Disney Reflections No.9: In Which Blondes Are Not Having More Fun

This is Disney Reflections, a series of monthly posts in which I compare Disney animated fairy tales to the original stories.

I can be quite demanding when it comes to fairy tales. Occasionally I go on impromptu rants about feminist princesses who should be household names but aren’t and I’ve written several retellings – including, as it happens, one about Rapunzel. When I first saw Tangled, shortly after its release in 2010, I was a little underwhelmed. As with The Princess and the Frog, this is my first rewatch.

The fairy tale: I reviewed the Grimm brothers version of this story for the Fairy Tale Tuesday project.

The film: We begin with a wanted poster for one Flynn Rider that you’d be forgiven for confusing with a pin-up, what with the roguish smile and good hair. I believe it to be the only one in the movie that doesn’t deliberately get his nose wrong. “This,” announces the voiceover, “is the story of how I died.” Flynn hastens to clarify that it is not as depressing as it sounds! Nor is it his, it actually belongs to a girl called Rapunzel. So it would appear he is already nicking the story.

Once, he tells us, a drop of sunlight fell to earth and where it landed, a magical golden flower grew with the power to heal the sick. When the pregnant queen of a nearby kingdom falls desperately sick, her subjects turn out in droves to search for the legendary flower. Unfortunately, someone else found it first. For centuries a woman called Mother Gothel has been hiding the flower under a cunning leafy basket. By singing over it, she calls on its power to restore her youth and beauty.

But the deluge of miracle-seekers takes her by surprise and despite her best efforts, the flower is found. The queen drinks it down, recovers at once and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl. In celebration a painted lantern is lit and floats away into the sky.

Magically assisted pregnancies always come with side effects, however, and in this case it is a creepy wannabe immortal sneaking into their daughter’s bedroom to take back the magic. Rapunzel’s hair glows like the flower when she hears the song, but the spell doesn’t last when a lock is cut off. Does that stop Mother Gothel? Not a bit of it! She takes the child and spirits her off to a tower deep within the woods, to bring her up in complete isolation. A more sophisticated version of the leafy basket, really. Refusing to give up hope, the king and queen send up thousands of lanterns every year on their lost daughter’s birthday, hoping that one day she’ll see them and come home.

Years pass. Rapunzel grows and so does her hair. Having found myriad uses for the endless blonde coils – from a lasso to a bungee cord – she’s technically capable of leaving the tower. In fact, frenetically active individual that she is, she needs to leave the tower, she’s painted all over the walls and has made enough candles to open a small shop, plus she’s driving her chameleon sidekick Pascal crazy with games of hide-and-seek. The world outside scares her, though. Mother Gothel has drummed it into her since infancy that no one out there can be trusted.

At this point Flynn Rider finally crasheshttp://a.dilcdn.com/bl/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2012/05/flynn-rider-tangled-disney-photo-450x400-pr-2342.jpg into the movie, leaping across rooftops with some very large thugs in pursuit. They’re on the same side, nominally. Flynn wants his own castle, where he can pose dramatically on the battlements; the Thugs want the royal treasure. Letting him down through the roof – because OF COURSE Flynn thinks he lives in a heist movie – they acquire a heavily guarded tiara and leg it like mad.

Meanwhile, at the foot the tower, Mother Gothel has arrived for a visit. She doesn’t climb Rapunzel’s hair, that’s for losers, she lets her adopted daughter haul her up instead. She then proceeds to tear down Rapunzel’s self-confidence with carelessly unkind jokes that are excused with an ‘I’m just teasing!’ that actually make them WORSE. Rapunzel, though, has a plan. She turns eighteen tomorrow and she wants one thing: to go and see the floating lights that rise every year on her birthday.

Mother Gothel tries to brush her off. When Rapunzel persists, she’s treated to a litany of horrors that are sure to pounce on her the second she sets foot in the outside world, ranging from men with sharp teeth to the plague, and accompanied by rapid-fire criticisms, until Rapunzel is so distraught she’ll promise anything for a reassuring hug. “Don’t ever ask to leave this tower again,” Mother Gothel tells her, and Rapunzel agrees. It’s deeply disturbing to watch. Assured that her charge is sufficiently cowed, Mother Gothel departs again into the forest.

Which is unexpectedly full of soldiers, in pursuit of Flynn and his associates. Despite Flynn being distracted by a badly drawn wanted poster, they’ve managed to maintain their headstart, only to run into a rocky dead end. He convinces the Thugs to give him a boost up in exchange for the treasure-filled satchel, but filches it on his way up and runs off without them. The soldiers are hot on his heels, led by a moustachioed commander on the white charger Maximus. Flynn swings down from a tree, knocking the commander to the ground and replacing him in the saddle – but Maximus immediately skids to an outraged stop and does his level best to rip the satchel out of Flynn’s hands. It goes flying instead, hooking on a branch, swinging precariously over a clifftop. Flynn and Maximus brawl to get to it. Unable to bear their combined weight, the branch snaps and they fall from a great height.

Because this is a Disney movie, they survive it. Maximus springs up. The forces of justice cannot be stopped by so trifling a thing as a near-fatal fall! He tries tracking Flynn, but the thief has ducked behind a curtain of leaves and is hiding in a cave. From the other side it opens onto a flower meadow…and a hidden tower.

Flynn doesn’t need magic hair. He scales his own way up and is promptly knocked out cold by a frying pan. Rapunzel has a perfectly reasonable freak-out over his unconscious body and shoves him in a cupboard. Once she gets over the panic and confused attraction, she zooms in on the really important point: one of those untrustworthy people Mother Gothel has been warning her about came into the tower and she handled it. Also, he has nice teeth.

Then she sees the open satchel, and inside, the sparkling tiara. It takes her a few tries to figure out what it’s for, but once it’s on her head…

Mother Gothel naturally chooses that precise moment to interrupt. Hiding the satchel and tiara, Rapunzel hauls her up as usual and tries to explain what happened, but at the first reference to their earlier argument, Mother Gothel flies off the handle. “You are not leaving this tower!” she shouts. “Ever!” Rapunzel stares at her with wide shocked eyes and right then makes the decision to lie. She pretends that she wants paints for her birthday instead, ensuring Mother Gothel will take a three-day trip away. As soon as she’s out of sight, Rapunzel cautiously approaches the cupboard.

http://hdwpics.com/images/011FFA04AC1E/Tangled.jpgFlynn is still out cold, possibly with permanent brain damage from all the whacking. When he finally wakes up, he’s tied to a chair with suspiciously silky golden rope and a gorgeous girl armed with a frying pan is standing over him. Quickly sizing his captor up, Flynn tries out the charm card but just baffles her. She makes him an offer: he can have his satchel if he takes her to see the lights and brings her safely home. Considering he just robbed the royal family, that sounds a bad deal to him. But it’s that or be tied up with hair for the forseeable future, so he agrees to her terms.

