Thursday, 21 October 2010

Fairytale Reflections (6) Katherine Roberts

I am a long-term fan of Katherine Roberts' books. She has a wonderful gift for conjuring up other worlds – whether set in the legendary past, or entire sub-creations (in Tolkien’s phrase), fully realised and vivid. Her trilogy the The Echorium Sequence is set in an utterly fresh and underivative fantasy world which I already wrote about in this post here.  (If I absolutely had to come up with a comparision, I'd suggest not Tolkien's or Lewis's worlds, but Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea.  Really though, the books stand alone.)

Here is the evocative opening of the first in her Seven Fabulous Wonders series, ‘The Great Pyramid Robbery’, set in a magical ancient Egypt:

Senu sat cross-legged in the shade of an awning on the river bank with the other children from the hemetiu village, a limestone slate balanced across his sunburnt knees, a reed pen clutched in one sweaty hand. It was far too hot for serious work. The stink of open sewers and raw fish blew down from the plateau, mosquitoes swarmed, and dust from the building site got into everything.

I just love the vivid smells and sensations...

Katherine grew up in the wild, rocky counties of Devon and Cornwall with their brooding moors and rugged coasts.  She gained a first class degree in mathematics from Bath University, and went on to work as a mathematician, computer programmer, racehorse groom and farm labourer - before her first novel, ‘Song Quest’, won the Branford Boase Award in 1999 and enabled her to fulfil her dream of becoming a full time writer.

If a writer’s life provides material for a writer’s work, such a varied background must be a bonus.  It means that in her recent book ‘I Am the Great Horse’, the story of Alexander seen through the eyes of his warhorse Bucephalus  ( ‘I am no black beauty!’)  Katherine can draw upon her own close knowledge and love of horses. One-eyed Bucephalus is strong and macho – after all, he’s a stallion! – and his understanding of his human master Alexander’s deeds is both touchingly limited and slily illuminating. (Kings sending warlike messages to one another are, for Bucephalus, like stallions dropping fresh dung on top of an old pile, to obliterate another’s dominance.) Moreover, Bucephalus has senses beyond the human. He can see ghosts. As Alexander punishes a prisoner by having him dragged to death behind a chariot –

The horses take off immediately, as they’ve been trained to do.  The prisoner’s body jerks as the rein attached to his ankles tightens, and he bounces along behind the chariot in the dust and flying sand.  The grooms run after it.

That is the last I see of the governor of Gaza, though later his ghost screams past the horse lines, lifting our manes and making us all shiver.

Visit Katherine’s own blog Reclusive Muse for a truly fascinating series of posts on the secret history of the writing of that book. Now here she is in person to reflect upon her particular fairytale –


Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” has haunted me all my life, so I was delighted when Kath gave me an excuse to revisit this one. It’s a fairly complex fairytale, with its story of Kai who gets a splinter of the devil’s mirror in his eye, rejects his sweetheart Gerda, and runs away with the Snow Queen. But like all the old tales, there are layers of meaning hidden under the story too. I think that’s what makes them endure over the years, so I hope you’ll be interested in my personal interpretation.

As a little girl I enjoyed the story mostly for its adventure and magic. Living in the southwest of England, Torbay in Devon, where we seldom see snow even in the coldest winters, I also liked the otherworldly beauty of the snowy mountains and the enchantment of the Snow Queen’s ice palace – see, I was a budding fantasy writer even then! I remember the book I owned as a child (now sadly lost) had a beautiful full-colour picture of the Snow Queen dressed in white fur, driving her sleigh pulled by prancing white horses with silver bells on their harness through the Northern Lights across a winter’s sky. Being pony crazy, I think it was probably these horses that drew me to the story initially. I never much liked later versions where the horses were replaced by reindeer or swans, or – as in the DVD version I have starring Bridget Fonda – an engine! Talk about destroying the magic…

But back to the story. As soon as I discovered that in this fairytale it is the boy – Kai – who gets kidnapped, and the girl – Gerda – who sets out on a quest to rescue him, I was hooked. After all those sugary little princess stories, here was a true heroine setting out on her own adventures! (I was Gerda, of course.) My memory of the actual adventures Gerda had on her quest is hazy, and I know these are often edited for simplicity, so maybe that’s why. The version of the tale I re-read for this post has Gerda encountering a witch living in a cottage in the woods who tries to keep her as her own little girl, then a princess with a long line of suitors seeking her hand who tries to marry her off, followed by a robber girl who supplies her with a reindeer, and finally two old women – a Lapp and a Finn – living alone in the snow, who feed and warm Gerda on her journey. The DVD version leaves out the Lapp and Finn women entirely, linking each of Gerda’s encounters to a different season so that she journeys through spring, summer, and autumn to find winter and the Snow Queen. I don’t think the details really matter. However, I do think that, on a deeper level, Gerda’s quest represents the stages of womanhood she will travel through in the world and perhaps that’s why this fairytale speaks to me so strongly.

