Friday, December 14, 2012

On "The Snow Queen," Part 1

Shards of Glass

The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Anderson is my favorite, right up there with Rumpelstiltskin.

This unusually long fairy tale grasps hold of the imagination with something inherently wondrous and magical--snow--as well as a vast northern landscape, a turn of seasons, a queen of merciless nature, and a brave and strong little girl determined to find her best childhood friend.


One might be confused, then, when The Snow Queen begins with a tale that seems to have little to do with what the title suggests.

The "First Story"* tells of a "real demon," who takes delight in wickedness and creates a mirror in which all good things it reflects are distorted.  He and his fellow demons, in their pride, decide to carry the mirror up to heaven, to mock even the angels, but the mirror is far too heavy for them.  It slips and falls to earth, shattering into infinitesimal pieces that lodge into the hearts and eyes of human beings.

Some of the fragments were so big that they were used for window panes, but it was not advisable to look at one's friends through these panes.  Other bits were made into spectacles, and it was a bad business when people put on these spectacles meaning to be just.

On The Snow Queen annotations of the web's number one fairy tale resource, SurLaLune, Francesca Matteoni provides interested readers with some context:

The looking-glass is a recurrent symbol in fairy-tales, see for example Snow White.  In this specific case, as Lederer notes, the reflecting surface can represent the illusion of the senses in which the reality of the soul is misshaped.  A similar concept is traceable in the Gnostic doctrines, according to which God was not responsible for the creation of the world: the earthly world was in fact the result of a separation from the realm of the spirit, and of the illusory work of an evil demiurge (Lederer 1986, 6-7).

This is very interesting, especially, as Ms. Matteoni mentions, because mirrors appear so frequently in fairy tales.

When I first read about the distortion-mirror, however, it didn't seem to me that the mirror revealed the untrustworthiness of the five senses.  Rather, I thought this was an ice-clear commentary by the author about the taint of the fallen human soul.

Nika Goltz

Readers of Dante and Milton, or even those passingly familiar with the western classics, might recognize the shattering mirror, the demons' pride and their fruitless revolt against heaven, as a "mirror-image" of the Fall.  The bits of glass that scatter to earth and that later contaminate little Kai are like the residual effects of that fall, be it original sin, concupiscence, or what have you.

It's not literally Kai's eyes that are the distorting instrument, but the illusory mirror which transforms the physical things--things that are real and in the temporal world, like the children's roses--into ugliness.

Perhaps Anderson meant the mirror as commentary on the politics of his day, perhaps of people that he knew, but more than that, of human nature itself, of people who, for whatever reason--be it a grudge, bigotry, jealousy, or a sense of entitlement--view their fellow human beings through a distorted lens.

Everyone probably knows one or two of these people.  Maybe they are the kind of people whose mouths are always ready with complaints, who don't know how to take a compliment and are quick to judge and mistrust, or insist that "all the best people [become] hideous, or else they [are] upside down and [have] no bodies."

At any rate, it prepares readers for little Gerda's redemption-esque quest to restore Kai to innocence and safety.

What were your thoughts, if any, on the introduction to this classic Anderson tale?  Am I wrong about the symbolic role the mirror plays in the First Story?

*  I quote from the 1988 edition of Anderson's Fairy Tales by Children's Classics, which uses a translations from the first quarter of the twentieth century.



  1. Oooh, intriguing idea. I never put it together that way before, but Andersen is heavy on symbolism so I'd believe it.

    I'll look forward to part 2! :)

    1. I hadn't thought about it before either. I'm not a huge advocate of picking apart fairy tales for symbols and hidden meanings over noting them for their inherent beauty and leaving be, but this was written by a single man, so it makes sense that he could have been thinking of a specific symbol.

      Thanks for commenting. c:

  2. Interesting take on the mirror.
    I tend to lean toward your last explanation. There seems to be a tendency for many of us to see the negative, to read bad motives into peoples' actions, to only notice when people are nasty, and more generally to just miss the beauty of the world (including fellow humans) around us.
    Anderson strikes me as someone who wants to see the world through a childlike innocence. Not "purity" so much as love, or openness to goodness. But I'm no expert on him, and would need to brush up on his tales to make that claim in earnest.

    1. I'm in the same position as you. Not much solid research to back me up other than intuition. c:


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