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 online-literature.com. 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."
...is 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.