This story, taken from Andrew Dakers Ltd.’s collection Andersen’s Fairy Tales, starts the way many authors wish they could. “Attend! We are now beginning. When we get to the end of the story we shall know more than we do now.” It’s a high standard, that, but I think it might just be possible.
And it begins with the wickedness of a certain magician. He is so wicked that he creates the sort of mirror that even Snow White’s stepmother would refuse to hang on her wall. When a person looks into it, it makes all things that are good appear lesser, and all things terrible or useless appear great. This magician also teaches a school of magic – not specified as Durmstrang, but you get the general idea – and through the word of his students tales of the magic mirror spread. Everyone knows how magicians gossip. In fact, they are so proud of their master’s achievement that they make a kind of travelling show of it, carrying it throughout the world to amuse the evil and depress the innocent.
That’s not enough for them, though. Ambitions fed by their previous success, and possibly alcohol, they decide to take the mirror into Heaven itself. There is, however, something they don’t take into account, and that is the difficulty of holding glass whilst flying at high altitudes. As they soar above the world, the mirror slips and falls, shattering into millions of pieces. Is the magician upset? Not at all! Unlike ordinary glass dropped from a great height, these projectiles wouldn’t kill you if they pierced you – you would simply see the world as the mirror did. People try to use it in window panes, and in spectacles, and make much amusement for the black magic community.
And this is only the prelude.
Our story really starts when we meet best friends Kay and Gerda, who live in houses that are so close together that the children can cross between the attics over a bit of guttering. They are very poor, but their parents have used the rooftops to build a garden out of flower boxes, so that in summer it is a triumph of roses. In winter, it’s basically miserable. That’s when Kay’s grandmother tells them stories of the white bees that are the driving snow, and their restless queen. Then one night, while Kay is alone in his room, he sees a beautiful woman made of ice beckoning at his window…and when he leaps away, frightened, a bird’s beating wings pass by into the dark. For him, there is much more to the Snow Queen than simply a pretty story.
Months later, in the height of summer when the roses are all in bloom and he is reading with Gerda at her house, a sudden pain makes Kay cry out. Something has pierced his heart, and his eye. The pain quickly fades and he thinks that whatever it was is gone, but of course it hasn’t. Two splinters of the magician’s mirror have become lodged in him and they take effect immediately. He calls Gerda ugly, he tears out her roses. He starts to mimic people in the street, magnifying their quirks and flaws for other people to laugh at. He isn’t a magician’s zombie, going forth to wreak havoc – he just doesn’t care who he hurts any more. Which is arguably even more dangerous, because it can’t be seen. As far as his family and Gerda are concerned, he’s just growing up a horrible person.
When winter comes again he abandons Gerda to play with the other boys in the town square. Seeing them hook their small sledges up to passing carts for a free ride, he tries the trick himself with a magnificent white sledge that happens to be passing by. It would seem these shards of mirror don’t just make you heartless, they make you stupid. Sure enough, it proves to be a terrible idea. The sledge leaves the square, going faster and faster, passing along unfamiliar roads into heavy snow. When at last it stops and Kay sees who it is he’s hitchhiked all this way with, he recognises her at once. It is, of course, the Snow Queen herself.
She is all sweetness and concern. “We have driven fast!” she exclaims, “but no one likes to be frozen. Creep under my bearskin.” Poor idiotic little Kay duly climbs up in the sledge beside her. When she kisses him once on the forehead, a freezing pain goes through him – then he doesn’t feel the cold at all. With a second kiss the Snow Queen takes Gerda and his grandmother completely out of his thoughts. He looks at her, and instead of the frightening aspect he saw at his window a year ago all he can see now is beauty…though as we know, his eyesight is not really 20/20 any more. He rattles off mathematical equations for her, because apparently evil magic comes with savant-level number skills, and she smiles, and they drive away into the endless snow.
He does not come back.
