Against bleak December skies, as passers-by scarred by the cold make haste in the corners of the street pavement and the North wind fiercely cat-scratches the ragamuffins huddled upon hard cobblestones, how sweet it would feel to descend once more into the past, to become a child again, and, huddled by the red-glowing fireside, in the warmth of an enclosed chamber, what a respite and what a solace it would feel for these poor eyes deluded by life to recover thanks to the charm of old storybooks, of those old illustrated giftbooks of yore, and to be able to believe once more in fairytales!
These fairytales, which have been nowadays replaced by adventure and science fiction novels, these wonderful stories that speak to the heart through imagination and prepared compassion by the clever means of feeling sorry for elusive princesses, in what an atmosphere of enchantment and rêverie, in which ecstasy of the awestruck and throbbing little soul did they cradle the first years of my life! And how much I cry for the children of this generation, who read Jules Verne instead of Andersen!
As for me, I swear, I have adored them and worshipped them even in a savage manner, these fairytales which nowadays are outlawed and disdained; and those were foggy tales, lit by the moon in the pouring rain; upon which snowflakes had been sown. Tales of the North, for I have not known myself the sunny enchantment of southron climates until quite late in my lifetime.
It was on the shores of a stormy and steel-blue Atlantic Ocean, perpetually striped with foam, in a little west-coast village besieged by the western winds, that I spent the whole of my childhood. Since November, there was nothing but hailstorms and thunderstorms, and, during the nights, heavy packboats sailed across the docks with the sinister hoot-hoot-hoot of gigantic owls. The tales we were told by bearded old salts, plunged up to half-way the thigh in dripping Wellingtons, were scented, like their tellers, with fog, melted snow, hail, and ocean; they were more often tales of nights than of lights, of moonlit shipwrecks than of horse-rides on ruddy mornings; yet I adored their melancholy, where there fluttered, kissing the waves, a slightly naive wonder, made of hope and of distress, the poetry of simple souls terrified by the ruthless force of the elements, yet warmed by nostalgia and, in spite of everything, grounded upon the faith in the return.
In our sitting room, we welcomed the captains of ships, the corresponding shipwrights, insurance brokers who had come because of any accident, and, as the gentlemen talked about business, some lovely little hand whose wrist was decked with a golden bracelet carefreely passed the pages of a fairytale album, fairytales whose pictures a sweet female voice explained to us, since we were approaching Christmas and the gift season was beginning. But how much to these cardboard-bound and gilded books, to their beautiful illustrations I preferred the tales I heard in the kitchen, in the middle of a circle of shivering maidservants, told by men in raincoats and berets! Their tales seemed far more lifelike to me, of a fantasy both more vivid and more distant, and, among these old salts' tales, there was one above all that fascinated me, a nostalgic and unsettling Northern tale that I would find again later penned by Andersen, but that, from the mouths of these harsh Icelanders, took on the savage intensity of something they had experienced and met, for they had most certainly crossed her path on the restless ocean, during their perilous voyages, that pale Snow Queen the memory of whom obsesses and enthralls me still...
Oh! That Snow Queen, standing tall within the immense crimson of her eternal empty palace! How much I loved her and dreaded her at the same time, that petrified queen, as if lethargic, of the white snow-bees, that august maiden of pale Arctic visions! That motionless and gliding traveller of the long and clear winter nights! The Snow Queen and her sleigh of spectral mists.
In my terrified mind's eye, I saw her pass impassible, quite high up in the sky, in the middle of a white maelström of flakelike snow-bees; enormous black ravens form her entourage, so ominous and dark; on her shoulders a long cape of moonbeams fluttered, unmeasurably long, in the night; and, when the frost was harsh, for me, it was still she who came to draw, with her icy fingertips, the great fantastic flowers and arborescences of the frost on the windowpanes, and I was always afraid, at midnight, of seeing before the panes of my own window her lightless eyes and her glowing brow; for, having attentively listened to the legend, I knew that, when the Snow Queen looks at you, her soul is elsewhere and her eyes cannot see you: she is far up north, far up north, even beyond the Arctic Ocean, deep within the inland ice, far up north, quite far away from straits and bays:
Up north, in lands of fire and ice,
across the stormy sea...
