Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Snow Queen: Visions of Female Strength

The imperiously beautiful Snow Queen covers the town with a carpet of white 

Hans Christian Anderson's fairy stories have a peculiar, thought-provoking quality - a certain kind of magic that the better-known tales of the Brothers Grimm do not possess. Perhaps it is that his visions do not conform to the archetypes that pervade other fairy stories, or that they cannot be easily categorised. Some are more akin to myth; others are allegorical. Some are darkly funny, and yet others are pretty fancies full of charm but not much substance. While several of his stories are well known and appreciated today (the Little Mermaid, Little Thumb (Thumbelina), and the Steadfast Tin Soldier among others) - some of his lesser known works are uniquely powerful, such as the evocative The Bell, the patriotic Holger Danske and the strangely humorous Galoshes of Fortune. 

His best stories are those which are both mythic and allegorical - yet suffused with emotion and undeniable loveliness. Of all his tales The Snow Queen is my very favourite, for many reasons. I love the sheer glory and vibrant colour of the vision and its epic scope - with the window boxes; the robber cave; the garden of flowers and each flower's vision; the hanging beds like lilies in the palace the shadowy, galloping dreams; the flickering aurora hanging like curtains of light - and of course the  Snow Queen with her pristine and terrible beauty. I love the humorous touches - like the Raven couple and the wise woman writing words on a piece of dried fish. I love how the story of Gerda's journey seems to intersect with other, equally epic stories - like that of the princess and the robber girl. Most of all, I love the strong female characters, out of whom each have different agendas and competing powers - yet none of whom end the tale defeated. Alone among all fairy stories - this tale is one in which the female occupies almost all the heroic parts.

Here follows a description of these awesome female characters.


Gerda and little Kay
Art by Arthur Rackham 
Gerda is the main heroine of the tale, and she undergoes a remarkable development through the story - gaining strength and courage through her adventures, while retaining her essential core of love and honesty.

In the beginning of the story, Gerda is an innocent little girl, who feels glee and simple pleasure in play and stories. When Kay becomes nasty and reductionist due to the splinter of enchanted glass in his eye and in his heart, she remains loyal to their friendship - and when he is thought dead, having tied his sled to the Snow Queen's chariot and disappeared, she nevertheless goes to seek him. At the start of her quest, Gerda behaves like any child would be expected in these circumstances - easily frightened and confused; trusting and gullible. Thus she is delayed (possibly for many years) by a witch and her garden - but in being reminded of her quest by the reappearance of roses, she makes the difficult choice to leave the comfort of the witch's abode where she "slept and dreamed as delightfully as any queen".

The door was locked; but she pressed heavily against the rusty hinges, and it sprang open, when out she ran in her bare feet, into the wide world... When she could run no long she... saw that the summer was gone; it was late in the autumn... How grey and depressing it was in the wide world!

Soon after this interlude, Gerda is befriended by a Raven, having learned bitterly "how much there lay in that one word "alone"" and despite hearing that Kay has supposedly married a princess of surpassing cleverness and beauty, she feels neither crippled by jealousy nor inferiority but with the help of the Raven's sweetheart creeps into the palace to the royal chambers. Here she is disappointed - for the new prince is not little Kay, but she does not lose hope. Resisting for the second time the lure of a pleasant life, this time in the palace, Gerda begs instead for the means to "go out again into the wide world" on her quest. She is given a golden coach.

They drove through the dark forest, but the carriage gave light like a torch, which affected the robbers' eyes so that they could not bear it. "That is gold! That is gold!" they cried, and rushing forward seized the horses...
Artwork by Arthur Rackham
Captured by a band of violent robbers, Gerda narrowly escapes death through the whim of the robber-girl, yet still does not give up on her quest, enlisting the aid of the robber girl and her animals. She is finally given a reindeer and set free, to continue her journey into the forbidding winter wilderness.

And the Reindeer flew as fast as possible through the great forest, and over heaths and marshes... "There are my old friends the northern lights," the Reindeer said; "see how they shine!" It ran day and night.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
From the frozen home of the wise "Lapland woman"  Gerda and the Reindeer journey to the strange hot-house of the "Finland woman". Here the Reindeer asks for Gerda to be given "the strength of twelve men, so that she may vanquish the Snow Queen". But the Finland woman knows better - scoffing at the suggestion: "that would help her a great deal!" Instead she recognises Gerda's inner strength, derived from her good and loving heart, and from her childlike belief in universal goodness.

"I cannot give her greater power than she already possesses, and do you not see how great that is? Do you not see that men and beasts must serve her and how, barefooted as she is, she has got on so well in the world? She cannot receive her power from us, that is in her own heart..."
Unlike the majority of fairytale heroes, who are endowed with magical gifts or otherworldly assistance, Gerda is now left "without boots and without gloves, in the middle of that fearfully cold Finland".  Undaunted, she continues alone, only to be met by a horde of icy monsters - the guards of the Snow Queen. But the words of the Finland Woman hold true - for Gerda's very breath solidifies into a host of golden warriors who "thrust their spears into the frightful snowflakes, breaking them into hundreds of pieces", and removing the chill from Gerda's hands and feet.

