The weakness of God

The northern lights burned so precisely that you could tell to the very second when they would be at their highest and their lowest points.  In the middle of that enormous snow hall was a frozen lake.  It had cracked into thousands of pieces and every one of them was shaped exactly like all the others.  In the middle of the lake was the throne of the Snow Queen.  Here she sat when she was at home.  She called the lake the Mirror of Reason and declared that it was the finest and only mirror in the world.

Little Kai was blue–indeed, almost black–from the cold; but he did not feel it, for the Snow Queen had kissed all feeling of coldness out of him, and his heart had almost turned into a lump of ice.  He sat arranging and rearranging pieces of ice into patterns.  He called this the Game of Reason; and because of the splinters in his eyes, he thought that what he was doing was of great importance, although it was no different from playing with wooden blocks, which he had done when he could hardly talk.

He wanted to put the pieces of ice together in such a way that they formed a certain word, but he could not remember exactly what that word was.  The word that he could not remember was “eternity”.

— from The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen

A while back, there was a big fuss about a woman walking through the city and having a video taken to record all the come-ons from strangers she got.  My reaction is that what those guys did was nothing compared to the catcalling on the cartoons I watched as a kid–I’m used to bugged-out eyes, tongues on the floor, foot stomping and whistling.  And here’s another thing:  when did cartoons become so blasted moral?  Warner Brothers, Disney, whatever:  cartoon characters used to be motivated pretty much entirely by food, sex, and gratuitous sadism.  It was a blast.

When I was a kid, liberals complained about the violence, and Christians and feminists both complained about the fairy tale romance:  prince-chasing, love at first sight–that’s not the lesson our daughters need!  We were so busy griping, we didn’t notice that the romance theme was being increasingly displaced with a theme of love as sacrifice.  “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for a friend” intones Bagheera over the fallen Baloo, the only direct Scripture quote in the Disney canon, if I’m not mistaken.  King Triton offers himself in place of his daughter; Belle offers herself in place of her father; Flynn Ryder lays down his life for Rapunzel’s freedom, even as she’s trying to offer her freedom for his life.  Now Disney has given us Frozen, a movie that defines love entirely in terms of self-sacrifice.  Agape has completely triumphed over Eros.  And my fellow Christians still aren’t happy.

The Snow Queen, on which Frozen is extremely loosely based, is itself a remarkable tale to have appeared in modern times.  It starts with the Devil himself fashioning a mirror inside of which beauty appears ugly, and virtue and goodness appear ridiculous.  A splinter from the mirror lodges into a little boy named Kai, making him cruel and cynical.  Kai is then carried off by the evil Snow Queen to her frozen realm.  His friend, the little girl Gerda, sets off to rescue him.  After long travel and many adventures, she finds him in the hall of the Snow Queen, still corrupted by her spell and the Devil’s mirror.  Gerda tearfully professes her love for him, and the warmth of her tears melts his heart and breaks the spell.

The Snow Queen got a twentieth-century retelling in Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 young adult science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time.  In this version, the heroine Meg Murray must rescue her brother Charles Wallace, who has been put under the mind-controlling spell of IT, a sinister disembodied brain ruling the planet Camazotz.  IT rules under an ideology of equality by uniformity, a communist state maintained by mass telepathic mind control.  Once again, the boy is rescued by the heroine’s guileless profession of love.

Whatever the authors’ intentions, both stories are deeply and even polemically Christian, both in what they oppose and in what they promote.  The villains are obviously meant to represent the great anti-Christian ideology of the day:  Enlightenment rationalism in Andersen’s, communist egalitarianism in L’Engle’s.  The good aliens, on the other hand, are explicitly theist, and Gerda’s piety is strongly emphasized.  Most importantly, the means of Kai’s and Charles’ rescue is distinctly Christian.   In A Wrinkle in Time, one of the good aliens even quotes 1 Corinthians 1:25 to Meg to explain her mission to her.  The forces of evil can be neither outsmarted, out-argued, nor overpowered.  Gerda/Meg must adopt a position of weakness, going unarmed to the evil being’s own fortress, at the mercy of her beloved still under the evil spell, bearing nothing but the message that he is loved.  And it works, because her actions are inexplicable in the Snow Queen’s /IT’s picture of reality; she can only be telling the truth, and so the world of love is disclosed, freeing his mind from its materialist prison.  Gerda/Meg is thus an analog of Jesus Christ, Who saved us while we were yet in rebellion against Him by taking on our form of weakness and putting Himself at our mercy, thus revealing the depth of God’s love for us and breaking Satan’s spell.

