The Snow Queen is one of Hans Andersen’s best-known stories, and it both enchants and disturbs. Andersen’s own troubled life* can, of course, be linked with his fairy stories. His restless bisexual nature and his extreme narcissistic anxiety must have been vital ingredients in the world of his imagination. But psychobiographical approaches can easily diminish rather than amplify one’s understanding of literature, says Margaret Rustin. What is impressive to her is how many rich threads are to be found in just one of Andersen’s stories.
Re-reading ‘The Snow Queen’ for this Andersen bicentenary article was unnerving in unexpected ways. Predictably enough, the story as I recalled it was not quite what I found on the page, as so often happens when we read as adults what we loved as children, and this was not only a consequence of the new translation** now available, though this edition does contain new and evocative material. What I had almost obliterated in my own memory was the religious framing of the story of Kai and Gerda, which begins with a wicked troll’s creation of a mirror which turns beauty to ugliness and ends with a hymn to childhood innocence. The elements carried in my memory focused on the seductive power of the snow queen, her beauty and the terror of her ice-kingdom, the kidnapping of Kai and Gerda’s long search, and the final triumph of their recovering each other. In reflecting on the psychological resonance of the story, I realised I would have to take note of the strange ambiguity of Andersen’s way of relating his tale – there are unmistakable references to the excitement of growing up, to sexuality, to travel and the exploration of the unknown, to facing fear, violence and cruelty, and yet we are offered an ending in which a version of Eden before man’s fall is presented as the ultimate value, a world without much space for the reality of emotional experience.
The seven segments
The story is told in seven segments and it begins with the devilish troll who invents a mirror which ‘had the power to make everything good and beautiful that was reflected in it shrink to almost nothing, while whatever was worthless and loathsome would stand out clearly and look even worse. In the mirror the loveliest landscape would look like boiled spinach…’ This stroke of evil genius was much admired in the ‘troll school’ (shades of Hogwarts and many other imitators) and the excitable taunting of God and the angels leads to the mirror splintering into ‘a hundred million billion pieces’ which penetrate the eyes and hearts of humans. A fragment of this mirror could turn a heart into ‘a lump of ice’.
The scene is set for the disruption of the childhood friendship of Kai and Gerda who live next door to each other. Their enjoyment of their rooftop garden and a beloved grandmother’s stories is smashed by Kai’s sudden change of attitude. Once his heart is pierced by a mirror fragment, Kai turns nasty, belittling and destructive. He claims that snowflakes are ‘much more interesting than real flowers. None of them has a single flaw – they’re quite perfect.’ Kai’s arrogant superiority is linked to his wish to assert his boyish strength and he goes out with his sledge to play in the town, leaving Gerda behind. Masculinity is associated with turning one’s back on idealised domesticity, kindness and the fragile beauty of flowers and espousing speed, logic, daring. Kai’s destructiveness is powered by hatred and envy (he literally tears the roses to pieces and cruelly mimics grandmother’s ways) but is also a desperate effort to tear himself away from the infantilising and stifling inside spaces of the home. One might recall the idea that the devil has all the best tunes and that Milton’s Satan is a much more appealing character than God.
It’s interesting to note that the children’s parents are missing from the story – the idea that there is a complex adult world outside is airbrushed out of the picture, and Kai’s urgent exploration of the world of boys and men is his response. In the town he is swept off by the snow queen who kisses away his memory of Gerda and Kai’s mind starts to function on new principles. His admiration of the snow queen is now unsullied by the terror she had inspired: ‘to his eyes she now seemed perfect. He was not the least bit afraid.’ He boasts of his powers of mental arithmetic, and works ceaselessly at the puzzle the snow queen sets him. The Ice Game of Reason must be played so that the ice fragments make the word Eternity in order for Kai to win his freedom. ‘The snow queen had said if you can create that shape for me, then you will be your own master and I will give you the whole world and a pair of skates’ (a child’s version of Faust’s pact).
