The Books of My Numberless Dreams

“New feet within my garden go”

Posted on: April 27, 2007

Proper “review” here.

Re-reading The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen reminded me of the problem I had with Winter Rose: the prose. Patricia A. McKillip is known for her lyrical writing style, but I found it a bit annoying for the first few pages. In her first person narration she seemed to be going for a solemn, arresting tone, the sort that makes you hold your breath, that makes you think every word is important. It read a bit overdone, a bit forced, not quite authentic, not ringing clearly. It read like something I had seen done before by others better at it. She eventually found her stride, only momentarily jolting me out of the narrative with an awkward phrasing. (Or the story itself became so compelling I could ignore it.)

Andersen’s, on the other hand, translated by Tiina Nunnally, is that of the excited, enthused storyteller, happy to be sharing this story with us, which makes me immediately engaged and eager to hear about far off wonders. . It never, ever misses a beat. It’s the sort of tone that can shut adults out if they’re not open to the simple style, eager to reach out for a more serious tome, before Andersen delivers his mature message

But this is what McKillip has over Andersen: the way she delivers her “message”. The rose, often attached to thorny briars, her symbol for the beauty, the pleasure and the pain of love is more delicately handled, even though it is a prominent motif in her story. It’s evocatively conveyed after Rois’ night-time encounter with the Wild Hunt when she regains consciousness completely enfolded in the rose briar. It’s developed as a theme, rather than as an agenda. Andersen, on the other hand, shows no leniency on his poor readers, rendering the floral symbol of child-like purity, Christian faith, and the supremacy of those higher feelings of love and loyalty, like a sledge-hammer against the icy, withdrawn, cynical stronghold of intellect and reason. I could not help but roll my eyes when little Gerda recited the Lord’s prayer and angels appeared to vanquish the Snow Queen’s minions and warm her little feet. It’s not that Andersen didn’t have a point, but it was too similar to some contemporary figures’ reliance on the gut — the gut does have more nerve-endings than the brain after all — over old-fashioned thought and reason.

Some may say it’s unfair to compare the authors on this point, considering that one wrote a novel and the other a short story. But I don’t think that many if any could convincingly argue that Andersen would abandon his heavy symbolism if he had more pages, nor do I think that McKillip’s subtlety would be lost in a shorter format. Andersen’s fervent beliefs didn’t detract much from his story though; it’s part and parcel of his style and he is good enough that his stories do not sink under the morals.

McKillip departs from Andersen on another realisation of the story’s facets: the glass shards. Corbet Lynn assumes the facade of a normal, affable human would to all the villagers, in an effort to become that normal, loving person, to everyone but Rois who is able to see through his exterior. To her he is remote, his eyes often cold and withdrawn, the tone of his voice distant, his words often cruel in light of his awareness of Rois’ feelings for him. At best, he can be civil, at worst he seems to be taking advantage of Rois’ love to escape his icy castle. His prison, though, is the violent, abusive cycle of his past. When he returns to claim his hall he subconsciously (?) restores the two rooms in which his father and grandfather lived, in which his bloody inheritance was created. This family legacy is his glass shard. It is Rois’ devoted compassion and unselfish devotion that allows him to chart a new path for himself.

In a scene that, to me, crystallises McKillip’s vision of this old fairy tale, Corbet and Rois are at his father’s house. Tearle is incensed and baffled by his son’s attempt at making a life for himself among humans, going so far as to restoring the home that held so many evil memories.

Then his rigid face broke open, freeing expressions I had never seen; words, shaken loose by his father’s storm, came out of him in a sudden desperate cry. “I hoped for something true! Something from my hands, from my heart, not Nial’s, yours. I wanted to rebuild this house in the human world, with time, with earth, with new wood –”

“Why? When you have this house already, and in this world?”

“It’s not mine, it’s not yours; it’s Nial Lynn’s cold, cruel, loveless house — you brought everything he gave you with you when you ran.”

“I brought nothing from that world!”

“Yes! You brought nothing! That was all he gave you!” Tearle opened his mouth to answer; nothing came out. He looked astonished, as if Corbet himself had spun the soft summer air into lightning. “This is still Nial’s house. You don’t feel the cold here because that’s all you ever knew. You learned no human warmth from him, you only glimpsed it in others’ faces, beside other fires that warmed more than the air they touched.”

Another nice touch here: in The Snow Queen it is the powerful, icy ruler of winter who desensitizes Kai to the cold through her frigid kisses. Reason robs Kai of his human warmth and empathy and Tearle’s family experiences robbed him of the insight to see that he had fallen into pattern.

McKillip’s sinister, otherworldly, female figure in this story, more goddess than queen, is a little less intimidating than Andersen’s. Her living fur coat with animals writhing and whimpering does make an impression, never-mind that her wintry presence is enough to freeze one to the bones, but it’s hard to top a queen who is entirely made of “dazzling, glittering ice”. But our unnamed villain makes an effort:

“Who are you?” I [Rois] whispered. Cold racked through me; the thorns tightened their hold. She was something wild in my wood, the glint of eye on a lightless night, the formless shadow the moon reveals tangled in the shadow of a tree. “Who are you?”

“I am night,” she said, and it was. “I am winter’s song,” and I heard it. “I am the shadow of the bloody moon and all the winds that harvest in it.” I felt them. “I am the dead of winter.”

She also makes an unnerving habit of appearing in dreams with the face of dead family members. Not endearing at all.

Like the Snow Queen she acts as a symbol, an embodiment of what the heroine is struggling against. Her disturbing manner of co-opting benevolent gestures and roles, in Andersen’s tale her kisses, is made even more grotesque here as she explicitly gives herself a maternal role, replacing Corbet’s deceased mother, except that her interpretation of motherhood is more similar to that of a prison torturer.

The major difference between McKillip’s and Andersen’s female power figure is that McKillip’s is more explicitly linked to the cycle of seasons, to the earth, to the villager’s way of life in general. This is more in keeping with the winter goddess Skadi, who I assume is both writers based her on (although I could be wrong). Although she expressly associates herself with deadening winter she has different faces. When Rois seeks out Corbet the goddess allows her access to him in a place of spring time, ripe with the smell of berries and herbs. Corbet warns her that this was “one of her faces. One of her expressions. You’ve seen others; don’t lose your heart to this one.”

Overall I find Winter Rose an excellent example of how fantasy authors can reinvent old stories and myths into something entirely their own. McKillip takes the memorable characteristics of Andersen’s tale into new settings, bringing out different ideas with a skill and beauty that justifies the use of the source material; and leaves enough of the familiar that she retains the echo of earlier stories, earlier myths, maintaining the link to past traditions.

It makes me think of traditional poetic metres: they are considered old-fashioned now, unnecessarily restrictive to creativity, archaic and out-of-step with the modern mind, incapable of speaking to, of and for the masses. At best only good for children. Of course this is nonsense: all it takes is the right mind to take it up again and give us something new, something true.

***

Whew. That was long enough, wasn’t it.

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