I feel like I have been living with the Snow Queen for most of my life. I first met her in Narnia when she kidnapped Edmund, and I didn’t like her much. Her name was Jadis, and she was known as the White Witch. Later, I met her in a science-fiction novel by Joan D. Vinge, and I pitied her: tortured by a desire for love and power and eternal life, compelled to do cruel things. Her name was Aerinrhod. She stole a man and made him her lover. But her daughter-clone, Moon, deposed her and won back the man, Sparks — whom she freed from enslavement to Winter — and then Moon became the Summer Queen. Extraordinary stories. (Sometimes I’ve even thought I’ve met the Snow Queen in real life, and maybe you have, too.) These stories are based on a Christian fairy-tale written by Hans Christian Andersen in 1845 called “The Snow Queen.”
Yesterday, I went to the Wheaton Public Library — they were having a holiday book sale — and discovered a version of the fairy-tale illustrated by Mary Engelbreit. I came home and started reading it in my livingroom … could barely break away to go to the evening meeting of my church … and came home quickly to finish the story. It is that kind of story.
I suppose one of the things I love best about it is the heroine Gerda, whose breath, when she prays, takes the form of angels who give her the courage and the strength to break into the Snow Queen’s Palace and rescue her friend, Kai, who has been taken captive. Kai suffers from a splinter of glass in his heart, which turned it to ice, and a speck of glass in his eye, which makes him look at the whole world as if it were nothing more than “boiled spinach.” The splinter and the speck came from a mirror, made by the devil himself, which shattered and has been spoiling the ability of people to see what is true and good ever since. Even without understanding what happened to Kai, Gerda goes looking for him when he is lost, never giving up on him despite his unkindness to her. Gerda’s love has a special power — an innocence — that draws Kai back to the light and warmth of summer.
I also like the birds in this story, who are constantly looking out for Gerda, and I love the way that Gerda can understand them. The language of birds is Gerda’s heart-language. But every creature, whether man or beast, is her friend: a princess befriends her just as easily as a robber-girl, a reindeer transports her to the North. (In a way, it is so fitting that we sang the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King” in the church service last night — the perfect musical interlude to Gerda’s story!) But there are many mysteries in “The Snow Queen.”
The Mary Engelbreit version of the story shortens and simplifies it a bit, but the original tale is vividly and expressively about sin and grace … love and redemption … the violence of demons and the power of God. You can read the original fairy-story if you visit: “The Snow Queen.” The whole thing is interwoven with complex symbols with meaning worth meditating on: the shattered mirror, the roses, the spelling of the word “ETERNITY” that sets Kai free after Gerda’s kisses him and dances with him in the Snow Queen’s empty palace.
Thinking about this made me wonder about the fairy-tale writer himself: Hans Christian Andersen. He suffered a great deal in his life, from childhood on, and he wrote memoirs about his experiences, including The Fairy-Tale of My Life. Others have summarized his life-story, too (as has Petri Liukkonen in his essay “Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)“. Yet despite his suffering, Hans Christian Andersen wrote prolifically (see the index of his writings in Danish and English), and the legacy of his writings has inspired generations of children and writers in over 150 languages — including me and you.