A Read Aloud Memory: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”

1 Mar

Among my most cherished belongings are a set of leather-bound books that belonged to my mother and her sister. First published in the 1920s, the My  Book House series collects many cherished stories and poems from around the world.  I’m sure my mother read from them often, but the story I most remember is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. Perhaps my memory plays tricks with me, but I recall asking her to read this story again and again.

English: "The Snow Queen"
Image via Wikipedia

The Snow Queen tells of Gerda and Kay, two small children whose apartments under the eaves of their tenements connect via patios. The children love each other very much and play often. As frost creeps across the windows,  Kay’s grandmother tells them of the Snow Queen, the queen of the “white bees,”

she flies where the swarm hangs in the thickest clusters. She is the largest of all; and she can never remain quietly on the earth, but goes up again into the black clouds. Many a winter’s night she flies through the streets of the town, and peeps in at the windows; and they then freeze in so wondrous a manner that they look like flowers.

That night, Gerda dreams of the Snow Queen, watching a flake from the snow storm grow larger until

at last it was like a young lady, dressed in the finest white gauze, made of a million little flakes like stars. She was so beautiful and delicate, but she was of ice, of dazzling, sparkling ice; yet she lived; her eyes gazed fixedly, like two stars; but there was neither quiet nor repose in them. She nodded towards the window, and beckoned with her hand. The little boy was frightened, and jumped down from the chair; it seemed to him as if, at the same moment, a large bird flew past the window.

Unbeknownst to the children the Snow Queen is not just a tale. And, a malicious sprite has stolen the Snow Queen’s mirror and accidentally let it fall to earth. The magic of the mirror is that the Snow Queen’s reflection is young and beautiful despite the reality of her age and ugliness. It allows her to live alone happily in her remote ice castle.

When the mirror’s splinters lodge in humans, however, they create the perception that all that is lovely is hideous, all that is warm is cold: In other words, the splinters kill humanity and compassion.  Splinters lodge in Gerda’s heart and eye, turning him from a lovely boy into a cruel, heartless, and reckless child who abandons his friend, breaking her heart.

The Snow Queen searches the world to collect all the splinters of her mirror so she can restore it. Gerda has the last two pieces and she lures him back to her ice palace where she intends to have him solve the mirror puzzle and then to freeze him and get the last two pieces.

The rest of the story tells of Kay’s determined quest to find and save her friend. She travels many miles (barefoot), escapes enchantment, and even teaches compassion to a wild child. It is a magical tale, full of danger and hope, where love eventually triumphs.

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I’m not sure what drew me to the story as a child, but I couldn’t wait to read it to Culture Sprout from the My Book House edition.  I wanted, I think, to create for her a read aloud moment that matched my own. Or, perhaps, to recreate my own.

She liked it, but to my dismay she didn’t gravitate to it like I did.  Her questing girl heroes traverse Oz.  In thinking about that, I began to realize how dark H.C. Andersen’s tale really is; and how light-yet-moralistic L. Frank Baum’s tomes are.

Then we took Culture Sprout to see a stage adaptation of The Snow Queen by the incomparable American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge. In seeing the story play out (gorgeously) in front of me, I realized just how very dark one might find The Snow Queen. 

Think of the story this way: A strange woman comes to town and lures a young boy to her castle far away where she keeps him imprisoned and intends to kill him. His equally young friend strikes out alone, traveling miles and miles  to find and save him. She is trapped by a witch who wants to keep her forever (she escapes) and by a wild girl who wants to keep her as a pet (she talks her way out of it). Don’t worry. There’s a happy endng.

The A.R.T. production combined music, puppetry, and unrivaled creativity to bring the magic of the tale to the stage. The children (and parents) in our party were riveted. I don’t think any of us thought about the darkness while we were watching the play. But afterword, walking to lunch, we did talk a bit about how fairy tales are cautionary stories, teaching children about the dangers in the world without inciting panic or condescending. The little girls ignored us, twirling their roses and dreaming of snow. Andersen’s tale is timeless and I’m hoping that the A.R.T. production will become an annual treat.

H.C. Andersen’s The Snow Queen still ranks as one of my favorite read alouds, from my childhood and today. Maybe Culture Sprout will let me read it to her again!

Read about World Read Aloud Day and please share a read aloud moment of your own!

(Text in italics quoted from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen.)

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2 Responses to “A Read Aloud Memory: Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen””

  1. rabindranathbehera March 1, 2012 at 2:28 pm #

    Reblogged this on rabindranathbehera.

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