Illustration by Vadyslav Yerko
Despite the title, this rather long fairy tale of Hans Christian Andersen’s (well, long for him, anyway) does not really feature the Snow Queen herself all that prominently. She’s more in the background than active throughout most of the story. Still, we learn a fair amount about her, including that she’s a tall, thin woman who wears a fur coat. As I mentioned in this post, her image seems to have been inspired by that of the Norse goddess Skadi.
She also has her own flavor of vodka.
The tale begins with a devil making a magic mirror that makes beautiful things look ugly, and vice versa. The mirror breaks when the devils try to take it up to Heaven, and pieces of it fall into the eye and heart of a boy named Kai. This makes him rather insufferable, and it’s while under the influence of the shards that the Snow Queen finds and abducts Kai, taking him to her palace. Her permanent home is in Spitsbergen, part of the Svalbard Archipelago, which was also the location of the armored polar bears’ kingdom in Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (AKA Northern Lights). Wikipedia points out how the plot of that book follows the same basic structure as Andersen’s story. I think the reason why both authors chose Svalbard is that, if you go north from western Europe, that’s pretty much the farthest north you can go. It’s not the northernmost land in the world (I looked it up, and that would be Kaffeklubben Island, which sounds from the name like a hip place to hang out), but it’s close. For what it’s worth, Svalbard is now part of Norway, but it wasn’t back in Andersen’s time. I don’t think it was under any government at that point. The Snow Queen is also said to have a summer place in Finland, and that might actually be where she keeps Kai, but it’s a bit vague. The boy loves the icy palace, and spends him time sliding around ice blocks to make pictures. Andersen writes, “He found whole figures which represented a written word; but he never could manage to represent just the word he wanted–that word was ‘eternity’; and the Snow Queen had said, ‘If you can discover that figure, you shall be your own master, and I will make you a present of the whole world and a pair of new skates.’ But he could not find it out.” The passage is somewhat enigmatic, but the general idea seems to be that Kai’s turn away from nature and beauty coincides with a turn away from God. To further drive the point home, before the Snow Queen captures him, Kai tries to say the Lord’s Prayer but can only remember the multiplication table. While he could presumably stay at the ice palace indefinitely, it would be only a cheap parody of actual life. Anyway, most of the tale is about the adventures of Kai’s friend Gerda in trying to rescue the boy, which leads to encounters with a witch who has a garden of perpetual summer, a raven, a princess, some bandits, and a reindeer. She eventually reaches the Snow Queen’s palace while she’s out, and gets him to cry so that the shards of glass would melt, after which the ice puzzle forms the word “eternity” of its own accord. I notice that the story seems to have a very negative view of winter, despite the fact that ice and snow are presumably just as much God’s creation as flowers and sunshine. But then, when the author is from Denmark, I suppose that’s only to be expected.
Illustration by Christian Birmingham