Out of all the tales I have heard, read, and skimmed through my childhood are born these princesses of ivory and ivresse: they are made of ecstasy, dreams, and memories. Some of these figures, even more mysterious, appear at last here and there, in the light of the moon and the slowly sifted snow, in the crisp enchantment of winter nights... Held captive in crystal glass cases, as if they were fortunate martyrs, they drift away down slow-moving streams or sleep beneath the white corals of motionless frozen forests; kobolds clad in green guard them and they are the queens of frost and sleep, the lilywhite princesses of Winter.
The tale is the same the authors have embroidered...! The diversity of these texts does nought but to prove once more the beauty of the symbol and the age of the tale, this age, this nobility of stories.
A Tale of Frost and Sleep
A Tale of Frost and Sleep
Perchance Snaehildur journeys now
upon her frosted sleigh,
to warmer climates on a cloud
careening now away.
A speck of light in cloudy skies,
as if it were a star,
her sleigh of mist, through flurry flown,
can be seen from afar.
The packs of direwolves now howl
in woods barren and stark,
and ravens form her entourage,
so ominous and dark.
Through flurry, hail, and winter storm,
her frosty fingers lain
to reap supple ice-flowers have
on every windowpane.
The young boy, in his garret bed,
now shudders, cold, in fear;
he feels Snaehildur's watching him,
whom she can't see nor hear.
Up north, in lands of fire and ice,
across the stormy sea,
her crystal palace evermore
holds winters that will be.
Little Kai slept amidst the icy splendour in the palace of Snaehildur, in the very middle of the throne room, held within the transparence of an enormous pillar of ice; there he slept, curled up like a kitten, his fur cap pulled over his eyes, his little hands well plunged within his gloves, having become such a dainty little rarity, just like a relic kept in a glass case!
All around him there was monotone enchantment; the palace was full of rosy pallours and blushes, of stalactites and stalagmites, and icebergs, set ablaze by the Northern Lights; other halls opened up towards infinity, despairingly vast and empty, despairingly bluish-white as well; the Arctic wind coursed crazily through the halls and corridors like a jester, and, night and day, snowflakes flurried and swirled around, chased and stirred in the corners by the blistering north winds.
They were the keepers of the palace. Ambushing at the thresholds, their piercing breaths kept the snow and the frost from sealing up the doors, and, just like an enormous white coral, thousands of needle-sharp spires of ice, rigid and gigantic, rose to pierce the night sky, enriched by all the fires of the Northern Lights and by all the changing reflections of their rainbow. The sinister and splendid palace of Snaehildur glittered like a prism in the midst of the silence of the ice sheets of the Arctic, gathered by the winter.
Eternal winter, eternal distress, eternal conflagration of the night kissed by the Northern Lights, and little Kai lived within this distress, within this solitude, within this silence, darkened and hardened by the cold under his rough fur clothes, yet indifferent to suffering, turned into a lump of ice himself ever since Snaehildur had laid her frosty hands upon his heart; indifferent to everything indeed, hallucinating in the splendour of the vast dazzling empty halls and by the wuthering vertigo of their vaults, full of darkness and of stars.
For how many years had he been there? Little Kai did not know anymore. He had lost his sense of time upon losing all his memories. Upon touching his heart, Snaehildur had quenched every flame within him; he could not remember the Swedish town where he had, as a child, played in the great market square, all bustling with cracking whips and people's raised voices, he could not remember the quaint suburb whose dark streets were so narrow that the poor who lived in the garrets visited one another by throwing planks as bridges from one windowsill to another; and in that very town, furthermore, in that very suburb, on the fifth floor of an old, tall artisans' house, there lived a good grandmother with a quivering voice, whom Kai had closely known since his earliest years; a good silver-haired grandmother who, all through the bleak winter days, a spindle held in her left hand, told legends to the two little children sitting at her feet by the fireside, those two little children who already spoke of true love.
