Dinner at my house is a race to the finish. Participants have trained over many years to get in, get done, get out. So when my sons pushed back their chairs the other night not to leave the table but to stretch their legs, sit back and talk a while, I had the good sense to push back my own and stretch out the conversation.
Sometime during the hour of stories and jokes and cultural analysis that followed, mention was made of the three times in my life (known to them) that I had cried. All three times, according to their accounting, it was done in connection with one of my sons, a singular point of pride for both of them—one pleased with himself for never having made me cry, and the other for having found a way to do so.
I assured them that despite their particular skills, duly noted, there had surely been other times. Just not often in their company. For reasons which are legion (and which we will not list here) my heart has never been embroidered onto the cuff of my sleeve; rather, my emotions are most often held more closely to my chest.
That isn’t to say I know nothing of the cathartic and healing power of tears, mind you. Otherwise, when Rebecca Solnit wove the plot of The Snow Queen into The Faraway Nearby, its poignancy would have gone right over my dry-eyed head.
As the story goes, sprites, or trolls, get their hands on an enchanted mirror which shows them “their own ugly view of the world.” They take the mirror up into the heavens, and clumsily drop it to earth, where it shatters and embeds itself in the people in its path. A young boy named Kai, best friend of a young girl named Gerda, was one of those in its path, taking shards of glass in his eye and his heart, causing both to grow cold and, he, putting it mildly, unkind. He later found himself wrapped in the warm fur of the Ice Queen in what Solnit describes as a “terrifying seduction.” In the fairy tale, Hans Christian Andersen writes
She kissed him on the forehead. It was colder than ice; it went right to his heart, which was already half ice. He felt as if he would die, but only for a moment, and then he felt fine.
Gerda, meanwhile, goes on a long journey in search of her missing friend. She is waylaid by an old woman with her share of conjuring chops (though she wasn’t “a wicked witch; she conjured only for her own amusement”). She enchants her garden to keep Gerda from remembering home and her quest to find Kai, making her rose bushes bury themselves in the ground. Gerda loses her sense of time, letting seasons pass until one day she does remember the roses and begins to weep. Her tears go into the ground, and the rosebushes spring up around her, bringing back to mind her home, her friend, and her mission to find him.
Gerda’s tears break the enchantment that has left her comfortable enough, but immobilized there in the old woman’s garden. “Tears are her magic,” Solnit writes. “The roses wake her up to her task.” (The Faraway Nearby, p. 171)
Later, after helpful encounters with crows and royalty and robbers, a woman from Finland and another from Lapland, she makes her way to the Ice Queen’s palace and finds Kai playing the “Ice Game of Reason.” Andersen writes that upon her arrival, Gerda ran to embrace Kai but he “sat quite still, stiff and cold. Then little Gerda wept hot tears, which fell on his breast, and penetrated into his heart, and thawed the lump of ice, and washed away the little piece of glass which had stuck there. Then Kai burst into tears, and he wept so that the splinter of glass swam out of his eye.”
Before Gerda reached the queen’s palace, she and the reindeer with whom she traveled sought assistance from a Finnish woman. As she was leaving, the reindeer asked if there wasn’t anything the woman could do for the girl. “I can’t give her any greater power than she already has. Don’t you see how great it is? Don’t you see how people and animals, want to serve her, how she has come so far in the world in her bare feet?” (p. 169)
The girl had all the power she needed, and all the power that Kai needed from her. It wasn’t reason that would save Kai, as Solnit observes, nor was it the old woman’s enchantment. “It’s not reason or pattern but emotion that will free him, in the form of more tears from Gerda, whose grief makes him remember, so that he weeps out the speck of glass and is himself again.” (p. 170)
Her tears made roses bloom from the ground, and her tears melted the heart of a boy who’d turned to ice.
Gerda’s free-flowing tears were her magic. There was no greater power than what she already had.
Disney’s Frozen is loosely based on Andersen’s tale, The Snow Queen. Those who are fans of one or the other might really enjoy this video edited by Sonia Joie. (Click the full screen icon for best viewing, after you click the Play Arrow.)
We’re reading Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby together. This week we read chapters 8-9. What themes in the reading echoed in your own thoughts? Perhaps you’d share with us in the comments, or if you wrote a post on your own website, feel free to share a link.
We’d love for you to join us again next week for chapters 10-13. (Note a small change in the reading schedule to include Chapter 10 in next week’s discussion. Feel free to share from it here this week as well, if you wish.)
Wednesday, February 19: The Stories We Tell Ourselves (Chapters 1-4)
Wednesday, February 26: Bodies, Betrayal and Love (Chapters 5-7)
Wednesday, March 5: Tears and the Ice Queen (Chapters 8-9)
Wednesday, March 12: Chapters 10-13
Buy The Faraway Nearby now