Friday, January 29, 2010

The Snow Queen: A Wintry Gathering

Hans Christian Andersen is rarely read in the original in the U.S.—and not just because most of us don't speak Danish. The truth of the matter is, Andersen's work is generally pared down for modern audiences. His tales were written during a time when people were willing to listen for long stretches, not having been trained to expect TV-quick plots accompanied by visual effects. The world's most famous individual storyteller, Andersen could get away with being flowery in his day.

But times have changed. For example, Disney has commandeered Andersen's best-known story, "The Little Mermaid." Try telling a seven-year-old girl that the titular mermaid wasn't red-haired, wasn't named Ariel, didn't have a lobster friend who sang Caribbean dance music, and even (oh, dear) floated away into the air instead of marrying the prince. Disney has commandeered a lot of other fairy tales, for that matter, so that their animated versions and the accompanying book tie-ins dominate the market as well as children's psyches.

What's more, the long, storybook-style folk- or fairytale is a dying breed, as I discussed in my post of 9-27-09, "How Cinderella Got Twittered." Author Bobbi Miller recently hosted a brilliant discussion of the phenomenon on her website, with insights from a number of authors and editors. Miller was inspired by Betsy Bird's question of last July at Fuse #8: "Where have all the folktales gone?" The upshot is that folk- and fairy tales are being published less often, and when they are, it is almost always with a tighter approach to text.

So I'm fighting progress, after a manner of speaking, in today's post when I talk to those of you who collect books, those who are old-fashioned enough to love old-fashioned storytelling and even to share such tales with your 8- to 10-year-olds. Yes, it's January, and what better time to take a look at four chilly picture book versions of Hans Christian Andersen's long tale, "The Snow Queen"?

The original title is actually "The Snow Queen: A Fairy Tale Told in Seven Stories." In the first of the seven, really a prologue, we learn that the devil has invented a magic mirror that makes everything look ugly. When the mirror breaks, tiny fragments blow through the world, lodging in the hearts and eyes of unfortunate humans. In the second story, Kay and a little girl named Gerda are best friends until Kay gets pieces of the devil's mirror stuck in his eye and his heart. Soon after, he is taken away by the Snow Queen. If you've read about Edward riding off in the White Witch's sleigh in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, you'll find C.S. Lewis' inspiration here. In the third story, Gerda sets out to find Kay, although she is trapped for a time in the home of a seemingly benevolent old woman with a beautiful garden and magical abilities (a summery mirror image of the Snow Queen, really).

The fourth story tells of Gerda's encounter with a crow who tells her the story of a prince and princess. Convinced that the prince is her missing friend, Gerda accompanies the crow to the palace, only to find out that she is mistaken. But the kindly prince and princess equip her with a carriage and food so that she can continue her journey. The luxury doesn't last: the fifth story recounts how Gerda is captured by a tribe of robbers and nearly eaten for dinner. A fierce robber girl takes a fancy to Gerda and keeps her around as a kind of pet, but eventually decides to aid Gerda in escaping to continue her journey. Gerda rides a reindeer farther north, where the sixth story tells of her meeting a Lapp woman and then a Finnish woman. Each gives her further information about the Snow Queen. In the seventh and last story, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen's palace and helps Kay wash out the splinters of evil glass. Then they journey home again.

Although the Snow Queen seems like a pagan goddess, the story is framed by Christian symbolism, including a snatch of an old hymn and a quote from the Bible. These are often edited out or at least summarized by the story's modern retellers.

For each book, I'll give you a taste of the quality of the translation, starting with something very close to the original, a passage taken from a serious tome called Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, translated by Erik Christian Haugard (Anchor Books/Random House, 1983). This is a description of the Snow Queen as she is first glimpsed by Kai (Kay), who is looking out the window through a peephole:

[O]ne of the flakes fell on the edge of the wooden box and stayed there; other snowflakes followed and they grew until they took the shape of a woman. Her clothes looked like the whitest gauze. It was made of millions of little star-shaped snowflakes. She was beautiful but all made of ice: cold, blindingly glittering ice; and yet she was alive, for her eyes stared at Kai like two stars, but neither rest nor peace was to be found in her gaze.

