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Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” is full of wintry metaphors. But do today’s ...
2020-12-26 09:00:00

Chasing the Cold
A Psychoanalytic Reading of “The Snow Queen”

Chasing the Cold

Where is the snow? Will it fall this winter, shrouding our cities and silencing the hubbub of the streets? The winter landscape endures most persistently in childhood fairy tales. It brings with it icy beauty, the promise of eternity, but also a sense of unrest. Let’s take a closer look at the primitive images and dreams reflected in the mirrors of many generations, and the winter metaphors being challenged by the sun.

Read in 11 minutes

There are some dreams that leave us with a single image on waking. This image, surrounded by a strong emotional aura, accompanies us throughout the day – we keep it deep inside, safe and sound. Every now and then, we check to make sure it’s still there, that it hasn’t faded or completely disappeared. For me, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Snow Queen, which my mother used to read to me before bed when I was young, is a dream of the same kind. Much of the plot has long since escaped me, but the image of the icy queen was etched in me forever, like a shard of the broken mirror from Andersen’s story. Because dreams and fairy tales are basically the same world – kindred sanctuaries, removed from the dominion of daytime reason, where the unconscious thrives.

Praise of the shadow

The unconscious is highly eloquent, and it has its own language. It expresses itself through images, and when it wants to communicate something really important, it reaches for primitive images, which Carl Gustav Jung called archetypes. They differ from ordinary images, for example, in their intense emotional colour. They feel alien, but strangely familiar at the same time. This is because each archetype is a collective memory of humanity that has contributed to the universal structure of the psyche. They are part of the common good, everyone ‘understands’ their language. This is why certain elements of dreams and fairy tales resonate so powerfully with us, though not all with the same magnitude. According to Jung, the basic archetypes – such as the Shadow, Anima and Animus, and the Mother and Father – refer to the stages of the individuation process, i.e. personality development. The ultimate goal of this process is the fullness of the self. So for someone who is at the stage of their inner journey where they are struggling with the Shadow, the incarnation of this archetype will have the strongest effect, and for someone who is at the stage of confronting the Mother, the corresponding dream or fairy-tale image will make the greatest impression.

Of course, archetypes in such a pure and unambiguous form appear only in a typology produced for the purposes of scientific theory. In real mental life, primitive images interact, often mixing and creating ambiguous, hybrid wholes that can be troubling and require interpretation. As a rule, each primitive image also combines two opposing poles – positive and negative, constructive and destructive. The rigid demarcation of good and evil is not based in the mental reality, where everything is intertwined and nuanced. White and black appear in ‘impure’ form as various shades of grey. Emotions and events are devoid of clear contours and transparency. In this respect, mental life resembles traditional Japanese aesthetics, as presented in Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. Without shadow, there is neither beauty nor truth. That is why the Great Mother always goes hand in hand with the Terrible Mother – only the two together constitute the archetype.

Touch the stove, touch the ice

Put simply, the Great Mother is nature with her laws of life and death, matter and cosmic cycles, as well as creativity, maturity, wisdom and care. She helps us to find ourselves in life, in the body, to reconcile with the natural course of existence, and provides support in development. As the destructive aspect of this archetype, the Terrible Mother has the opposite effect, standing in the way of development of the self. She does everything in her power to prevent this development – for example, through imprisonment and subordination. In her book Domains of the Imagination: Andersen and Jung, Agnieszka Miernik describes the Terrible Mother as representing “everything that is secret, hidden, an abyss, the world of the dead, everything that devours, seduces and poisons, and everything that is terrifying and that cannot be avoided as one’s fate.” The Terrible Mother of dreams and fairy tales often takes the form of a witch or Greek Moira, a deadly animal-monster such as a dragon or fish that invites people into its abyss, tomb, sarcophagus or watery depths. Sometimes she is the personification of death. Or, of course, an evil queen.

The Snow Queen from Andersen’s fairy tale is also a Terrible Mother – Luna, the ruler of the night and the aurora borealis, bringing cold and death to her life-giving antithesis Mother Nature. She is an icy mother who has frozen and imprisoned the self of a growing boy. As Miernik notes, the relationship between this character and the unconscious is revealed by the location of her royal palace – hidden in the far North, in the impenetrable darkness of the polar night. Night, moon and stars are also attributes of the ancient world of mothers that was defeated over the course of history by Sol Invictus – the Unconquered Sun, a symbol of reason and patriarchy. There can be no doubt that the sleigh in which the Snow Queen comes for Kay, and for all of us, emerged from the depths of collective unconscious and myth.

