Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into “The Snow Queen”

She was wondrously beautiful and delicate, but she was ice, dazzling, shimmering ice. Yet she was alive. Her eyes glittered like stars, without tenderness or warmth.

Hans Christian Andersen “The Snow Queen”

Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” a masterpiece of boundless imagination, was first published on December 21, 1844, almost 180 years ago. Comprised of seven parts, it is the longest of Andersen’s tales and is considered one of his most successful.

“The Snow Queen” – Andersen’s Muse

It is believed that “The Snow Queen” is a metaphorical autobiography, with the character of the Snow Queen inspired by Jenny Lind (1820-1877), the Swedish soprano opera singer who was beloved by Andersen. His biographers suggest that his fairy tale “The Nightingale” was also a tribute to his passion for Lind, who was affectionately nicknamed the “Swedish Nightingale” after the tale was published.

Lind began performing at the young age of 10 and achieved enormous success despite retiring from opera at 29. Some highlights of her illustrious career include serving as a court singer to the Kings of Norway and Sweden, receiving a warm reception in New York during her wildly successful US tour, and enchanting Queen Victoria, who attended all sixteen of Lind’s debut performances in London during her 1847 British tour.

Lind’s popularity on stage rivalled her success off stage drawing admiration from many celebrities. One such admirer was the German composer, pianist, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn, with whom it is believed she reciprocated feelings of love. However, when Lind toured Denmark in 1843 and met Hans Christian Andersen, who unsurprisingly fell in love with her, she only responded with sisterly friendship.

Andersen was known to fall for unattainable women throughout his lifetime. He was shy around women and struggled to open his heart to Lind. When he finally did hand her a letter with his marriage proposal, her response was kind but romantically non-committal: “farewell… God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny”.[1]

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Jenny Lind Standing at a Keyboard, Bain Collection of the Library of Congress

Although Andersen’s passionate love for Lind remained unrequited, its impact on his art was profound. In his work “The Story of My Life” Andersen wrote: “through Jenny Lind I first became sensible of the holiness there is in art… No books, no men have had a better or a more ennobling influence on me as the poet, than Jenny Lind”.

Some of Andersen’s biographers suggest that Lind inspired not only his tale of “The Nightingale,” but also “Beneath the Pillar” and “The Angel.” It has also been suggested that Andersen’s disappointment at Lind’s refusal to marry him inspired his portrayal of her as the anti-heroine in “The Snow Queen.”

However, this theory is disputed or considered dubious by some Andersen researchers, as pointed out by the author of the “Living in Literature” blog. Despite this, the poetic description of the Snow Queen’s first encounter with young Kay (who may be seen as representing Andersen himself) in “The Snow Queen” could be seen as evidence of a beautiful but cold muse inspiring the tale in some way:

She was wondrously beautiful and delicate, but she was ice, dazzling, shimmering ice. Yet she was alive. Her eyes glittered like stars, without tenderness or warmth. She nodded at the boy and beckoned him to come near…

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
The cover spread of “The Snow Queen” reviewed in this post
(published by the Ukrainian publisher A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, 2021)

And so the story begins a haunting tale of a young, innocent boy with ice in his heart, held prisoner by the Snow Queen in her palace. Kay’s childhood friend, Gerda, embarks on a long and perilous journey in search of him, and ultimately, it is she who saves him and brings him home. When Gerda finds Kay alive but with his heart and soul frozen, she cries, her tears falling onto his chest and melting the ice in his heart. Kay’s tears, in turn, push out from his eye the speck of glass from the evil magic mirror that made him forget how to see the good and the beautiful.

The beautiful edition of “The Snow Queen,” reviewed in this post is illustrated by the Ukrainian artist Vladislav Yerko and published by the Ukrainian publisher A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA in 2021. Both the artist and the publisher are highly acclaimed, award-winning, and much loved by audiences of all ages and collectors alike. This production of “The Snow Queen” has been distinguished by numerous awards:

  • Grand Prix award at the Ukrainian Book of the Year awards in 2000;
  • Included in the list “White Ravens” in 2002;
  • Included in the Top – 3 best Christmas sellers in Great Britain
  • Won “The Book of the Year – 2006” in the USA (Anderson House Foundation);
  • Best in the nomination “The most beautiful edition” (2000 Book of the Year National Contest);
  • Best in the nomination “Children’s Holiday” (2000 Book of the Year National Contest);
  • 1st award of the Book Art of Ukraine National Contest.