The Snow Queen, translated by Anthea Bell and illustrated by Bernadette Watts (North-South Books, 1987)

Ironically, Anthea Bell is not credited on the cover with this translation. But it is a 1987 edition. Anthea Bell has since earned fame as the translator of Cornelia Funke titles such as Inkheart and The Thief Lord. This version is the most abbreviated of the four, as much a retelling as a translation. In this sense, it is probably the best choice for younger children, say 7- and 8-year-olds, or impatient older children. The language is smooth, but the emphasis on summarizing occasionally gives it a bland feel.

Watts' illustrations, like the storytelling, are simpler than the artwork in the other three books, pleasant but not stunning. They are child-friendly, however, while some of the other books seem to have been illustrated primarily for adults.

The above description of the Snow Queen is not included in this version of the story.

The Snow Queen, edited by Marta Baziuk and illustrated by Vladyslav Yerko (A-Ba-Ba-Ha-La-Ma-Ha Children's Publishers—no, I'm not making that up!—2006; out of print in the U.S., but available used)

This book has won some hotshot international art and book awards; its jacket copy also quotes author Paul Coelho as saying, "This is perhaps the most extraordinary children's book that I have ever seen." We're really focusing on the art, which makes me think of the fantasy artwork of James Christiansen and Daniel Merriam, among others. Russian artist Yerko's paintings are lusciously detailed, a bit baroque even; you'll want to spend time looking at these spreads. The illustrations feel more static than Watts', with perhaps more adult than child appeal, but they are simply gorgeous and will draw the reader in with their ornate strangeness. In tone, they come close to the fantastical surrealism of Alice in Wonderland. I especially like the spread in the Snow Queen's palace, which makes the most of Andersen's otherworldly details—such as Kay attempting to spell out ETERNITY with shards of ice, the impossible task assigned him by the cold queen (see image at top).

The text in this edition contains a solid portion of the original, but cuts a fourth to a third of the phrasing in spots. Most notably, we skip past the long flower garden scene and the hymn quotes. However, the retelling is focused enough that it doesn't feel as if we're just skimming across the surface of Andersen's work. Here is the initial description of the Snow Queen:

The snowflake grew larger and larger, and at last became a maiden clothed in the finest white gauze, made of millions of starry flakes. She was beautiful and delicate.
She was made of glittering ice, yet she was alive. Her eyes shone like bright stars, but there was no peace or rest in them.

The Snow Queen, "adapted from the 1872 translation by Mrs. H.P. Paull" and illustrated by Pavel Tatarnikov (Purple Bear Books, 2006)

This translation includes most of the original language, although it does bypass the flower garden scene. It shouldn't surprise you that the translation is from 1872, since the language has a slightly stiff, antiquated feel, especially in the lines of dialogue.

If Yerko's artwork looks somewhat Eastern European, Tatarnikov's is even more so, reminding me of other children's books by Russian and Ukrainian illustrators that I've seen during the past few decades. That is, they are stylized in a way that hints of Polish villages, the tsar's court, and more recent graphic arts offerings that make every dream look like it's considering turning into a nightmare. Art-wise, this is not the most child-friendly book in the bunch; the robbers are especially scary in a sort of adult way, although the robber girl nearly redeems that particular illustration, she's so lively and appealing.

A few flakes of snow were falling, and one of them, much larger than the rest, landed on one of the flower boxes. This snowflake grew larger and larger, until at last it became the figure of a woman, dressed in garments of white that looked like millions of starry snowflakes. She was fair and beautiful, but made of ice. Yet she was alive. Her eyes sparkled like bright stars, but there was neither peace nor rest in their glance.

