I had no idea that Hans Christian Andersen had written things other than children’s fairy tales, and so I was delighted when Angel Classics (publisher of my beloved Denis Jackson translations of Theodor Storm) asked if I would like to sample some. I had to wait to January to read The Ice Virgin though. I’m a cold-titles-in-cold-months reader. And so I settled down, ready to be transported to deepest, darkest Denmark. Instead I found myself high in the Bernese Oberland, in amongst the frozen glaciers where The Ice Virgin rules.
“Go on – crush! Take a hard grip! Power belongs to me!”, she says: “They stole a beautiful boy from me, a boy I had kissed, but not kissed to death. He is back among humankind, minding the goats on the mountain, scrambling upwards, always upwards, away from all the other children – but not away from me. He is mine and I will get him!”
The Ice Virgin is reminiscent of Andersen’s other creation, The Snow Queen. Her heart is stone cold and she rages that the child who fell into the ravine as a babe in arms did not die alongside his mother. Her mission is to claim him.
The boy, Rudy, grows strong, tall, and brave. He becomes a skilled chamois hunter, very much in his element in the mountains, and very much aware of the Ice Virgin’s ploys. Each time he sets off to cross the mountains on foot, supremely confident of his own abilities, I tensed up with foreboding – not able to fully appreciate Andersen’s magnificent word-paintings of the landscape. For it is quite clear that The Ice Virgin (or nature) is a malign presence consumed with hatred for humankind.
There are further elements of folklore here: Rudy’s quest to win the fair maiden’s hand. He (the knight) brings himself to her notice by winning an archery tournament with all its shades of William Tell. She (the princess) is the wealthy miller’s daughter – not only is Rudy aiming above his own station, but he is seeking to win a girl from a French-speaking canton. (From Grindelwald, he is German-speaking). It’s a different world, not just language-wise. The miller (the king) employs the latest technology. Rudy views the train as new-fangled. Andersen is not just telling a fairy tale, he is blending it with a faithful portrait of the Switzerland he found on his travels during the 1860’s.
Of course, the sociological and technological concerns of humankind are anathema to the Ice Virgin. She’d destroy the lot if she could. The question is will she?
The Ice Virgin is translated from Danish by Paul Binding. (Interview at Words Without Borders here.)