Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Snow Queen

End of term and a day spent listening to Billie Holiday, whilst making Christmas presents has left me a suitably festive and nostalgic mood.  So much so, that I decided to unearth from the depths of Underneath The Bed my favorite, and most Christmassy, childhood book: The Snow Queen

A Picture Puffin book, this edition is adapted by Naomi Lewis and illustrated magnificently by Errol Le Cain.   Ever since first being read it as a child, right through re-visiting it as inspiration during my English A-Level and up until this evening, the story has always left me feeling distinctly unnerved.  It kind of scares me or perhaps half disturbs some long-forgotten childhood memory that Freud would probably like me to recall.  There is one passage in the book that catches onto this feeling rather well:

As she climbed the staircase something seemed to be rushing past along the wall – shadows of lord and ladies, many on horseback.  There were the dreams of the sleeping people.

Perhaps the feeling of unease comes from tapping into something unsettling in the collective unconsciousness or perhaps it is the narrative and the hauntingly beautiful illustrations themselves. 

The Snow Queen tells the story of two poor children, Gerda and Kay, who are bought up in the same village and play together all the time.  One winter’s day, the little boy, Kay, goes missing after inadvertently attaching his sledge to that of the Snow Queen, who takes away his memory and imprisons him in her castle.  When the spring comes, little Gerda goes out into the wide world searching for Kay and along the way encounters a host of other characters, including a (relatively) friendly old witch who buries all the rose bushes under the earth to try to make Gerda forget Kay.  When this fails, Gerda continues her journey and meets with a Princess who has just accepted to marry proposal of the requisite pauper; a beautiful robber girl who, with her black hair and great swathes of bright clothing, always entranced me as a child; and a homesick reindeer named Bae, who takes her to the Lapland woman and the on to the home of the Snow Queen.  When Gerda finds Kay, her soft warm tears melt the ice that the Snow Queen has frozen his heart with and the shards of ice he is playing with spell out the word ETERNITY and thus break the Snow Queen’s spell and allow him to go free. 

There has been a lot written about how traditional fairy tales and later children’s tales in a similar vein, such as Narnia, are often imbued with thinly veiled Christian moralizing.  What I never realized until I read it again tonight, is that this version of the story does something quite interesting:

When playing together at the beginning of the story, Kay and Gerda often sing the song:

“In the Vale the rose grows wild;
Children Play, all the day.
One of them is the Christ-child.”
I had always assumed this to be the little boy, Kay, and that this formed part of the reason why it was so important to rescue him.  Upon re-reading it, I see now that it is actually the little girl, Gerda, as made clear when the Lapland woman says:

“I can give her no greater power than she has already.  Don’t you see how, everywhere, men and beasts have to serve her? And how wonderfully she has made her way in the world alone on her two small feet? Little Kay is bewitched by the Snow Queen.  He remembers nothing of Gerda and his home.  Only Gerda’s love can win him back.”

Aside from this subtle twisting of theology and tradition, it also made me smile to read (my heroine) the robber girl’s nicely cynical parting words to Kay:

“You’re a fine one,” she said to little Kay. “I wonder if you deserve to have someone running to the end of the world for your sake!”

Throughout the book, the illustrations as stunning and often echo the works of famous artists.  For example:

J.M.W Waterhouse and The Lady of Shalott:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hunters in the Snow:

A fusion of Gustav Klimt and Art Nouveau paintings such as Alphonse Mucha’s Les Saisons:

On a purely aesthetic level though, they are just beautiful and definitely worth diving under the bed for.  


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