From the perspective of depth psychology, Kay’s liberation from the dominion of the Snow Queen, which occurs (after numerous twists and turns) at the end of Andersen’s fairy tale, signifies the unblocking of the process of individuation by overcoming one’s fear of life and sacrificing one’s own childhood. In any case, Kay had fantasized about freeing himself from the dominion of the Mother even before his kidnapping; watching the snowflakes, he had half-threatened, half-bragged that he would dissolve the Snow Queen by putting her on the stove.

This sounds like a child’s prank at first, but in fact, the stove refers back to the oldest notions of initiation. In many cultures, it is a female being or a mythological image of the womb: a sacred place for the transformation of life forms and an open path to the other side. It is a kind of metaphysical chamber with a strong matriarchal tone, where the banal baking of bread shifts to the creation of new life, and the woman giving birth and feeding becomes a deity of life and death. On the other hand, heat reveals its ambivalent power – to create and to destroy. The stove is the Mother. Unaware of this, Kay visualizes his own spiritual breakthrough long before he actually experiences it. However, the breakthrough would not be possible without the help of a loving person. Kay needs Gerda, or so Andersen thinks.

Andersen’s love

The Snow Queen differs from Andersen’s other fairy tales in the mystery of its source, as it was not inspired by folklore – its main theme is a product of the author’s imagination. Andersen gave birth to the icy queen himself, extracting her from his heart and head, and making an original contribution to the gallery of archetypal images of the Terrible Mother. This does not mean, however, that she came from nothing.

It is hard to be sure of his inspiration, but the figure of the Snow Queen was quite possibly related to Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, one of the most outstanding opera singers of the 19th century, whom Andersen met in 1840; he wrote his fairy tale about Kay and Gerda a few years later. As you might guess, it was a case of unrequited love: Lind rejected Andersen as a lover, seeing him more like a brother. Supposedly, this led him to perceive in her a Terrible Mother with a piece of ice for a heart. Moreover, it seems that – unlike Kay in the fairy tale – Andersen never managed to put the Snow Queen on the stove in his own inner life.

If the biographers are to be believed, Hans Christian’s love life continued to run up against this archetypal female figure and never achieved fulfilment. The decision made in his youth, as confirmed by an entry in his diary, to completely give up on a sex life was at odds with his fervent prayers for love and marriage. He carried a letter from his first (obviously unhappy) love, Riborg Voigt, in a pouch around his neck for several decades. It was found beside him when he died. The Danish writer loved other women besides Voigt and Lind, but all were unrequited.

He was equally unlucky with men. “I long for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery,” he wrote to Edvard Collin. Collin, however, did not rise to the challenge. The Danish dancer Harald Scharff and Grand Duke Karl Alexander also failed to return Andersen’s affections. So perhaps Kay is Andersen, who dreams of putting the Snow Queen on the stove – of overcoming an obstacle to the development of the self with the help of someone’s love.

The troll-mirror

It’s time to recall what happened to Kay at the beginning of the fairy tale. A long, long time ago, a malicious troll created a mirror that killed all goodness, beauty and love in the world. Whoever looked into the mirror became cynical, cold and calculating. One day, the troll’s servants decided to show the mirror to God himself. They soared up to heaven with it, but because it was very heavy, it fell from their hands and shattered against the earth. Billions of fragments of glass flew into the air and began falling into people’s eyes and hearts, killing their goodness and love. One day, this fate befalls Kay and his heart is transformed into a block of ice. In an instant, the boy becomes heartless and cruel, and when winter comes, he disappears without a trace, chasing the Snow Queen, who came to him in a sleigh and drew him in with her icy charm and grandeur.

In the fairy tale, the queen is represented by snowflakes, and Kay’s fascination with their beauty, combined with the suffering he experiences at their rapid melting, perfectly corresponds to the ancient Greek metaphor of erotic desire as a piece of ice melting in the hand. Addled by passion, Kay reaches the queen’s ice palace in the far North, where he becomes her prisoner. His real life is replaced by studying, mainly maths, and his true feelings by the deceptive proximity of the Snow Queen.

Eventually, Kay was found and set free by the fearless Gerda. During her trip to the North, she had many symbolic adventures, which also helped her to mature. It was thanks to hope, faith and love that Gerda was able to thaw Kay’s heart and bring him back home; at least, that’s what Andersen suggests.