The Snow Queen, retold by Naomi Lewis, illustrated by Christian Birmingham (Candlewick Press, 2007)

I recognize Naomi Lewis' name: she's the editor of one of my favorite story collections, Classic Fairy Tales to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 1998). In fact, in the introduction to that collection, Lewis mentions "The Snow Queen" as one of several much-loved stories that were too long to include.

Lewis has retold a number of fairy tales over the years, and it shows in her clear, graceful wording. While she isn't afraid to tighten the phrasing a bit, she keeps nearly all of the sentences and captures the feel of Hans Christian Andersen's story, doing it justice with the poetry of her language. Besides being well crafted, this edition includes the often-dropped flower garden scene, in which Gerda, having just remembered her quest, asks various flowers for news of Kay. (The narcissus is especially funny, completely caught up in telling the "story" of its own beauty.)

Birmingham's artwork is lovely, if a tad sentimental. The pastels give this book a very different look. If you get half a chance, take a look at the wonderful cover design—a plastic overlay nearly covered with snowflakes and the title information, yet allowing us a glimpse of the mysterious Snow Queen through a small window—much like Kay's first look at her in the quote below.

A few snowflakes were drifting outside; then one of these, much larger than the rest, settled on the edge of the window box outside. This snowflake grew and grew until it seemed to take the shape of a lady dressed in the finest white cape, which was in fact made up of millions of tiny starlike flakes. She was beautiful, wonderfully delicate, and grand; she was made of ice—dazzling, glittering ice—and yet she was alive. Her eyes blazed like two bright stars, but there was no peace in them.

If you're planning to read The Snow Queen to a younger child, the Bernadette Watts version is perfectly nice. If you want to own a work of art, try Vladyslav Yerko's version. If you want a trendy-strange Russian feel, try Pavel Tatarnikov's book. But if you want to read Andersen's wintry masterpiece over the course of seven nights to a bright older child, a real story addict, you can't go wrong with Naomi Lewis' lovely retelling.

Note for Worried Parents: The robber granny thinks about eating Gerda, and the robber girl keeps threatening to stick a knife in her. This is not nearly as disturbing as it sounds—it's more about the robber girl's personality than any true peril for Gerda. (In fact, the robber girl might be the most interesting character Andersen ever created!)

This post is part of Kidlitosphere's January Carnival of Books. To see more posts in the carnival, visit Jenny's Wonderland of Books, beginning Saturday, January 30, 2010.


Sherrie Petersen said...

I remember loving this fairy tale as a child, but I had no idea there were so many translations! The Yerko cover is absolutely stunning. We actually have a Hans Christian Andersen museum here in Solvang. Now I'm curious to know what translations they have there...

Kate Coombs said...

Sherrie--Oh, I haven't been to Solvang in years! Let me know what you find.

Playing by the book said...

Oh. Gosh. What a wonderful, wonderful post. I want to try to get hold of all these versions now. I particularly like the look of the illustrations by Yerko - and it would seem that his same(?) illustrations are in yet another version of the Snow Queen - this one retold by Nicky Raven as part of the Templars Collectors Classic Series.

Chandra said...

Oooo, this post is right up my alley! I was always enchanted by this story. I grew up with a very abbreviated version illustrated by Errol LeCain. He's fantastic, but in looking over it as an adult I wasn't all that happy with the overall 'feel' of the book. We own the Yerko version now and I think it's fantastic! I think the combination of illustrtations and text is very nice! But I've always been curious to check out some others - thanks for the great list!

Jennifer said...

What about Mary Engelbreit's version? *snicker* I loved Watts' illustrations, although I was disappointed at some of my favorite parts of the tale being left out. I grew up with unabridged Andersen (some of his stories are srsly freaky!) and always loved Snow Queen. I'm rather fond of the Ehrlich/Jeffers rendition also.

Kate Coombs said...

Very funny... And now I'll have to look for the Ehrlich/Jeffers version to round out my SQ collection!