For the first time ever, Rapunzel sets foot on grass and earth. She meets her first Disney bluebird! She alternates between dizzying joy at her escape and paralysing guilt at deceiving her mother, while Flynn looks on with stony resignation. He tries to exploit her conflict to make her go home, but Rapunzel turns contrary immediately. She is going to see those lights.

Meanwhile, Mother Gothel gets ambushed by Maximus. He backs off, disappointed, when he realises she’s not his quarry – but she sees that he’s a palace horse and hurries back to the tower. Of course, Rapunzel isn’t there. Mother Gothel finds the tiara instead…and a wanted poster of Flynn Rider.

Who is trying out another tactic to get rid of his unwanted companion. He drags her to a hardcore pub for lunch. It’s called the Snuggly Duckling, and is full of ruffians, rogues and generally the kind of armoured blokes who look like knock-off orcs. Turns out this was a terrible plan because they recognise Flynn (those wanted posters are inescapable!) and decide to hand him over for the reward money. Only everyone wants the reward money so he’s thrown from one thug to another while they bicker it out. Rapunzel finally catches their attention with a violent flick of her hair. It is not something you can ignore. “I don’t know where I am and I need him to take me to see the lanterns, because I’ve been dreaming about them my entire life,” she pleads. “Find your humanity! Haven’t any of you ever had a dream?”

Forget orc extras, these guys wandered off Les Miserables. THEY ALL HAVE A DREAM. From wannabe concert pianists to interior designers to that guy who makes ceramic unicorns, they all seize on Rapunzel as the eager listener they’ve been waiting for all their lives. Even Flynn (admittedly at swordpoint) joins in, though his dream is to be hideously rich on his own personal island. No one sympathises.

http://www.dvdizzy.com/images/t-v/tangled-14.jpgMother Gothel arrives at the door in time to see her adopted daughter dancing on a table surrounded by cheering thugs. And look, she’s the worst in pretty much every respect, but that is a legitimate maternal nightmare. Rapunzel is having the time of her life, though, and Mother Gothel can’t get near. Instead, the door slams open for the palace guards. The Ducklings, having had a total change of heart mid dance number, spirit Rapunzel and Flynn out the back door so she can achieve her dream. They’re out of luck anyway because Maximus kicks in the door, reunites with his commander and tracks Flynn’s scent to their escape route. Flynn’s associates – who were caught but not very well restrained – grab the opportunity to free themselves and set off to catch their double-crossing partner.

Rapunzel’s attempt at bonding with Flynn over backstory is spoiled by soldiers thundering in pursuit. They fetch up in an abandoned quarry, cornered by the variety of enemies Flynn has acquired. Rapunzel swings to safety with her hair, leaving Flynn armed with her frying pan – it is an excellent weapon but not so useful against Maximus, a horse with a grudge and a knife between his teeth. Disarmed, Flynn is cornered until Rapunzel throws him a length of her hair and drags him to safety. Well, not actually safety. Maximus has kicked down a beam to make a bridge so he can get to them, but they’re already gone, swinging away on loops of hair. That’s when the floodgate collapses, water floods the quarry and they get stuck in a dark tunnel. With the water rising and no way out in sight, Rapunzel sobs out an apology. Flynn confesses that Flynn isn’t his name at all, his real name is Eugene Fitzherbet.

Smiling wanly, Rapunzel shares her secret: she has magic hair that glows when she sings. Realising what she just said, Rapunzel starts singing. By the light of her hair, they dig their way free of the tunnel and tumble out, scrambling up onto a riverbank. Rapunzel is blissed out on being alive. Flynn is still rather gobsmacked by the hair.

Mother Gothel, in the meantime, has caught the wrong escapees. She gets Flynn’s erstwhile thieving friends instead, and convinces them to join forces with her. They get the tiara and a promise of revenge.

Flynn has other problems right now. Rapunzel has wrapped her hair around his injured hand and he watches with increasing bewilderment as she literally sings him better. Flynn would really like to flail and flee for a bit, but Rapunzel is giving big sad kitten eyes so he forces himself to be cool with the glow-in-the-dark hair and she ends up telling him how her hair stops working when it’s cut, how Mother Gothel was afraid for her (HA) and that’s why she’s never left the tower before now. It’s obvious she is feeling guilty again. On the other hand, it’s less than a day since she left the tower and Flynn is already returning the kitten eyes. 

Rapunzel drops the subject of whether she’s going back home in favour of needling ‘Eugene’. He tells her that when he was a child, growing up in an orphanage, he’d read to the younger kids from a book of adventure stories and dream about a life of swashbuckling excitement. He swears her to secrecy. He has a reputation to protect. A bit awkward after all the oversharing, he jumps up to go get firewood and Rapunzel gazes after him fondly.

So obviously this is the moment Mother Gothel arrives to ruin everything. It’s a gift.

She takes her usual tack of maternal guilt-tripping, trying to pull Rapunzel into the woods, but Rapunzel digs in her heels and won’t go. She thinks something is happening between her and Flynn, something good. Mother Gothel’s reaction is instantaneously spiteful, mocking the very idea of anyone wanting Rapunzel, and tosses the satchel – complete with tiara – at her foster daughter, telling her to put Flynn to the test. If he gets what he really wants, he’ll leave. Rapunzel is standing there shell-shocked and alone when Flynn comes back. She quickly hides the satchel while he rabbits cheerfully on about superpowers.

The next morning he wakes to a dripping wet and utterly enraged Maximus looming over him like the Charger of Doom. Rapunzel wakes to Flynn howling blue murder as the horse hauls him off by the boot to face justice. She grabs his arm and they have a brief tug-of-war. The boot pops off and we discover Flynn Rider does not wear socks. He must have terrible blisters.

