Christmas can be full of excitement, snowy landscapes, and family bickering. So what better time to look at Disney’s Frozen?
Based upon The Snow Queen, it’s about two sisters forced apart by fear and together again by love, and the story enjoyed a similar bout of see-sawing. There were talks about an adaptation way back in 1943, but it was only after 70 years of extensive fiddling that it finally saw the light of day. Luckily it was worth the wait: Frozen has been an incredible success and even ousted The Lion King from its throne as the highest-grossing Disney film of all time. But was the original book left out in the cold?
The source text is yet another gem from the vault of Hans Christian Andersen, a failed thespian actor, singer, and ballet dancer (ballerino?) who became one of the most famous and well-travelled Danish writers of his time. His many fairytales fanned out from Germany in the 1840s, reaching as far as England and the Americas, and included works like The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes. He penned The Snow Queen, or Snedronningen, in December 1844, so he was probably feeling the Christmas vibe too, especially since he was a committed Christian who believed the world and nature were intertwined with divinity in a holistic worldview.
You’d be right in thinking Disney watered down the religious aspects for a secular audience, but that’s not all. For instance, instead of a kooky snowman, reindeer, and rugged mountain boy... our supporting characters include a stab-happy robber girl, a bearded lady, a couple of talking crows, and creepy old women obsessed with amnesiac children.
If that didn’t make you shudder, a freezing spoiler wind is about to strike, so if you need to wrap up warm, I’d hop to another post. But if the cold never bothered you anyway, let’s plough ahead.
A Tale of Two Siblings
For our original “siblings”, playtime is spared the drama of cryokinesis.
This inseparable pair are a little boy called Kai and a little girl called Gerda. They aren’t brother and sister but they play together as if they were siblings, and live opposite each other in attic rooms joined by an outside gutter. In the springtime and summer, flower boxes with rose bushes are planted in the gutter, forming a mini garden where they can play. The roses are their favourite, and Gerda teaches Kai part of a hymn about them, which probably won’t be important in any way:
“Where roses deck the flowery vale,
There, infant love will sure prevail!”
In winter, they communicate via peepholes through the windows or by physically traipsing down the stairs, into the street, and up into the other’s house. One day while sitting inside, one of their grandmothers tells them about the “white bees” of snow (the snowflakes), and the “queen bee” who appears in the thickest of swarms and makes ice patterns on the windows. Gerda asks if this “Snow Queen” could ever come into the house, but Kai shrugs and says he would just melt her on the stove if she did.
Forgetting for a moment the change from normal, unrelated peasant children (ersatz siblings/best friends) to royal sisters, one of whom is the Snow Queen, there are a couple of similar themes here. One half of the pair is fearless, either threatening to burn a snow spirit on the stove or leaping up too high, and the other half is more cautious, either about said snow spirit or when her powers go too far. Neither snow queen has the best introduction, but Elsa is only a little girl with abilities beyond her control and non-threatening, making her more sympathetic than a ghostly apparition who could spell trouble. Regardless of their intentions, both snow queens will test the incredibly strong bond between the children.
Pop quiz: what’s worse, being cruel to be kind, or intentionally being an arse? Little Gerda’s about to find out.
This time it’s the more adventurous child who throws up a wall. One night, Kai is looking out of the window when a snowflake suddenly materialises into the Snow Queen. She is a tall, beautiful woman (rather than an insect-like monster) made entirely out of ice and has eyes that have no peace or kindness in them. Still, she’s nice enough to give him a wave, and he runs away pretending he saw a big white bird, something like an eagle.
During the springtime, while playing in the roof garden with Gerda, he feels a grain of something in his left eye, and his heart suddenly turns into a lump of ice. Strangely enough, it’s nothing to do with the Snow Queen.
There are no good-natured trolls in the original, but instead we have demonic hobgoblins, trolls in the original tale, whose leader creates a cursed mirror. The mirror gives modern day gossip columns a run for their money, magnifying anything bad and belittling anything good, and when it’s dropped and smashed, pieces of it rain all over the world. Just one tiny grain is as powerful as the whole, and Kai cops two of them, one in his eye and one in his heart. He suddenly decides to trash their beloved roses, kick over the flower box, tease a confused and tearful Gerda, and then make a name for himself mimicking anyone else he meets. The only thing he sees as unworthy of ridicule or perfect are snowflakes.
Both Elsa and Kai change their behaviour because of magic, but the former does this out of fear and to protect her sister rather than involuntarily, as well as to obey her parents’ wishes. Neither Anna nor Gerda have any clue why their playmate’s behaviour has changed so radically, and it’s hard to decide who has the worst deal. Anna’s whole family are hiding something from her and she has no explanation for it. All she has is happy memories which no longer make any sense. Kai doesn’t shut Gerda out for most of her childhood, and there is no conspiracy going on, but then again, the boy is actively an ass-hat to her and makes her cry.
