Monday, January 28, 2013

Amazon Roulette, Holiday Clearance Edition: Candied Cherries

I found a pile of those tubs 'o red-and-green candied cherries at the grocery store while I was shopping last week.  They were left over from Christmas and significantly marked down.  The pile was also quite big; it covered two layers of shelving, and the cherry-tubs were stacked so high on the top shelf that I had to stand on my toes to grab one.

Actually, I grabbed two--one red and one green--because I am self-destructive and very skilled at ignoring obvious signs of unpleasant things to come.

Once I got the cherries home I put off trying them for a week, choosing instead to contemplate the ineffable mysteries of the candied cherry: mysteries such as, "So who the heck keeps the candied cherry industry in business anyway?"  I know that they're a standard ingredient in fruitcake, and the tubs came with little label-sized recipe cards for candied cherry cookies and rice krispie treats with candied cherries pasted to them.  But those cards seem to be an updated version of those slapdash promotional "cookbooks" that food companies put out in the 1950's, where the sheer number of recipes some ad exec could cram the product into to prove that it was really versatile was way more important to the company than how the recipes actually tasted.  Also, I'm pretty sure I've never met anyone who's admitted to actually eating fruitcake.

Come to think of it, Technomancer is the only person I know who admits to having bought candied cherries at all.  He says that he and his mom used them one year to make "some kind of yellow cake that I think tasted all right."  He asserts that they taste better when mixed into something, but since it did not seem likely that he would be able to provide me with more details of the cake--we're talking about a man who forgot his own birthday several years in a row here--I resigned myself to the fact that I was going to have to try them plain.

I immediately regretted my decision.

I mean, look at these things:

Have you ever seen so-called "food" that looked more like cheap plastic in your life? Also, I found the weird, milky-looking, congealed...stuff in the bottom of the tub with the green cherries very disturbing indeed.

I opened the tubs and selected a cherry from each, and my stomach immediately started to consider defecting to another body:

They were even more disturbing when viewed individually.  Translucent, slimy and unappealingly dry at the same time, and with a texture that I can only describe as what I imagine a none-too-fresh sliver of pickled human heart must feel like.  If it weren't for the puckered crater left on the surface of each cherry where the pit was punched out in the factory, I would start to question whether these were cherries at all.

It took me a full minute to work up the courage to eat them.  Somehow I managed to convince myself that it was too late to turn back now and took a dainty bite of the red one.

My entire mouth was instantly flooded with the foulest, most awful medicinal flavor it has ever been my misfortune to experience.  It didn't taste like cherries at all.  It tasted like really bad cherry-flavored cough syrup.  As if that wasn't bad enough, the disgusting slimy-dry fleshy texture felt a hundred times grosser once I was feeling it with my mouth instead of my fingers.

The green cherry was a bit better--which came as a surprise to me because the color of it is so horrifying and unnatural that I was expecting it to be much, much worse.  As it turned out, I had half made up my mind to eat the whole cherry before the cough-syrupy aftertaste kicked in and my entire digestive system shut down in protest.

So now I know exactly what I've been missing out on by not eating these classic holiday treats: absolutely nothing.  These are not fit for human consumption.  Hell, they're probably not even cherries.  I don't know exactly what they really are, but my bets are on a condensed physical manifestation of all of humanity's vilest sins.  Or Cthulhu eggs.  Yeah, I'm actually pretty sure that they're Cthulhu eggs.

On the plus side, I think I've figured out why fruitcake is traditionally soaked in rum.  See, while the alcohol won't kill the dark life stirring in these little globs of pure evil, it will get fruitcake eaters tipsy enough to dull the pain as dozens of unspeakable monster-gods burst forth from their ruptured abdomens to rain madness down on the world.  Though I doubt that anyone who equates eating a cake studded with sinister neon-green pseudo-food with a wholesome holiday activity deserves the consideration.        

Friday, January 18, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Snow Queen, Fourth Round

Today is Hans Christian Andersen's lucky day.  I'm in a great mood from discovering a local health food store that carries amazingly delicious blueberry-flax granola, so as we wrap up this story I might just go easy on him.