Of course Rapunzel doesn’t wear SHOES, so…

http://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/disney/images/b/bf/Tumblr_lb2ivlkRTL1qde10po1_500.jpg/revision/latest?cb=20140302175350Between her and Pascal and some authoritative babytalk, she gets Maximus to stand down. The sympathetic murmurs of ‘nobody appreciates you, do they’ probably help. She brokers a 24 hour truce between horse and thief for her birthday, though they squabble wildly behind her back. She doesn’t care – she’s arrived in the royal city and it is gorgeous.

Not, however, really designed for a woman with hair about treble her own height, so Flynn enlists a group of enthusiastic little girls to plait it all up. Able to walk freely, Rapunzel wanders about wide-eyed. A mosaic of the royal family – complete with the lost baby princess – catches her eye. Then she gets distracted by a group of musicians and kicks off a dance party. She’s adorable, and also one of nature’s leaders. No one sees saying ‘no’ to her as an option. Flynn watches on, trying to pretend he’s exasperated instead of totally besotted. Over the course of the day she paints sunbursts on the cobblestones, they eat sweets in alcoves, he shows her maps in the public library (I assume it’s public, he might have broken in) – and they dance, dance, dance.

It is the best birthday ever. When night falls, Flynn acquires a boat and they sail onto the water to watch the lanterns rise. As they wait for the light show to begin, Rapunzel wonders aloud what she’ll do after this. “Well, that’s the good part, I guess,” Flynn says. “You get to go find another dream.”

http://www.rotoscopers.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/tangled-movie.jpgIn the palace, the king and queen – worn down by years of hope and grief, so tired of waiting for their little girl to come home – step onto the balcony to light the first lantern. After that everyone joins in, sending a galaxy into the sky. Rapunzel is transfixed. Flynn surprises her with a lantern of her own and she responds by shyly returning his satchel. He doesn’t actually want it. He takes her hands instead. Leaning in for a kiss, he sees a terribly unwelcome sight over her shoulder – his ex-cronies waiting expectantly on the shore. Realising that he’ll have no peace until they have the tiara, he leaves a very confused Rapunzel in the boat while he heads off to hand over the satchel.

But of course they are working with Mother Gothel now, who doesn’t want riches, she wants her pet magic princess. Rather than letting him go, the thugs knock Flynn out and tie him to the helm of a ship so it looks like he’s leaving Rapunzel of his own free will – while she stares after him, devastated, the thugs bring out a sack. They know about her hair and they know how much that’s worth. She flees, but her hair snags on a bit of driftwood and while she’s desperately trying to tug it loose she hears the sounds of a struggle, followed by Mother Gothel’s familiar voice calling out her name. She turns back to find her foster mother standing over the unconscious thugs with a large branch. So relieved to be saved, Rapunzel agrees to return to the tower.

Meanwhile, Flynn’s boat knocks up against the castle walls. The tiara is tied along with his wrists, which makes no sense if he was trying to get away, but the castle guards are not looking for logic and lock him up on the spot. Maximus overhears Flynn frantically shouting Rapunzel’s name and realises everything has gone wrong.

The following sunset, the guards come to take Flynn to the gallows. At the same time, Mother Gothel has finished unbraiding Rapunzel’s hair and is trying to pretend nothing ever happened. “The world is dark and selfish and cruel,” she declares, but Rapunzel is looking at the world through different eyes. Thinking about the sunburst on the royal flag, she sees it everywhere in her paintings and remembers where she saw it first: dangling above her cot. She’s the lost princess and suddenly she knows.

(Memories do not work quite like that. But never mind! Revelations are afoot!)

On his way through the cells, Flynn spies the thugs and knocks aside his guards to plunge at them, demanding to know how they found Rapunzel. They tell him it was ‘the old lady’, and he works out what must have happened. As he fights the guards, Rapunzel confronts Mother Gothel, refusing to accept her weak lies. “I’ve spent my entire life hiding from people who would use me for my power,” Rapunzel cries. “I should have been hiding from you!” She sees now that Mother Gothel stopped Flynn coming back to her. Admitting that she sent her foster daughter’s boyfriend to the gallows, Mother Gothel tries to patch it up with another ‘mother knows best’ line.

Rapunzel turns spitfire. She will not be used any more.

Back at the palace, doors are suddenly slamming shut, locking Flynn and his guards in a small corridor. It is an ambush – this time in Flynn’s favour, as the dreamers from the Snuggly Duckling come swinging in to the rescue. AND THEY BROUGHT THE FRYING PAN. The whole army mobilises to face the threat. The Ducklings calmly catapult Flynn out of the courtyard and onto Maximus’s back. The horse may not like Flynn much, but Rapunzel is in trouble and if that means organising a prison break? Maximus has a MISSION, people. They go whirling off in a mad gallop towards the forest.

Arriving at the base of the tower, Flynn calls for Rapunzel to let down her hair (it had to be said!) and a golden cascade spills out the window. He catches hold and climbs up – only to see Rapunzel chained and gagged on the floor. Mother Gothel knifes him in the back. “Now look what you’ve done, Rapunzel,” she says dismissively. As she hauls on Rapunzel’s chains, Pascal bites her skirt and is kicked into a wall for his pains. “For every minute for the rest of my life,” Rapunzel swears, “I will fight. I will never stop trying to get away from you. But if you let me save him, I will go with you.”

Mother Gothel agrees. She chains Flynn up instead and Rapunzel flies to him, ignoring his feeble attempts to make her stop healing him. It means she’s not paying attention when he grabs a shard of broken mirror off the floor and slices away Rapunzel’s hair. Without it, Mother Gothel doesn’t want her; without it, she can’t save him. The magic fading, it all turns her natural brown and Mother Gothel’s years finally catch up with her. In a frenzy, she reels backwards – and tumbles from the tower window, to her death.

Rapunzel stares after her, horrified, then goes back to Flynn. She sings the magic song hopelessly, holding his limp body in her arms. But magic is a part of her, and cutting off her hair doesn’t change that. When her tears fall on his face, they melt into his skin and flare gold. He wakes up groggy and flirty. They kiss passionately on the floor.

https://s-media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/originals/0f/34/ef/0f34ef9a89b9e0ed3e1ae5a677311c12.jpgShortly after that, a guard bursts in on the king and queen with the news they have been hoping to hear for so, so long. They run to the palace balcony, where Rapunzel and Flynn turn to meet them. The queen is the first to step forward – incredulity gives way to joy and before you know it there’s a huge family group hug underway. Flynn watches on smiling until the queen holds out a hand and hauls him in.

