Friday, 10 February 2012

The Snow Child

by Delia Sherman




When I was a child, I had a book called Fairy Tales of Many Lands, edited by H. Herda and published by Franklin Watts in 1956. It’s sitting by my desk as I type, its disintegrating cover patched by my mother, some time in the early 60’s, with lavender and blue flowered Contac paper. It was originally published in German, which explains the extremely idiosyncratic choice of tales (“The Good Shepherd”? “The Gnome’s Advice”? “The Enchanted Hill?”), the unfamiliar artists (Gerhard Grossman? Hilde Koeppen? Ursula Wendorff-Weidt?), and the stiff, translated prose. In any case, I pored over its strange tales and sketchy wash illustrations with the single-hearted obsession of a child in love with a book. There’s not a single story in there that hasn’t influenced me in some way or another, including the ones I hated (“The Weathercock” and “The Wonderful Coffee Mill,” if you’re curious). But the one that really got me where I lived was a Russian folk tale called “The Snow Child.

It’s not a well-known story, so here’s a summary:

A childless couple celebrate the first snowfall of winter by sculpting a snow baby. A stranger walks by, and the snow baby stretches, laughs, and becomes a perfect, pale baby girl with blue eyes and hair like starlight. The couple, delighted, take her home, put her in their empty cradle, and call her Snowflake.

Snowflake grows quickly into a beautiful, good, obedient, merry child, who helps her mother around the house and is beloved by everyone who sees her. All winter she laughs and plays with the village children, but when the spring comes, she turns pale and quiet and takes to hiding in shady corners. Come midsummer, she agrees to go out into the woods to celebrate with her friends. But when they press her to leap over the midsummer bonfire, she slips away into the woods and heads towards the mountains to the north.



When Snowflake fails to return from the bonfire with the other children, the distracted parents search the forest until the village wise woman tells them to stop. Their daughter was the gift of King Winter, who has undoubtedly taken her back into his frozen kingdom. They should be grateful for the gift and stop mourning.

In the meantime, Snowflake journeys through the woods, having adventures with a pair of lost bear cubs, turning down an offer to be Queen of a pond of musical Frogs, and sleeping under an oak tree, watched over by kindly giants, squirrels, and dwarves. She reunites the cubs with their mother and begs a ride from a skeptical eagle, who carries her to his eyrie. That night, King Winter appears to tell her that she is a snow child, whose real home is a crystal palace behind the moon. He will take her there, but first she must return to her parents and tell them goodbye. A flurry of snowflakes carries her back to her village, where she appears to her parents and tells them to be glad for her because she’s going home. Then the sun rises and she melts and rises as a cloud to heaven.



It is, of course, a fable about children dying, right on up there with the death of Little Nell in its sentimental piety. The oldest versions, referenced in the scholarly literature as tale-type 703, end at the midsummer bonfire, with the snow maiden giving into peer pressure and evaporating up to heaven, leaving everyone to wonder what has become of her. Another variant has her growing up, falling in love, and melting from the heat of her sweetheart’s first kiss.

I like H. Herda’s version better.

This Snowflake may be a compendium of Victorian virtues, but she’s anything but passive. And she’s got a strong sense of self-preservation as well as a good heart. She runs away from the fire—and the insensitive children who are pressuring her to jump it. She knows how to catch trout with her bare hands and get honey from a hive. She’s polite to frogs and wolves alike and she isn’t afraid of flying over ravines and gullies on an eagle’s back. She’s not afraid to die.



There’s a reason that the spine of Fairy Tales from Many Lands is broken at the illustration of Snowflake in the eagle’s nest, looking longingly at the moon. As a child, I was asthmatic, at a time when the treatment for asthma was pretty much a hot humidifier and Vicks Vaporub for mild attacks, and the hospital, an oxygen tent, and prayer for more severe ones. Every time I couldn’t breathe, I was sure I was going to die. And even though I was all too obviously not good, obedient, pious, industrious, or beloved by all who beheld me, I found hope in Snowflake’s after-evaporation reunion with her brother and sister snowflakes.