Sixth Story.  The Lapland Woman and the Finland Woman

Gerda and the Reindeer take shelter for the night at a hovel belonging to "an old Lapland woman, who was dressing fish by the light of an oil lamp."  The Lapland woman listens to their story and warns them that they still have a long way to go before they reach Finland.  She writes a message on a dried haberdine and sends them along to her friend the Finland woman.

By the way, a haberdine is an Atlantic cod.  The word most often refers to one that's been salted and dried.  Another one to add to my Bananagrams arsenal.

The Finland woman's house is even more of a hovel, so much so that Gerda has to knock on the chimney because there is no door.  But the Finland woman receives them graciously, helps Gerda out of her gloves and boots and puts some ice on the Reindeer's head to help him cope with the house's warmth (wait a minute--if the house has no door, how did they get a reindeer inside? Heck, how did Gerda get inside?  Did she climb down the chimney, or was there a window she could squeeze through?) and reads the message on the dried fish.

I do like this passage:

"She read it three times: she then knew it by heart; so she put the fish into the cupboard--for it might very well be eaten, and she never threw anything away."

Grandpa? Is that you in another life?

I like details like that; simple little gestures that speak volumes about a character without being in-your-face about it.

The Finland woman seems to be what Medieval peasants would have tactfully called a "wise woman" (i.e. a witch who specializes in healing and fertility magic) and as such is the first person in the story able and willing to tell Gerda what the problem is: Kay still has those darn splinters in his eye and heart, and he won't start acting like a human being again until they're removed.  She also reveals that Gerda can save him, but only if she does it by herself:

"Two miles hence the garden of the Snow Queen begins; thither you may carry the little girl.  Set her down by the large bush with red berries, standing in the snow; don't stay talking, but hasten back as soon as possible."

Gerda and the Reindeer start off right away.  Unfortunately HCA doesn't seem to think Gerda has suffered enough yet; they are in such a hurry to leave that they forget Gerda's gloves and boots, and instead of taking the time to go back and get them they run straight to the bush with red berries and leave Gerda standing barefoot in the snow.  Oh, and on top of everything else, she gets attacked by the Snow Queen's army of snowflake-monsters:

"They had the most wondrous shapes; some looked like large ugly porcupines; some like snakes knotted together, with their heads sticking out; and others, again, like small fat bears, with the hair standing on end..."

But it's all good, because Gerda recites the Lord's Prayer, and a gang of angels appears to beat up the snowflake-monsters and magically help Gerda tolerate the cold better.

Oh sure, now the angels decide to get off their mean, holier-than-thou feathered butts and help.  There must be absolutely nothing on TV in heaven tonight.

Seventh Story. What Took Place in the Palace of the Snow Queen, and what Happened Afterward

This last part has some of the best description and the coolest setting in the whole story.

It also has some of the bits that annoy me most.

On the one hand, I love Andersen's conception of the Snow Queen's palace:

"The walls of the palace were of driving snow, and the windows and doors of cutting winds.  There were more than a hundred halls there...The largest was many miles in extent; all were lighted up by the powerful Aurora Borealis, and all were so large, so empty, so icy cold, and so resplendent!...In the middle of the endless, empty hall of snow, there was a frozen lake; it was cracked in a thousand pieces, but each piece was so like the others, that it seemed the work of a cunning artificer.  In the middle of this lake sat the Snow Queen when she was at home..."

This passage is so evocative.  I can vividly see this huge tomb-like palace of dead-white snow lit by the unearthly glow of the northern lights.  I can feel the cold and desolation and danger.  Or I could, if this weren't plunked down smack dab in the middle of it:

"Mirth never reigned there; there was never even a little bear-ball, with the storm for music, while the polar bears went on their hindlegs and showed off their steps.  Never a little tea-party of white young lady foxes..."

Damn it, HCA.  There's a time and a place to be cute and cozy and cartoony, and there are also times and places when being cute and cozy and cartoony ruins the mood.

Then we get to the climax of the story.  Gerda finally finds Kay, but it seems that rescuing him will be difficult considering the state he's in:

"Little Kay was quite blue, yes nearly black with cold; but he did not observe it, for she had kissed away all feeling of cold from his body, and his heart was a lump of ice.  He was dragging along some flat pointed pieces of ice, which he lay together in all possible ways, for he wanted to make something with them..."

