The Snow Queen

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The “Amoco” Giveaway

Weird but true: my relationship with Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” started with a gas station. A small children’s book edition of the tale was given out as part of a promo at Amoco gas stations in 1989. This is the first time I’d ever read the story and it started a lifelong love affair.

First published in 1844, “The Snow Queen” is one of the unique fairy tales that Hans Christian Andersen penned himself. Unlike the Grimm Brothers who collected traditional folktales told in their country, Andersen most often wrote brand-new, original stories in the same vein. Many of the most famous fairy tales today, such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Ugly Duckling” we owe to Andersen’s brilliant imagination as they have no antecedent in traditional folklore.

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Illustration by Kay Nielsen

Told in seven parts, the story of “The Snow Queen” begins with two children, Kai and Gerda, who are neighbors in their small town. Their houses are connected by a small garden between and they love to play and tend roses there together. One winter’s day a piece of enchanted mirror flies into Kai’s eye and it distorts his vision so that everything beautiful in the world appears to him as ugly. He turns his back on his friendship with Gerda and becomes mean and cruel. While playing with a gang of rough-and-tumble neighborhood boys he unknowingly hitches his sled onto the sleigh of the evil Snow Queen and she drives him off to her wintery palace. Gerda sets out after them, resolute in her desire to free Kai from the Snow Queen’s icy clutches. She travels far and wide on her quest, meeting princesses, ravens and robbers along the way. Finally, standing within the frozen halls of the Snow Queen’s polar palace, Gerda discovers that the power of love is the only thing that can destroy the Snow Queen’s formidable hold over Kai.

Over the years Andersen’s story has been adapted for nearly every art form – theater, music, film and opera to name a few. As part of my fairy tale year I explored many of the most significant adaptations throughout the month of March and wanted to share a few of my favorites here.

The 1957 Russian animated film was the first movie adaptation of the story. I watched the 1990’s English dub for the first time last month and I was impressed at the level of artistry on display. It’s not surprising to discover that master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki credits it as one of his inspirations for working in the field. The film adheres very closely to Andersen’s original storyline and I can’t help but wish that Disney’s Frozen had similarly stayed true to its original source material. Frozen has been acclaimed for its supposed feminist stance but Andersen’s original is even more so in the fact that the story involves a girl saving a boy.

4421670Joan Vinge’s 1980 novel adapts the tale for adult science fiction readers and was one of the first in the genre to include a cast of almost-exclusively female main characters. In the book Gerda and Kai are transformed into the characters Moon and Sparks, two lovers literally separated by time and space by the all-powerful Arienrhod, the Snow Queen who rules their planet. In her quest to reunite with Sparks Moon must uncover and confront numerous secret political machinations. She holds not only Sparks’s fate in her hands but that of their entire world. Andersen’s tale works well in this retelling as an epic journey across an alien landscape. Vinge’s novel starts out a bit verbose and flowery but soon becomes action-filled and tightly-paced. It’s shocking that such a vast and sprawling yarn can fit into less than five hundred pages and demonstrates Vinge’s masterful storytelling.

The 2002 film Snow Queen is the sweet, modern take on the tale you would expect from a Hallmark production. On my first viewing I appreciated the development of the relationship between Gerda and Kai in the first half, but this time around I found the second half more intriguing. Screenwriter Simon Moore (The 10th Kingdom) cleverly ties the main parts of Gerda’s journey to save Kai into the revolving seasons – in this version Gerda meets the Snow Queen’s three sisters who rule each of the other seasons respectively. From each she learns a different aspect of maturation: the Spring Witch wants to keep Gerda an eternal child; the Summer Princess possesses an adolescent preoccupation with choosing a mate; and finally, the Autumn Robber teaches Gerda the strength and courage she’ll need as an adult. This helps develop Gerda’s character and amplifies the importance of her relationship with Kai. Gerda and Kai’s eventual return home at the end is deservedly emotional and richly satisfying.

