Spelling ETERNITY: The Alchemy of “The Snow Queen”
If you’re coming here to learn about Frozen, prepare to be as disappointed as I was when I discovered that movie was supposed to be Disney’s take on the greatest fairy tale of all time. Folklorists and fairy tale snobs take great pleasure in dismissing the works of authors such as Hans Christian Andersen, explaining that a proper fairy tale is derived culturally and passed down person-to-person, rather than initiating from the pen of one particular author. What makes a fairy tale powerful is its motifs and themes, which extend to universal lengths as a result of years of dilution; the idea is that one man alone is not capable of such a thing, and that any writer inherently taints his story with his own personal struggles. To claim that this is a disadvantage, however, is quite wrong. The personal struggle of the individual man is, in and of itself, a universal struggle; and no author knew that more acutely than Andersen, whose sublime interactions with the anima have been distributed, retold, adapted and shared more times and in more ways than one could hope to catalogue. His work provides a library of examples of profound literary alchemy, and of these, none is more powerful than the enigmatic, awe-inspiring tale of “The Snow Queen”. As we progress through the tale, we will see imagery which is on no uncertain terms alchemical; so much so that I am surprised Andersen is not more roundly known as an alchemist. The fairy tale could be, and should be, compared to his original version of “The Little Mermaid”, written eight years prior, which is similarly the story of an anima’s pursuit of the ego, but in that variation she is not able to be made conscious, is drained of meaning and must eventually submit to turning into sea-foam—that is, she cannot accomplish what must be accomplished in the individuation process, and so is consumed in the sea of the unconscious, from which she will eventually be renewed: derived in 1844 as none other that little Gerda, one of the most famous fairy tale heroines ever written, whether by society or by one quietly talented literary alchemist.
Unlike most fairy tales, “The Snow Queen” is long enough to be divided into ‘chapters’, of a sort. The first, “Which Has To Do With A Mirror And Its Fragments”, acts as our fall event: here, a ‘terribly bad hobgoblin, a goblin of the very wickedest sort, and, in fact…the devil himself’ crafts a mirror which causes everything good and beautiful reflected in its surface to appear to dwindle to nothing, while everything worthless and ugly dominates attention. The demons take great joy in whisking the mirror all across the world and even greater joy at the idea of lifting it high to God and the angels—but this proves too much for the mirror, which vibrates at such intensity it shatters, and scatters its pieces all across the world.
We have discussed previously the manner in which the Devil operates as a gateway into the unconscious, and not only that, but functions in the role of ‘accuser’; it is not the Devil himself in this universe who makes things ugly—indeed, nothing at all is being truly affected by the Devil’s doings—but rather the mirror, the perspective he provides. In his role as accuser he stands to diminish the significance of goodly, Godly things and leave the world instead a depraved and disappointing place, the imperfect world of gnostic belief rather than the perfect Kingdom of God. The nature of the mirror in the story brings to mind Paul’s quotation to the Corinthians: “For now we see in a glass darkly, but then face to face.” Every person we meet is a mirror to us; therefore, the state of being into the material world is the state represented by the mirror, and, specifically, the plight of a little boy named Kay.
Kay, introduced in the second story, “A Little Boy And A Little Girl”, is close friends, indeed, next-door neighbors, with a little girl named Gerda—’guardian’, also ‘peace’ and ‘fertility’. The two live in a big city “so crowded with houses and people that few found room for even a small garden”, but thanks to the collaboration of their parents, they are able to have a wonderful rooftop garden spread between two windows accessible by stepping across the roof gutter. In this garden, they grow flowers—specifically, roses, that symbol of the self so imperative to the Rosecrucians that it named their very sect. The symbol of the rose is so powerful, so ubiquitous in fairy tales, that it goes almost without notice; and yet, its petals, as described in Taschen’s wonderful dictionary The Book of Symbols, form the womb of the Self. This is echoed by a poem the children recite: Where roses bloom so sweetly in the vale, There you shall find the Christ child, without fail. The rose will prove increasingly important as the story moves along; for now, it is that which stands between Gerda’s house, and Kay’s house; that is, it stands between the unconscious and the conscious. But when Kay is first disrupted to find the Snow Queen at his window, and then a year later gets shards of the Devil’s mirror in his eye, the lives of the playmates take an ugly turn and Kay, after becoming coldly logical, dismissive of Gerda’s games and obsessed with the geometric patterns of snowflakes, smashes the roses and runs off to play in the plaza with the other boys, from whence he is abducted by the Snow Queen—although it is rather a mutual endeavor, as he is the one who chooses to hook his sled to the back of her sleigh.