With Rapunzel restored to her true home, dreams start coming true left, right and centre. The Ducklings give up banditry in favour of performance art and romance. Maximus becomes chief of police. Pascale eats a lot of fruit. As for Rapunzel and Flynn…well, he goes by Eugene these days. Still tells outrageous stories about his life and occasionally nicks her tiara. And they are living very happily ever after.

And just for the record, there’s no reason to stop lighting the lanterns just because the princess is found. She wants to CELEBRATE.

Spot the Difference: Well, there’s hair. And towers.

Look, it’s not got much common ground with the fairy tale and that bothered me on the first watch, but to be fair to Disney there’s a lot of non family-friendly content in the original story: the wild tower-room love affair, the resulting pregnancy, the prince’s eyes being put out with thorns, Rapunzel wandering the wilderness with twins. The Disney version steers clear of all that, opting for a lovable rogue instead of a prince and a princess instead of a bartered peasant girl. As with many retold fairy tales, this one tweaks the traditional structure (well, more yanks violently) to make each character’s motivations more understandable. Rapunzel’s parents desperately need the plant and are unaware of the consequences that will ensue from taking it; Mother Gothel wants something specific from Rapunzel; the magic in the hair is probably why it’s so ridiculously long.

What’s delightful about this version of Rapunzel is how she uses that hair. It could easily be a terrible hindrance to her adventurous personality, but she grew up with it and makes it work for her, and Flynn helps her come up with a sensible solution when she really needs it out of the way. In fact, Rapunzel has a tendency to use stumbling blocks as launching pads. The naivete Mother Gothel mocks is tempered with fierce determination; she expects the best from people and usually gets it, but she’s prepared to deal with danger too, even when it comes from someone she wanted to trust. She and Flynn are a well suited couple: outgoing, exuberant, personable, cause havoc wherever they go.

As for Mother Gothel, she is…unnerving, because she’s so believable. It’s difficult to say for sure how much of her relationship with Rapunzel involves genuine maternal fondness, however twisted and abusive, and how much is just possessive pride in Rapunzel’s power. Dominating and vicious when crossed, Mother Gothel gas-lights her foster daughter to keep her obedient, and it’s terrifyingly effective. It takes explicit certainty of her ill intentions for Rapunzel to finally break away, and it’s hard. That’s an important story to tell.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that both Rapunzel’s parents survived to the end of the story and that we got to see traces of Rapunzel’s personality in her loving father and brave, open-hearted mother. There are not enough mothers in Disney.

Maximus is obviously fabulous. The Ducklings are adorable in a weird, unhygienic sort of way. This version of ‘Rapunzel’ may not stick as closely to the original as I’d have liked, but it is irrepressibly good fun with a respect for emotional realities, and anyone who can look at Rapunzel’s big sad eyes without wanting to give her the moon is probably evil. One thing that still irritates me: did her eyes have to be that big, and her waist that small? Disney princesses have always had unlikely proportions, but the principal female characters in Tangled have only-in-animation measurements while the men – even the stupidly handsome Flynn Rider – have more natural shapes. It’s a trend to discourage.

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Fairy Tale Tuesday No.114 – The Shadow

This is such an obscure Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that I’d never heard of it before now. The protagonist is a scholar who has recently relocated to a very hot country and is not coping well; he shuts himself up inside the house all day and loses an unhealthy amount of weight. It’s only when the sun goes down that he feels like himself.

He spends the evenings sitting on his balcony, listening to the city nightlife, and speculating about the inhabitants of the house across the street. He’s never seen anyone living there and the ground floor is entirely occupied by shops, but there are flowers flourishing on the balcony and sometimes the scholar hears music drifting from the windows. One night he wakes to see the mysterious house bright with lights, and a beautiful girl standing amongst the flowers. By the time he goes to the balcony for a better look, however, the illumination is gone and the girl too. The only sign of life is the distant sound of music.

After that the scholar becomes a little obsessed. Another night, while he’s on self-appointed stakeout, the angle of light in his own house casts his shadow against the balcony opposite, so it looks to be standing among the flowers. The scholar jokes aloud that it should seize the opportunity to sneak inside and look around. He then stands up, and the shadow stands up too – but when the scholar goes inside his house, the shadow goes into the house across the street.

When the scholar wakes the next morning and realises his shadow is gone, he’s really annoyed, because this would make a fantastic story but someone else wrote it down first. Is this a reference to Peter Pan? Anyway, he tries to lure his shadow back with cunningly arranged lights, but no dice, it’s disappeared. It’s not the end of the world – within a few weeks the scholar has grown a new shadow and when he goes back to his home in the north no one can tell the difference. He writes a number of philosophical books and keeps the story of the shadow to himself.

Years pass. Then one day, a soft knock sounds at the scholar’s door and he opens it to find a strangely thin man standing on the step. “Whom have I the honour of addressing?” the scholar enquires politely. “Ah, that is just what I expected!” exclaims the stranger, “that you would not know me. I have become so thoroughly flesh and blood, and covered with clothes too, and, no doubt, you never expected to see me so well off. Do you not know your old shadow?” Since they parted ways all those years ago, the shadow has become a very wealthy man, and has come to discharge debts with his…twin? Of sorts?

The scholar is somewhat taken aback by all the weirdness and asks for more explanation. “Well, it is not commonplace,” the shadow admits. “But then you are something out of the common yourself, and you know that from your childhood up I have always trodden in your footsteps. As soon as I found that I could make my way alone in the world, I started for myself, and a brilliant position I have gained; but then an irresistible longing came over me to see you once more before you die, for you know that die you must. I wanted to see this country again as well, for one always must love the land of one’s birth. I know that you have another shadow; and if I have to pay it or you anything, pray have the goodness to tell me so.”

The scholar waves away any suggestion of a debt and welcomes the shadow inside as an old friend, eagerly asking for his life story. The shadow is willing to tell him all on one condition: that he reveal to no one the truth of their association. This agreed upon, the shadow settles into a chair. He’s quite an impressive sight, dressed all in black with leather boots and diamond rings – and turns out he has some fancy names to drop as well. Their old neighbour, the one whose house he moved into after he left the scholar, was actually Poetry. As in, the goddess thereof. TARDIS-like, her house was bigger on the inside, and full of strange marvels. Under her influence, the shadow transformed into flesh and discovered ambition.

