As the holiday season approaches, my mind has wandered back to Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Snowman.” Last winter, I drew this “reflective Snowman,” and he’s with me again. So I decided to do some Wonderlit exercises with the story, and consider the scene that is at the heart of the story for me.
I’ve presented Andersen’s story here, for your own reflection, along with my own.
Happy holidays, everyone!
It is so delightfully cold,” said the Snow Man, “that it makes my whole body crackle. This is just the kind of wind to blow life into one. How that great red thing up there is staring at me!” He meant the sun, who was just setting. “It shall not make me wink. I shall manage to keep the pieces.”
He had two triangular pieces of tile in his head, instead of eyes; his mouth was made of an old broken rake, and was, of course, furnished with teeth. He had been brought into existence amidst the joyous shouts of boys, the jingling of sleigh-bells, and the slashing of whips. The sun went down, and the full moon rose, large, round, and clear, shining in the deep blue.
“There it comes again, from the other side,” said the Snow Man, who supposed the sun was showing himself once more. “Ah, I have cured him of staring, though; now he may hang up there, and shine, that I may see myself. If I only knew how to manage to move away from this place,—I should so like to move. If I could, I would slide along yonder on the ice, as I have seen the boys do; but I don’t understand how; I don’t even know how to run.”
“Away, away,” barked the old yard-dog. He was quite hoarse, and could not pronounce “Bow wow” properly. He had once been an indoor dog, and lay by the fire, and he had been hoarse ever since. “The sun will make you run some day. I saw him, last winter, make your predecessor run, and his predecessor before him. Away, away, they all have to go.”
“I don’t understand you, comrade,” said the Snow Man. “Is that thing up yonder to teach me to run? I saw it running itself a little while ago, and now it has come creeping up from the other side.”
“You know nothing at all,” replied the yard-dog; “but then, you’ve only lately been patched up. What you see yonder is the moon, and the one before it was the sun. It will come again to-morrow, and most likely teach you to run down into the ditch by the well; for I think the weather is going to change. I can feel such pricks and stabs in my left leg; I am sure there is going to be a change.”
“I don’t understand him,” said the Snow Man to himself; “but I have a feeling that he is talking of something very disagreeable. The one who stared so just now, and whom he calls the sun, is not my friend; I can feel that too.”
“Away, away,” barked the yard-dog, and then he turned round three times, and crept into his kennel to sleep.
There was really a change in the weather. Towards morning, a thick fog covered the whole country round, and a keen wind arose, so that the cold seemed to freeze one’s bones; but when the sun rose, the sight was splendid. Trees and bushes were covered with hoar frost, and looked like a forest of white coral; while on every twig glittered frozen dew-drops. The many delicate forms concealed in summer by luxuriant foliage, were now clearly defined, and looked like glittering lace-work. From every twig glistened a white radiance. The birch, waving in the wind, looked full of life, like trees in summer; and its appearance was wondrously beautiful. And where the sun shone, how everything glittered and sparkled, as if diamond dust had been strewn about; while the snowy carpet of the earth appeared as if covered with diamonds, from which countless lights gleamed, whiter than even the snow itself.
“This is really beautiful,” said a young girl, who had come into the garden with a young man; and they both stood still near the Snow Man, and contemplated the glittering scene. “Summer cannot show a more beautiful sight,” she exclaimed, while her eyes sparkled.
“And we can’t have such a fellow as this in the summer time,” replied the young man, pointing to the Snow Man; “he is capital.”
The girl laughed, and nodded at the Snow Man, and then tripped away over the snow with her friend. The snow creaked and crackled beneath her feet, as if she had been treading on starch.
“Who are these two?” asked the Snow Man of the yard-dog. “You have been here longer than I have; do you know them?”
“Of course I know them,” replied the yard-dog; “she has stroked my back many times, and he has given me a bone of meat. I never bite those two.”
“But what are they?” asked the Snow Man.
“They are lovers,” he replied; “they will go and live in the same kennel by-and-by, and gnaw at the same bone. Away, away!”
“Are they the same kind of beings as you and I?” asked the Snow Man.
“Well, they belong to the same master,” retorted the yard-dog. “Certainly people who were only born yesterday know very little. I can see that in you. I have age and experience. I know every one here in the house, and I know there was once a time when I did not lie out here in the cold, fastened to a chain. Away, away!”
“The cold is delightful,” said the Snow Man; “but do tell me tell me; only you must not clank your chain so; for it jars all through me when you do that.”