And little Kai had once been one of these children. Little Kai had, long ago, dwelled in that distant and crowded Swedish town, where the air was bustling with cracking whips and people's raised voices. A snugly wrapped-up lad among other lads in furs, he had often skated on the great sleigh-crowded market square during the winter months; yet Kai had forgotten his own name and that of the grandmother, and the name of the street, and the name of the Swedish town where the snow sifted down for six months of the twelve in every year, spotting the uniform leaden sky with countless tiny soft white things.
Oh, the white swarms of great snowflakes in the silent air, always more frequent, always more crisp, always more dense than before! With what an excited curiosity he had then seen them dance, his nose glued to the panes of the little window, within the abode of the good grandmother; that window which was all flowering with pease-blossoms and nasturtium in June, and all framed in brittle frost all winter long! And the aged grandmother's tales called those snowflakes white bees, saying that these bees had a queen just like the golden honeybees of springtime and summer, but that this one was an ice queen, with frozen moonbeams on her shoulders for wings and epaulettes, and a longcoat made of frost and tanned with misty snow within; that her hive was located far north of the Arctic Circle and that it was, hewn completely out of the inland ice, a monotone and motionless palace, all full of pallour and splendour, an enormous, sinister palace of endless empty halls, of dazzling cupolae, transparent and rigid, eternally ablaze with the Northern Lights.
And the name of that queen was Snaehildur, and little Kai loved her and dreaded her. Oh, that fossilized and seemingly lethargic queen of winter, this august maiden of pale Arctic visions! Little Kai had loved her and he had dreaded her greatly at the same time, since the grandmother's broken voice made her so wayward and errant, and, on stormy December nights, it could happen that, looking at the sky, one may catch sight of the Queen's sleigh.
Oh, that Snow Queen with her council of old direwolves sitting by the fjords and howling at Death itself! With what delicious anxiety, with what poignant terror she thus filled the soul of little Kai!
He was presently her captive. By means of loving her, he had caught the lethal eye of the Queen, and Snaehildur had thus wanted for herself, and only for herself, the soul of little Kai. Pressed against the royal breasts, plunging into the frost on an icy, heartless chest, Kai had known the horrors and the terrors of travelling right through clouds, soaring high above towns, straits, and seas, even across the ocean itself; great flocks of storks had frozen in fear before him; great flocks of broom-flying witches had scattered, roaring as they plunged into storm-clouds; and some sailors on the deck of clippers had crossed themselves as they saw the flying sleigh that carried him pass in front of their sails.
He had seen cathedral spires appear and disappear below his feet, as well as goblin-like grotesque gargoyles, and gigantic golden archangels that blew their trumpets on the pinnacles of steeples; fortresses on mountains, monasteries in valleys, bridges across rivers and rivers across the countryside; and always, day and night, the great white snow bees swirled around them, quite high up in the pale sky; around them, a flock of enormous ravens circled on wide open wings, while, in front of the sleigh, two enormous white snow hens flew in silence; and little Kai would have wanted to say his prayers or cry for help, but Snaehildur had kissed him on the brow, and little Kai had forgot all his prayers; a piercing cold seared his whole little frame, and, racked with the pain, he had wanted to call the name of Gerda, Gerda, the little girl who, in the old garret in the suburb, before the cinders in the fireplace, listened with him to her grandmother's tales; but Snaehildur had laid the palm of her left hand on Kai's heart, and Kai could no longer remember the name of Gerda or that of her grandmother, that of the street or that of their native town, not even his own name, but he had suddenly ceased to feel the cold. A sense of well-being had taken over him, and at the same time, the full moon shone brightly, as if it had increased in size and grown rounder among the mother-of-pearl clouds, and that Snaehildur's longcoat fluttered, exceedingly long, as the flock of enormous ravens around grew denser in numbers. And, lulled by all that softness and that warmth, little Kai had fallen asleep.
Ever since, he had not awakened.
It was then that Gerda entered the throne room. Gerda was the little girl who, through the long summer evenings, sitting astride the eaves of the rooftop of her simple dwelling, on a little bench made by the two children, and placed for their sake in between their respective windows, watched with Kai how the swallows flew and how the honeysucke flowers fluttered in the breeze.
