by Christina Lay
We all want to be the Queen, but let’s face it; sometimes we’re the crow, the witch, or the hobgoblin.
I’ve been thinking lately about how a fairy tale penned in 1844 remains relevant in our culture today. Mind you, my thoughts never stray far from the realm of folklore and fairy, and working for the Eugene Ballet Company, listening to the brand new score for the brand new Snow Queen Ballet drift up from the studio below my office, I’ve been finding it harder than ever to concentrate on bookkeeping and easier and easier to drift into the realm of story.
The Snow Queen has always been one of those tales that didn’t sit quite comfortably with me. I remember watching a version of it on TV when I was kid. I was both fascinated and disturbed. I wish I could remember which of the many adaptations it was (I’m guessing this was around 1970) but as with other non-Disney, weirdly and honestly portrayed tales, it left me not knowing what to think or feel. That sense of unease stayed with me until I recently re-read the original tale and rediscovered a treasure trove of fascinating characters and stunning images mined from the archival memory of folklore.
Yes, it is weird as only a 173 year-old fairy tale can be, but Gerda, the very good girl, rescues her dear friend Kay and all is well in the end. I think what disturbed me was the lack of resolution regarding the Queen herself. The focal point of anticipation and wonder conveniently leaves on vacation when Gerda shows up at her palace of ice. (Hope this isn’t a spoiler for anyone). Maybe she was bored with Kay and was glad to get him off her hands.
I can only guess the movie version I saw didn’t send the queen away with no resolution, but who knows. The Queen remains a literary enigma, a mystery ensconced in a palace of ice who occasionally abducts little boys in order to have them move pieces of ice around on her frozen “lake of reason”.
Disney’s recent Frozen, very loosely based on The Snow Queen, is a sort of origin tale for the queen, exploring how a person might come to choose to live alone in a palace of ice. Obviously, zillions of movie-goers related to the concept of a person “frozen” due to the denial of their individuality; be it their artistic leanings, their sexuality, their personality, their natural talents. The story examines the damage inflicted when an essential part of oneself is rejected by those closest to you (in Frozen, Elsa’s own parents force her to suppress her astounding magical abilities out of fear). Many of us have experienced this on some level, and understand the urge to withdraw and hide our true selves to avoid further pain. In this case, we are the queen.
But there are many more characters in The Snow Queen and not all are so regal or impressively outfitted.
There’s Gerda, the lovely little girl who even the angels want to help. Gerda represents unconditional love and innocence. Something we can all relate to, right? Although she’s rejected by Kay, and even believes him dead, she won’t give up on him until she’s sure. She’s not terribly bright; her best idea to find out where Kay has gone is to throw her shoes into the river as a payment for knowledge, even after the river insists it doesn’t know anything. She does manage to get stuck on a boat and in the way of fairy tales, is carried toward her ultimate goal. Gerda also represents blind faith, and it works for her. Maybe we are Gerda when we throw common sense to the winds in order to pursue our dreams, loves, impossible wishes. Don’t the gurus always claim that when you follow your heart, the universe will aid you?
In contrast to Gerda is the robber girl, who is a psychopath with a heart of gold. She’s been raised by thieves to be violent, selfish and impulsive and yet she does help Gerda in the end. It’s not clear why, other than it amuses her more to see Gerda continue on her adventure than to murder her. I’m afraid I’ve been the robber girl on occasion. Not that I’ve every threatened to slit anyone’s throat, but the self-absorbed obsession with my own impulses isn’t entirely unfamiliar. I would venture to guess that in most people there exists an equal balance between Gerda’s unselfish goodness on one extreme and the robber girl’s amoral wildness on the other. Neither melds well to my sense of self, but I’ve been in both places.
What about the crow? Good natured, helpful, engaged but willing to risk his betrothed’s position at court in order to help out a stranger? And the crow loves to eat. The crow is about the most normal person in this entire fairy tale. Naturally he must die.
The old witch who lives on the river? She so enjoys Gerda’s company she attempts to erase Gerda’s memories of Kay in order to keep the girl by her side. The witch kills her many rose bushes so that the sight of them won’t trigger Gerda’s memories. In an absolutely lovely image, Gerda’s tears awaken the roses that have been buried beneath the earth and cause them to once again grow above into the sunlight. Then Gerda in her less than stable way runs around for a long while trying to get the roses to tell her where Kay has gone. The flowers have other things on their minds.
I find the old witch more disturbing than the Snow Queen or the robber girl. Her manipulation is subtle, possibly even well-intentioned, and she could represent the authority figure who suppresses dreams, talents and nature in order to cleave someone to their side; depending on your perspective, this could be an entirely selfish quest to clip someone else’s wings or a rational desire to keep someone safe. Doesn’t every parent or lover have a little bit of this impulse inside them? Stay near, dear one, don’t venture out where you might get hurt, or lost, or worse, fall in love with someone else and leave me.
And then there are the hobgoblins, or trolls, if you prefer, who start the whole thing. The trolls have a mirror which when gazed upon, distorts whatever beauty there is into ugliness. They have great fun tormenting everyone with it and decide to take it to heaven to mess with the angels. Well, the mirror falls and shatters into a million pieces, but the shards still have their evil effect. Only now, the shards get into people’s eyes and hearts and make them see everything as twisted, bad and ugly. Obviously fragments of the troll mirror are still at work today, with hate and bigotry so prevalent in our politics and media. There’s no shortage of trolls at work eager to warp and twist reality into something monstrous that can conjure hatred. “Fearmongering” is word that is sadly useful here. Have you ever used gossip or lies in order to punish, manipulate or control? Yeah, me neither.
Kay, the little boy whose heart turns into a block of ice, represents the human side of the troll equation. It is certainly not uncommon to be infected with an attitude that turns everything grey, or threatening. Depression is like this, but so is prejudice; fear of the other. I hate to admit I’ve been under the influence of troll thinking more than a few times in my life. If we are exceptionally lucky, we have a Gerda in our lives who will stand by us now matter how big a prick we become, someone whose love might save us from our own worst impulses.
The Snow Queen clearly still touches our hearts and our imaginations. I’ve read the theory that Hans Christen Anderson’s character of the Snow Queen, a heartless figure sitting on her throne of ice in the middle of the lake of reason, was a reaction against criticism he’d received for writing fanciful fairy tales. Writers of fantasy today still have to defend the relevance of their “fairy tales”, despite the fact the genre has become hugely popular. People who don’t “get” fantasy fail to see the truth behind the tall tales. Perhaps they have a bit of glass in their eye. Fantasy is to literature as poetry is to language, it gives us the magical ability to say things in words that can’t be said in words. And now, in the wonderful way of human creativity, the poem is being translated into dance. No matter the medium, fantasy and fairy tales let us see beyond the clouded mirrors to deep within our souls and into the souls of others, connecting us in the dreams we share.