We all need to hear or read a simple story sometimes. I increasingly enjoy going back to stories written for children – but fundamentally they’re written for humans, so that gives me the permission, as I am one of those (or trying to be).
I enjoyed The Snow Queen (written 1845) as a child because it was sparkly, pretty, exciting and mysterious. I saw it again recently as an adult, with an eight year old friend – it was slightly less sparkly, fairly earthy rather than pretty, but just as exciting and mysterious.
I would say that’s rather like growing up – life develops rough edges, becomes less pretty and more complex, and its challenges remain.
The story is itself exactly like this too. It is about two best friends, a boy called Kay and a girl called Gerda. They live with their grandmother and play amongst the flowers each day. All is innocent and happy. They sing the song ‘Roses bloom and cease to be, But we shall the Christ-child see.’
There is in existence, however, a mirror (created by a Hobgoblin years before), which unfortunately has the nasty skill of distorting the truth – everything that is beautiful is reduced to nothing, and everything that is evil is magnified. A person looking in the mirror sees the worst side of everything. A confusing state of affairs you might say. Most awful of all – the mirror has become broken and shattered into millions of pieces of glass all over the earth. Instead of one dangerous mirror, we have its powers multiplied – infecting everything.
Time passes, the children grow a little, and a tiny piece of the mirror makes its way into Kay’s eye and heart. Disaster – particularly as once it is in there, he cannot feel it. He is immune to its corruption and it becomes his ‘normal’. He soon finds himself under the spell of the Snow Queen (who happens to be around in the area) and who is a control freak, to say the least. She seems protective and caring, but only wishes to trap him from being his true self and living an authentic life. He is taken away by her and is to serve her only.
So not only can he not see anything rightly or justly, but he loses his identity, sense of self and is manipulated by the Snow Queen. He forgets his past and his content life with Gerda, and has even told Gerda she is ugly when she cries. He prefers the cold-hearted Snow Queen who never cries (probably because she was told when she was a child it was the wrong thing to do). You could say this is an existential crisis. Kay tries to pray, but forgets how to.
Gerda has a difficult journey to rescue him. She is alone and scared, but finds people and creatures in the forest to help her along the way. She also prays while she is travelling. I’d say she was better placed than Kay to survive – however hard life gets, she knows who she is and has some friends – who like her for who she is.
After much adventure, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s palace, finds Kay, and bursts into tears of joy. Her tears save the day – and quite literally the life and soul of Kay, as they fall on him, and melt the glass in his heart. He in turn ‘feels’ again, hence cries also – his own tears pushing out the piece of glass in his eye so that he recognises his friend.
I always get slightly choked up at this point in the story. The children in the audience are usually just happy and relieved that Kay and Gerda are best mates again, but for me it is the journey of suffering and forgiveness being the most profound forces for change in a person’s life. Kay’s personhood is redeemed by the warmth and honesty of Gerda’s tears. He doesn’t recognise her but she recognises him for his true worth, and that is what transforms him. The tears that repelled him are now the very tears that restore his true humanity.
‘And the moral of the story is…’ – well, there could be many on an individual and world level. Six come to mind: usually the people who trap us or don’t encourage us to flourish are themselves trapped. Loving someone and not giving up on them is the catalyst for them to love themselves, (and is the foundation of the Christian faith). Be mindful of which eyes you see the world with – the eyes of judgement or the eyes of empathy. The journey of life may seem insurmountable but support comes from unlikely places and the kindness of strangers has great benefit – Gerda took a risk by giving out her true self in the forest, and offered kindness along the way – in turn she got kindness back and gained respect. People become powerful but it doesn’t mean they are the right people to give power to. The corrupted mirror gave enhanced visibility to the wrong people, while diminishing other people and emotions who should not have been. Many things in life are transient – some things are not and are worth holding to – hence the line they sing about roses and the Christ-child.
Kay is impressed by the Snow Queen’s wealth and beauty yet in the midst of that he forgets who he is, and the things that used to make him happy, including prayer. Gerda on the other hand, is able to hold on to who she is and doesn’t give up on the more humble, less materialistic aspects of life, and ultimately reaches her destination saving her friend from a terrible existence.
At the end of the story when the children are back with their grandmother, Hans Christian Andersen has the grandmother speak a line from Matthew 18 verse 3 ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ When we think of the qualities of a child – spontaneous, open, and most of all not scared to be who they naturally are – these are also the sturdy qualities we can lead life with. Kay’s journey could be seen as a coming of age tale – he becomes immersed in a complex world and chooses to grow up too quickly gathering the baggage and corruption of adulthood, and the person he was is forgotten. So that line in the bible taken more broadly is about asking us to accept who we are – and go to God, our family and friends, as ourselves – nothing more. It’s a hard thing to do, because it’s hard to recognise that strength of character in fact comes in being vulnerable.
It’s also at the heart of the Christmas message when in Christina Rossetti’s poem ‘earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone’ – and amongst this we wonder what we have to give to a world which is still just as hard, hostile and seemingly impenetrable. But Gerda’s tears melted something bigger and more powerful than her. Even if we are laden with wealth and material luck, none of that will make any difference if it’s not given with the gift of love and authenticity – and by far the most important are the latter two.