He became a creature of the night, running through the streets and spying on the unwary to learn what being human meant. “It is a bad world,” he remarks, “and I would not be a man were it not that it is a position of accepted importance.” Using his unique set of talents, he became a master blackmailer and won everything he now has that way.

The two men don’t exactly become friends – the shadow is not that kind of person – but he returns a year later to check up on the scholar. Life is going less well for him: his philosophical books aren’t selling and humanity is disappointing him. The shadow suggests they go travelling together. “Will you go as my shadow?” he asks. “I shall be very happy to take you with me, and will pay your expenses.”

The scholar is freaked out and refuses. Things don’t improve for him, though. He loses weight again and people begin to say he looks…like a shadow. Well, that’s not alarming at all.

His rich friend returns, this time advising a trip to the baths (meaning hot springs). “I pay the expenses, and you can write the description of our journey, and can amuse me a little on the way,” he says airily. “I want to go to the baths, for my beard does not grow as it should, which is an illness too, and one must have a beard. Now be sensible, and accept my offer; we shall travel as friends.” The scholar accepts, and if his former shadow insists on positioning himself according to the sun, so that the scholar falls behind as his shadow – it’s nothing more than an eccentricity, right?

At the baths they meet a lovely and perspicacious princess, who does not believe the rich man’s story about his beard for a minute, because she sees he casts no shadow. Curious, she confronts him about the matter. “I know that your illness was seeing too clearly,” he replies, “but that defect has evidently left you, and you are cured. I have not only a shadow, but a most extraordinary one. Other people have only a common shadow, but I do not like what is common. People give their servants finer clothes than they wear themselves, and I have made my shadow human.” With that, he gestures to the scholar.

Thoroughly intrigued, the princess continues the acquaintance. That night she discovers him to be a superb dancer, an extensive traveller and surprisingly well informed about everything. By now quite charmed and willing to fall in love with him, she asks him the most difficult question she can think of, so as to test his intelligence. The shadow can’t answer, but calmly deflects by saying even his shadow can tell her what she wants to know. So the princess goes over to the scholar and is very impressed by the content of his conversation. “What an extraordinary man that must be,” she muses, “to have so learned a shadow! It would be a real blessing for my subjects if I chose him as a husband.”

She makes swift arrangements, and the shadow does likewise. He offers the scholar a generous living allowance and a place at court on the condition that he pretend their roles are reversed, and have always been so. “You must allow yourself to be called shadow by every one, and not say that you have ever been a man; besides which, once a year, when I sit on the balcony and show myself to the people, you must lie at my feet, as it becomes a shadow to do.” The scholar is appalled and flat out refuses. He tries to warn the princess, but the shadow has him arrested and imprisoned. He then goes to the princess himself to tell her his ‘shadow’ has gone mad.

“Poor shadow!” the princess exclaims. “He is very unhappy, and it would be a real blessing to release him from his sufferings.” The shadow sighs at dreadful necessity and agrees with all speed. That night he weds the princess, and the scholar is executed. This kingdom is in a lot of trouble.

While not strictly a ghost story, I think this counts as Halloween appropriate, by virtue of just being so disturbing. Hans Christian Andersen had a remarkable, if morbid, imagination. Right up until the end you assume the scholar will escape – but it’s the shadow who gets a happy ending. Perhaps. The princess is, after all, quick to notice strange things. Hopefully she’s more than a match for her murderous magical husband.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.105 – The Elfin Hall

This is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s more obscure stories. It begins with several lizards gossiping eagerly about a ruckus taking place on the nearby elfin mound. One lizard is more knowledgeable on the subject than the rest, having consulted with an earthworm of his acquaintance who happens to live in the Mount, and reveals that such important guests are expected that all the will-o’-the-wisps have been seconded to light a procession – but he does not know who those guests might be.

During the conversation an elfin housekeeper emerges from the Mount and hurries down to the seashore, seeking the night raven. According to the footnote, when a ghost is staked by a priest and then released, it takes the form of a bird and how did I never hear of night ravens before this moment? The housekeeper asks that he attend the evening’s festivities, which would feel like much more of a compliment if she didn’t also need him to distribute the rest of the invites.

“All the world may come to the great ball,” she explains, “even men, if they talk in their sleep, or do anything in our way. But for the feast the company must be very select; none but guests of the very highest rank must be present. To say the truth, the King and I have been having a little dispute; for I thought that not even ghosts should be admitted.” Sure, that’s not insulting the present company at all.

The housekeeper rattles off a list of the less contentious guests, includes the Mer-King and his daughter, the classier type of demons, the hobgoblins and various other spirits that sound like fantastic – if terrifying – dinner guests. The raven obligingly flies off to spread the word.

Inside the Mount, the preparations are almost complete, but the Elf King’s daughters have still not been told the cause of all this celebration. At the last minute, the king deigns to share his plans. “Two of my daughters must get themselves ready to be married,” he says, “for married they certainly shall be. The old goblin from Norway who lives in the Dovre mountains and who has so many castles of freestone among them, besides a gold-mine – a capital thing, let me tell you – is coming here with his two boys, who are each to choose a bride.” Your mercenary is showing, majesty.

The Norse goblin duly arrives and is greeted with all appropriate pomp. His sons are less dignified, kicking off their boots and putting their feet up on the banquet table. The entertainment commences with the dancing of the king’s seven daughters, and continues as each girl steps up to display her own particular skill. The youngest daughter can disappear at will. The second can cast a shadow, which no other elf or goblin can do, while the third has been taught by a moor-witch how to brew ale. When the fourth plays her harp everyone does as she bids them, a talent the Norse goblin does not find attractive at all. The fifth daughter professes a passionate love of the north (rooted in the belief that when the rest of the world falls, the stones of Norway will hold firm), but perversely the goblin passes over her.

“I can only tell people the truth,” the sixth girl states flatly. “No one cares for me or troubles about me, and I have enough to do to sew my shroud!” Oh, honey, why is this story not about you? I want to know about you. Instead we move on to the seventh girl, last and oldest, who has an amazing memory for stories and a gift for telling them well. Charmed, the goblin proposes on the spot.

His sons were also supposed to find brides at this party, but they’re off harassing the will-o’-the-wisps. “What is all this riot for?” their father complains. “I have been choosing you a mother; now you come and choose yourselves wives from among your aunts.” Could that be phrased in a more creepy way? No, I really don’t think it could. Fortunately the boys could not be less interested in marriage. They get drunk instead and fall asleep on the banquet table while their father dances around the hall with his new bride. Only at cock’s crow, with dawn imminent on the horizon, does the Mount close and the celebration end.