Fortunately, neither girl will have to put up with this behaviour for much longer.
The Cold Light of Day
Elsa’s not the only one stretching her wings. After the way Kai has treated Gerda and everyone else around him lately, you’d think the town would also want to get shot of him. Their wish is about to be granted.
Kai is now allowed to play on a sled with the bigger boys in town (obviously, the local bullies), but when a large, white sled appears, he ends up playing sled-conga and is led out of the kingdom and away into the snowy wilderness. When they finally stop, the other driver is revealed to be the Snow Queen, apparently pulled along by white snow chickens. When she sees Kai shivering, she kisses him to take the cold feeling away, and then again so he forgets all about Gerda and his home. She then casually mentions that if she kisses him again it will kill him, so she’d better not. The boy doesn’t seem to mind because the Snow Queen is the only thing that looks perfect to him and his warped view of the world, and he willingly goes back with her to her palace, sleeping at her feet during the day and staring up at the moon at night.
Back in the town, people eventually believe that Kai is dead, possibly drowned in the river. Gerda believes this too until the spring sunshine and the swallows (birds of passage), and the flowers in the roof garden, tell her otherwise, so she sets off to find him herself.
A coronation day and being allowed to play with the big boys or bullies are obviously different in importance, but they are both “coming of age” events, and result in Elsa and Kai leaving their lives behind and embracing the ice and snow. For Elsa it’s a release and freedom after years of hiding herself, and for Kai, brain-washing aside, it’s something that he can finally see as flawless after his run-in with a shard of goblin mirror. Whether they’ve done anything wrong or not, both “sisters” take off after the other, but Anna has the foresight to leave someone in charge of her kingdom and to tell people where she’s going. She didn’t wait until spring to get her skates on either, but then again, she’s a bit more impulsive when it comes to boys. Will both girls survive alone out in the wide world?
It turns out Olaf isn’t the only one oblivious to his surroundings and the seasons.
Gerda’s first port of call is the river, and while looking for Kai she is swept away by the stream and rescued by an old lady who lives in a riverside cottage. Whether the girl likes it or not, the old woman, a good witch, wants to keep Gerda, and magically removes any roses from her garden so she forgets all about her playmate. Luckily, she forgets to remove the one on her hat, and after some time Gerda’s memory is jolted. Her exasperated tears bring back the real roses, and she asks them and the other flowers if they know anything. While the roses can confirm that Kai isn’t dead, the other flowers can only impart stories like a Hindu woman burning to death on her husband’s funeral pyre, a medieval damsel yearning for her true love, and three beautiful sisters who run away into the forest to die. Helpful.
By the time Gerda has fled the garden, it’s now late autumn in the outside world. Fortunately, the snowy wastes further on yield more effective companions: a male wild crow and his tame mate who may have seen Kai getting married to an eccentric, intelligent princess recently. Said princess decided she fancied a husband one day and extended the invitation to any eligible bachelors around. Any who could speak well and comfortably to her would be her husband, and the one who succeeded where many awkward suitors had failed before, winning her heart and hand through his clever liveliness, a rugged chap with long hair and bright eyes, may have been Kai. Gerda really did take her sweet time!
After sneaking into their bedchamber, Gerda realises it’s a false sighting (it's not Kai, but still a dashing young man), but the prince and princess are cool with a peasant girl wandering into their private quarters, actually ask if she wants to stay with them, and when she regretfully refuses, give her some supplies for her journey. They spoil her with a muff (the type for your hands, stop sniggering), winter boots, and a golden chariot with horse, outriders, footmen, and coachman. And away she goes, with the crows, prince and princess waving a tearful goodbye. Her destination isn’t exactly set, but going somewhere is better than nowhere I suppose.
The wolves are the only Disney characters who want to capture the sister for themselves, and everyone Anna meets seems to want to help her, either out of genuine friendliness or possible reward. She herself is quite similar to Andersen’s husband-hungry princess, and at a push you can see the rugged Kristoff in the prince, but otherwise the aid is reversed – royalty is helped by the peasantry rather than vice versa, and a talking snowman rather than a crow gives hope to the search party, to link back to Anna and Elsa’s childhood. In Gerda’s case, it’s the roses that keep her memory of Kai alive and spur her on, and this is all she has to go on for now, as no one has a clue where he went.
Sadly, not everyone they meet will be as endearing (or harmlessly creepy) on their trip.
Our motley Disney crew have each other and a goal in mind. Although Gerda’s about to get both of these things, one of them gets worse before it gets better.
Don’t recognise any of the characters so far? Don’t worry, the reindeer's still in it.
