What a difference a bear makes…Maria

In her book on translation, This Little Art, Kate Briggs points out that what we think of as various classics we have ‘read’ are often in fact, of course, someone’s translations.  This is certainly the case for all of us working on Snow Q, our collaborative project to reimagine Hans Christian Andersen’s Snow Queen fable.  None of us knows the Danish original.  We are drawing inspiration from memory –  our memories of reading or listening to the story as children  – and from rereading it now.  However in both cases these are not Hans Christian Andersen’s words but how someone else interpreted them. Does that matter?

In one English translation (by H.B Paull) the Snow Queen invites Kai to creep under her cloak of ‘warm fur’. Which animal’s do you then imagine it was? In another (by Mary Howitt), as in various Polish translations it is a bearskin. Incidentally the Polish translator Stefania Beylin – like us – did not know know Danish, she in turn worked from a German version…But there’s more to it than details like this. What about the tone and style of how the story is interpreted?

I talked about this to Bogusława Sochańska director of the Danish Institute of Culture in Warsaw who has recently published new translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s stories from Danish into Polish. She also kindly sent me her insightful essay tracing the history of the reception of Andersen’s stories in Poland. I shuddered both as an author and translator myself at what liberties have been taken with his work to sweeten and sanitise his language as from the second half of the 19th century he was increasingly considered solely a children’s writer. (Andersen himself clearly believed his stories addressed both adults and children.) Suggestions of sexuality or drunkenness say, his irony and plain speaking were often simply excised; other passages were added to make the stories more didactic and in keeping with the morals of the time. (Exactly what Deborah Price was talking about in our previous post!)  This was done, Sochańska argues, at the cost of depleting Andersen’s humour and irony, his craft, deliberate use of everyday, non-literary language and his philosophical subtexts. In some versions of Snow Queen Kai puts together an ice jigsaw to spell out the word ‘love’ – Andersen had actually said ‘eternity’.  At the end of the story some versions added in that Gerda and Kai loved each other, granny and their families when none of that was in the original!

Bear in Danish zoo

As for Andersen himself was he drawing on/’translating’ from other sources? Stories in the oral tradition he had heard as a child? Is there such a thing as the original?

Fairy tales were part of my Polish childhood. I loved being read to. Which of my languages did I first hear the Snow Queen in? I’ve always been drawn to the magic of fairy tales, the way anything can happen.  I asked writer and translator Anna Blasiak from the European Literature Network, one of Snow Q’s partners, about their significance in East/Central European culture:

‘Fairy tales are and have been a rich source…A number of Polish literature classics in fact reinterpreted them (for instance Słowacki, Mickiewicz). Fairy tale elements also appear in more modern texts ( in Leśmian’s, Lem’s, Krall’s, Tokarczuk’s writing), often as anti-fairy-tales or stories mixing fairy-tale with other elements, sometimes in a post-modern attempt to startle the readers and make them question their habits and expectations.

The difference between their role in Western and Eastern/Central Europe might be the link to folk/popular culture, which remains a bit stronger in the East. Encouraged by authorities in communist times, it was never completely severed in the East and the folk/popular element of fairy tales and oral traditions, remains more embedded in contemporary culture.’

Anna said she knew the Snow Queen story – one of my absolute favourites – but it had frightened her. ‘I’m not sure if I liked it – I was a bit scared of it, definitely fascinated though. The question is – why do we remain so fascinated. Is it the fantastical element, which gives us a momentary respite from the everyday reality? Is it all the gore, which fits well with our minds desensitised with modern cinematography, TV and games? Is it nostalgia for the past, for what is long gone? Moral lessons? Or perhaps it is simply our need to touch the mythical, the archetypal?’

Writing anew or ‘writing-again’, as Kate Briggs talks about it, is intrinsic to all translation. In the Snow Q project we are ‘translating’ the story or aspects of it into our own medium, visual art, sound, spoken word… Ours is decidedly version rather than an attempt to render the original faithfully. Translation, from the Latin, means to bring or carry over. Translating the translation of a translation …we have entered a hall of mirrors. Mirrors broken into a thousands, millions, billions (depending on the version) of fragments in this case.  Yet each of us is attempting to capture some essence, there in the ‘original’ and to do it justice. Will it be wrapped in bearskin? Vegan fake fur?  Some other metaphor? Or laid…bare?



