For my first Fantasy read of 2013  I’m picking `The Snow Queen’, a novella by Hans Christian Andersen first published in 1845.  Andersen  was born in Denmark in 1805 and, as he never tired of pointing out, rose from a humble background to become an internationally famous author.  The King of Denmark graciously paid Andersen a salary to carry on writing fairy stories, in spite of the fact that royal persons rarely shine  in these tales  (think of `The Emperor’s New Clothes’).  Several editions of Andersen’s Collected Fairy Tales can be downloaded free or very cheaply. I’d particularly recommend the translation by Marte Hvam Hult, which has a useful introduction to Andersen’s life and works by Jack Zipes. You can also find illustrated copies of `The Snow Queen’  on its own. There is a good version retold by Naomi Lewis and beautifully illustrated by Christian Birmingham.

Most of us encounter Andersen’s work in chirpy adaptations, such as Disney’s `Little Mermaid, so the original stories can come as a shock. Many of them are dark, melancholy and strange and there are few conventional happy endings. `The Red Shoes’ , in which a girl’s feet have to be chopped off to stop her dancing, verges on horror and the fate of  `The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf’ and sinks into the bog-wife’s hellish brewery, gave me nightmares. Some of Andersen’s stories, such as `The Wild Swans’, give new twists to traditional plots. Others, like `The Snow Queen’ are completely original, but draw on Scandinavian folklore. In Scandinavian folk-tales, the female characters rarely sit around waiting to be rescued by a prince; they take the initiative.  Some of Andersen’s heroines are punished for their boldness but that doesn’t happen in `The Snow Queen’.

This` story in seven chapters’ begins with an account of  an evil mirror which distorted goodness and beauty `so that the most lovely landscapes looked like cooked spinach’.   After the mirror is shattered,  the tiny fragments fly around and when one gets into a person’s eye it warps their view of the world and turns their heart to ice. In a narrow street in a large town a young boy called Kay and a young girl called Gerda live opposite each other and meet in the roof gardens that almost join their two houses. One winter, Kay’s grandmother warns him about the Snow Queen and he glimpses a beautiful woman who seems to be made `of millions of star-like snow-flakes fastened together’. The next summer, as the children sit amongst the roses, a speck from the evil mirror enters Kay’s eye. He begins to see flaws in everything around him and acts coldly to Gerda.

When winter comes again,  Kay chooses to enter the Snow Queen’s sledge and she carries him off to her vast castle made from snow and biting winds. There the Queen promises Kay `the whole world and a pair of new skates’ if he can win `the ice-game of reason’ and arrange broken pieces of ice into the one word that can save him. In his home town, everyone gives vanished Kay up for dead, except Gerda. Determined to find the friend, she loves, Gerda goes out into the world to look for him. On her journey north, Gerda is delayed in an enchanted garden, has her hopes dashed in the palace of a princess, and is captured by a band of  robbers. Wisewomen and talking animals help Gerda reach the icy realm of the Snow Queen. Then her only hope of rescuing Kay is to go on alone…

When I first read this story as a child, Gerda’s courage and steadfastness made a big impression on me. Now, I notice the number of powerful women whom Gerda meets on her journey and how each of them uses her power in a different way. There is a witch who isn’t wicked but who tries to keep Gerda in a state of childish irresponsibility, a clever princess who contrives to marry a man who is her intellectual equal, a wisewoman in Lapland who gives practical help and an even wiser one in Finland who knows when not to intervene. Even the band of robbers is led by a fearsome bearded-women but Gerda is saved from her threats by the robber-woman’s feisty daughter, who likes to tickle her pets with a knife but learns to set them free. Above all there is the Snow Queen, who embodies unfeeling intellect and separates Kay from those who love him.

`The Snow Queen’ is full of  funny and fanciful touches which distinguish it from a genuine folktale – like the inset stories of the flowers in the enchanted garden, dream horses that comes to fetch sleeping royals’ thoughts to go hunting, and the Finlandish wisewoman reading a letter written on a dried fish and then cooking it because `she never wasted anything.’ Those who like to fit things into tidy categories, label `The Snow Queen’ as one of Andersen’s `Moral Tales’ and it could be read as a simple story of an annoyingly angelic little girl using the power of prayer to defeat evil. Somehow it has never seemed that simple to me, and I suspect that Andersen himself  sometimes longed for the icy perfection of the Snow Queen’s castle where there is none of the messy pain of human emotions. There is an elusive quality about `The Snow Queen’ which most adaptations fail to capture. The characters have a life beyond the story. There are echoes of them in famous Fantasy novels such as `The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’  and Pullman’s `Northern Lights’  and they were successfully transposed to another planet in Joan D.Vinge’s  Snow Queen Cycle .  In 2013 Disney is bringing out an animated film, `Frozen’  loosely based on `The Snow Queen’, so this could be a good time to read the original story. Until next week…