I always have mixed feelings about Andersen’s fairy tales because on the one hand they are so beautifully intricate, and on the other they’re just so depressing. And this is one of his more cheerful ones, since at least no one dies a tragic death. The fate of these princesses, though, laid out so matter-of-factly by their father, makes being kidnapped by a dragon look like a fantastic plan B.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.66 – Thumbykin

This Hans Christian Andersen story begins with casual magic and happily granted wishes, which means disaster must be soon to follow. A lonely woman goes to a witch for advice on how to obtain a child of her own, and the witch is all, “Nothing easier!” On the payment of twelve shillings, the woman is provided with a kernel that sprouts into a beautiful red and yellow bud, and when she kisses it, the petals unfurl to reveal a tiny girl at the heart of the flower. The witch misinterpreted what her customer meant when she asked for a ‘little child’ of her own, but the woman is too delighted with her adoptive daughter to care. She names her Thumbykin.

And it turns out she’s a great mum. She makes a bed out flower petals for her little girl, and a tulip leaf boat to be paddled about in a dish of water. Thumbykin spends her days singing and happily messing about in her miniature lake. Dream childhood! Which is, like I said before, a sure presentiment for tragedy in an Andersen fairy tale. Sure enough, one night a toad creeps in through the window and kidnaps the girl to be a wife for her son. Afraid Thumbykin will escape before the marriage can take place, the toad then strands her on a lilypad that is, to Thumbykin, the size of an island. Let me say it again, let me say it loud: ABDUCTION IS NOT A PROPOSAL.

Thumbykin wakes up, realises all of this is not a dream, and bursts into a storm of tears. In the midst of her misery, the toad returns to explain the situation, bringing with her the brainless toad boy she intends to be Thumbykin’s husband. Thumbykin cries harder than ever. Her distress catches the attention of some good-natured fishes, who comes to the rescue by nibbling away at the lilypad’s stalk until it breaks. The leaf sails away downstream, taking Thumbykin with it.

On the plus side: no wedding! Unfortunately, there’s also no getting home. And Thumbykin has caught the attention of another suitor – this time a cockchafer, who snatches her up and returns to his tree to show her off to his friends. They are not terribly impressed. “Why, she has only two legs! How ugly that looks!” “She has no feelers, how stupid she must be!” Most crushingly of all: “She looks just like a human being.” The cockchafer caves to the peer pressure and dumps Thumbykin on the nearest daisy.

So, to summarise, she has been kidnapped twice, cast out by her second kidnapper’s friends for being human, and abandoned in utterly unfamiliar territory. Somehow she survives the summer, living off nectar and dew, but as the weather grows colder the flowers disappear and Thumbykin is left homeless, friendless and without any source of food. As she searches for somewhere to shelter, she chances across the door of a field mouse hidden in the stubble of a cornfield. The mouse takes pity on her and invites her in. In exchange for housework and stories, Thumbykin is allowed to stay all winter.

But that looks too much like good luck, which means it’s time for a third suitor to force his way into her life. He is the mouse’s neighbour, a wealthy and sour-tempered mole who, despite being blind and unable to see Thumbykin, falls for her pretty voice. He is also more cunning than the toad or the cockchafer, and let’s face it, more civilised. His first step in courtship is to dig a tunnel between the mouse’s house and his own, so that it will be easier to go back and forth.

On their first trip through the new passage, the trio come across a body of a dead swallow. The mole, who thinks of the world above ground as vulgar and pointless, shoulders past disdainfully and the mouse follows his lead, but Thumbykin loves birds and is so upset that she later returns with a rug of hay to cover the corpse. When she lays her head against his chest, however, she hears a heartbeat and realises the bird is only mostly dead, numbed by the cold. That, she can do something about. Tucking him in with coverlets, she visits him secretly with food and water throughout the winter, and when the spring comes, widens a hole in the ceiling of the tunnel to allow in a wash of warm sun. By then the swallow is strong enough to fly. He asks Thumbykin to come with him, but she is too grateful for the kindness of the field mouse to abandon her now.

Her reward is to be shoved into an arranged marriage with the sneaky mole. The field mouse sees this as a big step up both socially and financially and overall an excellent match; the girl sees it as entombment. Though she obediently spins and weaves to make her wedding clothes, she takes whatever chance she can to slip outside, trying to catch a glimpse of blue sky through the distant canopy of summer corn. By autumn, her trousseau is ready and Thumbykin is so NOT. She tries to protest to the mouse, who threatens to bite her if she doesn’t go through with it. So much for kind.

On the wedding day itself, Thumbykin is permitted to go as far as the door to make her goodbyes to the sun and sky. As she fills her eyes with one last look at the world above ground, she is startled by a familiar cry – the voice of a swallow, her swallow, who has swooped in like the gallant hero to rescue her from a disastrous marriage. Thumbykin leaps onto his back and they soar away south, to a beautiful wood and a ruined castle where the swallows build their nests. For Thumbykin, there is a garden of flowers from which to choose a new home, but to her amazement the one she approaches is already occupied. A man the same size as herself – only with wings and a crown – comes out to greet her, and introduces himself as the king of the flower-elves.

It is love at first sight – for Thumbykin, particularly, this is nothing short of miraculous. Finally, a suitor of the same species! Also handsome, a monarch, and a big fan of flowers! He proposes on the spot, she says yes, and the whole court emerges from the surrounding flowers to welcome her with presents, including her own pair of wings. She is Thumbykin no longer; the king calls her Maia, Queen of the Flowers.

Look, I’m not sure this relationship is going to work out. Not to ruin a very pretty ending or anything, but Thumbykin isn’t exactly at her most emotionally stable just then and marrying the first man you find attractive is not really the best of policies. On the other hand, WINGS. Whatever happens to her now, she can escape if she has to. I wish her mother had been given similar resolution. The swallow could have easily delivered a message; instead, he goes off to sing Thumbykin’s tale to the world. I can’t say I think much of his priorities.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.48 – The Red Shoes

Storytelling is a subjective business. I believe that the fairy tales we choose to remember, and the way we choose to tell them, says far more about the tellers than the tales themselves. That said, I freely admit that there are some stories that are so unashamedly awful that the possibility of their redemption is beyond the limits of my imagination. Welcome to my Most Hated Fairy Tale list! I’ve already reviewed Perrault’s ‘Patient Griselda‘, Ruth Manning Sanders’ ‘My Lady Sea‘ and the Grimm brothers’ ‘King Thrushbeard‘. This week I take on Hans Christian Andersen, a storyteller whose genius was rivalled only by his glumness. Suicidal mermaids, dead match girls, broken-hearted nightingales…but nothing he wrote was quite as depressing as this one.