“Away, away!” barked the yard-dog; “I’ll tell you; they said I was a pretty little fellow once; then I used to lie in a velvet-covered chair, up at the master’s house, and sit in the mistress’s lap. They used to kiss my nose, and wipe my paws with an embroidered handkerchief, and I was called ’Ami, dear Ami, sweet Ami.’ But after a while I grew too big for them, and they sent me away to the housekeeper’s room; so I came to live on the lower story. You can look into the room from where you stand, and see where I was master once; for I was indeed master to the housekeeper. It was certainly a smaller room than those up stairs; but I was more comfortable; for I was not being continually taken hold of and pulled about by the children as I had been. I received quite as good food, or even better. I had my own cushion, and there was a stove—it is the finest thing in the world at this season of the year. I used to go under the stove, and lie down quite beneath it. Ah, I still dream of that stove. Away, away!”
“Does a stove look beautiful?” asked the Snow Man, “is it at all like me?”
“It is just the reverse of you,” said the dog; “it’s as black as a crow, and has a long neck and a brass knob; it eats firewood, so that fire spurts out of its mouth. We should keep on one side, or under it, to be comfortable. You can see it through the window, from where you stand.”
Then the Snow Man looked, and saw a bright polished thing with a brazen knob, and fire gleaming from the lower part of it. The Snow Man felt quite a strange sensation come over him; it was very odd, he knew not what it meant, and he could not account for it. But there are people who are not men of snow, who understand what it is. “And why did you leave her?” asked the Snow Man, for it seemed to him that the stove must be of the female sex. “How could you give up such a comfortable place?”
“I was obliged,” replied the yard-dog. “They turned me out of doors, and chained me up here. I had bitten the youngest of my master’s sons in the leg, because he kicked away the bone I was gnawing. ’Bone for bone,’ I thought; but they were so angry, and from that time I have been fastened with a chain, and lost my bone. Don’t you hear how hoarse I am. Away, away! I can’t talk any more like other dogs. Away, away, that is the end of it all.”
But the Snow Man was no longer listening. He was looking into the housekeeper’s room on the lower storey; where the stove stood on its four iron legs, looking about the same size as the Snow Man himself. “What a strange crackling I feel within me,” he said. “Shall I ever get in there? It is an innocent wish, and innocent wishes are sure to be fulfilled. I must go in there and lean against her, even if I have to break the window.”
“You must never go in there,” said the yard-dog, “for if you approach the stove, you’ll melt away, away.”
“I might as well go,” said the Snow Man, “for I think I am breaking up as it is.”
During the whole day the Snow Man stood looking in through the window, and in the twilight hour the room became still more inviting, for from the stove came a gentle glow, not like the sun or the moon; no, only the bright light which gleams from a stove when it has been well fed. When the door of the stove was opened, the flames darted out of its mouth; this is customary with all stoves. The light of the flames fell directly on the face and breast of the Snow Man with a ruddy gleam. “I can endure it no longer,” said he; “how beautiful it looks when it stretches out its tongue?”
The night was long, but did not appear so to the Snow Man, who stood there enjoying his own reflections, and crackling with the cold. In the morning, the window-panes of the housekeeper’s room were covered with ice. They were the most beautiful ice-flowers any Snow Man could desire, but they concealed the stove. These window-panes would not thaw, and he could see nothing of the stove, which he pictured to himself, as if it had been a lovely human being. The snow crackled and the wind whistled around him; it was just the kind of frosty weather a Snow Man might thoroughly enjoy. But he did not enjoy it; how, indeed, could he enjoy anything when he was “stove sick?”
“That is terrible disease for a Snow Man,” said the yard-dog; “I have suffered from it myself, but I got over it. Away, away,” he barked and then he added, “the weather is going to change.” And the weather did change; it began to thaw. As the warmth increased, the Snow Man decreased. He said nothing and made no complaint, which is a sure sign. One morning he broke, and sunk down altogether; and, behold, where he had stood, something like a broomstick remained sticking up in the ground. It was the pole round which the boys had built him up. “Ah, now I understand why he had such a great longing for the stove,” said the yard-dog. “Why, there’s the shovel that is used for cleaning out the stove, fastened to the pole.” The Snow Man had a stove scraper in his body; that was what moved him so. “But it’s all over now. Away, away.” And soon the winter passed. “Away, away,” barked the hoarse yard-dog. But the girls in the house sang,
“Come from your fragrant home, green thyme;
Stretch your soft branches, willow-tree;
The months are bringing the sweet spring-time,
When the lark in the sky sings joyfully.
