When I was little, I spent a lot of time in the company of tales. As an 11-month-old infant, a falsely administered antibiotic had wiped out most of my white blood cells, and inherently my entire immune system went out the window for the first decade of my life. My body became a playground for what felt like every viral and bacterial infection on the planet. Illness succeeded illness, with many germs combining themselves into a bizarre onslaught of ailments that would send me to the E.R. on a regular basis. So much so, that I was on a first-name basis with most of the staff at the city’s children’s hospital for many years.
Yet what I remember most about those often arduous days and fever-filled nights is not the endless tests, treatments and trips to the doctor for lumbar injections to fix me. The thing that stands out most vividly in my mind, is the hours of adventuring to distant, magical places when my mom would read to me. No matter how heavily the waves of pain came crashing down on my chest with each new bout of pneumonia, there was always that magical escape hatch when my mom slipped under the covers next to me and opened a book.
The calming rhythm of her soft voice as Pippi Longstocking took off in her balloon bed for Taka Tuka Land; each word a tiny spark that blazed into an arc light as Matilda cleverly defeated vile Miss Trunchbull … From those moments grew my love of reading: a safe haven, an unfaltering constant and, ultimately, the True North that guided me through dark moments later in life.
But of all the stories that she read to me—and I devoured myself as soon as I could read—none mattered more than Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Snow Queen’. Tucked in between classics like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and ‘The Princess and the Pea’, this lesser-known tale of two friends has been my steadfast companion since I first came across it, in the tattered and faded pages of the 1938 edition of collected Andersen tales that was the lock, stock and barrel of my early journeys into the realm of the written word.
The story’s protagonists are friends Kai and Gerda: two children of humble backgrounds living in adjacent attics in a large city. They lead a simple but joyful life, enjoying each other’s company and their small rose garden planted in a wooden box in front of their house. In the first of the tale’s seven parts, we learn that the devil and his helpers once created a mirror that showed only ugliness and hatred to the beholder. After the mirror breaks into a million pieces, two tiny splinters lodge themselves into Kai: one into his heart and one into his eye. Subsequently, he becomes cold and vicious, insulting his friend Gerda and turning away from her. One day, playing with new friends, he hitches his sled onto the carriage of the Snow Queen and is whisked away to her kingdom far away in the North. On the way, the Snow Queen kisses him to make Kai immune to the cold and to forget his old life.
Not knowing what has happened to her friend and refusing to believe him dead, Gerda sets out alone to find him. During the search for her companion, the young girl must overcome many obstacles and encounters many interesting creatures and characters who all end up assisting her in one way or another on her quest. When Gerda finally arrives at the Snow Queen’s castle, she finds Kai on the brink of freezing to death, desperately trying to solve an impossible puzzle the Snow Queen had given him, that would allow him to escape if he were to solve it.
Overjoyed at finding Kai, Gerda runs up to greet him. But with the splinters still lodged firmly in his eye and heart, Kai does not recognize his friend. Devastated, Gerda breaks down and cries against his chest. The warmth of her tears melts the ice piece in his heart. Realising he still does not know who she is, Gerda sings their favourite song and he, too, breaks into tears, washing the second splinter from his eye. That instant, Kai’s cheeks become rosy and he is at once healthy and well, falling into his friend’s arms as he finally realises who she is. Together they dance so joyously that even the puzzle pieces are caught up in it. When they finally stop, tired but happy, the puzzle pieces fall to the ground and spell the very word that releases Kai from his bond with the Snow Queen.
With the help of Gerda’s previous allies, the two make their way home. When they finally arrive, they realise that while everything there is still the same, they have become grown-ups. But they are adults who remain children at heart.
For many years, I could not—for the life of me—figure out what it was about this story that captivated me so, that had me ask my mother to read it to me over and over. And then later, when I was given a record of a musical version, that had me listen to it until I knew its songs by heart and the needle would skip a groove for wear.
After all, unlike my other favourite heroines, Pippi and Matilda—who commanded Herculean strength and telekinesis, respectively—little Gerda had no superpowers.
Or so I thought.
Furthermore, the Snow Queen was no über-villain. She merely went about her wintry business and Kai happened to hitch a ride to the wrong cart. There is no ‘boss battle’ at the end of this tale. No devil or minion gets killed in the entirety of its seven parts to avenge for the atrocities resulting from the broken mirror. Evil somehow goes unpunished. Yet there is a happy ending nonetheless. In sum, on its surface, this fairy tale seemed a bit, well, odd.
And still … Something about it was thrilling to me beyond compare, and it resonated. Deeply.
As I grew into my teens and finally got rid of the Agranulocytosis, I became enamoured with longer and more complicated narratives. The Andersen Tales moved further and further along on the bookshelves, and Kai and Gerda relocated to a small corner in the back of my head.
It wasn’t until many years later, while I was grappling with grief in my mid-twenties, that Kai and Gerda resurfaced on the scene and I finally figured out why they mattered so much back then, and why, after all these years, they still matter to me today. And while I understand there are many other psychological and philosophical layers, as well as some obvious Christian themes that Andersen intended to convey with the story, it seems that at some point in our lives, all of us will experience Kai’s ordeal in one form or another. Sometimes life just isn’t fair. Bad things happen for no apparent reason. Kai certainly had no hand in his affliction with the mirror’s splinters just as much as I had no choosing in becoming ill at such a young age. The devil’s shards come in many shades and forms: illness, loss, abandonment, depression or abuse to name but a few. And sometimes, when that happens, all we can do is grin and bear it. For no matter how hard we try to escape those circumstances, we just can’t find a way out on our own. We are trapped in our own ice palaces.
Andersen’s core message then lies not in having to fight and defeat evil to escape those circumstances—Gerda does not battle the Snow Queen to save Kai—but rather in recognising, pursuing and preserving the things that connect us. To focus on our shared humanity to overpower the forces of hardship. To trust in and uphold our faith in each other to melt those shards.
The main protagonist in this story is perhaps neither Kai nor Gerda, but rather their deep bond and true friendship. Philia. The love that Aristotle called ‘friendship of the good’. It is this virtue that will ultimately help Gerda find and free Kai.
This becomes quite clear from my favourite (almost Pratchettian) dialogue in the story, in which one of Gerda’s allies, a reindeer, asks a Finnish woman who has magical powers to help her prepare for the impending encounter with the Snow Queen:
“Won’t you give this little girl something to drink that will make her as strong as twelve men, so that she may overpower the Snow Queen?”
“Twelve strong men,” the Finn woman sniffed. “Much good that would be …”
“But can’t you fix little Gerda something to drink which will give her more power?”
“No power that I could give could be as great as that which she already has. Don’t you see how men and beasts are compelled to serve her, and how far she has come in the wide world since she started out in her naked feet? We mustn’t tell her about this power. Strength lies in her heart, because she is such a sweet, innocent child. If she herself cannot reach the Snow Queen and rid little Kai of those pieces of glass, then there’s no help that we can give her.”
It is a simple, yet powerful concept, which—with futurists pinpointing the singularity where computers will surpass human-level intelligence as early as 2029—becomes vital if the Human Race is to endure on this planet. It is astounding, then, how progressive and on point this over 170-year-old tale still is today.
And, in hindsight, how Gerda is the most badass heroine of my childhood. Because of course she had a superpower. It just wasn’t that obvious. It was Kindness. And although Gerda was never high and mighty, she mattered. She made a difference. We all do. We all can.
We all should.