It is believed by the boys he was playing with that day that he must have drowned, and Gerda mourns, but deep in her heart she never really believes it’s true. One spring day, standing at her window and thinking about Kay, she decides it’s time to find out for herself. She puts on her shoes, kisses her own grandmother goodbye, and goes down to the river. There she makes a child’s bargain with death – “I will give you my red shoes if you will give him back to me!” – but the beloved shoes simply wash back up on the shore. Stubbornly, Gerda clambers into a boat that is by the side of the river to throw them in deeper. Her weight and motion are enough to push it away from the shore, out into the water…and just like that, her quest has begun.
Gerda, logically, is terrified. She cries. But after a while she works this event into her own logic, deciding that the river will take her to Kay, and begins to take an interest in the countryside passing by on either bank. Eventually she passes a pretty garden and a cottage guarded by wooden soldiers – mistaking them for living men, she calls out for help. Instead an old woman with a crutch comes out from the house to hook the boat before it can take Gerda away. She is very kind, telling Gerda to come inside and wait for her friend, and apparently neither grandmother saw fit to teach these kids about stranger danger because despite some misgivings, Gerda agrees. The house is admittedly very beautiful: stained glass windows fill the kitchen with coloured light and as Gerda helps herself from a bowl of cherries, the old woman combs her hair. “I have long wished for such a dear little girl,” she murmurs. “We shall see now if we cannot live very happily together.” And the more she combs, the less Gerda remembers.
The old woman is, of course, an enchantress. Not of the gingerbread house variety – she is simply lonely, and determined to keep the little girl that the river brought her. So determined, in fact, that she sinks her roses into the earth so as not to ever remind Gerda of her real home. All other flowers are present in the garden and at first Gerda is delighted with her new playground, spending her days in the sunshine. As time goes on, though, she feels instinctively that something is missing.
Then she sees the only rose that the enchantress forgot, a painted flower on her own hat. Immediately Gerda knows what was lacking. She searches the garden frantically, finds no roses, and drops down among the flowerbeds to cry…and where her tears fall, the roses return. So does Gerda’s memory. “Oh, how could I stay here so long!” she cries. “I left my home to seek for Kay. Do you know where he is? Is he dead?” The roses are unexpectedly informative. “Dead he is not,” they reply. “We have been in the ground where the dead lie; but Kay is not there.”
So Gerda has hope. She goes around the garden asking each flower if they have seen Kay, but they can tell her nothing of him. At the end of the garden she finds a rusted gate that springs open at her insistence. Barefoot and alone, she runs out, and finds the rest of the world in the latter part of autumn. She does not hesitate, however – Kay is out there, and she means to find him. On she goes, and in time meets with a passing raven. When he asks where she is going, she tells him her story and asks him, as she did the flowers, if he has seen her friend. The raven thinks maybe he has. Gerda goes a bit crazy with joy, crushing him in a bear hug, but the news isn’t all good – Kay’s dumped her, he’s with a princess now. Apparently. “It is so difficult to speak your language!” the raven complains. “If you understand raven speech, then I can explain things so much butter. Do you?”
I swear, he said butter. I SO HOPE that is not a typo.
Gerda explains that though her grandmother used to speak a little raven, she herself cannot. Human language therefore will have to do. “In the kingdom wherein we now are sitting,” the raven explains, “there lives a princess so clever that she has read all the newspapers of the world, and forgotten them too.” This princess decided one day, on the basis of a favourite new song, that she’d like to get married, and in true fairy tale royal manner sent out a proclamation with the necessary requirements outlined. It’s essentially a job advertisement, and crowds of young men come to try their luck, but none could meet the princess’s expectations – until a shabbily dressed young man arrived at the palace and managed to keep his head in the face of all its splendour. He came, not to win the princess’s hand, but simply to hear her wisdom. Needless to say, that did the trick.
Sure that this is Kay, Gerda goes straight to the palace. With the assistance of the raven’s girlfriend – who is a tame bird with free run of the place – she is smuggled in around the back and creeps into a beautiful bedroom where a golden pillar grows from the ground like a tree, dangling twin beds from its branches. In one lies the princess. Gerda runs to the other to wake the boy inside, but when he sits up, she is dismayed to find herself facing a stranger.
