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.
So...now 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.