The comfort I found in Snowflake’s death is why I’m so appalled by the 20th Century’s cultural redefinition of fairy tales as simplistic, sanitized, happily-ever-after stories of heterosexual romance for children. Yes, Fairy Tales of Many Lands was published for children, and I can’t read it now without wincing at the slightly twee tone of the prose (“Does this child really want to go up to the sky, this bewitching little child whom no one can resist?”). And yet the stories confront the bitter side of human relations as well as the sweet, and the protagonists triumph over bandits and malicious friends as well as giants and dragons. With few exceptions, the girls in these stories are as active and clever as the boys, and their rewards are not restricted to marriage.



Reading the story now, it seems odd to me that I identified so strongly with Snowflake. Where she revived in the cold, I withered and wheezed. Where she was slender and dainty and blonde, I was plump and bespectacled and mousy brown. I was too allergic to animals to have a pet, let alone romp with bears, and couldn’t even play outside at recess, let alone go adventuring in the woods. I was afraid of heights. And my parents, while they loved me, did not approach the standards set by old Ivan and Maria. Yet her story was, on one level, mine. We were both children adopted by much older parents when we were babies, we were only children, and we were the gift of a stranger. Neither of us fit the norms of the world we’d been brought into. Both of us longed for a home we could hardly imagine, among people who not only loved us, but knew and accepted us for what we were.

Snowflake had to evaporate to find her home. I only had to grow up.

As an author, I have retold “The Snow Child” only once, in a story called “The Printer’s Daughter,” written for the Windling/Datlow fairy tale anthology Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears. My chance-child is made of paper, not snow, and her adventures take place in the wilderness of Elizabethan London rather than in a Russian forest. Frisket is a post-modern heroine, fully conscious that she’s not human, always longing to go back to paper and ink. Which she does, in the end, with the help of a scruffy poet. It’s one of my favorite pieces of my own fiction, drawing on all the Elizabethan prose I read for my degree in Renaissance studies as well as on “The Snow Child.” But it’s not the only piece of fiction that story has touched. Almost everything I write has got a foundling in it somewhere, a child out of place or out of time, raised and loved by those who have no blood kinship with it. Like Snowflake, each of these foundlings is and is not me, their stories rooted in mine and branching from it, like tributaries from the river that is my drive to write.



Delia Sherman writes historical/folklore/semi-comic fairy stories with a serious twist.  Her short fiction and poetry has appeared in many anthologies.  Her adult novels are 'Through a Brazen Mirror' and 'The Porcelain Dove' (which won the Mythopoeic Award) and, with fellow-fantasist Ellen Kushner, 'The Fall of Kings'.  She has also written two wonderful novels for younger children, 'Changeling' and 'The Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen', featuring impetuous, warm-hearted Neef, the official changeling of New York's Central Park. "Kind of bi-cultural, human and faery", Neef is always getting into scrapes - as you might expect when the Wild Hunt howls on autumn nights in Central Park, fox spirits and moss women live in the woods, and the odd Fictional Character such as the Water Rat or Stuart Little may be found down by the lake.

Delia is an active member of the Endicott Studio of Mythic Arts and a founding member of the board of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, dedicated to art found  in between genres and crossing boundaries.  She lives – where else? – in New York City with Ellen Kushner, travels whenever she gets the chance and writes wherever she happens to be.  Her latest book is The Freedom Maze, about a supposedly white child magically transported to the time of her ancestors who were slave-owners and slaves in the old South.



Picture Credits: 
The Snow Maiden by A Vedernikov
Black and white photographs of snowflakes by Wilson Bentley (1865-1931)

11 comments:

Susan Price said...

Loved the blog! - and I love Russian Fairytales. I know a more cynical, even harsher version of the Snow Child. She is beloved by her parents and they are promised that, even though she's made of snow, she will stay with them as long as they 'love her best of all.' They assume that means forever.
They're heartbroken when she goes missing. She's lost in the forest, treed by a wolf. A cunning little fox tricks the wolf and rescues her, in return for the promise of a chicken when he leads her home.
Her parents are overjoyed when she returns to them, but when it comes to giving the fox a chicken... They put a dog in a sack instead, and, pretending to be releasing a chicken, instead set the dog on the fox. When they turn to share their cleverness with Snow Child, they find only a puddle of melt-water.