At its deepest, most unconscious level, The Snow Queen is a story of the developing self confronting and triumphing over the Terrible Mother. At the cultural cliché level, it is a romantic parable about the preponderance of feeling and faith over facts and figures, with the ‘better’ values represented by Gerda, who is associated with spring, human warmth, prayer and family, and the ‘worse’ values by the Snow Queen, who is connected with winter, night, and knowledge, especially mathematical. Finally, The Snow Queen can be read as a story about the good, ‘natural’ love of peers as opposed to a boy being seduced by an independent older woman – an artist or an intellectual. Although she gave him both erotic and intellectual stimulation, she could not provide the warmth of ordinary love, home and family.

Let us also pay attention to how femininity is presented in Andersen’s story. The Snow Queen is a strong, sexual woman – and she’s also interested in maths. In 19th century literature, such a view of femininity is almost unheard of. However, Andersen succumbed to his own traumas and turned the queen into evil incarnate, thus weakening the feminist potential of the fairy tale.

The most beautiful images in The Snow Queen, those with the greatest impact, are the descriptions of winter and the queen herself, such as the snowflakes that Andersen calls “white bees”. They appear as the reverse of summer and full bloom, as well as a natural development of the image of the “white queen” who, in the form of the largest snowflake, “many a wintry night […] flies through the streets and peers in through the windows. Then they freeze over in a strange fashion, as if they were covered with flowers.” One day, Kay witnesses her transformation: “A few snowflakes were falling, and the largest flake of all alighted on the edge of one of the flower boxes. This flake grew bigger and bigger, until at last it turned into a woman, who was dressed in the finest white gauze which looked as if it had been made from millions of star-shaped flakes. She was beautiful and she was graceful, but she was ice-shining, glittering ice. She was alive, for all that, and her eyes sparkled like two bright stars, but in them there was neither rest nor peace. She nodded toward the window and beckoned with her hand.” [tr. Jean Hersholt]

There’ll never be such a beautiful winter!

The enchanting winter images of my early childhood have stayed deep within my memory. I wonder if they are still as widely intelligible today as they are for people around my age. After all, I remember the ‘winter of the century’ in 1978. Not only the frost-painted flowers on the windows of our flat, but also the two-piece hooded snowsuits, insulated boots, warm hats and gloves, tightly wrapped scarves and thick layer of Dermosan on the face – the full winter get-up required for my mother to allow me outside to go ice skating or sledging.

Do the images of Andersen’s fairy tales still appeal to people who have never experienced ‘real’ winter? Do they understand the wintry metaphors typical of our latitude describing states of feeling and mind with reference to ice, cold and freezing? Will Claude Sautet’s beautiful film A Heart in Winter with Daniel Auteuil in the lead role, the tale of a man with ‘frozen’ feelings – that is, afraid to love – soon need a new title? And if so, what should it be? What can substitute for a winter metaphor? What takes the place of an imagination shaped by the climate long ago? Should future versions of The Snow Queen have footnotes added explaining to younger readers what snow, ice and frost are? And would that be sufficient – are they even notions that can be understood theoretically? Can the pain caused by a piece of ice in your hand as you stand in the cold with your glove removed be conveyed in words to someone whose warm skin has never tensed at the sting of an icicle?

All these specific questions lead to a more general problem: do parents who remember cold, snowy winters, and their children and grandchildren who have never really experienced this phenomenon, still have a common language, or must they search for one or build it from scratch? Alongside its many other negative effects, is global warming also disrupting the communication continuity of generations? It is more difficult to communicate with someone who doesn’t understand the figurative ‘hair as white as snow’. How can we talk about emotional ‘coldness’ or the life-death-life cycle of vegetation when a soft blanket of snow no longer covers bare fields in winter, plants bear fruit continuously, and the seasons can barely be distinguished from one another?

I would even dare to predict that in the near future our imaginations will have to turn to the Mediterranean Sea for images and metaphors to suit the new climate. We will hastily adapt the Mediterranean winter – typically snowless and above freezing – resulting in a totally different symbolism. In time, the old Snow Queen will be replaced by some new Persephone with a long train of flowers, descending to Hades in winter and returning to earth in spring, and the blanket of snow over harvested fields will become an image of bone-dry soil greedily sucking the last juices of life from the plants. Figurative wintry references to feelings will also have to give way to metaphors associated with aridity as the dry gains an advantage over the cold. We will be left with dreams full of snow, ancient images inhabiting the museum of the mind.


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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Renata Lis

is a writer and translator, whose works include “Lesbos” (a book about love and exile), and completely unique biographies of Flaubert and Bunin, for which she was nominated for awards (one of which she won). She can’t decide whether she’s a pine dreaming of being a palm, or the other way around, so she alternates her travels between Greece and Russia; she’s been as far as Kamchatka.