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Tiffany Amber Knight as the Snow Queen

Composer Paul K. Joyce’s lyrical 2003 concert oratorio The Snow Queen was adapted for film by the BBC in 2005 with mixed results. I purchased the CD of the score when it was released prior to the film and was enchanted and moved by Joyce’s music. James Andrew Hall was responsible for the film adaptation and most of what’s wrong with it resides in his teleplay. Many of the most moving musical passages in the score are either eliminated (“The Mirror and Its Fragments”) or marred by dialogue (Kai’s rescue by Gerda during “The Snow Queen’s Palace”). Luckily the best song, “Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep” is retained and filmed adequately if not profoundly. Much was made at the time of the CGI special effects. They do give a “moving storybook” feel to the film but more often than not they seem to hinder the action rather than enhance it. Tiffany Amber Knight, however, is dazzling in her glorious CGI raiment as the Snow Queen.

My favorite adaptation of the tale also premiered in 2005 at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago. It’s a folk musical version created by Michael Peter Smith. As a birthday present my partner bought us tickets to see the recent Park Square Theatre production in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I was enchanted by how beautifully it captured the spirit of the story. A talented ensemble of actor/musicians, haunting music and gorgeous physical design brought the tale to life and I felt like a child again, discovering the story for the first time. It was a truly moving experience that brought tears to my eyes several times.

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“The Snow Queen” at Park Square Theatre

Emily Gunyou Halaas brought a warm presence to her multiple roles including the Narrator and Mother. I especially enjoyed the lovely lullaby she sang as the Finn Woman to Gerda right before the climactic scene in the Snow Queen’s castle. Similarly, Caroline Amos and Silas Sellnow were perfect as Gerda and Kai and Sara Ochs provided a memorable turn as the Sami Woman who led the hilariously punny “Fish Song”.

It’s unfortunate that no official recording has been made of the show since the score is absolutely beautiful. Luckily I was able to find a YouTube video of one of my favorite songs, a duet between Kai and the Snow Queen. It’s a great way to close out my fairy tale month of March:

The Problem of the Beast

Like every fairy tale, “Beauty and the Beast” has had to metamorphose throughout the centuries to remain relevant to each succeeding generation. Unlike other popular tales such as “Cinderella” and “Snow White”, however, “Beauty and the Beast” has seen a profound shift in the character that is the focal point of the story. Beauty, the central character in the original versions, takes the backseat to the Beast in later retellings. In some cases this also heavily changes the moral of the tale, undermining its ultimate effectiveness.

As mentioned earlier in this blog, Madame Leprince de Beaumont’s tale (1756) was heavily inspired by Madame de Villeneuve’s original tale published in 1740. Villeneuve’s version is mainly concerned with sustainment of the period’s social class system: Beauty’s sisters are condemned for aspiring to an upper class into which they were not born, and in Villeneuve’s lengthy epilogue it is revealed that Beauty is not a common merchant’s daughter, but a royal fairy changeling – a proper bride for any enchanted Prince.

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Illustration by Eleanor Vere Boyle

In contrast, Beaumont’s version does not concern itself with social castes. Instead, her version focuses on the complications of arranged marriages. In Beaumont’s time, and for many centuries to come, it was standard practice for young women of a certain social status to be married off to wealthy, socially-acceptable mates that, more often than not, were complete strangers to them. Beaumont’s text is sensitive to this issue and its primary objective is to assuage the fears of young women who find themselves in the predicament and offer them hope that eventual romantic love can be a possibility in such a situation. Folklorists have dubbed “Beauty and the Beast” the first “psychological” fairy tale, and the main reason for this is Beauty’s journey in Beaumont’s tale. She holds the primary power in the story. It is only through her own inward transformation that the Beast’s outward transformation can occur. The modern era has seen the claim that the story of “Beauty and the Beast” is an example of Stockholm syndrome, but this argument completely overlooks the historical background of the original tale and the topic of arranged marriages that it makes its central focus.

Because of the eventual denunciation of the practice of arranged marriages in most Western cultures, modern interpretations of the fairy tale have had to work around this issue to varying levels of success. The primary way to do this has been to shift the main spotlight away from Beauty and transfer it to the Beast.