Her tears wake up the princess, who is kind-hearted as well as clever. She’s very understanding about the whole breaking and entering thing, and even appoints both ravens to positions at court as a reward for their generosity. Her prince, in his turn, insists Gerda take his bed for the rest of the night. He can always, you know, kip with his wife. The next day Gerda is kitted out with beautiful new clothes and a carriage to continue on her journey. The royal couple (plus ravens) wave her off like old friends.
So, no Kay, but what with the transportation, royal outfit, and even a muff, things are looking up. Not for long, though. The carriage drives into a dark forest and is promptly set upon by a gang of robbers. They kill the coachman and attendants sent with Gerda and drag the terrified little girl out to be eaten.
But at the last minute, the most unlikely of people intervenes. It is a little girl, a robber child, who wants a playmate. She jumps on her mother’s back and bites her ear until she agrees, and as the other robbers find this terribly amusing, the girl gets her own way. She climbs into the carriage with Gerda and it is driven deep into the forest, to a castle. Yes, these robbers have a castle. I suppose if every random individual who visits the princess gets a carriage and goes that way, they have a sweet trade going on. Admittedly, the castle is not in great shape – the robber girl sleeps on straw in a corner with a collection of pets, and on arrival drags Gerda over to greet them. Her former favourite, before she got hold of a human being to play with, is a reindeer. Every night the robber girl tickles his neck with her dagger for kicks. She is a tad psychotic, but she also likes stories. She makes Gerda tell her the story of Kay and falls happily asleep while the other robbers drink and sing. Gerda, of course, does not sleep at all. She lies awake thinking about death. But though Gerda may not have a dagger, she has skills of her own, and as she lies there she overhears a conversation between wood pigeons. They have seen Kay. “He sat in the Snow Queen’s chariot, which drove through the wood while we sat in our nest. She breathed upon us as she passed, and all the young ones died excepting us two – coo, coo, coo!”
Coo, indeed. They can go so far as to tell Gerda that the Snow Queen has very probably taken Kay to Lapland, and the homesick reindeer chimes in then to tell her that the Snow Queen lives in a castle near the North Pole, on an island called Spitzbergen. Now Gerda knows where to find Kay, the difficulty will be in getting there. In the morning she tells the robber girl everything, and receives unexpected support. “I should very much like to tickle your neck a few more times with my sharp dagger,” the robber girl sighs to her reindeer, “for then you do look so droll; but never mind, I will untie your cord and let you go free, on condition that you run as fast as you can to Lapland, and take this little girl to the castle of the Snow Queen.” You will notice that ages are very flexible in this story; characters who are called children are also old enough to get married and rule kingdoms. Don’t try to make sense of this. It’s an Andersen thing.
The robber girl helps Gerda up onto the reindeer’s back and even gives her back her furry boots – though the muff, she keeps. With that, Gerda’s off. The reindeer, needing no further threats to get as far away from the robbers’ castle as he can, runs with all he’s got and at last they reach Lapland. Specifically, they reach a Lapland woman, who is sitting outside a glum little house boiling fish. The reindeer tells her his own unhappy tale, then Gerda’s, to which the Lapland woman is very sympathetic. “Poor thing!” she commiserates, “you still have a long way to go! You have a hundred miles to run before you reach Finland. The Snow Queen lives there now and burns blue lights every night.”
She then writes a note on some dried fish for Gerda to take to Finland for further consultation. The reindeer carries her onward underneath the shimmer of the Northern Lights, and with startling speed they arrive at the house of the Finnish wisewoman to whom they were recommended. Outside it is freezing cold, but inside is like a sauna. The wisewoman reads the letter, tosses it into her stockpot – waste not, want not! – and considers the problem.
“Will you not mix for this little maiden that wonderful draught which will give her the strength of twelve men, and so make her able to overcome the Snow Queen?” the reindeer suggests hopefully. He’s invested in this quest of Gerda’s, after all. The wisewoman scoffs. “The strength of twelve men! That would not be of much use!” She instead take out parchments and reads intently. Possibly she reads this story, because suddenly she has All the Answers. Kay, she explains, is content with the Snow Queen, his senses warped by slivers of the evil glass. Until they are gone, he will always be under her power. There is nothing that she can give Gerda that is more powerful than the gift she already possesses: her loving heart. If that isn’t enough to save Kay, she says, we’re all stuffed. Or something along those lines.
