We have this false idea that fairy tales are about weak and passive heroines, damsels in distress. So we are always fighting against a fairy tale legacy that doesn’t exist.
The interesting thing about The Snow Queen is that most retellings center their story around the villain rather than the heroine.
Hans Christian Anderson’s story was all about Gerta, this girl who went to the end of the world to rescue her friend and adopted brother, Kay. She is waylaid and helped and thwarted in her quest. But it is very much her quest; her choices to save him.
Disney’s Frozen, perhaps in opposition to the fairy tale legacy, eliminates Kay. Instead, Anna fights and struggles to rescue her sister. The elements are there, of hardship and the love. But a lot of the story is all mixed up in the movie. Elsa runs away rather than stealing anyone, though Anna does come after her to rescue her. The sliver of ice is in Anna’s heart, not Kay’s eye. It threatens to kill her, it doesn’t make her see the worst in someone else. In fact, Once Upon a Time struck closer to the fairy tale in season 4 than Frozen does. There were gaps there too, but if you combine the two narratives and look at them as a whole, you get most pieces of the fairy tale.
The great thing about this fairy tale is that it focuses on two powerful women (and incorporates more throughout Gerta’s journey). There’s a ton of agency for the dauntless girl, whether she’s Anna or Gerta.
And yet, most retellings find the queen more interesting. The woman who steals this boy. With her cold world and her vast and hollow palace. She does little more than set the story in motion, making her influential. But without any other place in the narrative, she is one dimensional.
So why don’t we retell the story of the girl who crosses the world, who struggles and fights to save someone she loves? Instead, the tales explore the queen’s heart of ice, her pursuit to live forever, to reconcile the power to freeze the world with the very human need to be loved in one form or another.
The versions that focus on Gerta/Anna give them a happy ending. The versions that focus on the queen can only give a tainted sort of good enough ending. Because the torment of the queen does not leave room for a truly happy ending.
And yet Disney finds perhaps the best of both worlds. We get Elsa’s struggle with her power, the ability to freeze the world while still needing to be loved and we get a happy ending. Because neither the fairy tale or Frozen (or even Once Upon a Time) rely on a romantic definition of love. They’re all about siblings (or almost siblings) and the power and influence of that sort of love. And when the story is about both Elsa and Anna, we find a happy ending.
Or as my 4-year-old nephew said:
“I figured it out. The key is loveness and her sister loved her.”
Want to refresh your memory of the fairy tale? SurLaLune fairy tales has an annotated version of the Hans Christian Anderson tale. And Angie has a great comparison of the fairy tale and Disney movie as part of her Project Disney.