Book Excerpt: “The Fairy Tellers” by Nicholas Jubber

by Travel Writing World
The Fairy Tellers Nicholas Jubber

This extract from The Fairy Tellers: A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales by Nicholas Jubber is reproduced by kind permission of the author. The book is published by John Murray and available in bookstores and internet booksellers.

Hans and the Ice Maiden

‘It has been sheer joy for me to put on paper my most recent fairy tale, “The Snow Queen”,’ wrote Hans in December 1843; ‘it permeated my mind in such a way that it came out dancing over the paper.’ He claimed to have written it in just five days, although it wasn’t quite so simple – he’d jotted down the first chapter a few weeks earlier in Germany. But for all its complexity, the tale surges towards its poignant climax with the imaginative intensity of its speedy composition. 

As with most of Hans’s invented tales, antecedents can be glimpsed beneath the fluid, glittering surface. The legend of Baldur, banished to the icy regions of Hel in the Norse Edda, is echoed in Kai’s self-willed incarceration in the Snow Queen’s palace. The Norwegian tale ‘East of the Sun, West of the Moon’, collected by the folklorists Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe (published in 1841, just two years before ‘The Snow Queen’), anticipates the structure of a girl travelling across an icy Nordic landscape to rescue a wounded boy, with the Norwegian heroine riding a polar bear whereas Gerda goes by reindeer. The Norwegian folk tale echoes ‘Cupid and Psyche’, and we can see Apuleius’ ancient tale whispering through ‘The Snow Queen’ as well: a young woman travelling in search of a wounded male stifled under an older woman’s control; a narrative that corresponds with ‘Beauty and the Beast’.

I’ve travelled in the lore and landscapes of this tale, which as a child was one of my favourites. Sliding over Lapland snowdrifts, under silver crests of candle spruce and pine, I rode on a snowmobile with a Sami herder to visit his reindeer in the woods near Lake Inari; buffed up with gloves, bandannas and padded overalls, our heads bubbled in helmets, we dragged a gear-filled sledge, sliding to the growling of the engine. Snow popped off the ground like bullets, rattling against the windshield, and hung in clumps in the boughs. Tall, snow-clad pines paraded the route, as if they’d been marshalled by some magical tree-whisperer. As if I’d time-slipped back into my own childhood imagination.

Down the track we flowed, down towards an empty glade. It wasn’t empty for long. The reindeer poured out from between the trees in trails of fleecy brown fur, clicking hooves and curling antlers of many tines. Petri scattered a sack of feed and the reindeer rushed, like kids at a birthday party jostling for cake. There were more than a hundred of them, tagged with the herder’s distinctive mark – a cut through the left ear. Many were scored across the side and at first I took this for fights – several antlers were locking together around us. But Petri explained these were his own markings, so he could count the animals on the summer round-up. 

‘If the predators get them, they have to die. Even if they are only injured, there’s no point letting a reindeer stay alive if it’s lame. So we kill it and sell the meat.’

He had no truck with romanticising the reindeer, and wrinkled his nose when I asked if he’d given any of them names: ‘They are not a pet!’ A similar pragmatism, curiously enough, can be found in ‘The Snow Queen’. The robber girl who sets Gerda up on her reindeer ride is fond of the animals, but she plays tormentingly with her knife, evoking the ambivalent attitude of the Sami, who care for the reindeer but also kill them. And in Hans’s imagined mythology there are echoes of Sami belief, in the Sami god of the winds, Bieggolmai, who can ‘force the wind out of its cave’ and back again. As the historian Paul Binding has written: ‘what Andersen puts into the mouth of the reindeer has the authentic mythological ring’.

This illustrates how conscientiously Hans explored the worlds he painted in his tales. It wasn’t enough to rely on his imagination: he scoured scientific journals, travelogues and old chronicles (such as Olaus Magnus’s sixteenth-century Description of the Northern Peoples, which provided the details about magically bound winds ascribed by Hans to the Finnish woman), and marshalled the observations he jotted down on his journeys. Just as he needed to visit the Paris exhibition to write ‘The Wood Nymph’, so he brought his Nordic travels and reading to bear in conjuring the world of ‘The Snow Queen’.

But whilst these details give the story its luminous texture, its greatest power is driven by its personal spirit, which forms around the time-worn structure like patterns of snow and ice congealing around an ancient tree. As the critic Wolfgang Lederer puts it, ‘The Snow Queen’ is, ‘above all, the story of the redemption of a lonely, inhibited intellectual by the love of a woman’. In this respect, suggests Lederer, in his book-length study, The Kiss of the Snow Queen, the story was influenced by the loneliness and frustrated love that haunted Hans’s life and left him ‘with the feeling of being incarcerated in an icy, depressing, eventually deadly jail of his own frustration’.

At every stage, the tale transcends autobiography and swings back to it. It begins in a riverside town, where two children play around the roof ‘garden’ between their windows, which Hans explicitly linked to his childhood home: ‘From the kitchen, with the help of a ladder, you got onto the roof, where, in the gutter between our house and the neighbour’s, was a box of soil with chives and parsley, my mother’s entire garden; it flourishes still in my fairy tale “The Snow Queen”.’ With its farmers’ carts and the proximity of the river, Gerda’s home town is identifiably Odense; meanwhile, the arc of her journey aligns with Hans’s lifelong search for love, and the coldness with which he felt his burning sentiments were repulsed.

The story was written when he was developing strong feelings for the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. ‘She sings German,’ he wrote, ‘the way I suppose I read my tales – where I come from shows through; but as they say about me, this adds something interesting.’ Like Hans, Jenny was ‘so strangely tender’, to quote a friend of hers, ‘that she is easily wounded’; and like him, she had been catapulted from humble origins to unimaginable success. That Hans was sexually attracted to Jenny is beyond doubt. In a wave of diary entries in September 1843, he recorded that he had ‘Sent Jenny a poem’, ‘thought of proposing’, ‘said goodbye to Jenny, handed her a letter which she will understand. I love!’ That same year, he penned his charming tale of ‘The Nightingale’, in which a bird’s natural voice wins the affection of a king, over the artificial sound of a mechanical device: the eponymous bird being a version of Jenny, who was known as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’.

The friendship was reciprocated, but Jenny never let it go further, and her coldness could cut him to the core. Once, walking alongside her, Hans was planning to declare his feelings when she chided him: ‘Well Andersen, move those long shanks of yours!’ He said nothing.

There were only so many snubs he could take. At the end of 1845 he recorded in his diary, while staying in Berlin: ‘Haven’t heard anything from Jenny. I’m feeling badly treated and sad!’ A few lines later, he insisted: ‘I don’t love her any more! In Berlin she has cut out the diseased flesh with a cold knife!’ Although they remained on cordial terms, they saw less of each other, and Hans added Jenny to the list of women who had spurned his affection, ice maidens who failed to match the passion pumping out of his own delicate heart.

This extract from The Fairy Tellers: A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales by Nicholas Jubber is reproduced by kind permission of the author. The book is published by John Murray and available in bookstores and internet booksellers.

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