So, what has happened? Kay, representing Andersen’s shadow, could also be said to represent the dominant conscious state of the psyche which around the time of adolescence has lost its childish qualities and become a part of the jaded world; it has drifted apart from its warm, nurturing anima with her love of imaginative games and intuitive living, and instead been consumed completely by the cold, rationalist logical outlook with which we may be so easily deceived. He is taken out of the City and whisked away to the Snow Queen’s palace atop a mountain: that is, he is taken to the heights of earthly, materialist wisdom and perhaps even success, but at the cost of separation from his anima, from the City, and from everything that makes life worth living. He does this willingly, because the bitter glass of the mirror blinds him to everything but the undeniable perfection of snowflakes; and when the Queen kisses him, he forgets entirely about Gerda and her Grandmother (that is, ‘die Grossmutter’ in German, literally ‘The Great Mother’ in English). Ensorcelled by the illusion of Maya, Kay falls into the carnal trap the world has lain for us: “A cleverer and prettier face he could not imagine. She no longer seemed to be made of ice, as she had seemed when she sat outside his window and beckoned to him. In his eyes, she was perfect, and she was not at all afraid. He told her how he could do mental arithmetic even with fractions, and that he knew the size and populations of all the countries. She kept on smiling, and he began to be afraid he did not know as much has he thought he did.” Having forgotten that all he never needed is within the City, Kay looks outwards, elsewhere, for his satisfaction, and hopes to impress the Queen whose knowledge is practically boundless compared to his own earthly topics of choice: as she represents the material condition, she is the material condition, and cannot be taught anything new about it. It is also worth noting that the Snow Queen’s kingdom is full of hens; associates of fertility, rebirth and sexuality, and yet also renown mothers who brood carefully over their eggs. Kay notably sleeps at the Snow Queen’s feet, like a fertilized egg beneath the plumage of its mother.
Gerda, meanwhile, has heard of the fate of her friend, and is mourning him, because everyone supposes Kay has drowned in the river outside of tow. But when spring comes and sunshine arrives, and Gerda laments to it Kay’s death, it doesn’t believe her; nor do the swallows. Emboldened, Gerda puts on her red shoes (no, or tenuous, relation to the more disturbing Andersen story, “The Red Shoes”) and walks down to the river. She offers the shoes, her favored possession, to the currents, if they will return Kay to her; but when she tosses them into the river, the river washes them back to her, since it does not have her friend. Still, she tries again, this time clambering upon a little boat in the river to throw it further into the water; the boat, it turns out, is loosely tied at best, and drifts downstream before Gerda can escape. Thus, trapped in her vessel, the anima is whisked downstream—that great, watery symbol of not just the unconscious, but of the birth-death process—where she is found by an old woman who has so often wished for a little girl like Gerda that she adopts her. This image—indeed, the time spent by Gerda in the old woman’s cottage, which lasts through the summer and into autumn—feels much like the birth of the soul in a world not its own, born to fleshly, but not spiritual parents. In the manner that life is a dream within which the soul must awake, so too is Gerda hypnotized by the old woman (described as Andersen, not as a wicked witch, but rather someone who dabbles in magic for her own amusement) into forgetting Kay and her Grandmother. That is, Gerda, new-born, forgets entirely the reason why she was born at all. To ensure this remains true, the old woman uses magic to send her roses into the ground, knowing they will remind Gerda of Kay; but she forgets that her hat has a painting of a rose on it, and this image—notably not an actual rose, but rather a human-crafted depiction of a rose—jogs Gerda’s memory. Outside, the combination of Gerda’s tears and the dirt which formerly housed the roses causes them to spring back to life, and they assure her that they, having been so recently down with the dead, have not seen Kay among them. After talking to many different flowers and hearing from each a short story which resembles less a linear tale and more a series of dream-images, Gerda escapes the old woman—the initial condition of life—and enters into the nigredo, depressed, Kay-less, and already quite far along in time:
“Gracious! How long I’ve dallied,” Gerda said. “Fall is already here. I can’t rest any longer.”