‘The Red Shoes’ begins with a little girl called Karen, who is so poor that in summer she goes about barefoot and in winter she is forced to wear heavy, clumsy wooden clogs that make her feet sore. A shoemaker’s wife with a kind heart and clever fingers pieces together a pair of serviceable shoes from scraps of red cloth, for Karen to wear to her mother’s funeral. As she walks through the streets behind the coffin a carriage passes by and the old lady inside catches sight of the miserable little girl. Being a good-hearted soul, she promptly decides to adopt Karen, and being reasonably well-to-do, rehauls her wardrobe. The scrappy red shoes are burned, replaced with nice new dresses. People tell Karen she is pretty and she has the audacity to agree with them, so right then you know something awful is going to happen to the poor kid.

While Karen is growing up the queen and princess happen to pass through her town. The princess is very modern, eschewing a crown or train, but what she does wear are a pair of beautiful red morocco shoes. Karen adores them. When the old lady takes her out to buy new things for her confirmation (her formal acceptance into her church), they stop in a grand shoemaker’s and Karen spies a pair of shiny red leather boots just like those worn by the princess. These fit her perfectly. Red is considered a rather outrageous colour to wear in church, but the old lady’s sight isn’t very good and she’s not aware of exactly what she’s bought until it’s too late. Karen goes through the ceremony of confirmation in a state of ecstasy over her gorgeous new footwear, sure that everyone else is admiring them too.

Well, they were definitely looking. Told about her ward’s revolutionary fashion choices, the annoyed old lady tells her to only wear her old black shoes to church in the future. The next Sunday, Karen goes to her closet, looks between her options, and goes with the red of rebellion. Again, the old lady doesn’t notice, but as they enter the church they pass an old soldier leaning on crutches, and he does. “Oh, what pretty dancing shoes!” he remarks, bending to touch them. “Mind you do not let them slip off when you dance.”

Which is seriously creepy. Only weird people touch a stranger’s feet.

In church, Karen is again shoe-obsessed. Everyone is staring at them, apart from the oblivious old lady. As they leave and Karen is about to climb into her guardian’s waiting carriage, the soldier calls out after them. “Only look, what pretty dancing shoes!” And Karen finds herself dancing, her feet moving on to someone else’s will. The coachman is forced to run after her and lift her bodily into the carriage, where her shoes still kick a will of their own until they are finally dragged off her feet.

The red boots are put away after that. Personally I’d have burned them, but Karen loves them still and occasionally visits their prison.

Some time later, the old lady falls ill. The doctor explains that it is terminal, and that she will need constant nursing until she passes away, but…there is a ball to be held in town. Karen has never been to a ball before. She goes to look at the red shoes again, and thinks about it, and ends up going to the ball anyway. The magic that possessed them, however, remains. The red boots won’t behave like ordinary shoes; they take her in directions she does not choose, dancing her out of the the ballroom and into the street and out of the town into the dark woods. In the trees there she sees the old soldier nodding at her. “See what pretty dancing shoes they are!” Terrified, she tries to pull the boots off, but they are fixed on her feet like they are part of her skin. The soldier’s magic forces her to keep dancing for days, through the fields and woods and eventually into the graveyard, where an angel guards the threshold of the church.

“Dance on,” he tells her, “dance on, in thy red shoes, till thou art pale and cold, and thy skin shrinks and shrivels like a skeleton’s. Thou shalt dance still, from door to door, and wherever proud, vain children live thou shalt knock, so that they may hear thee and be afraid. Dance shalt thou, dance on – “

Okay, winged psychopath person, we’ve got the gist! Karen begs for mercy, but the shoes carry her ruthlessly on. She passes her own door and sees a coffin being brought out, and thus she learns of her guardian’s death, but still she is not permitted to stop. On the shoes compel her, until she is so bloody and broken-hearted that a dreadful solution occurs to her. Passing the house of a headsman (a.k.a executioner) she cries out to him, begging that he cut off her feet and end her suffering.

This he does. The red shoes with their grisly occupants continue to dance while the bleeding girl falls. The headsman makes her a pair of wooden feet and crutches to help her on her way, and she limps off to church. Before she can enter, however, the devilish red shoes dance across her path and she is frightened away. For a week she keeps away, but come the next Sunday she is sure her suffering must be complete. She underestimates the savagery of certain angels; the red shoes are there again and she is once more driven away. This time she loses heart altogether. She hobbles off to the pastor’s house, instead, and takes work there with his kind-hearted wife.

Come the third Sunday, the pastor’s family all go to church and Karen retreats to her room with a psalm-book, too traumatised to try again. As the music of the organ drifts through her window, she cries out “O God, help me!” and is visited by the angel who cursed her so thoroughly. This time he has been sent to transport her, miraculously, inside the church. The organ plays, the choir sings, and Karen is so ‘full of sunshine, of peace and gladness’ that she DIES.

And the story ends. Right. There.

I find it deeply disturbing that Andersen actually sat down and wrote something like this. That the deity of his mind would be A-OK will punishing a little girl for her love of pretty things with mutilation, abandonment and death. Karen is, it’s true, not a fit carer for a sick old lady – but there is a key difference between leaving her charge for one night of fun at a ball, and disappearing for days on end because she was UNDER A GODDAMN CURSE.

Am I shouting? I feel like maybe I was shouting. There is nothing good in this story, only the vilification and devastation of a little girl who committed the heinous crime of wanting to look pretty. But the thing about stories, even the awful ones? They can change. Or someone can make them change. I have absolutely no evidence at all that Alison Uttley wrote ‘Green Shoes’ as a rebuttal of Andersen, but the story from her collection Rainbow Tales (Piper, 1978) is everything his is not. 

“Milly danced down the village street, willy-nilly, where the shoes took her. The school-bell jangled in the little tower, the boys and girls trooped into the classroom, but Milly didn’t appear.

