Thursday, July 17, 2014

So what is so great about Hans Christian Andersen anyway?

I should really write something about plant systematics again, but at the moment something else is going through my head.

My daughter brought a children's book version of The Snow Queen from the library, probably inspired by Frozen. She likes to have it read, but neither I nor my wife can really appreciate the story. If you can call it a story.

So there is this troll who builds a magical mirror that reflects everything in an evil, distorted way, and when he tries to have it reflect the angels of heaven in a negative way, it shatters into thousands of tiny shards. These shards blow around the world and turn people evil who get them into their eyes and hearts. Okay, a mythical explanation for why people can be bad, so far so good. Apart from the fact that the whole story is nauseatingly in-your-face Christian I could live with it.

Next there is this boy called Kai who is infected with two of the shards and turns bad, starting to ignore his close friend Gerda. Again, so far so good. Then in a complete non sequitur the Snow Queen comes and abducts Kai, making him forget all about his previous life. Why? No idea, at least in our version it just happens. And despite the title of the book that is also the last we ever see of that character.

Gerda then spends years searching for her lost friend, and her quest reads as if Hans Christian Andersen took the "ah chucks, let's throw this idea in too" approach to writing. There is no logic to any of the things that happen to her during her travels, the people all behave extremely unrealistically, and it is totally unclear what we are supposed to learn from it. Some people unexpectedly help her, others hinder her, some are just idiots.

Finally she finds Kai on a frozen lake in the general vicinity of the Snow Queen's palace (the queen herself is conveniently on vacation or something), she cries onto him and thus burns away the evil shards, he turns nice again and they go back home. The end. I understand that in the full version there is also something about them dancing round and coincidentally solving a puzzle set by the Snow Queen, but that only makes things more pointless.

Seriously, anybody who complains that Frozen deviated too much from the source material doesn't know what they are talking about. If they had tried to make a movie true to Andersen's story, very few people would have watched it, and those few would have sat there asking some variant of "what the hell?" At least that is what we are asking ourselves after reading the book.

And that is not a first with this author.

We have a book with several more of his stories, including The Nightingale and one about an arrogant beetle. Both are not as weird as The Snow Queen but still one gets the feeling that something happens, then something else happens, then another thing happens, ye gods when is this pointless story finally over, and then something else happens, and then the story is over without any discernible message or moral to it. Well, if we are generous then The Nightingale could be about genuine, natural things being preferable to artificial replicas, but there is so much meandering nonsense around that message that there should be more to it.

The worst, however, appears to be The Little Mermaid. We do not actually have that book, but just take a look at the synopsis on Wikipedia and pay particular attention to the section "Debate over Ending". Did he just enjoy being sadistic to merpeople? Is there any point to all that?

Maybe it is some kind of values dissonance. Maybe in the time and culture when Andersen wrote it was seen as very logical and obviously just that non-humans don't deserve a soul even if they are sentient, that a mermaid should be permanently tortured for daring to fall in love with a human, and that if she wanted a soul she should be forced to earn it through an impossible task.

Maybe. But then again, and perhaps I am now going to come across as a Kulturbanause, maybe the explanation is simply that Anderson got his story ideas from eating weirdly coloured mushrooms. Or even simpler, maybe he just wasn't that great a storyteller.

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