Happily Ever After? Maria

When we first talked about Snow Q as a possible collaboration to reimagine the Snow Queen story we had no idea how much scholarship and interest surrounded it. The film Frozen was loosely based on it. It inspired the Narnia books. Interpretations, feminist ‘misinterpretations’, artistic, musical, film, scholarly and literary takes on it abound. We’re indebted to Heather Robbins, Research Assistant at the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy  – one of our partners – for helping us to research Hans Christian Andersen’s story. She has introduced us to the work of scholars all over the world such as Pauline Greenhill, Women’s and Gender Studies Department, University of Winnipeg, who has written ground-breaking essays about the Snow Queen in film, (eg. ‘Team Snow Queen: feminist cinematic ‘misinterpretations’ of a fairy tale’). With the project well under way now we’re searching, meeting up, talking about zillions of ideas and issues. 

Dagmara’s questions got us all thinking at Team Snow Q. What is art for? Is our aim to mirror (with all the cracks) human suffering – at its bleakest, most confused, despairing? Or is it to entertain our audience? I often know the end line of a poem I’m writing.  The ending, as Toni Morrison famously said, is where I start. But for our Snow Q project I’m not sure. Does Gerda find Kai? Do we end on a melancholy or uplifting note? The story has a happy ending. But then it is part of a specific fairy tale genre. Is that an outdated mode? Does it fit our contemporary lives?

I asked Heather Robbins who said:

‘I think fairy tales are still relevant today because they are so deeply embedded in our subconscious as symbols, archetypes and plots that they have become tools: tools to start conversations about different groups by retelling them through different narrators; tools to sell us merchandise through advertising recalling fairy tale plots; tools to think about society and how to change our own story.’

from Bajki Rozebrane, Katarzyna Miller, Tatiana Chochocka

Are fairy tales just for children?

‘You can enjoy the cleverness and beauty of a well-told fairy tale at any age, but sometimes I think children enjoy fairy tales more than adults because fairy tales are still new to them; kids really find them terrifying, hilarious, upsetting, etc. But there are probably more fairy-tales written for adults than there are aimed squarely at the very young, and these are often a comment on society delivered with a knowing wink, which are a satisfying, wry read for grown-ups.’

I asked the same questions of Deborah Price, lecturer in Children’s Literature for the Open University and author of several Early Years books, who said:

‘Fairy tales were originally written for adults as part of recording an oral storytelling tradition.  Only later did they become associated with children and were used to deliver morals and instructions from adults:  ‘Don’t stray from the path’, ‘Beware of strangers’. Every retelling and reworking of an old tale is necessarily influenced by that society’s structures and morality, changing through time – look how the heteronormative Disney version is the dominant telling of fairy tales today.  Children and adults can use fairy tales to create shared experiences of their own personal memory of the retelling of an old tale. The strong themes in fairy tales have given rise to many of our contemporary books and films – the princess who gets rescued by a prince (sic) is every rom com ever made.  The idea that evil will be vanquished and right will triumph runs through every adventure that we see on screen.  Fairy tales are simply tales that are part of our past and can be adapted and rewritten to form part of our future as well.’

Interestingly – for better or worse – Gerda, a girl, does the rescuing in Snow Queen. Most of the characters are women in fact, including of the Snow Queen herself of course.

Heather Robbins again: ‘Diane Purkiss recently said in Gramarye that she adored the Snow Queen, as “the idea of being able to see a beautiful woman made of ice through the window, and then being able to fly away with her into a world of deep cold enchanted me”, but the Snow Queen wasn’t one of my favourites as a child. The little bits of ice spelling out “eternity”, the very Christian overtones and moral directly from the Bible didn’t make any sense to me. I would have preferred Gerda to have solved some clever riddle to free Kai, or for all the people she’d met along the way to owe her a favour and come to the rescue at the very end – and then of course I would have wanted the Snow Queen to be terribly punished in the fairy tale tradition!’

Do you have a memory or association with the Snow Queen?

