew quite what to do with it. Eventually Glen Keane, assigned to take another look at it, decided to focus on the more straightforward Tangled instead. That concept art, too, was filed away, and seen by very few.
Fortunately, one of those few just happened to be John Lasseter, who had become the Chief Creative Officer at Disney Animation in 2006. As he would later tell the media, he loved the original concept art, and ordered animators to take another look at it.
Initially, that look consisted only of the filmmakers finally managing to agree on one thing: the name “Gerda” should be replaced by “Anna.” That was still more progress than anyone had made on the concept for decades, and perhaps encouraged by this one small step—or simply convinced that if he ordered it, it would come—Lasseter ordered animators to continue. By 2011, he was optimistic enough to announce that Frozen would be released in 2013, even though, at that point, the planned film had no script and no solid character designs or background work.
With a looming deadline, animators, directors, and story writers scrambled, and finally, in 2012, cracked open the concept they needed to make The Snow Queen work. They simply wouldn’t doThe Snow Queen. Instead, they would change the character of the Snow Queen from villain to victim, and in her own cold way, a hero. And instead of a story focused on rescuing a boy, this would be a story about sisters.