Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wild women, robber-maids and travelling ladies

Uppity women throughout most of history have had bad press. Recently I picked up a book called Criminals, Idiots, Women and Minors: Victorian writing by women on women. Eliza Lynn Linton, in an 1891 essay called “The Wild Women as Social Insurgents", complains about

…that loud and dictatorial person, insurgent and something more, who suffers no one’s opinion to influence her mind. no venerable law hallowed by time, nor custom consecrated by experience, to control her actions. Mistress of herself, the Wild Woman as social insurgent preaches the ‘lesson of liberty;’ broadened into lawlessness and licence. She exemplifies how beauty can degenerate into ugliness, and shows how the fragrant flower, run to seed, is good for neither food nor ornament. Her ideal of life for herself is absolute personal independence coupled with supreme power over men.

Quite so.

Still, it’s the wild women – the Brontë sisters, Mary Wollstoncraft and Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf and all that uppity sisterhood of writers who continue to fascinate readers; while Eliza Lynn Linton is long forgotten, and rightly so,.

In fairy tale literature, we’re accustomed to reading about princesses and scullery maids, all in dire need of rescuing: we don’t expect to find many wild women. But when Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Snow Queen: in Seven Stories” in three weeks during 1844, he turned the traditional fairy tale on its head.

In the mid-19th century, children's stories were simply didactic tales meant to teach a moral lesson. Be good, be polite, say your prayers and obey your parents if you want to go to Heaven.

Andersen's stories revolutionized the genre. He gave dark, subversive twists to old folktales, and created original stories straight from his own astonishing imagination. In fact, by 1844, Andersen no longer referred to his fairytales as children's stories -- even though we treat them as such today. They may still end, as “The Snow Queen” does, with a moral sentiment. But the stories themselves are strange and thrilling and extraordinary.

In his autobiography The Fairy Tale of my Life Andersen tells us that the Snow Queen story had its beginning when his father pointed to a shape made by frost on the windowpane. It looked like a woman with outstretched arms; and Andersen’s father said, “She is come to fetch me.” From that rather chilling remark came the story of the boy Kai, kidnapped by the Snow Queen and carried away to her frozen palace in the north.

In place of the conventional male hero who sets forth with sword in hand to rescue the princess , Andersen sends the girl hero Gerda, armed only with her goodness and innocence, on an epic journey to rescue Kai. (And perhaps unintentionally raises the question of whether the Kai is actually worth rescuing. )

Brave and determined though she is, Gerda will never be a wild woman. But the Snow Queen herself (reinvented many times by other writers, from C.S. Lewis to Joan Vinge) is a Wild Woman; and so is the Little Robber Maiden – one of the most intriguing characters in fantasy literature. Where else do we find a child character as fierce and rude and anti-social as the Little Robber Maiden? Or a mother-daughter relationship as disfunctional?

The mid-nineteenth century was a turning point in western culture, when (as in 2007) traditional religious belief ran headlong into modern science. This conflict lies at the heart of Andersen's story. Gerda represents simple, unquestioning faith. Kai (and the Snow Queen's ice-puzzle) represents the new spirit of scientific inquiry which threatens that faith. Kai believes that by solving the Snow Queen’s puzzle – The Game of Reason - he would be his own master, and would possess the whole world – as well as a new pair of skates. (We could argue that what Kai was really trying to do was to split the atom – but that’s a whole other line of inquiry. )

In any case, "The Snow Queen" is a fascinating work of the imagination, with vividly described settings, realistic dialogue, well-developed characters and complex layers of symbolism and metaphor. In fact, it's really more a novel than a fairy tale, with a great deal of psychological depth.

I arrived at my own retelling of The Snow Queen story in a round-about way. Years earlier, I had written a poem called "The Robber Maiden's Story"; later I expanded the poem into an adult short story, that focussed on the relationship between Gerda and the robber-chieftain's daughter. But the Snow Queen wouldn’t let me go. Finally, using the Andersen story as a framework, I started work on a young adult novel. The little robber-girl, always my favourite fairy-tale character, gained a name – Ritva – and a much larger role to play. Ritva’s horrible old mother became a Saami shaman, whose powers Ritva was due to inherit.

I’d been researching Tibetan shamanism for my first YA novel, The Dance of the Snow Dragon , and that led me to books on Finnish and Saami shamanism--and then to the Finnish myth cycle, the Kalevala. I thought I could hear echoes, in Andersen's Christian fantasy, of the older, darker mythology of the Kalevala.

Pohjola, the unknown country of Finnish mythology, lies in the northernmost back corner of the world, where earth and day end. The hero’s journey to Pohjola is one of the central themes of the Finnish epic, just as Gerda’s journey to the Snow Queen’s mysterious kingdom is the central narrative of Andersen’s story

I’m fascinated by connections. And now I was hot on the track of a connection between Andersen and Finnish mythology that I don’t think anyone else had made.

In my mind, the Snow Queen became identified with the Kalevala’s Dark Enchantress, the Woman of Pohjola, the drowner of heroes and destroyer of souls. So partway through the book, my story takes a turn away from Andersen, and moves into the world of Finnish mythology, and also the real historical 19th century world, as I send Gerda and Ritva on foot across the treacherous Arctic ice to the Snow Queen’s palace.

If Andersen could subvert the traditional fairy tale by having the girl rescue the boy, then I decided I could subvert it a little further, by letting Gerda realize that it wasn’t domestic bliss with Kai she really wanted. By now, like a lot of other Victorian women, she’d acquired a taste for travel and adventure. And Kai, who has taken up with a shipful of scientists who are mapping the coastline of Spitzbergen, is clearly not interested in romance.

In the original Snow Queen story Kai and Gerda are young children, and Gerda’s love for Kai is entirely innocent. But the story has been endlessly analyzed, and a lot of critics have noted a certain amount of underlying sexual tension. There’s the robber-maiden's sadistic treatment of Gerda, not to mention the Snow Queen's slightly suspect relationship with Kai.

Because I was writing for young adults, I didn't dwell on that aspect, but made it instead a coming of age story about an unlikely friendship between two oddly-matched young women. And I left the story with the suggestion that Gerda, like other Victorian lady travellers, had many adventures still to come.