“The Snow Queen” – A Story of Good and Evil

Like any great classic story, “The Snow Queen” explores multiple themes. The overarching narrative is the timeless struggle between good and evil. The first appearance of evil is that of a troll who creates a magic mirror that distorts everything that is good. When it breaks into countless pieces and flies into people’s eyes and ears, the magic mirror makes the affected people forget how to see the beauty and goodness of the world. Here is poor Kay being struck by it:

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

The icy, cold world of the Snow Queen feels menacing and uninviting but is not pure evil in the traditional sense. Interestingly, for Kay and Gerda to reunite, neither the Snow Queen nor the troll has to be defeated or die, as villains usually do in fairy tales. Andersen is silent on their future, perhaps implying that evil can never be completely eradicated, but can be overcome through personal choices and the strength of one’s character and dedication.

The Snow Queen’s world revolves around cold reason, valuing realism over spirituality and scientific precision over the wonders of nature and art. This suits Kay, who stops seeing the beauty of the roses in his and Gerda’s garden and can only see the worm-eaten rose whose petals are falling. He becomes spiteful and resentful, even towards his dear friend Gerda and his poor old grandmother.

At the same time, he excels at math and becomes fond of the perfection of snowflakes. Absorbed in studying the mathematical precision of snowflakes under a magnifying glass, he forgets everything else, whereas, at the Snow Queen’s palace, Kay spends his days solving puzzles, trying to form words from geometrical fragments of ice, with the ultimate goal of forming the word “Eternity.”

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

Some argue that “The Snow Queen” tale is Andersen’s way of showing that, in the end, a Christian worldview and its values triumph over a world driven purely by scientific and technological progress. The main plot indeed centres on Gerda sacrificing all the comforts of her cozy life and embarking on an almost impossible journey to find and save her childhood friend, driven by her passion and determination.

People of all kinds, including good and kind individuals, selfish characters, robbers, animals, and even Mother Nature herself, assist Gerda on her perilous journey to find the Snow Queen’s palace. But when the reindeer of the North asks the Finn woman to give Gerda a potion to give her the power to overcome the Snow Queen, the woman replies:

I can give her no greater power than she already has. Don’t you see how great that is?…Power like that cannot be given. Her power is that she is a dear, innocent child. She herself must go to the Snow Queen’s palace and get the glass out of little Kay’s eye.”

When people and Nature are at their limits, Gerda prays… and the Divine answers her prayers and comes to her aid:

Her breath formed itself into little angels, who grew and grew as they touched the earth. All the angels wore helmets and carried shields and spears, and their number increased as Gerda prayed. When she had finished her prayer, a whole legion stood around her.

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

Translations and Retellings – Good, Bad or Somewhere in the Middle?

Abridged translation (A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, 2021)

Before discussing the magnificent illustrations in this edition, a word of caution about its text, which is abridged. While not as severe as in some worst-case scenarios, sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs from the original are missing.

In the “Third Story,” where the old sorcerer woman casts a spell over Gerda and makes her forget Kay, several whole pages are omitted. This omission excludes all of Gerda’s conversations with the flowers in the old woman’s enchanted garden. After shaking off the spell, Gerda goes on to ask each flower whether they have seen or heard anything about Kay, and none of the flowers knows anything about the boy, but each tells Gerda its own story.

These flower stories are literary gems, and their omission, in my view, detracts from this otherwise perfect edition. While the flower stories may not be critical to understanding the main plot or grasping the main ideas of the tale and may appear irrelevant and drawn out to a modern child reader with a short attention span, they are imaginative and add literary beauty to the tale of Gerda’s journey.

Similar to Gerda’s conversations with the flowers were the conversations that Lewis Carroll’s Alice had in “The Garden of Live Flowers,” in the second chapter of the famous sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (“Through the Looking Glass”), published in 1871. So, almost 30 years after Andersen wrote “The Snow Queen,” Lewis Carroll, like so many others in literature and film, drew inspiration from Denmark’s greatest storyteller. It’s a pity that some modern-day publishers and editors aren’t inspired enough to do full texts the justice they deserve.