Illustration by Jan Marcin Szancer to Baśnie Hans Christian Andersen published by G&P Oficyna Wydawnicza, Poznań



Cracks in the mirror – Dagmara

Cracks in the mirror – Dagmara

As the UK heatwave continues, thanks to funding from the Arts Council,  work is well underway now on the research and development of SNOW Q our collaborative project reimagining the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen. As well as working together we are talking to other practitioners and working with different social groups.  Dagmara has been talking with Synergy Creative Community a mental health peer-led community organisation based in Brighton http://www.synergycreative.org.uk

Mirror and Frozen portrait

The Story of the Snow Queen starts with the creation of the Mirror that distorts beauty. When the evil mirror breaks, some its fragments enter Kai’s heart and eyes transforming him into a cold and heartless boy. This Mirror has been troubling me greatly. How to represent a mirror that in many tales plays a central role and therefore is so potent in symbolism, so embedded in our psyche. Even more crucially to our project, how to represent this particular mirror, a cause of Kai’s transformation but ultimately a symbol of much more: isolation, despair, depression and mental disorder. How to communicate all these themes but not be trivial or patronising to our audience?

For the sake of this project, I thought of the Devil’s Mirror as a symbol of both mental disorder and mental illness although I realise that these terms are not interchangeable.

I have not found a solution yet but as a part of my endeavour to find one, I have contacted Synergy Creative Community asking them about their thoughts on the story in general and the mirror in particular.

Synergy members, if you are reading this, please accept my gratitude for letting me hear your thoughts and feedback. You were wonderfully warm and welcoming and generous. I left our meeting feeling enriched and while I don’t know quite yet how our Snow Q project will reimagine the Mirror, there were very many new and interesting possibilities that I simply had not thought of before I met and talked to you. Some of your ideas are seeping through already- of which I will write later on and in future posts. Here are my notes, inevitably crude, as I was not able to summarise them with the same emotional eloquence as your original words. My thanks go also to Neil Holmes who  helped me to liaise with Synergy and offered so much help with our project in many other ways and to Liz Ikamba for introducing me to the Synergy members and hosting the meeting.

One of the questions put forward during our discussion was the purpose of our exhibition – why would anyone who suffers from depression or any other form of mental illness want to experience a space that painfully reminds them of their own struggles? Would a successful depiction of mental illness be agonising for a person who associates with it and would an unsuccessful depiction trivialise it? The Snow Queen story has a happy ending but is there such a thing as a full and ultimate recovery from a mental illness? Perhaps there will always be splinters of a broken mirror floating about, ready to penetrate our hearts? Being permanently medicated felt for some as having to carry a shard like the one from the shattered Evil Mirror- one that deprives you of feeling any emotions. It was interesting to hear how unanimous was the recognition of Gerda as a provider of two fundamental components of anyone’s recovery: nature and another person’s love.

Many members of the Synergy group felt that Kai’s obsession with what was structured and ordered and after his kidnap his efforts to put broken shards of ice into a complete puzzle were his attempts to control his own disordered mind and to make sense of the chaos within him.  Kai’s kidnapping by the Snow Queen was seen as a metaphor of being taken over by mental illness when you feel invisible or have become someone you no longer recognise. While discussing the symbolism of different characters from the story and of Gerda’s quest, some Synergy members put forward powerful images representing  altered states of mind and the Mirror.

For example, Synergy members suggested figures of actors whose heads would fold into their suits to illustrate the feeling of being invisible to other humans.  They also put forward the idea that overpowering, room-filling sculptures of numbers could stand for Kay’s obsession with the ultimate knowledge. Another dramatic image was a mirror framed by wriggling snakes that would transform into a flock of birds taking off upon one’s recovery. I was particularly struck by the idea of inserting broken shards of glass into cracks in the walls or blocking all windows with mirrors- all symbolising the nature of depression and mental illness creeping in, waiting to strike from unexpected places, preventing you from escaping into the light. I feel that some of these ideas can be implemented in the Basement of the Regency Town House where our event will take a place on the Winter Solstice.

We talked about colours that could represent the Mirror and mental illness and suggestions of colours of mud, black, greyish, dark blue to illustrate the feeling of lost in the deep space were put forward.

One of the most powerful images which I took from our meeting was that of the upside down city. This triggered in mind the whole process of developing imagery that can be INSIDE OUT, BACK TO FRONT, REVERSED. Looking at the beautiful imagery created and described in our last post by one of our collaborators, Wendy Pye, this made a perfect sense.

We also talked about a different kind of a mirror- the ‘black mirror’ of social media and how it is used to distort the truth. We talked about obsession with a perfect life and perfect beauty and how the ‘fake selfies’ contribute to one’s feeling of isolation.