‘Her’s gone off down th’ Fox’s Hollow,’ cried a little boy. ‘Her’s playing truant, is Milly Gratton.’

‘In a pair of lovely shoes, green velvet,’ added a little girl.

But Milly wasn’t playing truant. The shoes were taking her to the places they knew, where the moss was thick and clubbed with golden seeds, and lichens starred the stones, and little red and yellow flowers sprang from cushions of tiny plants. Her eyes opened wider than ever as she saw all the beauties which had been invisible to her before. There she stayed, listening to the talk of the finches, the whispering chatter of insects, the deep wisdom of the rustling trees…They left a memory behind them, and Milly never forgot the lessons they taught her.

– Alison Uttley, ‘Green Shoes’, Rainbow Tales

Guess which story I will choose to keep telling.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.36 – The Snow Queen

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’.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.14 – The Garden of Paradise

This week’s fairy tale comes from Andrew Dakers Ltd.’s Andersen’s Fairy Tales and, like many of Hans Christian Andersen’s other works, it is not subtle about its moral messages. A prince is told stories about the Garden of Paradise (aka Eden) as a little boy and grows up obsessed with it. When he is seventeen years old, he goes walking in the woods and is driven by a sudden violent storm into a cavern he has never seen before, where an elderly woman is roasting a whole stag over a huge fire. She invites the prince in to warm himself, introducing herself as the mother of the Four Winds. The prince has not been there long before her sons begin to return home. First to arrive is the North Wind, who brings with him a rush of icy air and hailstones. He’s surprised to see his mother’s guest, but she makes it clear who gives the invitations in this house and the North Wind quickly changes the subject.

He has come from the Polar Seas and a place called Bear’s Island, where he has been enjoying himself throwing icebergs at the ships of Russian whalers. He tells a good story but his mother is very unimpressed by this sort of behaviour. Fortunately for him, she is distracted by the arrival of her second son, the Western Zephyr. He has been in the forests, he tells her, where he has been storming about smashing trees and running with wild horses, and probably less innocent things that he’s wise enough not to tell her about. Definitely brighter than the third son, the South Wind, who comes home in a sulk because his brothers have made the place too cold for his liking. He’s been in Africa, where he has buried a whole caravan of merchants in sand. His mother is furious. She seizes him and thrusts him into a sack to think on how evil he’s been. Even inside the sack, he can’t behave properly, rolling about on the floor until his mother sits on him to hold him still. Talk about tough love.

The prince is slightly alarmed by all this family drama. Things only quiet down when the East Wind arrives. He has just returned from China and has brought his mother freshly plucked green tea. His being the favourite son, and the only one to think of bringing her a gift, she agrees to release the South Wind so that the brothers can talk. For tomorrow the East Wind goes to the Garden of Paradise and he has promised the Princess who lives there tales of the phoenix. His brother has collected for him the bird’s full history, transcribed by its own beak onto a palm leaf and signed with a bite mark.

A good mood has been restored. The family settle down to dinner and the prince, who has sensibly kept his mouth shut up until now, makes sure to take a place beside the East Wind. Princesses? Phoenixes? The Garden of Paradise…? The East Wind is a friendlier sort than his brothers and quite happy to talk. When Adam and Eve were thrown from Eden, he explains, the Garden sank underground, but it is still as enchanting a place as ever, and the queen of the fairies liked it so much she moved in. The prince makes it clear he wants to come when the East Wind leaves the next day, but he is still rather taken aback when he wakes up soaring above the clouds on his new friend’s back. They fly so fast that the trees sway in their wake and ships roll uncontrollably on the sea below. By evening they are over the Himalayas, and soon afterwards descend, slipping through a curtain of vines into a cavern where water has wrought the stone into such strange shapes that the prince is convinced they are travelling through a valley of Death. But then a beautiful blue light comes beaming forth to meet them and they emerge into an exquisite garden, where the air is scented by roses and a river clear as air flows at their feet. Tame lions and tigers loll about between magnificent palm trees; extraordinary flowers like the tails of peacocks sparkle in the grass. The prince has finally found his way to the Garden of his dreams.

And then comes its new queen to greet them. The Fairy of Paradise (presumably also known as the Princess?) arrives with a train of beautiful young attendants and is thrilled by the East Wind’s gift. She is equally welcoming to the dazzled prince, leading him into her palace, where Time has marked each event of the Garden’s history in living pictures on each window pane. In the palace’s great hall is a tree bearing golden apples and this, the prince realises, is the tree of knowledge that saw Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden. He is not given time to dwell on anything for long though – like the excellent hostess she is, the Fairy is trying to show him around. They climb into a boat that shows them all the countries of the world without moving anywhere and the prince is so delighted with everything he has seen that he wants nothing more than to stay. The Fairy is not so sure this is a good idea. The East Wind is about to leave and he will not return for a hundred years; if the prince decides to stay, he will be here for a long time. Every evening of his time here, the Fairy warns him, she will tempt him, calling for him to follow her to where she sleeps beneath the tree of knowledge. If he gives in and touches her, Paradise will sink beneath the earth and be lost once more.

This makes not the slightest bit of sense to me. If she doesn’t want him to come with her, why ask? For that matter, why not just hide the tree that causes all this misery instead of flaunting it under his nose? Anyway, the prince chooses to stay, but the moment the Fairy beckons to him he forgets her every warning. Following her into the palace, he parts the branches of the golden tree and finds her already asleep. He can’t resist kissing her. If this was another fairy tale and she was a human princess instead of a fairy, he would probably be rewarded for his impetuosity – in this story, he’s just an idiot who wasn’t listening when he was told the rules. The Fairy vanishes, the Garden sinks away, and the Prince wakes to rain and cold. He is in the woods near his own home and the mother of the Winds is beside him, furious with his ineptitude. Nor is she the only one. Death, black-winged and carrying a scythe, is in two minds over whether to kill the prince right here and now. He decides against it. If the prince has improved by the time Death returns, one day in the unpredictable future, he may yet return to the Garden of Paradise.

And that is…it. ‘The Garden of Paradise’ is so extremely religious in tone that I don’t know if it can actually be called a fairy tale – it’s more of a fable, and not an especially enjoyable one at that, since you know from the moment the Fairy gives her warning that the prince won’t listen. The only thing I like about it is the idea of the Winds as an irascible quartet of sons still in awe of their elderly but completely formidable mother. And that she can be bribed out of bad temper with a nice cup of tea.