When Gerda comes running into the room and calls his name, he doesn't recognize her.  He keeps listlessly dragging his puzzle pieces around the floor like a little zombie, intent on spelling the word "eternity" with them because the Snow Queen has promised him wonderful prizes if he manages it...the catch being that the pieces of ice are shaped in such a way that it's impossible to do this.  That is wonderfully creepy.

Gerda accidentally manages to bring Kay's memory back when she realizes that he doesn't remember her and starts crying.  Her tears melt the splinter in Kay's heart, whereupon he starts crying himself and melts the splinter in his eye.

So now Gerda has found Kay and helped bring him back to his senses.  That means they're ready to face the Snow Queen together, right? I mean, surely she won't give up her little zombified ice-slave without a fight.


Actually she does.

In fact, the Snow Queen doesn't even appear in the final chapter.  She's ducked out to stir up some flurries in the mountains of Italy and left Kay behind, and Gerda sneaks into the palace while she's gone.  Then, after they've exhausted themselves dancing for joy, the children lie down in the middle of the discarded ice-puzzle and discover that their bodies are the missing pieces needed to solve it.  Then they triumphantly sneak out of the palace before she gets back.  Oh well, discretion is the better part of valor, I suppose.  Or of heroes who skulk anticlimactically out the back door, thus depriving readers of an exciting showdown with the big bad.  I  get those two mixed up a lot.

The Reindeer meets them at the bush where he left Gerda and carries them to the Finland woman and the Lapland woman, who warm the children up and give them provisions for the journey home.  Then they set out again and SHRIIIEEEEKKK OMG YOU GUYS THE ROBBER-MAIDEN IS BACK:

"...out of the wood came, riding on a magnificent horse...a young damsel with a bright-red cap on her head, and armed with pistols.  It was the little robber maiden, who, tired of being at home, had determined to make a journey to the north...She recognized Gerda immediately, and Gerda knew her too.  It was a joyful meeting.
'You are a fine fellow for tramping about,' said she to little Kay; 'I should like to know, faith, if you deserve that one should run from one end of the world to the other for your sake?'"

AAAAAHHHH she's throwing a stiff middle finger to convention and riding out into the world to have adventures like a champ, and when she meets Gerda again she's all like, "My best friend ran all the way to Finland to save your sorry ass, boy, so you'd better treat her right" to Kay, and everything is sunshine and rainbows and...


(Pats hair.)

As you can probably tell, I liked this part a lot.

This part, not so much:

"'Oh! The Raven is dead,' she answered.  'His tame sweetheart is a widow, and wears a bit of black worsted around her leg; she laments most piteously, but it's all mere talk and stuff!"

That was...unnecessary.  I guess Andersen couldn't write a passable happy ending until he got that urge to kill something innocent out of his system.

Gerda and Kay take their leave of the robber-maiden and make it home to their families, realizing once they get there that they've grown up on the journey, while still retaining a sense of childlike wonder.

Conclusion:  I distinctly remember a scene at the end of this tale where Kay and Gerda explicitly faced the Snow Queen and won.  Maybe it was a TV special or play that I saw at a very young age and only partially absorbed.  I don't know.  The point is, I was expecting it to be there, and found myself feeling a bit jarred and cheated when it wasn't.

There are some aspects of it that haven't aged well.  I'm pretty sure I found some of the cutesier elements grating even when I was a kid, and the whole thing about the source of Gerda's strength being the fact that she's "a sweet and innocent child" doesn't quite sit right with me.  It almost seems to downplay her persistence in the face of adversity, her unwavering determination to find her lost friend no matter what scary obstacles she encountered on the way.  Also, I'm pretty sure the little match-girl was a sweet and innocent child too, and she freaking froze to death in an alley.

That said, there was also plenty of good stuff here.  I loved the imagery of the Snow Queen's palace, the creepy dreamlike feel of some of Gerda's journey, and of course the character of the robber-maiden.  It's also fairly impressive that this story features a heroine who sets out into the world by herself, with nothing except her dedication to saving her friend to sustain her, and instead of being punished for running off, is openly praised for her knack at getting "through the world barefooted," as the Finland woman would say.