Once her friends the crows are out of sight, Gerda is ambushed by robbers who massacre her entire entourage. A bearded, alcoholic old woman, the leader of the pack, drags her out of the chariot and decides to cook her for lunch, until her equally crazy daughter nearly bites off the woman’s ear and demands that Gerda be her playmate. Under the threat of stabbing, Gerda plays with and sleeps next to the robber girl, who has imprisoned a collection of woodland pigeons and a reindeer called Be. In between shaking the pigeons upside down, the girl tickles Be with a knife to scare him and stop him from running away.
When the pigeons reveal that they know of the Snow Queen (she killed their siblings by blowing on them), and that Be knows where to find her in Lapland, the robber girl relents and lets Be take Gerda further north to find her.
Their first stop is the Lapp lady, who gives Gerda a note written on a stockfish, a dried and salted codfish, a.k.a. this hellish abomination:
IT TASTES AS WEIRD AS IT LOOKS
...to take to the Fin woman, who can better direct them because the Snow Queen is staying even further north at the moment.
Gerda and Anna both experience backhanded affection from their sister or a supposed “friend”, who, paradoxically, almost hurts them to protect them from getting hurt. The Snow Queen also drops a little in our estimation, with Elsa unleashing a monster on her sister, and Andersen’s version killing baby pigeons on top of the whole “child abduction” thing. Although both sisters have a time limit slapped on them, Gerda would only be inconvenienced if she missed the Snow Queen, as opposed to dead in Anna’s case. Happily, the girls are helped by more experienced mountain folk and get to ride a kick-ass reindeer, so it’s not all bad. Not yet, anyway.
Ice in the Veins
Thirteen is definitely unlucky for some.
For Gerda, it seems that a strange power can actually protect you for once.
She and Be finally arrive at the Fin woman’s house, a hobbit-hole-like home so warm that she practically walks around naked on all fours. For some reason Gerda lets a reindeer do all the talking for her, and Be asks the woman if she can give Gerda anything to help on her journey. She takes the caribou to one side and whispers that if Gerda can’t find the Snow Queen herself she’s already doomed, explaining that everyone on her journey has served her one way or the other, all because of her love for her “brother” and her child-like innocence. And to keep her innocence, and therefore safe, the girl must never be told that she has this power.
The Fin woman’s solution, therefore, is for Be to take her as far as the edge of the Finmark and dump her there. If you’re not sure how far north this is, the Fin(n)mark is where you find the North Cape, one of the most northern points of Europe and one of the last shreds of inhabited land before the North Pole.
Fortunately, Gerda has become as non-plussed as Anna in the face of adversity and turns the ice and snow to her advantage. The further she walks, the bigger the snowflakes get until they take on the sinister shapes of the Snow Queen’s guards. By reciting her evening prayer, she manages to conjure up her own ice soldiers to cut them up and protect her from the cold, so as far as she’s concerned she’s just out for a chilly and apparently magical walk.
Once Anna is unwittingly abandoned by her friends, she has as much chance surviving as a snowball in hell, and not least because Hans proves to be a million times more of a bastard than Kai was. Conversely, Gerda is deliberately abandoned by her friends – but not maliciously – and discovers her inner power. As for the Snow Queen, one only has a young girl on the warpath, while the more sympathetic one has half a kingdom and a power-hungry prince after her blood, on top of the knowledge that her sister is missing and possibly dead. Stress certainly isn’t good for the heart, but it’s no match for ice.
Come in from the Cold
Thankfully for Gerda, she needn’t bother with swords or ice statues, because she’s armed with three of the most powerful things in the world – love, words, and nostalgia.
Kai has been just as oblivious to danger as Gerda, and has spent all this time living in the Snow Queen’s vast palace. It’s a complete waste of space – some rooms go on for miles, but there’s not an animal or drunken royal shindig to be seen anywhere. While the Snow Queen spends her days jet-setting all over the world, the boy spends his time sitting on the frozen lake floor, arranging ice patterns in a puzzle. If he can arrange them into the word “eternity” inside a sun shape, the queen will let him go and give him a brand new set of skates, because priorities. Thanks to the grains of mirror in his eye and heart, he’s obsessed with these ice shapes, and is cyanotic, almost black, with cold.
Gerda could saunter her way into the palace if she so wished because there’s absolutely no one to stop her from getting inside. When she finds Kai before the empty throne (the Queen had just left to bring the winter south again, to frost the grapevines and the citrus crops), he neither acknowledges nor recognises her, so she hugs him, cries, and sings the rose hymn they used to know. The combination warms him up and melts his heart, expelling the mirror shard inside a teardrop, turning him back into the sweet surrogate brother she once had. Kay and Gerda are so happy that they’ve found each other again that the ice pieces start dancing about too, and coincidentally fall to the ground arranging a sun which contains the word “eternity”. So, even if the Snow Queen came back, she could do bugger all – by the terms of an arbitrary agreement, Kai is now free.