At the end of Beaumont’s  story, the Beast of the fairy tale’s title is transformed into a handsome prince:

“A wicked fairy had condemned me to remain under that shape,” the Prince explains to Beauty in the original English translation, “until a beautiful virgin should consent to marry me.” No other reason is given for this strange punishment besides the apparent “wickedness” of the fairy mentioned.

tumblr_inline_ny50r2ssIT1sacq5r_540This lack of explanation has proved a creative asset to future retellings of the tale, the most obvious of these being the 1991 Disney Studios film. The enchanted Prince in their version is punished with his beastly visage for turning away an old beggar woman seeking shelter from a storm. It is when he refuses her because of her ugly appearance that she reveals her true self and punishes him to life as a Beast. This provides a powerful, direct link to the story’s theme of looking beyond appearances to find beauty within that most other versions don’t include. However, this strength is undermined by a necessary shift in the Beast’s character because of it.

In both the original Villeneuve and Beaumont versions of the story the Beast acts as the perfect gentleman towards Beauty. He shows her kindness and consideration and provides her anything she desires. She truly is mistress of his castle, her slightest whims becoming the Beast’s command. After dinner every night he asks for her hand in marriage and she politely refuses. He assents to this and never forces her into wedlock or indeed to do anything that displeases her. The only real impediment to a possible relationship with Beauty is the Beast’s alarming exterior.

In contrast, the Disney film makes the Beast/Prince “spoiled, selfish and unkind.” He has a quick and raging temper that is often unleashed upon Belle, the film’s Beauty. Instead of any kind of personal transformation of her own, Belle’s role in the story is changed to that of a “domesticator” of this unruly Beast. This unfortunately reduces the importance of Beauty’s role in the story, making her mostly a mother figure, and works to subvert the original theme of the fairy tale. Instead of the possibility of beauty already lurking behind a beastly exterior, the theme of this version is that beauty can only be found in a Beast if his savage nature is tamed.

Jean Cocteau attempts something similar in his 1946 film and ends up crafting something much more interesting in the process. Instead of a nasty temper, the main problem of Cocteau’s Beast concerns his actual beastliness. He is a full-fledged animal/human hybrid, trying to reconcile these two opposite natures within himself. When dining with Beauty he appears the perfect gentleman – well-dressed and conversant, if admitting that he’s no wit. At night, however, he succumbs to his feral side, hunting animals in the forests outside his castle and startling Beauty several times in her bedchamber after his midnight romps. There is no concrete resolution to this Beast’s dilemma – he does transform into a handsome prince, but he looks exactly like Avenant (a character Disney drew from for their brutish Gaston), a handsome but roguish would-be suitor of Beauty whom she has refused. This physical similarity to Avenant at first throws Beauty off. When asked by the Prince if she is displeased by his resemblance to Avenant, Beauty responds first with “Yes” and then a smiling “No.”

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Jean Marais as the Prince and Josette Day as Beauty

The Prince tells Beauty at the film’s conclusion: “Love can make a Beast of a man. It can also make an ugly man handsome.” This intentional blurring of the morality of the tale runs deeper than Disney’s take and provides a more satisfying modern sensibility to the story: Beauty comes to discover that she can be alternately attracted to and repulsed by a potential domestic partner – she can enjoy both the beast in the man and the man in the beast.

The duel for the main spotlight between contemporary Beauties and Beasts comes to its most happy medium in the 1987 television series created by Ron Koslow. The setting for this version is updated to twentieth century New York City. The Beast, named Vincent, dwells in the tunnels below the city with an entire community of people who have found themselves cast off from the cruel and unforgiving World Above. His Beauty, Catherine Chandler, works as an Assistant District Attorney and through this comes face-to-face with the evils of her metropolitan society. With Vincent’s help she often thwarts them.

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Ron Perlman as Vincent and Linda Hamilton as Catherine

Similar to Beaumont’s original envisioning of the Beast, Vincent is a thoughtful and compassionate humanitarian. He is the embodiment of a fully developed, spiritual human being, reading classical literature in his spare time and reciting poetry at the drop of a hat. However, as with Cocteau’s Beast, Vincent also battles the animal side of his nature throughout the run of the show. There is no ultimate transformation for him, though – Vincent’s intangible and unexplained existence as a man/beast is permanent and something both he and Catherine must learn to cope with as the series progresses. But unlike previous Beauties, Catherine has an even footing with her mate: she is not his captor and moves independently between his realm and her own. For the first time since Beaumont, then, the ultimate decision of whether Beauty and the Beast can be a pair is placed once again in Beauty’s hands.