All in all, I'd say HCA wins this one.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Amazon Roulette, Round V: Quail Eggs

I asked Technomancer if he'd like to help out with this post.  The conversation went something like this:

Me:  I found these quail eggs at the grocery store.  Want to try one?

Technomancer:  (Looks at eggs like they're a bucket of rancid cat vomit.)  Ummm...why did you buy those?

Me:  Well...I've never had them before, and they weren't too expensive.

Technomancer:  You've never had a giant slab of rotting whale blubber either.  If the grocery store had giant slabs of rotting whale blubber, and was selling them for a reasonable price, would you buy and eat one?

Me:  Hmm...probably not.  I don't think I could carry one out to the car by myself.

And so it came to pass* that Technomancer bowed out, and I ate the quail eggs all by myself.  But he didn't particularly need to bow out, because really, they're just eggs.

Really and truly.  The white has the same flavor and consistency as a chicken's egg white; I thought the yolk seemed creamier and a bit milder than a chicken's egg yolk, but the taste was still essentially the same.  The appearance of the things is what makes them so amusing:

That's a quarter hanging out up there with the loose egg, for size comparison.

I was also quite pleasantly surprised to discover how well they match the countertops:


Preparation is pretty simple.  Basically you boil them for five minutes, and then soak them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process and loosen the shells.

That's a bag of frozen broccoli under my "ice" bath.  I realized about three minutes into the boiling that there was no ice in the freezer.

These eggs have pretty thin shells.  I was a bit concerned about breakage when I first started handling them, but they held up pretty well, with only one (slightly) broken one out of a package of fifteen.  They also have a fairly thick membrane under that shell, which made peeling surprisingly hard and left me with very few peeled eggs photogenic enough to appear in the final illustration:

There's that quarter again.

So what's the verdict?  Weeeellllll....I do love me a good hard boiled egg now and then, and these were delicious with a sprinkle of salt and freshly ground pepper, but there's a reason I've only ever seen a single quail egg on a plate at once, as part of a garnish to a fancy meal.  It's an awful lot of work for a payoff that's a mere third the size of a chicken egg and is easily gobbled down in a single bite.

On the other hand, the yolk seems to make up a more hefty percentage of these eggs' contents than a chicken yolk.  As someone who's been known to rescue yolks from recipes that call only for whites so she can boil and eat them, that's a very good thing indeed.

*I should probably just stop prefacing invitations for Technomancer to try something with statements like, "So I bought this on the internet..." or "I've never tried this before but it was on sale at the Asian market..."  It seems to put him on edge somehow.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Snow Queen, Third Round

Note: For my last two posts on this story, I was mostly working from a fairly condensed version I found in a book at my in-laws' house.  I didn't feel comfortable borrowing the book, though, since it's an out-of-print antique, part of a set, and my in-laws live literally on the other side of the country, so I would have worried about something happening to it in transit.  Now that I'm home again, I'll have to make do with this full version from  It has some interesting stuff the short version doesn't have, but it is also very florid.  Expect longer quotes from now on, with more ellipses riddling them.

Fifth Story: The Little Robber-Maiden

As I suspected in my last post, Gerda's flashy golden carriage turns out to be a very bad idea.  As she drives through a dark wood, a band of robbers (predictably) attacks her, chases away the servants the Prince and Princess sent along with her, and proceeds to steal all her stuff.

But these aren't just any robbers.  They have a cannibal bearded lady among their number.  For realsies:

"'How plump, how beautiful she is! She must have been fed on nut kernels,' said the old female robber, who had a long, scrubby beard, and bushy eyebrows that hung down over her eyes.  'She is as good as a fatted lamb! How nice she will be!'  And then she drew out a knife, the blade of which shone so that it was quite dreadful to behold."

But it's all good, because now we get to meet THE BEST HCA CHARACTER EVER:

"'Oh!' cried the woman at the same moment, for she had been bitten in the ear by her own little daughter, who hung at her back; and who was so wild and unmanageable, that it was quite amusing to see her."

The robber-woman's daughter distracts her mother to keep her from killing Gerda, since she has her heart set on keeping Gerda around as a companion.  At her demand, "for she was very spoiled and very headstrong," the robbers relent and take Gerda back to the ruined castle they use as their base of operations:

"They were in the midst of the courtyard of a robber's castle.  It was full of cracks from top to bottom; and out of the openings magpies and rooks were flying; and the great bull-dogs, each of which looked as if he could swallow a man, jumped up, but they did not bark, for that was forbidden."