A frozen lake is obviously the place to break an icy spell, and it’s an act of sibling rather than romantic love that does the trick. Anna and Elsa’s situation is more desperate, thanks to a falling sword and freezing heart, but in either case, it’s partially the Snow Queen’s fault that one half of the pair is going the way of Olaf the snowman. Snow and ice also end up helping them in the end, in the form of Olaf rescuing Anna, ice deflecting a sword, or actual pieces of ice becoming sentient and helpful. With Anna and Kai revived, what’s next for our snow sorceresses?
Summer of Love
Will Andersen’s Snow Queen be accommodating to Gerda and Kai?
The answer is “no”, because the Snow Queen never shows her face, allowing an elated Gerda and Kai to walk back completely unhindered by storms or adverse weather. When they reach the border of Finmark, Be and a younger reindeer are waiting for them. The latter has baps full of milk to feed them, and they run with them back down south, stopping for directions at the Fin woman’s home and then a quick snack, change of clothes and a new sledge at the Lapp woman’s. Once they reach their own country’s border with the first green buds, they bump into the robber girl – now riding a horse from Gerda’s chariot, whose footmen her family murdered – and she reports that the male crow is dead, and the female crow is wearing black ribbons on her feet for widow's weeds. In other equally happy news she is off to explore the world and promises to call in on them if she passes them (while also wondering if Kai is worth going to the ends of the Earth for!). The prince and the princess are also travelling through foreign countries, surely on their honeymoon. Lucky them.
On Kai and Gerda’s return to their hometown in late spring/early summer, the book is as subtle as a brick and sees the grandmother reading from the Bible, the Gospel of Matthew to be more precise. She simply says to them:
Without ye become as little children ye cannot enter into the Kingdom of Heaven
Ignoring her lack of greeting, recognition, or abject joy at their return, Gerda and Kai look at each other and realise they are now both all grown up, and that the hymn they once sang each other had a deeper meaning. By staying innocent children in their hearts, they are protected from evil, and from then onwards, springtime and summer also seem to last forever.
This time, it’s sibling love that conquers all.
The years of forgiveness, understanding and death-defying actions given by Anna and Gerda for their respective sister or brother show a stronger love than that felt by any of the romantic characters present. While Kristoff and Anna are certainly smouldering, their feelings can’t yet compete with the above, and you can forget Hans’s red herring romance. For Gerda’s part, she isn’t at all jealous when it’s revealed Kai may have married a princess, and they don’t kiss or marry (at least in the Andersen original; the Dumas version ends with the birth of their twin children) when they return home either. As for Elsa, she has shut herself away, both mentally and physically, for a large chunk of her life in order to protect her sister, and while this was done out of love, fear was the overriding emotion. In Kai’s case, he was a prisoner too, but this time at the mercy of evil magic. He and Elsa are only truly free when they remember or allow themselves to feel love.
The other story themes are where the book and the film diverge. In Andersen’s The Snow Queen, faith is the ultimate protector. Gerda is the one who teaches Kai the hymn about the roses, and by reciting her Prayer she is shielded from the Snow Queen’s powers. It’s also a hymn that revives Kai, and by remaining innocent and childlike, untouched by temptation, Gerda is able to survive several potentially lethal situations on her own. Once the pair are back together again, and remain children in their hearts, the world always seems warm and summery to them. The Snow Queen in this story represents temptation, and she strikes when Kai is vulnerable after being touched by evil, or in this case a cynical adult’s view of the world. Rather unconventionally, the boy is rescued by the girl, and most of the wise and helpful people on Gerda’s journey are female. Then again, so are the creepiest ones.
In Frozen, we’re shown how fear can cripple and affect someone’s behaviour, and the perils of running away from your problems rather than trying to solve them, i.e. Elsa trying to stifle rather than experience and control her powers. Interestingly, it’s also implied that taking risks once in a while isn’t a bad thing. Despite the extreme likelihood of rejection, accidental injury and death, Anna persists in trying to spend time with her sister over the years, and charges off into the wilderness to find her when she makes her escape. Her whirlwind romance with Hans came to no good, but in the end she uncovered a royal conspiracy and found someone better in the interim. Her unfortunate spat with Elsa, while nearly fatal, showed her sister how powerful love could be and how to lift the spell. So Disney’s Snow Queen character represents overcoming fear and how to stop it from controlling you, hence the title “Frozen”.
The ultimate lesson of both stories is to give people the benefit of the doubt, to look on the bright side where possible and try to retain a childlike wonder when walking through the world. In other words, if you encounter a problem, dilemma, or an idiot, remember there are more important things in life, and that there’s only one thing you should do.