This is how I see Gerda’s journey:

Spring – In the witch’s cottage, Gerda is cared for and allowed to play in the garden but is forbidden to step outside the gate into the dangerous wood. The witch banishes all the roses that might remind her of Kai and does everything she can to keep the little girl from continuing her quest. Having a clingy mother myself, I can identify only too well with this stage. Even now, my mother seems unable to accept that I might want to open that gate and have adventures of my own in the big wide world.

Summer – At the Princess’ palace, Gerda at first thinks Kai is the prince, and is disappointed when he turns out to be a stranger. In my DVD version a line of charming suitors try to win her hand, but Gerda rejects them all and escapes. This season represents the young and fertile woman chased by boys and making herself beautiful for them. It seems summer will last forever, with its dances and its roses and its declarations of love. But it is over all too soon.

Autumn – Here, I see the robber girl and her bandit mother representing the menopause, when a woman has finished with being a wife and mother and is beginning to find her own way in the world, coming into her power. It might be the autumn of her life, but autumn is a period of fruitfulness and harvest where the seeds sown in spring that blossomed in summer are ripening. Here, Gerda finds strength she didn’t know she had and escapes by riding the robber girl’s reindeer.

Winter – The Finn and Lapp women, living alone in their modest, cosy houses isolated in the snow, represent old age. They help Gerda, but warn her that if she chooses to continue her quest she must leave the reindeer and go on alone. This last part of her journey represents death, which everyone must face alone.

Finally, Gerda reaches the Snow Queen’s palace, where she finds Kai trying to form a word out of shards of ice. The word is LOVE, but Kai’s heart has been turned to ice by the Snow Queen’s kiss, and the splinter of the devil’s mirror in his eye means he cannot complete the puzzle. (In the DVD version, Kai’s task is to reassemble the actual mirror). Of course he cannot do it, until Gerda kisses him and melts his heart. He weeps with joy at seeing her, and the splinter comes out of his eye. Like all fairytales, it is a happy ending. Kai completes his impossible task, winning his freedom from the Snow Queen, and the two young people return to their rose garden, where (one imagines) they got married and had a gloriously happy life bringing up their own children with the advantage of the lessons they have both learnt… I like to think so, anyway!

The splinter in Kai’s eye is a powerful image. The devil – or hobgoblin or elf – made this mirror to reflect beautiful things as ugly and make ugly things seem normal. It’s very true that the way you look at something can change completely the way you see life, and I’ve certainly gone through phases myself when a splinter of the devil’s mirror gets lodged in my eye, and I have to make a conscious effort to squeeze it out before I can see the good around me. Breaking a mirror is also very symbolic, bringing seven years of bad luck according to some. I broke a mirror five years ago… of course I’m not superstitious AT ALL, and greater forces than a broken mirror have influenced my life over the past five years… but I’ll admit I’m looking forward to 2012.

So where am I on Gerda’s quest? Somewhere between leaving the princess’ summer palace and being ambushed by the robber girl, I fear – though, of course, the heroine’s journey changes depending upon the version being told. Perhaps the best thing about being an author is that we can create our own adventures, and – better still – our very own fairytale ending.

Here I must leave my journey with the Snow Queen before the “too much scrolling” bit kicks in. Call me a romantic, but there’s only one ending I really want… you’ve probably already guessed it… and they all lived happily ever after!


  1. Oh botheration! I have just found another blog I simply must follow...pads off, tail flicking...
    ooohh...forgot my manners - thankyou temptress!

  2. I have to be in London all day, but catdownunder and everyone, there's a fantastic post on maps in Katherine's book at her blog:

  3. mmmm I read that and it IS good... I love maps!