Here are two small pieces produced in response to our conversation and my research on the Snow Queen. The first is a mirror-shaped object filled with textures of deteriorated feathers that made me think of the fallen angels who created the Mirror, as well as feathers of the hens that accompanied the Snow Queen. I feel the that the Devil’s Mirror and the Snow Queen will have to be somehow connected in our re-imagining. The black velvet interior is inspired  by the abyss/void described by some members of the Synergy group. The second piece comes from my recent series of ‘frozen portraits’, and perhaps not accidentally reminiscent of Victorian mourning jewellery as it is triggered by an article, which I found on academia.com ‘The World in pieces: concepts of Anxiety in H.C.Andersen ‘s Snow Queen’ by Erica Weitzman:   ‘ultimately, the Snow Queen is an allegory of despair and its overcoming, of various failures to mourn ….and of subsequent recoveries’ . I am not sure who should wear it yet – the Snow Queen or Gerda?








What does the story mean to us? – Wendy

In our project to collaborate together re-imagining the Snow Queen we’ve been lucky in attracting some fantastic organisations as partners, but have also found amazing individuals to work with. We’re extremely excited to be working with Wendy Pye, photographer and film-maker, who is working closely with us to enhance and extend our ideas and adding another dimension to the project with her own vision. Here are her initial thoughts:

Wendy's first thoughts:

I have vague memories of the Snow Queen being read to me as a child. Before I was invited to create some visuals for this Snow Queen project, I couldn’t remember the details of the story but had a vivid memory of it being a mysterious folk tale, featuring strong female characters set within a magical, wintery, otherworldly landscape.  Revisiting the story as an adult, it’s just as magical and mysterious but it has been wonderful to unearth the layers of metaphors and images embedded within the fairy tale.

As a visual artist I am currently interested in exploring and depicting the biographical aspects of landscape. Landscapes can be complex and the sense of place can inhabit our bodies and minds, stirring associations with memories, strangeness and imagination.

In the story of the Snow Queen, I am intrigued by the young heroine Gerda’s quest to find her best friend Kay, which takes her on a solo journey to the ends of the earth. I myself ventured alone to the ends of this earth last summer and travelled up in to the depths of the Norwegian arctic circle to partake in an artists residency. Norway is a country bathed in it’s norse mythology and I recently read that these ancient norse myths were a major inspiration for many of Hans Christian Andersens fairy tales and in particular the ‘Snow Queen’. Gerda’s journey takes her through a harsh, cold landscape that’s implied in the story is far northern arctic Scandinavia and she battles against the elements and various challenges she has to face on her way. My journey wasn’t quite as arduous or challenging as Gerda’s but nevertheless it was my own solo adventure to a place that was an imagined childhood landscape that had been unconsciously shaped by fairy stories like ‘The Snow Queen, that I’m certain had inspired my imagination and intrigue about the place.

My trip to as near north as you can go on this planet didn’t disappoint. As I was there in the summer it didn’t resemble anything like the wintery illustrations often featured in the fairy story books, however the experience of landing in the arctic circle felt familiar on a sensory level and everything appeared subtly more lucid and clear. I had ventured somewhere which was sparse, extended, wildly beautiful, untouched, remote with no predators and all these elements gave me space to dream. I was intrigued by the beliefs of the indigenous Sami old culture, otherwise known as the laplanders of the Scandinavian arctic. One of their beliefs is that there are different realms of reality for e.g the physical world is divided in to ‘the seen and the unseen’, ‘the tangible and the intangible’. Reading about these Sami beliefs and Norse Mythology, inhabited me whilst I was living there. These stories and beliefs filter through the intangible arctic terrain and influenced how I visually engaged and responded to the landscape as they had perhaps inspired the imagination of Hans Christian Andersen and a variety of other writers and artists before me.  My interpretation of these themes gave the idea to a series of photos titled ‘In-Between the Realms’ that was about this magical space of possibility in-between the ‘seen and the unseen’.

‘In-between Realms – 08’ (Arctic Residency) © Wendy Pye

I would relish the opportunity to revisit and inhabit this landscape again during the dark, snowy, winter months to create some new visuals specifically for the Snow Q project but unfortunately it’s not practically feasible for the research and development phase of the project. So I intend to explore other rugged, mountainous landscapes closer to home and I look forward to experimenting with some post production techniques to create a cold, surreally baron atmospheric moving image based piece that will be the backdrop for one of the room installations for this first phase of  Snow Q,  arts/performance based site specific project.

test neg2a

SQ Ideas tests – Inverted Arctic Landscapes © Wendy Pye