Gerda's breath becomes an army of golden angel-warriors who utterly rout the snow-monsters.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
 Thus she is able to enter the palace of the Snow Queen, and through her love and "bitter, burning tears" she rescues Kay and redeems him, washing the splinter of glass from his heart and thawing the ice.

Kay and Gerda reunited.
Artwork by PJ Lynch

Together then, the quest achieved, they turn homewards through a "beautiful, warm summer". Gerda has grown in that she has endured hardship and terror, and realised her inner strength. Yet she has also retained her child-like simplicity and empathy. Thus she (and through her, Kay) are "grown up and yet children" at the conclusion of the tale.

It is interesting to compare Gerda's journey and development with that of male archetypal heroes in fairytales - those who begin their quest to gain some prize (a golden apple or a throne or a king's daughter) or to slay some enemy\; who overcome their opponents through force or cunning, and often with magical aid, and whose reward is inevitably personal power and a lovely maiden to wife. Gerda is full as heroic as these characters - yet in comparison her motivations are less selfish, her methods less confrontational and her triumph more personal. If only there were more fairytales with such strong and positive female protagonists!

Grown up and yet children...
Artwork by PJ Lynch

The Princess

The princess is a supplementary character who only appears in one of the chapters of the Snow Queen story - but she is nonetheless an admirable and inspirational female character, whose story hints at a much longer and grander untold narrative.

According to the Raven:

"In this kingdom in which we are now sitting, lives a Princess, who is so immoderately clever; but then she has read all the newspapers that are in the world, read and forgotten them again, so clever is she. Lately she was sitting on her throne, when she began to sing, and the theme of her song was "Why should I not marry?" "Well there is something in that, she said, and so she determined to get married; but she must have a husband who knew how to answer when spoken to, not one who could only stand there and look grand, for that is too stupid."

What a fantastic introduction to a character! And what a refreshing change from the fairytale standard of princesses being first and foremost beautiful! The Princess decides on her own that she wants to get married, and she then goes on to specify what kind of a husband she is looking for - one who is intelligent, unabashed by royalty, unafraid of her power and one who "feels at home' with her.

The Raven then goes on to describe the meeting of the princess and her husband-to-be:

"He was gay and well behaved, but had not come at all to pay court to the Princess, but only to hear how clever she was. He had every reason to be satisfied with her, and she no less so with him."

Again, what a refreshing subversion of the princess trope! The princess' chosen husband is bright-eyed and merry; a poorly dressed "little person" - a wanderer with creaking boots and a knapsack on his back. No dragonslayer he - but one who can match the princess' intellect, rather than impress her with feats of arms.
Gerda sees the princess sleeping in a bed like a great lily suspended from a golden branch...
Artwork by PJ Lynch

As well as being clever, the Princess is later shown to be generous and sympathetic, willing to help Gerda into her new golden carriage herself without formality. Though her part is small in the overall story, and she and the Prince go away to "live in foreign places", one feels sure that such a great character must be the heroine of her own legend.

The Robber Girl

This character is my favourite in the whole story! A spoilt and wilful child, "so wild and wicked nothing could be done with her" - the robber girl is a flawed yet extremely likeable character. The daughter of another strong (and terrifying) female character, the head of the robber-gang, the robber-girl shows herself capable of managing her mother (jumping on her back and biting her ear). Through her wild behaviour, she nevertheless saves Gerda from being killed by the robbers - instead saying "They shall not kill you, if even I am angry with you; I'll do it myself then." She keeps a hundred pigeons and a pet reindeer, and sleeps with a knife in her hand, for "one can never tell what may happen".

The robber girl sets Gerda and the reindeer free
Artwork by PJ Lynch
Despite her (apparent) selfishness and cruelty, the robber-girl is full of unashamed exuberence and honesty - and she responds with sympathy to Gerda's story. Here Hans Christian Anderson again hints at an untold story - the robber girl's "melancholy eyes" are at odds with her fierce and wild behaviour - and her sudden generosity towards Gerda and her freeing of the reindeer are both rather startling given her previous behaviour... That is - until the end of the story, where she reappears.

This was the robber girl with a red cap on her head, and pistols in her belt. She had had enough of home, and was now travelling towards the north to take another direction later, if that did not please her.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
The robber girl evidently had been dissatisfied by her life in the robbers' den, and so had struck out alone and independent, choosing limitless freedom over her pampered life as a robber. The reunion with Gerda occurs with "great rejoicing" - and the robber girl proceeds to question Kay as to whether he deserved all Gerda's efforts on his behalf. (A question I ask myself sometimes...)

After exchanging stories with Gerda, the robber girl promises to visit her if she should ever pass through the town - then - (and this ending always thrills me) - she rode on into the wide world.

That is the last we, as readers hear of her. But oh - how inspiring! How unlike any other female character from myth, legend or fairytale! The "happy ending" for the robber girl is complete freedom.