She got up to run on, but how footsore and tired she was! And how cold and bleak everything around her looked! Th3e long leaves of the willow tree had turned quite yellow, and damp puffs of mist dropped from them like drops of water. One leaf after another fell to the ground. Only the blackthorn still bore fruit, and its fruit was so sour that it set your teeth on edge.
Oh, how dreary and gray the wide world looked.
Being that Gerda has now entered the blackened nigredo stage of alchemy, it is only fitting that the next creature she meets should be a crow, which has, we are told, been watching her for some time. The crow, which is “kindly inclined to the little girl”, listens to her story and tells her he may have seen Kay, but that, if it was indeed him, he has already forgotten Gerda “for the princess”. This princess, as the feminine Mercurial, is noted for her cleverness and wisdom, and for having ‘read all the newspapers in the world and forgotten them again’; she is a figure comparable to Sophia, and, as royalty, she is Gerda’s higher self, seated upon a pearl ‘big as a spinning wheel’. The crow tells Gerda the story of how this princess wished for a man who could speak, not just look impressive; and how, on the third day of the contest, a young man by himself managed to woo her. Gerda, convinced it is Kay, begs the crow to take her to the castle. This castle, incidentally, is full of ‘guardsmen in silver and footmen in gold’, and so Gerda’s chances of getting past them in her bare feet are drastically low; but the crow’s ladylove knows of a back staircase which leads to the princess’ bedroom, and where the key is hidden, too.
The symbol of the King and Queen together in a bed or bath being a prominent symbol of the albedo, we see that Gerda has progressed quickly through the nigredo by using it. We will see the same is true of the albedo stage, where every sentence is packed with symbolism right down to the theme of red and white:
Now they entered the first room. It was hung with rose-colored satin, embroidered with flowers…Hall after magnificent hall quite bewildered her, until at last they reached the royal bedroom.
The ceiling of it was like the top of a huge palm tree, with leave of glass, costly glass. In the middle of the room two beds hung from a massive stem of gold. Each of them looked like a lily. One bed was white, and there lay the princess. The other was red, and there Gerda hoped to find little Kay.
Naturally, it is not Kay at all, but rather the prince, who only ‘resembles Kay around the neck’ (the neck being that which supports the mind, and connects the psyche to the body). Caught, Gerda bursts into tears and explains the situation, and the compassionate princess takes pity on her, rewarding the crows (but requesting they not do it again) by offering them either a life with no responsibilities or a lifetime appointment as court crows with kitchen scraps; the crows take the latter, and the prince, meanwhile, offers Gerda his bed, where she sleeps and dreams of angels pulling Kay on a sled. When she awakes, the prince and princess see to it that she is garbed in silks and furs, given a golden carriage upon which the royal coat of arms glitters ‘like a star’, and coachmen, footmen and postilions all themselves with golden crowns. Gerda is also given a pair of boots, a muff, and silk and velvet clothes, and the carriage is pulled, of course, by a horse of its own—most of it will be taken from her momentarily, when, upon entering a dark forest, she and her entourage are descended upon by a group of robbers. The androgynous and therefore hermaphroditic old robber woman describes captured Gerda as a little lamb and intends to eat her in the fashion of more than one fairy tale witch, but is prevented from doing so by her own daughter, the chapter’s eponymous Little Robber Girl, who bites her ear and insists that Gerda play with her, give her the muff and dress, and sleep in the robber girl’s bed with her. (No, this story could in no way be interpreted as related to burgeoning sexuality, and I can’t imagine why you’ve gotten this impression.)