One of the other unfortunate examples of abridging in this edition is the complete editing out of Andersen’s description of Kay and Gerda’s winter game of pressing warmed-up coins into the frosty glass panes of the window. Growing up in the Northern hemisphere, I absolutely loved creating these melted spyholes and looking through them at the winter scenes outside.

The illustration below shows Kay and Gerda in the process of melting such spyholes in their window, while the heavily abridged sentence in the text reads: “In the winter, if the weather was very bad, and Kay and Gerda couldn’t go outdoors, they would play at home together.” This means that a child without any experience of colder climates may struggle to understand the pastime of the kids shown in the illustration.

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

An abridged version of a classic literary work may be seen as a way to make it more accessible to modern children with short attention spans. However, this argument does not apply to the works of Hans Christian Andersen, which are far from dense or heavy and deserve to be preserved in their entirety, retaining the magic of the author’s original intent.

A successful retelling vs abridged translation

Another way to modify classic literature for modern audiences is to retell it rather than abridge the translation. This is where a translator with literary talent that matches the original author’s can retell the story just as beautifully, retaining its integrity and sometimes even enhancing it for a different language.

This can be especially true for poetry in a foreign language translated by poets into their native language. In some cases, the reteller may choose to edit out references to religious or other content if it is not considered critical for the modern audience’s perception of the story. Some retellings add nuance and embellish the original text like the example that follows. Some others are less successful.

Below compares an extract from the English retelling of “The Snow Queen” by Nicky Raven as published by The Five Mile Press in 2005 and the English translation used in the A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA edition reviewed in this post (this particular episode unabridged). The scene describes the struggle of tired and almost frozen Gerda when she finally reached the North only to face the terrifying legions of snowflake guards of the Snow Queen marching towards the poor child and ready to attack her.

Translation of the original (A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA, 2021):

Terrified little Gerda said her prayers. The cold was so great that she could see her own breath, which came from her mouth like smoke. As it became thicker and thicker, it formed itself into little angels, who grew and grew as they touched the earth. All the angels wore helmets, and carried shields and spears, and their number increased as Gerda prayed. When she had finished her prayer, a whole legion stood around her. They struck with their spears at the terrible snowflakes of the Snow Queen, and shattered them into a thousand pieces. Then the angels stroked little Gerda’s hands and feet until she felt the cold less and could hurry on to the Snow Queen’s palace.

Retelling by Nicky Raven (The Five Mile Press, 2005):

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

Gerda’s heart hammered in her chest. Her mouth was dry with fear. She was exhausted and hungry and lost. She wanted so much just to lie down in the snow and go to sleep. It was no use; the Snow Queen had won.

As she sank to her knees and prayed she heard a voice in her head: “I’ll catch that giant flake and put her on the fire – she won’t be so scary then!” It was Kay! Kay would never give in so easily. Gerda lifted her head and shouted defiantly at the monster snowflakes whistling around her.

As she shouted, Gerda’s breath misted in the cold air. The mist hung for a moment in front of her, and drifted away. As it moved towards the snowflake guards, the mist formed itself into a shape; it was a reindeer, just like her friend. The mist reindeer tossed its antlers at a guard, and the snowflake fell apart in a puff of white dust. Gerda cheered, and another misty shape came forth. Soon she was surrounded by phantoms made with her own breath. The little robber girl was there with her dagger; so too was the princess and her prince with their hunting bows. The raven and his love pecked at the monsters with their sharp beaks; the Lapp lady smacked at the snowflakes with a huge piece of cod, and the misty Finn woman just clicked her fingers and the guards melted. All of them moved amongst the snow guards, melting and breaking them, clearing a path for Gerda to plough onwards through the snowstorm. One of the mist shapes formed itself in Kay’s grandmother’s likeness, and rubbed at Gerda’s hands and feet to keep them warm. Stirred and heartened, Gerda marched on to the Snow Queen’s palace.

In the comparison above, Nicky Raven’s description of the scene is twice as long as Andersen’s, and in my opinion, it is twice as effective. While I lament the absence of the angels, in this moment of ultimate despair and on the brink of giving up, Nicky Raven’s literary brilliance endows Gerda with the strength of her own life and experiences. Gerda thinks of her dear Kay, remembers the people and animals who helped her on her journey, and the loved ones she left at home. These thoughts and memories summon a legion of protecting spirits (referred to as “the phantoms” in the text) who shield her and give her the courage to go on.