What she can give are directions. The reindeer carries Gerda as close to the Snow Queen’s castle as he can and leaves her there, barefoot once more, her boots forgotten at the wisewoman’s house. She runs towards the castle and a regiment of snowflakes rise to intercept her – huge and terrifying guards made out of living snow. Gerda begins to pray, and this being an Andersen fairy tale, Heaven obliges with a legion of burning angels. They quickly deal with the snow guards, but for reasons unexplained leave Gerda to continue alone. They probably have a queue of virtuous heroines to assist.
Meanwhile, what’s happened to Kay? Inside the dazzling white expanses of the Snow Queen’s castle, he’s sitting in the middle of a frozen and shattered lake, fitting its sharp fragments together into different shapes. There is one he seeks to make – the word ‘Eternity’ – because he has been promised by the Queen that when he makes it, he will be his own master. And have a new pair of skates because, priorities. She leaves him there while she flies away to make her mark on warmer countries, and that is when Gerda arrives. She recogises Kay at once, despite the damage done by the relentless cold, and throws herself at him in joy. She has, after all, been through the wringer to get here. Kay, however, does not respond at all. Gerda, heartbroken, cries – and as her tears fall on him, they thaw the ice, washing away the glass.Only then does Kay realise who Gerda is. He is both delighted and bewildered to see her, feeling as though he’s woken from a long and unpleasant dream. The children’s tears united are so magical that when they fall on the shards of ice, they form the promised ‘Eternity’. Even by the Snow Queen’s own law, Kay is now free.
Gerda then literally kisses him better, thawing him out completely, and they leave the palace hand in hand. The reindeer is waiting for them, with a lady friend. So the long journey home is begun, stopping at regular intervals on a roll call of thanks. The wisewoman gives them advice, the Laplander gives them a sledge. Onward into the woods they go, and are accosted by a girl wearing pistols and a scarlet cap. It’s the robber maiden, who got sick of the grotty castle and went off to have adventures of her own. She greets Gerda as a long-lost friend, though she totally rips into Kay. “A fine gentleman you are, to be sure, you graceless young truant!” she cries. “I should like to know if you deserved that any one should be running to the end of the world on your account!” Gerda, ever Kay’s defender, quickly distracts her by asking after her other friends. The robber maiden, up to speed on all the palace goss, explains that the prince and princess have departed for foreign lands and the raven, sadly, is dead.
She then demands that Gerda and Kay share their full story. I don’t know what her response, ‘Snip-snap-snurre-basselurre’, actually means, but it sounds impressed. She rides cheerfully away and the other two walk onwards into spring until at last they find themselves in their own town. If their respective parents have noticed they were missing, Andersen doesn’t think that’s worth mentioning – in fact, from the sounds of things, they don’t have to explain anything to anyone. They just walk into Gerda’s house, which has not changed at all, and sit side by side underneath the roses while the Snow Queen’s palace fades away in their memories.
It’s interesting that most of the key characters in this fairy tale are female. There are no knights to save the day and the prince doesn’t even get a speaking role – it’s really all about Gerda. Kay is the only important male character and his is an odd role somewhere between victim and villain. Andersen doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of him, alternately mourning his affliction and blistering him with criticism for being weak-willed and cruel. Re-imaginings of ‘The Snow Queen’ tend to go with the latter attitude. I do not. Why bother telling us about the mirror in the first place if you’re only going to turn around and say it’s all Kay’s fault for being struck by random evil magic?
To be honest, though, it’s neither Gerda nor Kay that I love about this story. It’s all the wonderfully weird people they meet along the way that pull me in. Most of all I love the robber maiden, who rides off into the world with pistols and a stolen horse, and I admit, I desperately want her to meet up with the robber philanthropists in ‘The Giant with Three Golden Hairs’.