Audible.com offers an end-of-year gift to its members in the way of a free short classic audiobook. Past offerings have been A Christmas Carol, The Wizard of Oz, and The Cricket on the Hearth: this past year it was The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen (as of right now it is still free for members – don’t know how long it will be).
You probably know that Frozen, Disney’s blockbuster movie last year, was supposedly based on The Snow Queen, but there is little resemblance besides a woman who “was beautiful but all made of ice: cold, blindingly glittering ice; and yet she was alive, for her eyes stared at Kai like two stars, but neither rest nor peace was to be found in her gaze,” an ice palace, and a talking reindeer (among other talking animals and even flowers) and some of the themes. All of the main characters’ names are different. But it is a pleasant story nonetheless, though maybe a little weird in places.
The tale is told in seven shorter stories. It begins with a troll (or sprite or hobgoblin or demon – different translations tell it a little differently) who made a mirror which causes those who look into it to see to see only the bad and nothing good or beautiful. In fact, the bad was magnified and the real distorted. After terrorizing everyone they could with the mirror, the fellow creatures of this being decided to take this mirror to heaven to “mock the angels,” but in the process it fell and broke into millions of small pieces and splinters.
The next story tells of two childhood friend, Gerda and Kai (or Kay, depending again on which book you read), and their innocent play and love for each other, until one day Kai gets one of these splinters in his eye and heart, which changes him and makes him quite disagreeable. Then one day he sees the Snow Queen, mentioned already, whom Kai’s grandmother had told them of. He is frightened of her and draws back. But another day when all the boys are hooking their sledges up to carts and carriages to pull them, Kai ends up unknowingly fastening his to the Snow Queen’s vehicle. Too late he realizes who she is: she won’t stop, and she takes him to her palace far away. Her kiss numbs him and makes his heart grow colder.
Everyone in the village thinks he has died, but Gerda is convinced he has not, so she goes to look for him. Several more of the intervening stories tell of the people and creatures she meets along the way, some who help and some who hinder her.
There are vivid contrasts – light vs. darkness, warmth vs. coldness, innocence and purity vs. evil. In one segment it is said,
“I can give her no greater power than she has already”, said the woman; “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 now has, which consists in her own purity and innocence of heart. If she cannot herself obtain access to the Snow Queen, and remove the glass fragments from little Kai, we can do nothing to help her.”
I’ve wondered if the Snow Queen was inspiration for C. S. Lewis’s White Witch in Narnia. There are similarities, but the White Witch’s personality is much more developed – maybe because she spans several books whereas the Snow Queen is just in this one story – and she is more overtly evil. But the scene in which Edmund is taken into the White Witch’s sleigh and folded into her robes is very reminiscent of the Snow Queen doing the same with Kai.
There is also something of a religious element. I realized after reading this that I know very little about Andersen’s background, so I don’t know what he believed, but the children quote a fragment of a hymn which says, “Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see,” and later when Gerda is in trouble she prays the Lord’s Prayer, and angels come to help her. Near the end, “The grandmother sat in God’s bright sunshine, and she read aloud from the Bible, ‘Except ye become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of God.’ And Kay and Gerda looked into each other’s eyes, and all at once understood the words of the old song, ‘Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see.'”
I found some of the intervening chapters, particularly one where Gerda is talking to flowers to see if they know anything about Kai, and they tell their stories, not only a little strange but also not really contributing much to the plot. But overall it is a sweet story of good triumphing over evil, of loyalty, of loving someone despite their flaws, of resilience when facing hardship and adversity. You can find the whole story online in various places with minor variations in the text (like the spelling of Kai/Kay’s name). Some day I’d like to read a nicely illustrated book version of the story.
(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)