In the introduction to her retelling Nicky Raven wrote this:

The Snow Queen was started on December 5th and published sixteen days later. The haste, whilst impressive, led to a few gaps in the continuity of the story; I have tried to iron these out without impairing the air of wonder and mystery in the tale… Andersen is at his best writing about fundamental human virtues, not spiritual matters, so in this retelling, I have tried to bring out Andersen’s sense of humour and his moving appreciation of loyalty and friendship.

The boldness of the statement above initially made me feel sceptical (I mean, seriously, “ironing out” Andersen?). However, after reading Nicky Raven’s text in its entirety, I felt convinced and comfortable that a good literary retelling can be enjoyable and worthy of the original, without doing harm. That being said, I am still an aficionado and advocate for a good translation of the original over a retelling.

Vladislav Yerko – The Master Illustrator

This edition of “The Snow Queen” is magnificently illustrated by Ukrainian artist Vladislav Yerko. It is said that he often includes friends and family in his pictures. In this edition, there is a self-portrait of him carrying a portfolio under his arm on the back cover of the book. The other two men in the picture are Yerko’s fellow Ukrainian artists who work with the A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA publisher. One of them is pulling an unwilling goat loaded with the artist’s tools, brushes, and paints.

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

Vladyslav Yerko was born in 1962 in Kyiv, Ukraine. He studied at the Faculty of Book Graphics at the Ivan Fedorov Polygraphic Institute in Kyiv, graduating in 1990. Yerko worked in film poster design and in 1987 was a laureate of the Moscow International Poster Competition.

He has won numerous awards at prestigious art and book fairs, including being the laureate of the Lesia Ukrayinka Award, the Silver Award at the 3×3 International Illustration Show, and receiving recognition at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair illustration competition.

In 2002, Yerko was awarded the title of “Man of Book” as the best artist of the year by Moscow’s “Book Review.” His books have been included on ‘The White Ravens’ list multiple times, and his work for “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery was included on the IBBY Honour List in 2018. The same year, Yerko was also the Ukrainian nominee for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award by IBBY (sometimes referred to as “the little Nobel prize” for children’s literature).

Yerko has illustrated numerous classics of children’s literature, including “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll, and “The Nutcracker” by E.T.A. Hoffmann. He has also illustrated texts as diverse as Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “King Lear,” Nikolai Gogol’s “Taras Buliba,” and the covers for J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter.” The examples below demonstrate the diversity of techniques and mediums used by this versatile graphic master to great effect:

Renowned author Paulo Coelho, of “The Alchemist” fame (whose work was also illustrated by Yerko), was gifted “The Snow Queen” by Vladislav Yerko and marvelled at its beauty, declaring it “the most amazing children’s book that I have ever seen in my life.” The illustrations, brimming with intricate details and imaginative landscapes, breathe life into Andersen’s tale in a truly enchanting manner.

The characters’ expressions and gestures expertly convey the emotions of each scene, while the use of colour and light beautifully depict the landscapes of both the human and the Snow Queen’s realms, as well as the otherworldly atmosphere of the story. Yerko’s hyper-realistic pictures are the result of meticulous attention to detail, with the artist often working under a magnifying glass to ensure every aspect is perfectly rendered. These breathtaking illustrations are sure to captivate and delight for hours on end.

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials

For the illustrations in “The Snow Queen,” the artist worked on paper using watercolour, tempera, and gouache. It is said that an original artwork from this book was valued at over $26,000 at an auction! Yerko’s version of “The Snow Queen,” published by Templar in 2005, topped the Christmas sales of this publisher in Great Britain, surpassing two of its other best-selling titles, “Peter Pan” and “Treasure Island.” The print run of 15,000 copies of “The Snow Queen” by Templar was sold out within a few months. The rights to Yerko’s books have been acquired by publishers in 15 countries around the world, from the UK to South Korea and Australia.

It is easy to fall under the spell of these mesmerizing illustrations. Below, you can browse a few more images from this beautifully crafted book.

For more on Andersen, check out my review of “Hans Christian Andersen” biography, written for children by Anna Carew-Miller and illustrated by Kirill Chelushkin.

Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
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Vladislav Yerko Breathes New Life Into "The Snow Queen" Christmas, Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends Home Library Essentials
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Eiry Rees Thomas
1 month ago

Truly mesmerising, indeed Natalia! Thank you for detailing the intriguing information outlined.

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