The Ice Maiden is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s longest fairy tales, and also one of his more depressing ones. It stars a young boy named Rudy who was born in the Swiss Alps. His father is dead and his mother journey’s to her father’s house with Rudy nothing but a baby in her arms. On the way she slips and falls into a deep chasm filled with snow. She and the child are buried in it and it is some time before the people they are traveling with can dig them out. By then the mother is dead, though the child miraculously survives.
The child is then taken to his grandfather’s and from there eventually to his uncle’s house where he grows up and becomes strong. He is a talented climber, an excellent mountain guide and a very good hunter. Being a good hunter ends up working to his benefit as it brings him to the notice of the upper class. Little Rudy has grown into a very handsome young man and he has his eyes set on Babette, the miller’s daughter. The miller is less than pleased at Rudy’s attentions and sets an impossible task for him, to climb up to a very dangerous mountain peak and fetch back a baby eaglet alive. Rudy has gotten this far and survived, while climbing and hunting in the dangerous and treacherous Alps, with the staunch belief that if he believes in his success that he will succeed and he takes the attitude to the top of the mountain crag and manages to get the baby eaglet without breaking his neck.
The miller is suitably impressed, but Rudy’s trials aren’t over yet. Though he and Babette love each other across class differences and against many other odds it runs up against the oldest enemy of love, jealousy. While visiting Babette’s godmother her cousin starts to pay her attentions and being a silly teenager she flirts and teases and revels in tormenting Rudy with her attentions diverted elsewhere. Eventually Rudy busts the cousin climbing a tree and trying to climb into Babette’s window. When she sees the cousin she is enraged but when she finds Rudy there are the foot of the tree yelling at her cousin she tells Rudy to go away. Rudy does so stating that is clear that the rendezvous was apparently already planned. Babette cries but soon blames Rudy for the whole thing because obviously if he truly knew and loved her he would have seen that she had only been teasing and that she still loved him with all her heart.
Rudy leaves for home in a fit of rage and on the way runs into a beautiful maiden alone on the mountain. This is not the first time he has met this particular woman for it is the Ice Maiden. The Ice Maiden is the being who killed his mother and almost killed him in the mountain pass all those years ago. She is determined to capture Rudy for her own, she has already kissed him once as a babe and marked him as her own and it was only a matter of time before he became hers forever. She appears to him and in his anger at Babette and his lust for this strange woman who looks a lot like Annette, the first girl he ever kissed, he finds himself kissing her and then falling insensible to the ground. He very nearly dies alone on that mountain, exposed to the elements and vulnerable, but he manages to survive.
Within a week Rudy comes crawling back to Babette and confesses all. He is considered at fault by Babette for everything, including her own transgressions, and so he must beg to be allowed back into her good graces. He does and soon their wedding day is upon them. They journey to the godmother’s house to get married at a church near there. The night after they arrive Babette has a horrible nightmare where she dreams that she cheats on Rudy with her cousin and is dragged down deeper and deeper into sin. When she reached out for Rudy in the dream it is to find nothing but his coat and hat handing on a branch. A foible used to trick animals when Rudy is hunting. She wakes gasping and terrified and very upset.
The night before the wedding Babette decides that she wants to go out to a small island with three small trees on it and just enough space for the two of them to dance merrily. Rudy rows them out there and they dance and then sit together for a long time. Rudy announces that he has all he ever wants in life and there is nothing more life can offer him. Then Babette notices the boat slipping away and Rudy dives into the water after it. The Ice Maiden takes her chance and kisses him one last time in the icy cold and pulls him down into her depths and claims him forever. Babette is left stranded on the island all the night long howling and crying her grief at the lost of her beloved, but no one can hear her over the storm.
The Ice Maiden is an extremely depressing and very harsh fairy tale and is also very powerful social commentary on the time it was written in. For Hans Christian Andersen it also had some very powerful memories contained in it with its themes on death and social classes, on love and marriage, and on sexuality being inextricably tied together with sin and death.
When Andersen was a small child he was very profoundly impacted by the death of his father. His father was the one that encouraged him in his learning and in bettering himself beyond the meager means they were capable of now. Regardless his father died a pauper and when Andersen heard the news his mother told him that his father was “taken by the Ice Maiden”. This event certainly influenced the fairy tale The Ice Maiden, a story about a young man attempting to reach beyond his social class and dieing just when all was at hand because of a fate he was marked for when he only a baby.
This of course leads into the socio-economic angle of the story. In many of Andersen’s stories about characters attempting to cross class lines things often did not go well. Daring to buck society trends and forge your own path is a dangerous business. Unfortunately when you risk it all to achieve your happily ever after you sometimes lose it all in an Andersen fairy tale.
Then there is Andersen’s often complex relationship with love, marriage and any form of sexual gratification. At the time that he was writing this fairy tale he was at the height of his relationship with Harald Scharff, the Danish ballet dancer. (Ironically enough The Ice Maiden was later made into a ballet.) In his journal he writes that upon reading this fairy tale to him that Harald threw his arms around Andersen’s neck and kissed him. The relationship ended a few months later, but I think this fairy tale exemplifies a lot of Andersen’s feelings about his sexuality. In a lot of his fairy tales based in the realm of romance there is often unrequited love, love that ends poorly, or love that is cut off in its zenith like in the fairy tale The Ice Maiden. In this fairy tale there is a bit of all of it, with Babette flirting with another man, with Rudy storming off and kissing another woman, with Babette’s dreams of infidelity, and finally Rudy’s death at the moment when all was set to work out in the end.
Which opens up another interpretation for the events in the fairy tale The Ice Maiden. At the point Andersen was at in his relationship with Harald they were both giddy and enamored with one another. They also were dangerously open about their feelings for one another for the time they were in. Andersen was even warned at one point that he was too obvious and public with his affections and that he needed to tone it down or risk facing social ruin. In that day and age for Andersen to achieve true sexual and romantic gratification on the level that a straight man would have he would be committing social suicide and would be taking his career, his livelihood and perhaps even his life into his hands if he dared risk it. So it is that in many Andersen fairy tales at the moment when all appears to be true love and a happily ever after is at hand, death results. A death the character was marked out for from birth. Achieving that which he desired most would have meant nothing less to a man with Andersen’s desires in the 19th century, and so it is with Rudy in The Ice Maiden.