These unique twists provide an even balance between the two characters, resulting in a satisfying drama and romance, one that was unfortunately cut short due to actress Linda Hamilton leaving the show. Perhaps if the show had lasted even a season or two longer we might have a contemporary “Beauty and the Beast” that actually outshines its already impressive origins.

Year of the Fairy Tale

I love fairy tales; so much, in fact, that I’ve decided to dedicate my 2016 reading and viewing year to them. Each month I plan on immersing myself in a different fairy tale: reading various fictional retellings, viewing film adaptations and perhaps even delving into some scholarly literary criticism. I’ve included the full list of fairy tales I plan to read throughout the year at the bottom of this post.

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Illustration by H.J. Ford

January I devoted to “Rumpelstiltskin”. It seemed a good place to start – a simple tale devoted to the power of truth and names. I quickly consumed Jonathan Carroll’s 1988 novel Sleeping in Flame, a modern sequel to the story. I loved it right up until the end when things seemed tied up much too neatly and then Carroll threw a wrench in the works and turned everything unsatisfactorily upside down. I still gave it three stars for the fantastic buildup and would’ve added more had the payoff been better.

The Surlalune Fairy Tale Web Site (which I absolutely love, by the way, and frequently visit) recommended the book Possession by A.S. Byatt as a “Rumpelstiltskin” retelling. It’s not an easy read and took up what was left of the reading month for me. I enjoyed it, but I was left scratching my head trying to figure out what exactly was the connection to “Rumpelstiltskin”.

Curiously, there have been no exemplary film adaptations of “Rumpel”. The musical Cannon Movie Tale comes the closest, so I watched it, but it’s rather dull and the songs aren’t as memorable as other installments in that series. Similarly, Shelley Duvall’s Faerie Tale Theatre dedicated an episode to retelling the tale but it, too, is one of that series’ lesser efforts.

I didn’t get around to viewing some other movies on my list, one being the 1995 horror film Rumpelstiltskin, though I’ve heard it’s dreadful. Intriguingly, Terminator 2 shares some story similarities with the fairy tale, but I didn’t get the opportunity to re-watch that either.

February soon commenced and I promptly put aside the rough German earthiness of “Rumpelstiltskin” and ensconced myself in the heady, perfume-scented French fairy tale world of “Beauty and the Beast”. It’s perhaps my favorite fairy tale, so it was difficult to choose between the many various retellings in existence.

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Illustration by Walter Crane

I started out reading Jerry Griswold’s The Meanings of Beauty and the Beast. I thought this would be a piece of literary criticism similar in scope and style to Betsy Hearne’s excellent Beauty and the Beast: Visions and Revisions of an Old Tale, but it’s actually very different. It includes many texts of various early versions of the story, along with modern short story interpretations. Griswold dabbles a bit with explication in the last two sections of the book, the first analyzing the various illustrations the tale has inspired through the years and the second providing an interesting queer perspective on the Cocteau and Disney films. I wish there had been more of this type of folkloric study in the book, but all things considered it is an excellent resource for new researchers of the tale.

I next went on to read Tanith Lee’s mesmerizing collection of short stories Red As Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer. I plan on writing a separate entry on that volume, so I’ll step away from it for now.Beauty Robin McKinley Cover

I’m finishing out the month reading my favorite “Beauty and the Beast” retelling of them all – Robin McKinley’s Beauty. It’s been the ultimate comfort read for me ever since I read it during a flu spell in middle school. Picking it up again always feels like going home. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so. You’ll never forget it.

I’m also in the process of watching many film versions of “Beauty and the Beast”, but this entry is getting rather long, so I think I’ll save my thoughts on those for another time, too.

Fairy tales are so amazingly malleable – it’s truly a delight to revel in all these various new interpretations of them. I’m liking this year already.

KYLE’S FAIRY TALE YEAR

  • JANUARY – Rumpelstiltskin
  • FEBRUARY – Beauty and the Beast
  • MARCH – The Snow Queen
  • APRIL – Sleeping Beauty
  • MAY – The Twelve Dancing Princesses
  • JUNE – The Little Mermaid
  • JULY – Rapunzel
  • AUGUST – Red Riding Hood
  • SEPTEMBER – Snow White
  • OCTOBER – Bluebeard
  • NOVEMBER – Hansel and Gretel
  • DECEMBER – Cinderella

Robin Hood…Part 2

The second disc of Robin Hood: Season 2 takes a much more serious turn. This set of four episodes is, in my opinion, probably the best thus far of the series.