Jovial lesbian undertones aside (“Then [the robber girl] dried Gerda’s eyes, and stuck her own hands into Gerda’s soft, warm muff.”) what we are seeing here is a trope we recently investigated in none other than our article on Puella Magi Madoka Magica: that is, we will see that the Robber Girl is the sulphuric shadow aspect encountered by the symbol of consciousness, that which must be purified and ‘won over’, in essence. As per usual we see the instant magnetism between the archetype of consciousness (Gerda) and its shadow (the Robber Girl); it is also important to note that the shadow of the archetype of consciousness is separate from the shadow of the archetype of the creator’s ego, which is why Kay and the Robber Girl are both, in essence, shadows which require purification; however, as Kay, in dealing with issues of pride, masculinity, vanity and materialism, represents an extreme of the ego archetype in and of itself, he could be thought of as less a kind of ‘shadow’ and more a kind of caricature of the ego in the hands of a science- and sex-cloaked demiurge. Of course, as Jung once snapped at badgering students: “It’s all shadow”, for, after all, the unconscious is all that we are not.
So far as Gerda and her individual shadow are concerned, the parallels are drawn between the two of them based on the sharing of clothes and bed; Gerda and the Robber Girl also ride in the carriage together as it proceeds through the forest. She is also palette-swapped, in the manner of the shadow; much as Gerda is described as having golden hair which falls in ‘yellow curls’ on either side of her white face, the Robber Girl is, “…no taller than Gerda, but she was stronger and much broader in the shoulders. Her skin was brown and her eyes coal-black—almost sad in their expression.” This shadow drapes its arms around Gerda and declares the robbers shall not kill her unless the Robber Girl gets angry with her; and, after hearing Gerda’s story, the Robber Girl further says that if she gets angry with Gerda, she will be the one to kill her. We think of the Shulamite of the Song of Soloman and the chthonic appearance of the anima in want of purification; we think of Kalil Gebran’s magnificent play Lazarus And His Beloved, in which shellshocked Lazarus, standing between deaths, describes death as a union with the most exquisite of lovers, for whom he is left to long. And much as the concept of death strips meaning from material goods, so too does the Robber Girl strip everything of value from Gerda: the robbers kill all her helpers, take her horses and render her possessions not only worthless, but no longer her possessions.
Back at the robbers’ hide-out, where dogs are not allowed to bark, the girl feeds Gerda and then drags her over to her miserable sleeping mat in the corner, surrounded by a hundred pigeons, where two in particular are called out as trouble-makers; the Robber Girl, after forcing Gerda to kiss one of her pigeons, also shows her the reindeer, Bae, who tells her after her captor falls asleep and pigeons reveal they have seen Kay that the Snow Queen lives on the island of Spitzbergen [sic], near the North Pole. The next morning, despite her obsession with tickling her pets with the blade of her knife, the Robber Girl is moved by Gerda’s plight and by the news that the girl knows where he has gone, and agrees to do Gerda ‘a good turn’ once her mother has boozed herself to sleep. Returning the girl’s boots and giving her a pillow to sit on, the Robber Girl frees Bae and agrees to allow him to return to his snowy home of Lapland so long as he takes Gerda to the Snow Queen’s castle. She also gives Gerda her mother’s mittens, rather than returning her muff, and laughs at the thought that Gerda’s hands now resemble her mother’s; that is to say, Gerda’s way of handling the world has matured. She has accepted the loss of her worldly goods and life and in exchange she has learned the location of Kay. As Bae makes his escape, we see “…red streaks of light ripped through the heavens, with a noise that sounded like sneezing.”“Those are my old northern lights,” said the reindeer. “See how they flash.”
