Do you remember the story, by Hans Christian Anderson (1805 – 1875), of the Snow Queen? I thought I knew the story well enough until I re-read it earlier this year to my granddaughters. When I did read it, with fresh eyes, I came to the realization that Anderson was a feminist! And yes, there weren’t any feminists back in the 1800’s, but his story is a radical retelling of the Hero’s Journey with a female protagonist.
So a brief recap: Young Gerda, a girl, and Kay, a boy, are children who are best friends. When an evil mirror is broken into multiple pieces, one small sliver lands in Kay’s eye and another one finds its way into Kay’s heart. As a result, Kay becomes a wise-cracking, sarcastic youth, always finding the fault in everything and loving only math, which he sees as a flawless branch of knowledge.
The Snow Queen then kidnaps Kay. She is neither human nor moral, and appears to treat Kay like a pet (her “boy toy”) and brings him to her ice palace. Her first kiss partially freezes Kays heart and keeps him from experiencing the cold, but she knows not to kiss him a second time because his heart would fully freeze and then he would die.
Meanwhile, Gerda begins a search for Kay that spans many years. An old woman takes her in, hoping for her long term companionship through magic, but Gerda eventually remembers her love for Kay and gently leaves. She later comes to a castle based on a rumor that a new prince might be Kay, but finds out the young prince is not her lost Kay. Her story of her quest and her love for Kay, though, inspires the prince and princess to provide her with transportation and other gifts to help her in her search. She loses these all to robbers and is kidnapped. Gerda does not resist the robbers, though, and her kindness and story inspires the little robber girl to help her escape. She eventually finds the palace of the Snow Queen, and it is her tears of joy that warm Kay’s heart, melting the shard in his heart and washing out the mirror shard in his eye.
The two youths are now teens and their mutual affection is so strong that they are able to return home to their families and marry.
In this story, Anderson depicts a young girl with agency, who approaches everyone with kindness, without guile. In this story, it is the helpless boy that is saved. Gerda saves Kay from a snow spirit that does not seek his best interest, and it is her very human pain of separation and joy in reuniting that saves him. Love and vulnerability wins the day, not strength or science. And it is as an equal, as a friend, that the two young people take each other in marriage.
I have a new respect for Mr. Anderson, and a bit of a desire to re-read his other stories with a fresh eye. Have you found any new interpretations? I’d love to hear of your discoveries.