Swan Artworks said...

Excellent! I'd forgotten about that one, but I'd love to read the version talked about here with the creatures of the forest.
What we read as children has such a strong and lasting influence, something I am again becoming very aware of now my eldest daughter is starting to read for herself in bed at night.
I need to start stocking up on some really interesting books for her age...

jan.s said...

I read this with great interest and although I don't remember ever hearing of it before, it speaks of childhood dreams. In recent years I've written a short story about snow, about the impermanence of it and the great teachings it shares! Thank you again for your wonderful blog and I enjoy reading the comments too! Cheers from Australia. jan.s

Cathrin said...

This made me think of "The Ice Baby" by Carys Bray, published in New Fairy Tales, Issue Six. Bray's story is wonderful and hard to forget. In it a father has sculpted a baby girl from ice and fights to keep her alive, eventually doing so by making the ultimate sacrifice (I don't want to give too much away). The mother is indifferent to the baby, which is an interesting, post-modern twist.

I get discouraged, too, by the sanitizing of stories. Stories for very young children are "precious," and then when they're only a little older, they are bombarded with violent, sometimes vicious, drek. I don't get it.

Thanks for the beautiful introduction to a magical tale.

Katherine Langrish said...

I felt sure I'd come across a version of this tale somewhere, and now I've found it - it's by Nathaniel Hawthorne and can be found here: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/nhawthorne/bl-nhaw-snow.htm

Although at first sight it appears a little 'cute', after the 19th century tradition, it's well worth reading through to the thought-provoking end.

Kate Forsyth said...

Thank you for this post - I remember the Snow Child, but I don't know where I read it. I was fascinated by your account of your childhood illness (so many writers seem to have faced the idea of their own mortality very young!) And I'm not at all surprised that you felt such an affinity with the eagle-riding, bear-wrestling snow child - deep down you too would have longed for adventure and freedom from your illness.
Thank you for a beautiful post.
PS: there's a novel just been published called'The Snow Child' by a new writer Eowyn Ivey (gorgeosu fairytale name!) - I haven't read it yet though its on my wish list. Apparently its gorgeous.

Imola said...

You do know there is a book by the same title that came out last year? It was inspired by the folktale.

Anonymous said...

Hello Delia,
thank you SO much for your article wich has, in fact, helped me to FINALLY pinpoint the titles of the only two fairytales I could still recall from this old book (one having been the Snow Child, and the other one the Enchanted Hill).
I too read this book as a child (though in German) and have since been trying to remember something, anything, that might possibly help me in locating the book.. Last night, I tried another search on-line, and thanks to YOUR site I was finally able to find out both the titles and the name of the book I'd been searching for all these years!!
Since the German edition costs literally HUNDREDS of dollars (well, euros, for that matter) I instead bought the English one, which was WAY cheaper (isn't it funny how these things work? worth almost nothing in one country and hundreds of bucks in another... crazy collectors!:o)..) and am now looking forward to receiving it soon - hopefully, before X-mas as I can't wait to read some of those stories to my own daughters!!!
Again, thanks for your great blog (oh, and should you have any idea what "The Enchanted Hill", which the German original claimed to be 'an English fairytale', might be based on, please do let me know, as I haven't been able to find anything remotely connected to it...)
Chesh

Anonymous said...

(PS:
I'll make sure to check your site regularly in the next little while, but as for the Enchanted Hill fairytale, if you'd like to let me know any of its origin, background or the likes, please feel free to contact me under
cheshirecatfreak@yahoo.com
Thanks, and bye for now!

Katherine Langrish said...

Dear Anon/Chesh - so pleased to hear Delia's post helped you rediscover an old loved book! This happened for me a couple of years ago, and I was so thrilled. Thanks for stopping by, and though I don't myself know the origin of the Enchanted Hill, I'll bear it in mind and keep my eyes open.

All best! Katherine

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The story is a wonderful mix of reality and fairy tale, beautifully written with fantastically crafted characters. Against the wild and fasincating backdrop of Alaska in the 1920s, this book is a truly enjoyable read.