It is only appropriate that the shadow of the Robber Girl should give way at last to a color display, in this case, the northern lights. As described in highly-recommended The Book of Symbols:
Alchemy puts colors at the very core of the opus. Paradoxically, it was the bitterness of life that produced the colors, a “poison” that tinctured. What the alchemists meant by this is that the chaotic mass of the personality’s affects, unmet desires, moral impurities and disappointments got heatedly activated and burnt off in the process of self-understanding. The residue, imagined as white salt or ash, signified both the corrosive scouring of these warring elements and the released hermetic spirit of transformation that differentiated and synthesized them into a unified spectrum of the soul’s “colors” or qualities. The welcome appearance of the colors took the form of the iridescent dawn, peacock’s tail, rainbow or iris. [Ronnberg, The Book of Symbols, pg 636]
And even more appropriate when we consider the Northen Lights are here depicted as primarily red, thus leaving us with a kind of perfect alchemical transformation from the black of Gerda’s world after leaving the garden of her adopted mother, to the white and red of the albedo prince and princess, to the corruption needing extraction in xanthosis, to the rubedo’s red palette as Gerda, the anima, begins to ride the reindeer towards the North Pole; towards the ego in need of salvation. The deer, it is worth noting, is a Mercurial symbol in and of itself, and for its associations with rejuvenation and rebirth. The deer will ride her to another important Mercurial symbol—or Venusian, in this case—the Wise Old Woman, who splits herself into two aspects here: hot and cold, the Lapp Woman and the Finn Woman. The former sends Gerda to the latter, whose house is so hot that she goes around “almost naked” and must help Gerda out of her clothes to keep her from wilting in the heat; once there, Bae asks the woman to give Gerda a potion so she is strong as twelve men, but not before telling the old woman that he knows “[she] can tie all the winds of the world together with a bit of cotton thread. If the sailor unties one knot, he gets a favorable wind. If he unties another, he gets a stiff gale, while if he unties the third and fourth knots, such a tempest rages that it flattens the trees in the forest.” Of course, that might not be such a bad thing— after all, it would send the robbers scattering!
The significance of four/the quaternity in alchemy can, of course, not be understated, and twelve here makes an appearance as an even ‘wholler’ symbol of wholeness, if you will, being, as Jung put it in Aion, the ‘answer’ to the Axiom of Maria by bringing three and four together in multiplication. Thus, the less-conscious Mercurial aspect is requesting from the more-conscious one that our symbol of consciousness be fully realized and made truly conscious. However, the Finn woman insists that Gerda, in her sweetness and innocence, has everything she needs to rescue Kay, and that if she does not, no force on earth can help her; so, leaving her mittens and boots behind by accident, Gerda is whisked eight miles north by Bae and deposited in a big bush covered in red berries as per the instructions of the woman. With a tearful kiss, the reindeer leaves, and Gerda is attacked by the crystallized principles with which the Snow Queen has surrounded herself—that is, her snowflake army. If water is that great symbol of the unconscious, ice is the unconscious rendered immobile, stagnant; much as Kay grew unhealthily attached to the shapes of snowflakes, so too has the ego become too attached to certain principles, and these must be overwhelmed by the spiritual, for when Gerda says the Lord’s prayer, her breath becomes angels which, like the armies springing up for Jason, increase in rank until they are enough to destroy utterly the snowflake army; they even rub her hands and feet to warm her before she proceeds into the Queen’s castle.
As Gerda enters the Queen’s domain, we see how Kay has spent his time. He is blue—almost black, we are told. As the Queen sits upon what she calls ‘The Mirror of Reason’, a supposedly one-of-a-kind mirror located in the exact center of her home (thus, the Queen is the center of a mandala, a point located on a round circle within a square castle) where Kay shifts flat pieces of ice in an attempt to make something particular out of them. “Kay was cleverly arranging his pieces in the game of ice-cold reason. To him, the patterns were highly remarkable and of the utmost importance, for the chip of glass in his eye made him see them that way. He arranged his pieces to spell out many words; but he could never find the way to make the one word he was so eager to form. The word was “Eternity.” The Snow Queen had said to him, “If you can puzzle this out, you shall be your own master, and I’ll give you the whole world and a new pair of skates.” But he could not puzzle it out.”
The nature of the Snow Queen as demiurge becomes clearer and clearer throughout the course of the story. We see reflected in Kay’s obsession the struggle of Man: to comprehend and experience eternity, to possess it, to liberate himself from it by controlling and understanding it. Spell “Eternity” and you not only free yourself from the demiurge and samsara, but you get the skates which will let you glide through life with ease: not only that, but you get the whole world to do it on. But there are so many other things to spell than that, and with glass in the eyes and heart it is a struggle to remember the point of doing such a thing at all. That is why we must have help from the unconscious in the form of the anima or animus, who, like Gerda, arrives in the ice palace of the crystallized Self and its ego, embittered by the cold of life.