I wish I knew how to make a dog understand that barking was forbidden.  I could see where it would be a very useful trick if you're a robber and want fierce dogs to guard your loot but don't want their barking to attract unwanted attention to your hideout, or if you just find the sound of a dog barking to be pull-your-hair-out annoying like I do.

Also, I wonder if Andersen was thinking of a mastiff or some other ginormous hunting dog and whoever translated the story got it wrong.  When I read this scene and pictured an English bulldog in my mind, I didn't really think, "totally looks like it can swallow a man whole" so much as, "totally looks like it could do some fairly significant damage to a man's ankles and lower calf, if it can catch him on its tent-peg-like little stub-legs."

But anyway, we've gotten off track.  Back to the Best Character in the Andersenverse.

While the adult robbers drink and roast up some wild game for dinner, the robber-maiden introduces Gerda to her many pets:

"They had something to eat and drink; and then they went into a corner, where straw and carpets were lying.  Beside them, on laths and perches, sat nearly a hundred pigeons, all asleep, seemingly; but yet they moved a little when the robber maiden came.  'They are all mine,' said she, at the same time seizing one that was next to her by the legs and shaking it so that its wings fluttered.  'Kiss it,' cried the little girl, and flung the pigeon in Gerda's face."

Tee hee, one of my sisters used to do something like that when she was younger.  She would suddenly shove a picture or a toy right up against the bridge of your nose while loudly telling you to look at it, whip it away two seconds later, and then yell at you for not looking at it properly.  Good times, good times.

The robber-maiden also has a larger, more exotic pet:

"...and she laid hold of the horns of a reindeer, that had a bright copper ring round its neck, and was tethered to the spot.  'We are obliged to lock this fellow in too, or he would make his escape.  Every evening I tickle his neck with my sharp knife; he is so frightened at it!' and the little girl drew forth a long knife, from a crack in the wall, and let it glide over the Reindeer's neck.  The poor animal kicked; the girl laughed, and pulled Gerda into bed with her."

Fearful because the robber-maiden sleeps with said knife in her hand as "there is no knowing what may happen," Gerda cannot sleep and passes the time by asking the captive animals if they have seen Kay.  Fortunately for her, they know where the Snow Queen dwells:

"'She is no doubt gone to Lapland [said the Wood-pigeon]; for there is always ice and snow there.  Only ask the Reindeer, who is tethered there.'
 'Ice and snow is there! There it is, glorious and beautiful!' said the Reindeer.  "One can spring about in the large shining valleys! The Snow Queen has her summer-tent there; but her fixed abode is high up toward the north pole, on the island called Spitzbergen.*'"

Gerda relays this information to the robber-maiden in the morning.  The two of them wait until the male robbers go out for the day and the robber-woman falls asleep by the fireside.  Then the robber-maiden provides Gerda with warm clothes and food for the journey, helps her onto the Reindeer's back, and sends her on her way to Lapland to rescue Kay:  

"'I can't bear to see you fretting,' said the little robber maiden.  'This is just the time when you ought to look pleased.  Here are two loaves and a ham for you, so that you won't starve.'  The bread and the meat were fastened to the Reindeer's back; the little maiden opened the door, called in all the dogs, and then with her knife cut the rope that fastened the animal, and said to him, 'Now, off with you; but take good care of the little girl!'"

Then Gerda rides the Reindeer off into the forest under the northern lights, leaving the robber-maiden behind...too soon, in my opinion.

I was completely blown away when I encountered this character.  I didn't remember this chapter from my childhood at all (it's possible that whoever read the story to me skipped or glossed over it to avoid giving me ideas) so the robber-maiden was an utterly unexpected treat.  Not just because she's so much more vivid and lively than any of Andersen's rosy-cheeked hyper-pure heroines, either.