So Kai is imprisoned in a chilly narcissistic embrace with an unattainable exotic woman, and it remains to Gerda to rescue him. Gerda’s travels begin with her decision to throw her beloved red shoes in the river in return for help to find Kai. It is fascinating to recall another of Andersen’s stories, called The Red Shoes , about a girl whose worship of her beautiful red shoes takes over her mind in particular blotting out loss and necessary mourning. Her punishment is to be trapped inside them, forever dancing and unable to rest until she begs the executioner to cut off her feet. The symbolic glamour of red shoes in Andersen’s imagination and his sharp eye for the importance of shoes in children’s lives are manifest. Of course he was the son of a cobbler. This detail contrasts with the parts of the journey when Gerda must travel barefoot even in the snow and ice. She too has an experience of seduction and imprisonment by a magic woman with a garden full of flowers. The woman makes all the roses in the garden vanish because ‘she was afraid that when Gerda saw the roses, she would think about her own, remember little Kai and run off.’ The garden idyll lasts many days but eventually Gerda sees roses on the old woman’s sun hat and recalls her quest.
She next encounters two couples – a pair of crows and a prince and princess. This development involves Gerda seeing herself as the lonely outsider, the one who has not yet found a partner and must still continue her search. Though the prince and princess are chastely kept apart in two beds, the reality of their union and the marriage of the crows introduces Gerda to the Oedipal concerns which had been evaded at the start of the story, when Gerda and Kai appeared to be the couple and the parents were absent. The journey as a metaphor for the development of personality begins to take shape.
In the fifth story, Gerda meets the little robber girl. This is a glorious episode, when sex and violence explode before her eyes but she also sees that the little robber girl is capable of warmth, tenderness and generosity. Gerda’s capacity to inspire love, on which the Finn Woman comments later, is striking. It is the analogue of the mirror fragments – Gerda’s optimism and faithfulness spreads kindness in those she encounters exactly as the glass shards spread selfishness. The little robber girl loves her but can let her go, and also let her captive reindeer return to his beloved north as Gerda’s companion.
At the snow queen’s palace, the denouement takes place, as Gerda’s tears melt the ice fragment which has controlled Kai for so long. The children return home as adults, and it should surely be as a sexual couple too, but in a fairy story and especially one wrapped up in a form of Christian doctrine, that cannot be clearly stated. They are not brother and sister but neither are they quite man and wife.
Fears of engulfment
The children’s encounters with figures of mystery, glamour, magical powers and extraordinary otherness introduce them to a sort of dreamworld where the most fundamental terror seems to reside in the threat of being possessed by a seductive witch-woman of one sort or another, whose power lies in her capacity to enter one’s mind and break the continuities of experience, like the wily witches of Odysseus’s journeys. Once one has lost one’s mind and in particular one’s sense of time, one is helpless. The primitive fears of engulfment referred to here are real not only to Kai as the boy struggling to move out of grandmother’s sphere, but for Gerda too. For him, the imperative is space for his masculine self-assertion, including his sexual development. For her, it is separation from the seductive charms of the kitchen and garden mother represented by the witch who feeds her endless cherries.
The religious resources on which Gerda relies in her journey and which Kai loses as he falls under the sway of the snow queen (he can no longer remember the Lord’s Prayer, only multiplication tables) are one way of describing the access to an inner world in which beloved others can be found, figures with whom there can be sustaining dialogue without loss of personal identity. Maintaining links of memory and communication are vital on Gerda’s journey, and Andersen is delightfully inventive in his methods for achieving this. Conversations with flowers and birds are elements in this, as is the splendid message sent by the Finn Woman to the Lapp Woman written on a dried fish ‘because I have no paper’. The Lapp Woman reads the message three times and then pops the fish in her stewpot ‘since it was edible after all and she never wasted anything’. Well, neither did Andersen, one imagines. The unforgettable descriptions of snowflakes, of Kai’s ride on his sledge and Gerda’s on the reindeer’s back, and of the snow queen’s ice palace make it quite clear why his writing had such a huge impact on nineteenth-century Europe. The eloquence of his child’s eye view of the world is undimmed and the problems of growing up should not after all expect a solution in a fairy story. Like the ice puzzle that Kai can’t solve, this is a world in which the fragments do not quite slot into place, but they are all there.
* see J. Wullschlager’s Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (Penguin, 2000)
**Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, a new translation by Tiina Nunnally, edited and introduced by Jackie Wullschlager (Penguin, 2004, 0 7139 9641 2, £20.00)
Margaret Rustin is a child psychotherapist at the Tavistock Clinic, London, and the author (with Michael Rustin) of Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction (Karnac Books) and Mirror to Nature: Drama, Psychoanalysis and Society (Tavistock/Karnac Series, 2002). With Michael Rustin she has written three articles on Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, published in the 2003 volume of The Journal of Child Psychotherapy .