Gerda, being, as anima and purified consciousness, linked ever to salt, cures the glass lodged in Kay’s heart with her tears, which provokes him to burst into tears, himself, and washes out the splinter in his eye when she recites the poem about the Christ child. Their happiness is so infectious that the glass dances around them, and when it tires, falls into the shape of the word the Snow Queen insisted he made. I want to clarify that again: the arcane substance which forms the word ‘Eternity’ forms itself into the word upon the reunion of Kay with Gerda and the separation of Kay from the substance which has caused him so much trouble, which was created by the Devil and which caused all this mess but which yet completely solves all of this mess, making Kay—and new-individuated Andersen—his own master. We needn’t fret over spelling ‘Eternity’: it will spell itself when our connection to the unconscious takes the glass from our hearts and eyes and lets us see the world for what it really is.
Much as the Snow Queen once made Kay frigid and forgetful with her deadly kisses, so too does Gerda warm him back to life and healthy. Because “Eternity” has been spelled and the Queen is absent, the children are free to leave, and trace along the same path back to the City; the reindeer returns to the red-berried bush, his mate now with him to deliver warm milk to the children and carry them to the Finn woman, who gives them directions, then the Lapp woman, who gives them new clothes. At the boundary of the north country, the woman and the reindeer leave the children, who, in the forest, find it is now springtime, and through the woods rides a girl on a magnificent horse once harnessed to a golden carriage. Armed with pistols, the little robber girl has grown tired of her home and has set out on a journey north, supposing if she didn’t like it there she could settle anywhere in the world. She and Gerda recognize one another instantly, happily. The robber girl reports that the prince and princess have traveled to foreign lands, and that the crow is dead, leaving his ladylove a self-pitying widow. After hearing how their story ended, the girl parts ways with them and assures them she will visit if she is ever in their town. Amid the fair spring weather and exquisite green blossoms, the children return to their home and, in the most significant scene of all, find that nothing has changed: Gerda’s grandmother’s house is just the same, the clock ticks away just the same, indeed, the whole of the City itself has changed, but Gerda and Kay, they find, have now grown up. In a touching and beautiful ending to the story, we see the manner in which eternity and God, ever-loving, sits in wait for us to come home with a love more enduring than any known in the world:
The roses on the roof looked in at the open window, and their two little stools were still out there. Kay and Gerda sat down on them, and held each other by the hand. Both of them had forgotten the icy, empty splendor of the Snow Queen’s palace as completely as if it were some bad dream. Grandmother sat in God’s good sunshine, reading to them from her Bible:
“Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
It is worth noting that the above quote was, according to Marie-Louise von Franz, allegedly Jung’s favorite Bible quote; it is certainly one of mine. The elegance of the passage is in its dual meaning; Jung laid particular emphasis on the nature of the verb ‘to become’ here. That is, yes, one must operate with the loving sense of a child in one’s heart—one must forever strive to be sweet and innocent-minded as Gerda, rather than jaded, frigid Kay, and in that sweetness and innocence one will find an allowance for beliefs and miracles and, yes, even magic which one might otherwise never believe possible—but, most significantly of all, one must become as a little child does. We will investigate this passage to greater depths when we analyze NBC’s Hannibal (soon around the corner) but what is important to remember is that Gerda also grows up during her journey: she becomes the capable adult Gerda, becomes her highest potential, through undertaking the process, and the same is true of Kay. We should not settle for only being as a child in our heart: rather, we must live as a child, and learn as a child, that we may one day become as children, often seemingly effortlessly, become themselves.
Here’s hoping all you readers have a Merry Christmas or whatever other holiday you celebrate that I’m too tired to list; I’ll be seeing you after the New Year with a belated essay about Arrival. Be sure to follow the blog for more essays—coming down the pipeline are The Jungle Book, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Hannibal, among others—and, if you enjoy them, consider buying a copy of DELILAH, MY WOMAN. The psychedelic ALBEDO is nearing completion enough to send it to agents, so be sure to keep your eyes peeled for updates in the meantime!
M.F. Sullivan—occultist, consultant, hermit—is the author of transgressive DELILAH, MY WOMAN and the nearly-finished ALBEDO. Click here to buy the former in ebook and hardback, and leave a review if you’ve read it!