Frozen, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Enduring Nature of Loss

This week I saw the Disney movie Frozen, and though I enjoyed it, it bore little resemblance to the story it was supposedly based on, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen,  a story I have always loved. Gone were the Lapland woman and the Finland woman too, and nowhere to be found was the garden without roses, not the raven nor the red shoes floating in the river. And what of the curious introduction in the original tale of the mirror that distorted anything viewed in it, the hobgoblin or demon or troll who broke that mirror into shards, the pieces falling down from the heavens to be made into spectacles or windowpanes or splinters one could barely feel? This was also gone.

Gone too was the bandit child or robber maiden sleeping with her knife under her pillow, who, in the version I own would ask Kai near the end of the tale “I wonder if you are worth the trouble of running to the ends of the world for?,”  a question for which there was no really good answer. To answer it would mean that Gerda had a choice, and like Gretel following Hansel, like Lyra following Roger in Pullman’s His Dark Materials into the underworld, like the Mermaid leaving the sea for land, when you love enough there is no choice. For Gerda, what she might lose along the way in this journey could never be more than what she’d already lost.

This is a feeling I understand well. I once wrote in a class essay about losing my brother that sometimes it is as if as people, and especially as artists we are compelled to follow the dead, compelled to seek those we love who have gone from us, to seek the traces of them under rock or insect wing, in stories, even in ourselves, in our inability to let go, in, as Laure-Anne Bosselaar would say in Small Gods of Grief, our “petition to be inconsolable,” our refusal to become whole. It is as if that wholeness would imply the boy or man or woman or child had not wounded us with their leaving, as if their presence had never mattered, and so we embrace a kind of desperate bloodied love, remain unstitched, undone.

In the movie, we watch as Anna’s last act before turning completely into solid ice is to place herself between her sister Elsa and a death blow aimed at her. We watch the ice rise up to cover Anna, ending at her upturned hands. We watch the blow fall and for a moment, we believe that when it strikes her fingertips Anna will shatter like the mirror at the beginning of the original tale. But it doesn’t break her. This is a Disney movie after all, so the princess lives, her goodness rewarded while wickedness is punished. It was sweet, and charming, and to my soul ultimately unsatisfying.

In the stories there was always a series of losses after that initial one (the loss of the boy/man propelling the journey in the first place). These losses might be small ones, like Gerda’s beloved red shoes, or not so small, like the Mermaid’s voice. In the end of the tales, not all the boys/men are recovered, not all the girls/women make it home. No matter what has been recovered by the end of the tale, no heroine ever recovers everything lost by her on the journey. No Humpty Dumpty  put back together perfectly.

Even if I am not broken by loss, brother, I am still marked, put back together imperfectly, stuck in the frozen midst of this winter where no roses will bloom, listening to the ravens tell me tales of where you might have gone. But in my dreams I am telling this other story, the one in which:

Everything was just as they had left it, and the old clock ticked in the corner, and the hands pointed to the time…The roses clustered round the open window, and there stood their two little chairs…All the cold empty grandeur of the Snow Queen’s palace had passed from their memory like a bad dream…And there they both sat, grown up…

and it was summer—warm, beautiful summer.

-Hans Christian Andersen, “The Snow Queen.”

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