  4. It is so fascinating to find out which fairytales matter to writers one admires! And this one is no exception.

    Brilliant analysis of Gerda's quest and journey, Katherine. And I wish you good luck long before 2012!

  5. I agree, Mary.
    Katherine, which dvd is it? I should have asked you before. I remember a rather good BBC (?) version from many years ago...

  6. Catdownunder, I love maps too... maybe because you can always take a fantasy journey with a map, even when it is not possible to make the journey in the flesh.

    Kath, the DVD I mention came free with the Daily Mail as part of their Christmas Magic and Fantasy series a couple of years ago. It is copyrighted 2002 to MAT Movies and Television productions, and stars Bridget Fonda as the Snow Queen, Jeremy Guilbaut as Kai, and Chelsea Hobbs as Gerda. Was that the BBC version you saw?

    Mary, thank you - though things do tend to go in seven year cycles, I find. To get Biblical again, it's like the seven fat cows and the seven thin cows in Joseph's dream... the first thing they ought to teach on writing courses, maybe!

  7. Thank you for another wonderful fairy tale post. The Snow Queen was one that always troubled me when I was a child. I agree that it is deep - deeply archetypal, I suppose. Gerda always seemed so strong and yet fragile, which is realistic when you come to think of it. My favorite part, and the part that always stuck with me even when I forgot the rest, was the part about the robber girl. I identified with her completely. When I started reading the story with my own children, I wanted to mother the robber girl and save her from her brutish life. She lived with thugs who thought nothing of robbing people blind, and yet she still had a heart.

    I was raised by very troubled parents and eventually had to part from them for good. Friends have asked me how I survived to live a good, solid family life. I never knew how to answer, but the robber girl likely pointed the way a long time ago. It continually amazes me that fairy tales have been the milestones and the guiding stars of my life. I don't think I'll ever stop learning through fairy tales, but now I have an online community of people to share the experience with.

    Thanks again.

  8. Hi! As I explained to you in an answer to your inquiry about this illustration of Kai attaching his little sled to the Snow Queen's sleigh, this illustration is from a 1937 reprint of the 1920 original edition of My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller. As I told you, I believe, but am not absolutely sure, that this means this illustration by Mariel Wilhoite is in the public domain because it was originally published prior to 1923. However, it does seem to me that credit for a work of art should be given if it is known. Perhaps I have missed where you gave the artist credit? Just in case, here it is again. xo Kari

  9. Kari, thankyou so much for adding this information. You are quite right, and I meant to post it, but have had a rather troubled few weeks and the detail escaped me. Thanks for noticing and correcting!

    Cathrin, thankyou too for your thoughts. I do think fairytales plumb something deep in us. As I was wondering in an earlier post, they can be something like parables, but every individual chooses the story that resonates, and must then ask the right questions and discover the answers. And they're different for every one of us. I feel fascinated and and awed by the different choices and interpretations that are coming out here.

  10. Also Kari, could you send me the link to your blog? I thought I had bookmarked it - but I can't find it, and would love to revisit!

  11. Hi again! My blog is And I do understand what you mean about getting everything done in the middle of chaos. I'm trying to repaint my house, and nothing else is getting done. In my original four-part set of posts about the Snow Queen, I had credited the illustrations to My Book House only in the first post, and failed to think that I needed to renew the credit in each succeeding post. I couldn't read the name of the artist at that time, as I remember. But I doubt I will go back and put the proper credits on all four posts at this point in time. If any of your readers should know anything about the artist Mariel Wilhoite, I would love to more about her. Her illustrations ARE the Snow Queen to me. I tried to be Gerda in my first marriage to a Vietnam War Veteran, but all my love could not help him find his way out that war, so The Snow Queen has a hold of mythic proportions on me: the knowledge that love cannot always heal everything.Thanks for delving into the old fairytales. I am glad that they keep on enduring. xo Kari

  12. Thanks - I don't know the artist myself, perhaps someone eles may?

    Btw I love your cut-out silhouettes of the Boxcar children!

  13. Cathrin, a friend of mine was also saying how much she identified with the robber girl, who is admittedly more of a "feisty" heroine than Gerda. I like the robber girl too, but am still with Gerda on the romance.

    Kari, fascinating (and sad) to hear of your own personal Gerda journey. Love cannot heal everything... that's true, I suppose, but it certainly helps ease the pain along the way.