Friday, 1 May 2009

35. Hans Christian Andersen - 'The Snow Queen' (1845)

‘Though I was brought up on both, Norse mythology has always appealed to me infinitely more than Greek; Hans Andersen’s The Snow Queen and George Macdonald’s The Princess and the Goblin were my favourite fairy stories and years before I ever went there, the North of England was the Never-Never Land of my dreams. Nor did those feelings disappear when I finally did; to this day Crewe Junction marks the wildly exciting frontier where the alien South ends and the North, my world, begins.’

(W.H. Auden, 'I Like it Cold', House and Garden, December 1947)

"As the modern Danish critic Villy Sorensen has observed, Andersen saw the snow queen's icy world as the proper home for someone whose heart has been replaced by chilly reason--a category in which Andersen certainly placed many of his contemporaries" (169).


This is, according to Auden, a story with more sophistication than is perceived in mere folk tales - that 'mere' will be examined in a forthcoming week of 'founding texts', where I will be tackling religious and mythical stories.

It is profound, it is a beautiful piece of work - with a certain stark poetry in its symmetries. The message is simple and profound; HCA warns us of cleverness for its own sake, shown leading to a hardness of heart - shatteringly expressed in the studied desolation of that image of Kay: 'And away flew the Snow Queen, leaving little Kay quite alone in the great hall which was so many miles in length; so he sat and looked at his pieces of ice, and was thinking so deeply, and sat so still, that any one might have supposed he was frozen.'

Then there is the gender issue; as the annotations suggest, there are eight strong female characters and only the lost, adrift Kay representing the masculine - a masculine susceptible to corruption and coldness. When Gerda finally locates him after her epic journeying, his reaction to her joy at finding him is non-existent:

'But he sat quite still, stiff and cold.

Then little Gerda wept hot tears, which fell on his breast, and penetrated into his heart, and thawed the lump of ice, and washed away the little piece of glass which had stuck there.'

There is a Christianity at work; the song sung by Gerda refers to a 'Christ-child' and the story ends with their grandmother imparting a moral from the pages of the Bible. Yet, it is an approachable, welcoming Christianity ending symbolically with the scene of 'warm, beautiful summer'. Andersen conveys a warmth all the more potent for the delineation of what it is to be cold, with that stark image of Kay alone and unresponsive, locked in his pitiless games of logic. As with Blake, this is a consideration of Innocence and Experience, and an interpretation of Christianity more persuasive than found in the institutions or perhaps even the Bible itself. This is, intriguingly, fused with a rather pagan usage of shamanistic tropes and motifs throughout, clearly rooted in the northern culture.

There is an interesting, if inevitably partial, parallel to be drawn with Trollope and later British writers who opposed 'sophisticated' ways and cleverness: '“That boy will be very clever; he has a remarkable genius.” [...] His games, too, were quite different; they were not so childish. One winter’s day, when it snowed, he brought out a burning-glass, then he held out the tail of his blue coat, and let the snow-flakes fall upon it. “Look in this glass, Gerda,” said he; and she saw how every flake of snow was magnified, and looked like a beautiful flower or a glittering star. “Is it not clever?” said Kay, “and much more interesting than looking at real flowers. There is not a single fault in it, and the snow-flakes are quite perfect till they begin to melt.”'

Indeed, this can be said to anticipate the revulsion that traditionalists feel and have felt for the modern world, with mass production and easy reproduction of images and goods. The didactic message seems to be that such things distract us and divert us from our common humanity; Andersen indicts the scientific and rational: 'Kay’s fingers were very artistic; it was the icy game of reason at which he played, and in his eyes the figures were very remarkable, and of the highest importance; this opinion was owing to the piece of glass still sticking in his eye.' This is indeed the anti-Defoe in many ways; whilst HCA uses details to make symbolic, moral points, veracity does not become an issue. Such was the impression on Auden that the central image of Kay's pity and emotions locked

The values are traditional - for good or ill - and it can certainly be imagined what the arch-libertarian leftist Grant Allen, author of The British Barbarians (1895), would make of such moralising: Gerda throws away her red shoes, which denote sin, showing HCA's adherence to societal taboos. However, the William Morris view - not far from GA's - can be said to accord in its essential purism regarding landscape and work. It is on the question of the freedom of the enlightened individual where Allen / Morris / Chesterton place a greater emphasis - Andersen shows a traditional social order that is stable barring the threat from Reason. They define that term 'reason' slightly more stringently than Andersen, and Victorian etiquette and mores come under assault as well as industrialisation.

But then Andersen is not writing a 'Hill Top novel', but establishing a northern mythology - designed to influence and inspire the young. In the strict terms of what is communicated and the imagery used, this is presumably peerless in its field, and also bears comparison with 'adult'-targeted poetry and prose which asserts and contrasts pagan and Christian themes. It is indeed worthy of Auden - it formed him - and should concern and inform us all.

One of the poet's greatest poems is informed by Andersen's stark imagery; Kay's affliction mirrored in the state of Europe in 1939:

'In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.'

(W.H. Auden, 'In Memory of W. B. Yeats', February 1939; The English Auden: Poems, Essays, & Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939, Faber and Faber, 1977)


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