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.  

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