Curled up at her grandmother's feet, she had heard more than once the tales of Snaehildur, and she believed, like Kai, in the existence of the snow bees and in the icy enchantment of Snaehildur's palace, up north beyond the Arctic Circle, in the land of eternal winter. She loved Kai out of true love, and, when he disappeared, she had gone forth to search for him, and, to find him once more, she had left her town, her good grandmother, and the old suburban garret they called home.
She had gone forth and begun her quest singing her favourite Christmas carol, rife with confidence and with her little brave heart, and, to find once more her lost little friend, she had asked the river and the reeds, the countryside and the flowers, and across the immense, monotone, mournful universe, she had walked for hours and for days, for months and for years, without ever giving up, since she was still in the age of hope.
And Nature and the mournful Universe had pitied this little child... To carry her to Fairyland, a rowboat had detached itself from its riverside mooring; to let her pass, old crooked willows had suddenly straightened; magical frogs had wished her welcome, and, on an island with a dangerous reputation, she had been invited into the home of an old crone, somewhat of a witch, friendly yet still with a sinister air about her under her immense straw hat, decked with yellow roses. Gerda had even disarmed the Fair Folk. Under the golden comb that, as it straightened her golden hair, was meant to lull her memories to sleep, she had kept those memories that mattered the most; flowers exiled to the depths of the earth had sprung anew under her tears, periwinkles had spoken, and Gerda had learned from their corollae, which are the mouths of the flowers, where little Kai was hidden away; and thus, Gerda had resumed her quest across the monotone, mournful universe.
An old crow had served as her guide.
Following this tame crow's advice, she had been able to please a royal heir, but she had, at the same time, caught the eye of a princess, and was thus able to escape from the perilous honours of the office of paramour; the dreams that the princess had inspired protected Gerda as she took to flight, and, at nightfall, she had finally been able to flee the palace, yet other perils and other adventures were awaiting her. Outlaws had taken her prisoner amidst the horrors of a midnight forest; she had been taken, hand-tied, to their cavern; she had panted for breath under the butcher's knife of an ogress; yet, miraculously saved by the outlaw leader's daughter, a terrible little wild child smitten with Gerda's large green eyes, golden hair, and lilywhite skin, Gerda had regained her freedom and reached, on reindeerback, the vast plains of the tundra and the fringes of Snaehildur's realm.
She had been erring for months under the low skies, through blistering hailstorms; sent from one hut to another, recommended by Lapland shamans to Finmark shamans, and then her faithful reindeer had to leave her side, not before her crow guide had left her, and thus, all alone, shivering in her crimson velvet gown and her large swan down bonnet, she had boldly entered the reach of Snaehildur's lands. The Queen was then absent, called upon because of the freezing cold in Sicily, where the almonds and the citrus fruits were in grave peril (she had left for the south to ensure the harvest), and, in spite of the blistering winds that stood guard at the gates, their frosty faces and their piercing cold breath, Gerda had entered the palace.
Entering the twentieth hall, she found Kai asleep, captive within his pillar of ice; she knelt in the swirling snow and chanted the carol that both of them had once sung in the garret whose little windows were laced with ice flowers, in their quaint old suburban home:
Yuletide's in bloom of roses white;
this is the day we see the Light.
Green are the holly and mistletoe,
chosen as signs of hope in woe.
Yuletide's in bloom of roses white;
this is the day we see the Light.
And, under the warmth of her tears, as the ice that had transfixed and hardened the heart of little Kai melted, Kai awakened, recovered his memories, recognized Gerda, stammered a thanksgiving prayer and the name of her good grandmother, the name of their hometown and that of their quaint street, and, his left hand in his little friend's right, they, making strides, fled the palace of Snaehildur. Thus they reached the inland ice, and the tundra, and finally the countryside, the countryside already green with the rye of March, the countryside already purple with the periwinkles of April, and, everywhere along the homeward route, the bells in the steeple of every village repeated, for a refrain, the humble and sacred carol:
The heart's in bloom of roses white;
this is the day we see the Light.
Author: Jean Lorrain, 1902
Translator (directly from the French, freely): Sandra Dermark, 2016