What I really love about her is that she actually acts like a real kid--impulsive, boisterous, loud-laughing, unabashedly covetous of pretty shiny things, a bit too rough in her attempts to love her animals, capable both of threatening to kill her friends and of generously giving up food, clothes and her prized pet reindeer to help them out in a tight spot.  It feels more natural when she does these things, too; while Inger's torturing of insects in The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf felt almost like she was doing it because the author thought she should, so she could be punished for it, the robber-maiden's terrorizing of her pets seems to be more of an outgrowth of her wild, untamed personality.  Also, this:

"She now jumped out of bed, flew to her mother; with her arms round her neck, and pulling her by the beard, said, 'Good morrow, my sweet nanny-goat of a mother.'  And her mother took hold of her nose, and pinched it till it was red and blue; but this was all done out of pure love." at once the most hilarious and the most genuine and honest-feeling portrayal of parent-child affection I've encountered in any of Andersen's work.

I almost wish there had been two reindeer tethered up in the robber's castle, so that the robber-maiden could ride off with Gerda and they could have all sorts of cool and weird adventures on their quest to rescue Kay from the Snow-Queen.

I'll stop here for now, in case I encounter anything reprehensible in the last two installments of the story.  After reading this chapter, I don't think I can be angry with Andersen for a while.

*Fun fact of the day: Spitzbergen is a real place.  Not only is it the biggest island of Norway's Svalbard archipelago; it's also the only permanently populated one.  It supports typically arctic wildlife such as reindeer, polar bears and arctic foxes.  Wikipedia doesn't say whether the reindeer are capable of understanding and speaking human languages, or whether the Snow Queen's palace is a popular tourist destination.



Friday, January 4, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen Beatdown: The Snow Queen, Second Round

Remember how the heroines of the previous HCA stories I read never actually got to do anything about their fate?

How what tiny actions they were allowed to take basically served the purpose of killing time until the cold embrace of death finally freed them from the relentless lifelong punishment heaped on them for relatively minor infractions? You know, that thing HCA just sort of does?

That's not exactly what happens next in this story.

I can't begin to tell you what a relief that is.

Third Story: Of the Flower Garden At the Old Woman's Who Understood Witchcraft

"But what became of little Gerda when Kay did not return? Where could he be? Nobody knew.  All the other boys could tell her was that they had seen him tie his sledge to another large and splendid one, which drove down the street and out of the town.  Little Gerda wept long and bitterly."

But she doesn't sit around feeling sorry for herself for long.  Unlike Andersen's other heroines, Gerda has a plan.  She puts on her best shoes and goes down to the river, thinking that Kay might have fallen in:

"'Is it true that you have taken my little playfellow?' she asked.  'I will make you a present of my red shoes, if you will give him back to me.'"

It's a rather...odd...plan.  I'm not sure what the river would want with a pair of little girl's shoes, even if it were holding drowning victims for ransom.  But at least she's trying to do something, dammit.

Gerda thinks she sees the waves of the river nodding as she makes the offer, so she tosses her shoes into the water.  When the current carries them back to shore she thinks she hasn't thrown them in far enough, and swipes a nearby boat to take them further out.  But the boat drifts away in the current with her inside it, and she seems not to know how to swim:

"Little Gerda began to cry; but no one heard her except the Sparrows.  So she sat quite still with only her stockings on.  Her little red shoes swam behind, but they could not catch the boat; it went so much faster than they."

She floats on, comforting herself with the thought that the river might take her to Kay, until she passes a strange cottage guarded by two wooden soldiers:

"Gerda called to them, for she thought they were alive; but they, of course, did not answer.  As the stream drove the boat quite near the land, she called out louder still and then an old woman came out of the cottage, leaning upon a crooked stick.  She wore a large broad-brimmed hat which was painted with the most beautiful flowers."

The old woman rescues Gerda from the river and gives her shelter in the cottage.  And here we come to a part of the story that really bothered me when I read it as a child, though I couldn't quite articulate why back then.

Revisiting it as an adult, I think the problem lies in the fact that we're not supposed to sympathize with the old woman.  After all, she is a witch who uses magic to make Gerda temporarily forget about Kay.  Once Gerda's memory returns thanks to the roses in the cottage's garden and she resumes her quest, we never see or hear about the old woman again.  She serves no purpose in the story except as a minor bump in the road of Gerda's quest to find Kay.

