Mother Nature’s been changing up her look. Yesterday’s brilliant blues and browns have been replaced by cool neutrals. Today’s outfit is Park Avenue matron: whites, taupes, grays. Even the gaudy crimson of the fire hydrant across the street has been muted to a brick brown. The tree branches bend and tremble under its weight.
I hope my friend from last night is happy today. She loves the snow and was sad that her town was only projected to get a couple of inches, but the weather people said the totals everywhere are going to be quite a bit bigger than predicted. The snow is heavy but there’s no wind. Maybe there’s a way to recapture my long-lost snow delight. The world is quiet except for when the plows drive by. Noisy mechanical things, breaking the mood. It’s Snow Queen weather.
By the time I first read Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Snow Queen, at around age nine, I was already primed to see her as a villain. That’s what C.S. Lewis made of her in the Narnia stories, the White Witch who forced endless winter and no Christmas. On today’s reread I have a different opinion. My favorite part of the story is still the bit at the beginning. A wicked hobgoblin, who runs a school, invents a magnifying glass. Things viewed through the glass seem distorted and ugly, making the viewer sad. The hobgoblin has great success spreading despair and cynicism on Earth, but then he decides to fly the glass up to the heavens to have a look at the angels. The glass slips through his fingers, though, and falls back to earth, breaking into millions of fragments. It’s just chance, apparently, that as these fragments float around the atmosphere they sometimes make their way into people’s eyes or hearts. A bit in the heart is the more dangerous, often fatal.
Kay and Gerda are childhood friends who love roses, one another, and the stories told by Kay’s grandmother. One story is about the Snow Queen, who commands the snow bees. “She is the largest of them all, and never remains on earth, but flies up to the dark clouds,” Grandma tells the children. “Often at midnight she flies through the streets of the town, and looks in at the windows, then the ice freezes on the panes into wonderful shapes, that look like flowers and castles.”
Through no fault of his own, Kay is hit by a double-dose (eye and heart) of the evil mirror fragments. Soon he can’t appreciate natural beauty and becomes absorbed instead in academic studies. Arithmetic and microscopy. He becomes spiteful towards Gerda. Eventually he encounters the Snow Queen and is taken to her castle. Gerda sets out to rescue him and has many adventures doing so.
I don’t think that the Snow Queen is a villain. She’s more guardian than jailor. She helps Kay manage his condition by making him resistant to cold. She gives him puzzles so that he can play “the icy game of reason.” She tells him what he needs to do to solve his problem, which is to spell the word eternity. She even encourages him to try by reminding him that if he succeeds, he’ll be his own master. She promises him a set of skates as a reward. But she has other work to do, and he’ll have to manage his challenges on his own. “I will go and look into the black craters of the tops of the burning mountains, Etna and Vesuvius,” she says. “I shall make them look white, which will be good for them, and for the lemons and the grapes.”
Gerda shows up and rescues Kay. (She and providence do all the actual work.) Reason flees. Innocence is restored. The summer roses beat back the snow bees. “The cold empty grandeur of the Snow Queen’s palace vanished from their memories like a painful dream.”
It’s too bad that they forget, in my opinion. Summer beauties are fine, but the Snow Queen is also gorgeous. The first time Kay sees her, before his accident, she is “the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white gauze, which looked like millions of starry snow-flakes linked together…she was alive and her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance.” She’s making the most of her situation. She’s protective as well as destructive, and she gets her work done even when she’s feeling a little stressed.
The snow outside continues steady, like a slow-motion waterfall. I listen for hoof clops and the squeak of sledge runners on the snow. If the Snow Queen in her gauze and furs stopped for me, would I go for a ride? Not knowing the risks or the destination? Yes. Yes, I would.