It is the first Monday of the month: time to discover another beloved children’s classic! This month, Nell Heshram joins us in the sandpit to review The Snow Queen.
The Snow Queen
by Hans Christian Andersen
If, two months ago, you had asked me to list the favourite stories from my childhood, I wouldn’t have included the Snow Queen.
The beauty of reading to your child, is that there’s always the chance you will stumble upon a treasure from the past. And, when Austin and I were rifling through the books in the library the other day, I came across this classic that I’d long forgotten.
Kay and Gerda live next door to each other. They are inseparable, climbing over rose-strewn window boxes to see each other, every day.
And then, a piece of glass from the broken mirror of an evil troll (in some versions) or sprite (in others) becomes embedded in Kay’s heart and eye. This glass makes Kay, and all the other people who are pierced by the broken shards raining down from the sky, view everyone and everything around him as hateful and ugly. He turns against Gerda and his grandmother; then, his bitter demeanour allows him to fall under the spell of the Snow Queen, who whisks him off and holds him captive, alone, in her ice palace.
Most of the story describes Gerda’s quest to find Kay. She journeys through places that evoke a northern wilderness; reindeer, snowy forests and peasant women from Lapland and Finland populate a stunning story-book landscape. While I was reading to Austin, several details jumped out at me from the book; details that felt shockingly familiar, which I realised I’d returned to in my memory over and over through the years, without remembering which book they originated from.
The little robber girl who slept with a dagger under her pillow. The talking ravens. The reindeer that ran and ran with Gerda on its back, until it could barely stand. They were all still vivid, and reading about them again transported me back into the little girl who had once thrilled at the descriptions of these imaginative delights.
I was a precocious reader, and must have been very young when I first read The Snow Queen – maybe 5 or 6. So, even though I lapped up many of the smaller details, my conscious mind didn’t pick up on the grand fable of the story. But, as an adult reader, I can see why that little girl read and re-read the book so many times that its cover fell off.
To me, now, the metaphor is clear: the people in The Snow Queen who have glass in their hearts or eyes, are suffering from mental ill-health. To them, the world is a bad place. Their minds see those who are kind or beautiful, as ugly and crooked. The words and acts of other people are misconstrued; fearful and angry, they have no option but to turn inwards, and become increasingly alone.
And, to the little girl I was back then, growing up with two members of my nuclear family suffering mental illnesses that varied in severity from year to year, Hans Christian Andersen’s story would have been comforting. At the end, Gerda discovers Kay in the ice palace, trapped in the pursuit of an impossible task. His heart is melted by her tears, and the glass falls out. He is restored to his former, friendly and loving self, and he and Kay realise that they are no longer children; the journey has taken them back home, to the window boxes and grandmother. And they are happy, together at last.
Of course, in real life, neat, joyful resolutions like this never occur. But children’s books, especially fairy tales, work their magic by showing children the darker side of life, and then neutralising fear with a happy conclusion. The woodcutter kills the big bad wolf. Hansel and Gretel vanquish the witch, and take her money to their impoverished father. Bad stuff happens, but hope and courage allow those who are pure of heart and motive to vanquish the demons.
Re-reading The Snow Queen was, for me, a moving, revelatory experience. Austin’s only 3, and I think much of it was lost on him; however, he did enjoy the talking ravens. I doubt it will ever have the same resonance for him as it did for me. That can only be a good thing. Nevertheless, it remains a beautiful, timeless classic that has as much relevance now as it did when it was first published.
Nell Heshram blogs about her life as a stay-at-home Mum at the Pigeon Pair and Me. Our Time of Gifts, her new venture, is a blog about giving something away every week, and seeing what the universe brings back to her doorstep.