The Snow Queen

A more lovely and intelligent face he never saw... 
Art by PJ Lynch

Of course, the most mysterious and powerful force in the story is the ubiquitous Snow Queen. Her beguiling of little Kay sets the quest in motion - yet I never think of her as a villain, and she is certainly not evil. In fact, the only evil in the story comes from the splinter of mirror-glass in Kay's heart and eyes, which causes him to have a distorted view of the world, and that was created by a sorcerer many years before, who desired to warp all beauty and goodness in the world. The Snow Queen does not want that. In fact, we never quite know what her motivations are. She is inscrutable as a blizzard, and as capricious as a winter wind that whirls the snow in strange wild patterns. She paints frost-patterns on the windows of the town, and covers all she passes in a blanket of pure, cold white.

Some flakes of snow were falling, and one amongst them, the very largest, remained lying on the rim of the flower box. It increased more and more, till at last it became a woman, dressed in the finest white crape, as if formed by millions of star-like flakes. She was so beautiful - but of ice - dazzling, glistening ice; and yet she was alive, Her eyes sparkled like two bright stars, but they were restless and unsteady. She nodded toward the window and beckoned with her finger...

The Snow Queen casts her mantle over the town...
Artwork by PJ Lynch

Why does the Snow Queen steal little Kay? Perhaps it was a whim - a way for her to fill the "cold, empty splendour" of her palace. She is a being of vast intelligence, and she appreciates Kay's "good mind". And I always think there is something undeniably beautiful about what she gives to Kay - the chance to fly with her in a sleigh drawn by white birds "high, high onto the black cloud"; the ability to hear "old songs" in the voice of the howling wind, and a chance to travel "over forests and lakes, over seas and continents". And she lets him play "the ice game of understanding" on the "mirror of reason", without feeling cold.

The Snow Queen sits in state in her ice palace while Kay plays on the floor beside her
Art by PJ Lynch

No, I do not think the Snow Queen is a villain. In fact - she seems to be outside the moral concerns of mortal beings altogether. When Gerda rescues Kay, she is not even there - rather "peeping into the black cauldrons" of the volcanoes. The Snow Queen is not defeated, though Kay is freed - because the task she set him is complete - the formation of the word "Eternity" out of pieces of ice.

In fact, the more I think about it - perhaps it was best for Kay that the Snow Queen took him - and that it was her snow that froze his heart before the mirror-glass could wholly taint it.

The Strange Old Lady

The strange old lady combs Gerda's hair and feeds her cherries.
Artwork by PJ Lynch 
A very interesting and powerful female character is that of the old witch with the flowery hat and enchanted garden of eternal summer. She delays Gerda, and tries to keep her within her garden - but she is not a villain, nor evil - rather she is well meaning but selfish, wanting to keep Gerda for her own as she had wanted a little girl. She is never fully explained in this story - but I would surely love to know how she got her power, and why her flowers have such strange and beautiful "stories" to tell.

The Lapland Woman

The Lapland Woman cooks fish over an oil lamp
Artwork by PJ Lynch 
Although this character is unable to give Gerda the advice she needs (sending her along to her sister in Finland) - she is intriguing because she is clearly a wise-woman of repute (the Reindeer knows to go to her first) and also because she writes on a piece of dried fish!

The Finland Woman

She read it three times, when she knew it by heart, so put the fish in the soup-pot, for it was good to eat, and she never wasted anything.
Artwork by PJ Lynch
Wiser and more powerful than the Lapland woman, the Finland woman is so clever that she can "bind all the winds of the world together with one piece of string" and concoct potions that will give the drinker the strength of twelve men. In yet another subversion of fairytale stereotypes, this "wise woman" is little and dirty and dripping with sweat in her steaming hot house. Yet without being told she knows the details of Gerda's quest, the secret of the mirror-glass and the hidden strength within Gerda herself.

In conclusion - the Snow Queen offers a refreshing, fascinating and inspiring array of strong female characters that go beyond traditional fairytale roles. Some are heroic, others mysterious. None are stereotypical. Could this be the first true feminist fairytale?

The Snow Queen flies in her great white sleigh, while beneath "the cold wind whistles and the wolves howl..."
Artwork by PJ Lynch


  1. Thank You! Finally someone realizes that The Snow Queen is NOT a villain!

    If T.S.Q. hadn't taken Kai away away from his village, then the mirror pieces would have turned him against the people he once cared about, and he would have grown up evil. I think at the end of the story, she knew Gerda was coming to break the power of the Mirror shards - that's why she left - and I'll bet it was her Magic that caused the ice crystals to dance, and spell out "Eternity"!

  2. Hello! I found your blog while doing research on the Snow Queen for a writing project I'm working on. Gorgeous post and I agree: the Snow Queen isn't evil; she's neither good nor bad, an element of nature. Love post and blog! Thank you for the in depth analysis.


  3. Wowow! This post perfectly sums up so much of my feelings about this story. I think seeing and reading and hearing it as a child really shaped me into the grown woman I am today in a lot of ways, not to mention giving me an enduring love of folklore and strong female characters - both of heart and body. Thank you for this!