Sunday, December 30, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Snow Queen

I have a confession to make.

(stares at floor and mumbles) I kind of, sort not hate everything Hans Christian Andersen wrote.

Wow, that was hard to say.

I distinctly remember liking this particular story as a kid.  I'm not entirely sure I even realized that it shared an author with The Little Match Girl until I was years older.  It was just so different, in plot and characters and, to a lesser extent, in theme.  I mean, stuff actually happens in it.  The girl-hero goes out and, you know, does stuff to move the plot along instead of just sitting there and suffering on and on until God fixes things.

Of course, I was also pretty young when I read it.  Let's take another look and see how it's held up:

First Story: Which Treats of a Mirror and of the Splinters

"Once upon a time there was a wicked, mischievous Hobgoblin.  One day he was in a very good humor because he had made a mirror with the power of causing all that was good and beautiful, when it was reflected therein, to look poor and mean; while that which was good for nothing and ugly, stood out and looked worse than ever."

Huh.  I didn't know that those annoying distorted mirrors you see in carnival funhouses were manufactured by Hobgoblins.  But it makes sense, now that I think about it. 

Interestingly enough, I remembered this part a little differently; in my fuzzy memory the mirror did indeed make good and beautiful things look evil and ugly, but I thought it also made actual evil ugly things look pretty and shiny.  But apparently it just makes everything look icky and nasty and depressing, which...isn't quite the effect I'd be going for if I was an evil villain making a magic mirror to turn people away from the path of goodness.  Then again, the Hobgoblins don't seem to have much of a plan for this thing beyond running around with it and reinforcing each others' perceptions of what a crappy place the world is:

"In this mirror the most beautiful landscapes looked like boiled spinach, and the best persons were turned into frights...They ran about with the mirror; and at last there was not a land or a person who was not represented there twisted all out of shape."

The text does not specify how long this goes on, but considering the rather large amount of ground the Hobgoblins seem to have covered, I think we can reasonably conclude that it was happening for a fairly big chunk of time, and Andersen makes it quite clear that the little guys are having the most rip-roaring fun they've ever had in their lives for the whole duration of it.  It would seem that Hobgoblins have way too much time on their hands.  

But disaster strikes when they try to carry the mirror up into the sky:

"The higher they flew with the mirror, the more terribly it grinned; they could hardly hold it fast.  Suddenly the mirror shook so terribly with grinning, that it flew out of their hands and fell to the earth, where it was dashed in a hundred million pieces.  And now it worked much more evil than before; for some of these pieces were hardly larger than a grain of sand, and they flew about in the wide world, and when they got into people's eyes there they stayed; and then people saw everything perverted, or only had an eye for that which was evil.  Some persons even got a splinter in their heart, and then their heart became a lump of ice."

I'm having trouble picturing exactly how a mirror would grin, or why grinning would make it shake to the extent that it would be difficult to keep hold of it.

However it happens, the wicked Hobgoblin laughs like a loon.  The story claims that this was because the evil done by the shattered mirror "tickled his fancy," but I like to think it was from relief once he realized that the unexpected side effects saved him from staring awkwardly at his shoes and muttering, " to do that..." while the other Hobgoblins glared at him for ruining their good time.

Second Story: A Little Boy and a Little Girl

We now shift our attention from the Hobgoblin, who never comes into the story again (Seriously, HCA? The toxic-mirror-making Hobgoblin doesn't get any comeuppance? Just like the creepy devil-soldier from The Red Shoes? Y U NO MAKE ANY EFFORT TO CONTAIN OR ELIMINATE EVIL MAGICAL CREATURES THAT ARE OBVIOUS THREATS TO PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY?  (puff puff) Sorry about that.  Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...) and meet our two young protagonists.

Kay and Gerda are two young children who are very good friends.  They live in a town "where there are so many houses and so many people that there is no room left for everybody to have a garden," but they are able to get around the no-garden restriction in a novel way:

"Their parents lived opposite each other in two attic rooms.  The roof of one house just touched the roof of the other with only a rain water gutter between them.  They each had a little dormer window so one had only to step over the gutter to get from one window to the other.  Out on the leads the parents had placed two wooden boxes, in which grew pea vines, vegetables, and some little rose trees. In summer the children were allowed to take their little stools and sit out on the roof among the roses, where they could play delightfully."