Come gentle sun, while the cuckoo sings,
And I’ll mock his note in my wanderings.”
And nobody thought any more of the Snow Man.
The Snowman lives a very short but poignant life. He is a paradox, a man made of snow who has the memory of fire running through his center in the form of the fire-rake.
I’m drawn to the scene of Snowman gazing through the window into the housekeeper’s room. The stove stands on four iron legs, and it’s about the same size as himself. He wonders at the “strange crackling” he feels within himself. He wants to run to the window — break it if he must to get inside and lean beside the stove.
The yard dog yaps at him. “You go in there and you’ll melt.”
The land and the trees around the Snowman are covered in a glittering lacework of frost and diamond ice-dust, but the frozen beauty of winter doesn’t grip him. His eyes are fixed on the stove.
Earlier, when the sun was out, he defied the heat, determined to hold onto his pieces. Now he doesn’t mind letting himself go. He ignores the yaps of the yard-dog. He’s obsessed with the fire that crackles in the hearth. Its color intensifies as the day wears on. At twilight, he can feel the red light on his breast and see his reflection in the window. He leans toward the stove, thinking to himself:
“Oh, what is it about that stove? I feel as if I’ve known her forever. Does she see me? Yes I am quite sure she does. I am quite sure she knows exactly who I am and would like nothing better than to have me leaning against her! I do understand what the yard dog is yapping about. Of course I will melt if I get near her but I want her to melt me, don’t you see, because then I will know her, and perhaps understand what this power is that she has over me. I don’t think she can melt my teeth. No, I don’t think she can melt the love that runs through the core of me.
“Not so long ago, why, even at the start of this day, I was holding myself together to keep from being warmed by the sun. I was determined not to watch my pieces fall away. But you see, then I believed that I was made of snow! The stove has showed me that I am made of something else, something that will endure the heat when my body melts away… oh my, what a cracking is going on inside. Night has come now, and my body snaps with the joy of the cold, while my heart is warmer than ever. Oh, I am quite sure she knows me! Look how intensely she glows!”
Meanwhile, the yard dog is thinking his own thoughts.
“I never met such a strange fellow as that Snowman. He can’t take his eyes off the stove. Don’t get me wrong, I get the fascination with her. I used to lie right next to her, even underneath her. That was the best time of my life but I don’t like to think about it, especially not in winter when I’m shivering in my dog house. I’ll never get back in there. She’s an idle fantasy for an old dog, and a death wish for a Snowman.
“‘Enjoy the cold while it lasts!’ I bark. ‘The weather is changing and you’re going to melt soon enough!’
“He’s ignoring me now. Flash in the pan, that’s what he is. Born yesterday. No experience at all. What does he do with the little time he has? He yearns for the thing that will destroy him! ‘The stove doesn’t care for you,’ I yip. ‘Not a whit. There isn’t once piece of you she wants!’
“You’d think he would listen to the voice of experience but I should save my breath. I’m barking myself hoarse.”
Both the Snowman and the yard dog are attracted to the warmth of the stove. But the yard dog knows he’ll never be let back into the house. He’s bitten the master’s son and he’s been put outside permanently. The Snowman only has a day or two to live. Who created him, I wonder? We aren’t told. The story reveals what he is made of, not who made him or why.
I keep getting drawn back to the Snowman because he holds a paradox. He loves something that will melt his outer form, not knowing his inner form and its relation to the object of his love. He is such a pure, simple, graphic image of the human heart. Why does it love the very thing that will take it pieces?
There is no clear answer. We are brought into mystery … left to wonder, and judgement always wants to yap in the yard of wonder. “Foolish snowman! Step away from the stove. Away! Away!”
Love is a fire. It melts us, takes us apart. Just as the days do, just as the sun melts the Snowman. He will dissolve soon enough, whether or not he is drawn to the stove, so why not love and let the pieces fall where they may? The yard dog has never loved anyone outside himself, and, for all his reason and experience, he ends up in the dog house, eschewing his dreams and memories.
This yard dog yips in my yard constantly. There’s a part of me that is always wondering if I am doing the right thing. Have I made the right choices? Am I living the right life? There is this right-leaning thing in me, while the one that actually lives my life is left-leaning, leaning love-ward. It doesn’t want to judge because it knows, being the rake it is, that life is a great big mess of contradictions and the only thing that is important is where your heart is and whether or not it’s able to crackle. The alternative is a shut-down yard dog with lots of experience, barking out his opinions and living not at all!