Some of the first stories many children grow up with are fairy tales or fables. Though many may be introduced to fairy tales first by their film versions instead of print, fairy tales doesn’t appear to going anywhere. Disney has capitalized on taking classic fairy tales and spinning them into animated feature films. Their newest creation, Frozen, seems to be on everyone lips (for good or worse), and we can’t seem to let go of “Let It Go.” Adults are probably aware that Disney’s “inspiration” for the film was Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. For children and adults who watched the film, recommending The Snow Queen is a great way to introduce Andersen’s fairy tales.
The Snow Queen is the story of two best friends, Kai and Gerda, who are as fond of each other as if they were brother and sister. But after Kai gets a piece of broken glass stuck in his eye and his heart (he doesn’t know they’re there), he turns means and sullen. When a beautiful Snow Queen appears and offers him a chance to leave town, he ties his sleigh to her carriage and rides away with her into the sky. Now, the bit about the broken glass? That was the work of villainous trolls who wanted to take a magnificent mirror they made to the heavens. The mirror made things who looked hideous look lovely and things that look lovely look hideous as it reveals a person’s true nature. But on their way to the heavens, the mirror breaks into a million billion pieces and the pieces fall to earth. The pieces of the mirror, some no bigger than a grain of sand, make the person see only the bad in the world. If a sliver of the mirror pierces a person’s heart, their heart would turn to a lump of ice. Kai’s heart is rapidly turning to ice with no help in sight, but even worse? His family believes him to be dead.
Months go by, but Gerda doesn’t believe him dead. Gerda sets out on a perilous journey to save her best friend. She talks to the river, to trees, to flowers, to an old woman who works magic to keep Gerda at her house, to a Lapland woman, to a Finn woman, and to a reindeer before reaching the palace of the Snow Queen. Kai is bone cold, almost dead, and it is only Gerda’s love for her him, her warm tears and tender kisses that thaw the ice inside him.
This fairy tale is much more accessible for children than some of the classic Grimm or Perrault tales. For adults concerned about violence and sex, there is none in The Snow Queen. This isn’t to say that there aren’t complicated themes and motifs here because there certainly are, but there aren’t witches who have to dance to death in red-hot shoes or stepsisters who have their eyes pecked out by crows. It’s a bit of an atypical fairy tale because there isn’t one true villain to hate. The trolls are the most likely candidates as they created the mirror. The Snow Queen doesn’t even die; she wasn’t even keeping Kai hostage, not really. He simply had to figure out a riddle to leave. She wasn’t fattening him up for supper, cursing him to prick his finger on a spindle at age sixteen, or handing him a poison apple. Ultimately, the story is about friendship and the power of love—all kinds of love, not just romantic love.
In a world where more and more conversations are being had about gender roles and stereotypes in literature (especially children’s literature), The Snow Queen abounds with female characters. Kai is only male character. Not only are there multiple female characters, they are vastly different. There is no one form of femininity expressed or favored above the others. The typical gender roles that children would recognize from growing up on princess movies are reversed here. Kai is the damsel in distress, locked away in a palace, waiting to be rescue. Gerda is the knight in the shining armor, but unlike many of princes in stories and movies, she needs nothing extra special about herself to save Kai. She already possesses the power she needs to save her friend.
The only weakness in the story is the part where Gerda is asking all the different flowers if they have seen Kai. They all tell her their stories, but none of them relate to Kai. While there is undoubtedly much meaning to be read into those flowers’ stories, it slows the story down. Some readers may become impatient and just want her to get on with it and go rescue her best friend.
I won’t discuss the similarities and differences between The Snow Queen and Frozen because that would be a series of blog posts, and I need to only do one. But this could serve as a great conversation at a children’s book club in a library or a lesson plan in a classroom or school library. Most of the children will be very familiar with Frozen, if not able to quote most of it and sing the songs at the appropriate times. It presents something they are already enthusiastic about in a new form and challenges them to compare and contrast the two. It could also serve as an introduction to classic fairy tales or even a series where the children compare Disney (or other) movies to fairy tales or myths. If they’re not into Frozen, almost any Disney movie could do. The boys may like Hercules more (or it may have more appeal across both genders), which would still work for a compare and contrast unit on the myth of Hercules and what the Disney movie depicts.
Andersen, H. C. Fairy Tales. Trans. Tiina Nunnally. Ed. Jackie Wullschläger. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.
Readalikes (all non-Disney or movie franchise versions):
The legend of Mulan
Beauty and the Beast
The Little Mermaid (older elementary/early middle school (depending on the kid)—it’s not as pleasant as the movie)
Anything else by Hans Christian Andersen
The Princess Bride