Wait a minute.  These kids are allowed to play on the roof? I was never allowed to play on the roof as a kid.*  That is so not fair.  (super sulk)

Anyway, Kay and Gerda spend a page or two having a rockin' good time just being kids.  Besides caring for their little rooftop garden, they listen to the stories Kay's grandmother tells of the mysterious queen of the white bees (i.e. snowflakes) who flies through their town during the winter and "peeps in at the windows," leaving "wonderful patterns that look like flowers" on the glass.

That little fairy tale takes on an extra shade of creepy when this happens one night while Kay is undressing for bed:

"A few snowflakes were falling, and one, the largest of all, remained lying on the edge of the flower-pot.  The flake of snow grew larger and larger and at last it was like a beautiful maiden, dressed in the finest white gauze, made of a million little flakes, like stars.  She was so lovely and delicate, but she was of ice; of dazzling, sparkling ice; her eyes glittered like two stars; but there was neither rest nor peace in them.  She nodded toward the window, and beckoned with her hand."

It's times like these when I shake my head in bemusement at those folks who wring their hands and moan about how trashy all the stuff written for kids and young adults is nowadays, and how the old classic tales are so much better because they're all so innocent and sanitized and free of even the faintest hints of innuendo or adult themes.  Because it's good clean fun when a sexually mature woman with a restless gleam in her eyes who wears a flimsy and possibly transparent dress appears outside a half-naked prepubescent boy's window at night and seductively beckons him to come join her outside.  Nope, nothing skeevy about that at all.

Fortunately for Kay, he has the good sense to be terrified out of his mind by this, and the snow-lady takes her questionable intentions elsewhere.

But we're not quite out of the woods yet.  Spring comes, and one day the two children are unsuspectingly sitting on the roof together with a book...          

"...when Kay cried 'O! Something struck me sharply in the heart; and now something has got into my eye!'"

This is very bad indeed, because the mysterious foreign objects are in fact invisible fragments of the Hobgoblin's mirror.  And they make Kay act like an utter doucheclown:

"When she next brought out her picture-book, he said it was only fit for babies, and if his grandmother told him stories, he always interrupted her; besides, if he could manage it, he would get behind her, put on her spectacles, and imitate her way of speaking.  He was soon able to imitate the gait and manner of everyone in the street.  Everything that was peculiar and displeasing in them,--that Kay made fun of."

He also loses interest in the flowers he and Gerda grow in their rooftop garden, preferring the snowflakes because they are perfectly formed while flowers come in different shapes and sizes.  It seems that exposure to the mirror-shards not only turns one into a surly teenager, but causes mild OCD symptoms.

Further disaster strikes one winter day when Kay leaves Gerda behind to play in the square:

"There, in the market-place, the boldest boys used to hitch their sledges to the carts as they passed, and so they got a good ride."

So nineteenth-century kids got to play on the roof and enjoy the low-tech equivalent of getting towed behind a car on a skateboard? I know I was just scoffing at people who wax nostalgic about the bygone days of yore, but...damn.  Maybe Victorian kids really did have more fun than us.

Kay's problems begin when an unfamiliar white sleigh drives through the square, and Kay hitches up to it for a spin.

"On they went quicker and quicker into the next street; the person who drove turned round to Kay, and nodded to him in a friendly manner, just as if they knew each other.  Each time he was going to untie his sledge the driver nodded to him, and then Kay sat still once more."

Uh oh.

"Suddenly he let go of the string he held in his hand in order to get loose from the big sledge, but it was of no use; his little sledge hung fast and on he went like the wind.  He cried out, but no one heard him."

Double uh oh.

"The snowflakes grew larger and larger, till they looked like great white birds.  Suddenly the large sledge stopped, and the person who drove rose up.  It was a lady, tall, slim and glittering, her cloak and cap of snow.  It was the Snow-Queen."

By the way, the text makes it explicitly clear that the Snow-Queen and the randy ice-hussy outside Kay's window are the same person.  Which makes it even worse that this happens:

"'Are you still cold?' she asked, and kissed his forehead.  Ah! The kiss was cold as ice; it went to his very heart, which was already almost a frozen lump; but a moment more and he grew to like it.  He no longer felt the cold that was around him."

She then drives off into the night with him, intending to keep him in her dark and creepy ice-palace forever.  Thus we know that Stranger Danger was an issue worth worrying about as early as the 1800's. 

I'd forgotten how long this story is, so tune in next time for part II.

*I did it anyway a few times, but that's beside the point.

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