But here's the thing.  The old woman doesn't want to keep Gerda so she can eat her, or enslave her, or any of the usual evil stepmother/old witch in the forest nasty deeds.  She wants to keep Gerda because she has "often longed for such a dear little girl." She's going about it in exactly the wrong way, of course; but there is no indication in the text that the old woman is motivated by anything more sinister than a desire to have a daughter of her own and to do whatever she can to make said daughter happy.

She wants to keep Gerda because she's lonely.

And who wouldn't be, in her position? She lives in a cottage far removed from the village; Gerda seems to have traveled quite a distance before stumbling upon it.  The wooden soldiers seem to be the only thing resembling regular human contact she has, and they're, you know, made of wood.  Hell, the soldiers might be there in the first place because regular human contact flat-out isn't available to this woman; it isn't quite clear what time this story takes place in, but I'm pretty sure that old women who were a bit "off" socially or were suspected of possessing "suspicious abilities" were in significant danger of meeting a gruesome fiery end, or at the very least being beaten and run out of town.  She may already have been beaten and run out of town.  Maybe she wants Gerda so badly because she already does have a daughter out there somewhere, a daughter now forbidden to associate with her ever since the old woman's former husband discovered his wife's odd talents, drove her out of the house, and dedicated the rest of his life to bullying and beating "the sin of witchcraft" out of his little girl lest she end up like her freak of a mother...

Okay, now I've made myself sad.  I won't dwell any more on this part of the story except to note that Gerda has a very long-winded, disjointed and surreal conversation with the flowers in the old woman's garden that most abridged versions of the story seem to leave out.  It's worth reading, if you're up for a spot of brain-hurt.

Fourth Story: The Prince and Princess

Once Gerda continues her quest, she meets a helpful raven who thinks he might have seen Kay:

"The Raven nodded very gravely, and said, 'It may be--it may be!'
 'What! do you really think so?' cried the little girl, and she nearly smothered the Raven with kisses.
 'Gently, gently,' said the Raven.  'I think I know; I think that it may be little Kay.  But now he has           forgotten you for the Princess.'"

Gerda continues on anyway, confident that a little thing like a fabulously wealthy girlfriend with a royal title won't get in the way of winning back her man.  Certainly can't fault her for lack of confidence and bravado, which isn't such a bad thing for a girl-hero from an author who doesn't really do spunky, driven girl-heroes very well.

With the help of the friendly Raven's girlfriend (henfriend? What are female ravens called, anyway?), a tame pet who lives in the palace, Gerda manages to sneak into the very bedroom of the Prince and Princess.

"At last they came to a room where the ceiling was made of great leaves of glass; from this were hung by golden ropes two beds, each shaped like a lily.  One was white, and in this lay the princess; the other was red, and it was here that Gerda hoped to find little Kay.  She bent back one of the red leaves, and saw a brown neck--O, that was Kay! She called him quite loudly by name, and held the lamp toward him--he awoke, turned his head, and--it was not little Kay at all!"

Turns out the Raven saw him at a distance, and thought he kinda roughly fit the description Gerda gave of Kay...and that was good enough.  Oops. that Gerda's broken and entered into the palace and inadvertently harassed the Prince, she's going to have a real adventure, right? I hope those friendly ravens are handy with a set of lockpicks, or she'll be in the dungeon for a long time.

Except this happens instead:

"'Poor little thing!' said the Prince and Princess, and they put Gerda to bed...The next day she was dressed from head to foot in silk and velvet.  They offered to let her stay at the palace, and lead a happy life; but she would not.  She begged to have a little carriage with a horse in front, and a small pair of shoes, so that she should go forth in the wide world and look for Kay."

The Prince and Princess are apparently the nicest monarchs in human history.  They give her the things she asks for, in a supremely grand and impractical way; the carriage is made of pure gold and lined on the inside with sugar plums and gingerbread, and the coachman and footmen are outfitted with gold crowns.  So, basically flashy ostentatious gold everywhere.  Sounds like the whole getup would be awfully tempting for highwaymen and robbers...  

(Peeks ahead at material for next post)

Fifth Story: The Little Robber-Maiden 


Hmm.  Maybe the Prince and Princess aren't so nice after all.  Maybe they've just come up with a clever way of saving dungeon space.