I’m glad that the stories are finally becoming more mature, the characters (for the most part) are being given more depth, and the stakes are higher. These central four episodes of this season are pretty much all about life, death and liberty.

“Angel of Death” is the first episode to show just how evil the Sheriff of Nottigham really is. Poisoning a whole section of Nottingham just to test a chemical weapon? That’s just bad with a capital B. The first big Death comes in this episode, too, upping the ante quite a bit for the show. There are several more deaths to come on this disc.

“Ducking and Diving” is a bit more lighthearted than “Angel,” but still has a dark streak running through it. I loved Josie Lawrence’s portrayal of Matilda. She should become a regular! She stole the whole show. It’s in this episode that Robin unmasks Allan as a traitor.

I’m still unsure how I feel about this whole subplot. It seemed to come out of nowhere and feels completely out of character for Allan. It definitely adds an interesting element to the storyline, but something about it seems forced. Perhaps it’s just the way it was handled. I think it might have worked better if they developed the whole betrayal theme over more time, and gave Allan a really solid reason for turning on Robin. Right now it just feels like Allan’s doing it because the writers need him to do it for the story.

“For England…!” is my favorite episode of the entire series so far. The love triangle between Robin, Marian and Guy is really the centerpiece of this episode. I love how we see another side of Guy, trying to protect Marian even if it costs him his own neck. I love the letter Robin writes to Marian, thinking it will surely be his last. I love Marian’s last look at Robin as she’s leaving Sherwood riding behind Guy. Robin’s gang dressed up as minstrels is also a hoot to watch. Love the headwear!

“Show Me the Money” is a close second for best episode on this disc. I appreciated the more lighthearted subplot with Knight John. His love story provided a nice counterpoint to Robin and Marian’s. I’m glad Marian’s dad Edward finally had a chance to step up to the plate and help fight for England. This episode includes a most heartbreaking conclusion that truly moved me.

As you can see I’ve ended up really enjoying this season. I know other fans seem to be pretty harsh on it, but I’m glad the show has grown and developed since the last. The first season’s episodes were fun and diverting but I find this season’s episodes to be overall more memorable. I have yet to see all of this season, however, so my opinion could change.

I do have one criticism about this season, however. The members of Robin’s gang aren’t being given enough screen time for us to really get to know them. There are some great stories that could be written around the characters of Djaq and Will and Much and Little John, but they simply aren’t being done. That’s a shame. With a cast this good that’s a total waste. I’m hoping they remedy this soon.

Oh, and here’s a question I’ve been wondering for a while now–where is Friar Tuck? Was he deemed as simply not being interesting enough to include? I’ll have to do some research…

So–on to disc three! I wait in eager anticipation.

 

We Are Robin Hood…

The other night the fam and I watched disc one of the BBC’s Robin Hood: Season Two. Overall I think I’m actually enjoying this season more than the first. The show has always been a bit “Indiana Jones”-ish in that it’s more about the adventure and fun than anything terribly serious or weighty. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in my opinion.

I liked the introduction of the Sheriff’s sister in the first episode, “Sisterhood,” but I wish they would have kept her in the story for more than one episode. It was nice to have a villainess for a change.

The casino in “Booty and the Beast” at first made me have flashbacks to the horrible “ninja” episode from season one. What were the producers thinking with that episode? “Booty” didn’t turn out to be that bad, though, and I was thrilled that it introduced a character similar to the Scarlet Pimpernel, one of my other favorite stories. Hopefully he’ll turn up for some more fun sometime in the future. I also enjoyed the whole “breaking into the vault” subplot with Robin and his band. It was a nice little quest for them. What fun.

“Childhood” was a good episode, though not quite as memorable as the first two, in my opinion. The kids were cute and did a good job.

So now we just have to wait for disc two to come in the mail from Netflix. Too bad I’m poor right now. I wish I could just go out and buy the set, like I did with Season One…