The battlefields of the great struggle have changed, and earlier versions of The Snow Queen now show the marks of their time.  This is particularly true of A Wrinkle in Time, which clearly belongs to that anomalous moment, which I call loosely “the Fifties”, when Christianity and liberalism appeared to be reconciled by their totalitarian common enemy.  Thus, A Wrinkle in Time can celebrate classical liberal individualism while being pro-religious, and the contradiction wouldn’t have been obvious even to sophisticated readers.  Today, all the imagined common ground is gone.

With Frozen, Disney’s storywriters have attempted to give us a Snow Queen for the twenty-first century.  They boldly reconfigure the story by combining the characters of Kai and the Snow Queen into a single person, Queen Elsa, who must now be, in a sense, her own prisoner.  Elsa’s snow powers are the destructive force threatening Christendom, as represented by Arendelle, but this time they aren’t triggered by and don’t represent the pretensions of reason or ideology but rather embody emotions, especially negative emotions like fear, loneliness, and guilt.  Also, Elsa can’t control them.  The implication is that the spiritual destruction of Europe has been, by and large, neither rational nor deliberate.  The hermeneutic of suspicion, things like a generalized fear of authority, first appealed to Europeans for psychological reasons but then took on a life of their own, wreaking destruction their creators never intended.  I think it’s fair to say that Frozen almost completely replaces ideology with psychology.  True, Elsa has her moment of defiant self-assertion, but in the context of the movie this is obviously a pitiable rationalization, an attempt to to put on a brave face to deal with the terrifying reality of exile and isolation.  The social implications are again quite interesting.  Rationalism destroys communities, leaving individuals isolated, vulnerable, and lonely; celebration of personal freedom then recommends itself as a rationalization to make our pitiable state seem bearable.  Ironically, Elsa’s Let It Go moment is sometimes held up as proof of what a good (or bad) feminist movie Frozen is, but if Elsa is supposed to represent the “strong, independent woman”, that would just make this a radically anti-feminist movie.

The solution to Elsa’s isolation, imposed by her own uncontrolled destructive powers, is–as the movie explicitly says and as is true for any version of The Snow Queen–love.  More specifically, Elsa is saved, as Kai and Charles Wallace were saved, not by their own love, but by the knowledge of being loved.  This is the role of our Gerda character, Elsa’s sister Anna, who this time doesn’t just profess her love, but who in the midst of extreme pain actually sacrifices her life for Elsa and dies before magically (but in a way that follows logically from the rules of the story) returning to life.  All of this of course makes the Christological parallels closer than ever before.

Much depends on my identification of Elsa as the Kai character.  It makes Frozen a very Christian movie, even if unintentionally.  Another possibility would be to identify Anna as Kai as well as Gerda, because of the “frozen heart” curse she suffers midway through the movie.  Anna is ultimately saved by her own act of love, which would make Frozen a deeply Pelagian movie if her salvation is the movie’s point.  Christianity means being one’s own prisoner and being saved by Another; Pelagianism means being one’s own savior.  I invite readers to see the movie to check that my preferred reading is the more plausible one.  However, it’s instructive to see that, even if we read Frozen as a Pelagian movie, the story must cheat on the Pelagianism in order to work.  Ultimately, Pelagianism in discounting grace relies on a metaphysical impossibility–that one can transcend oneself and supply to oneself what one does not already have.  If Anna’s heart were really frozen in the usual metaphorical meaning of that phrase, she certainly could not have made an act of selfless love for her sister; one already needs a “heart of flesh” for that.  And, indeed, the storywriters don’t show Anna becoming emotionally cold or cruel as the curse progresses; we are meant to regard her ailment as purely physical.

Frozen ends on what seems to me a naively optimistic note.  Elsa’s powers aren’t destroyed, but merely tamed and put under her control.  Once we recover the Christian message of being loved, it seems to say, we can keep the Enlightenment’s intellectual-emotional tools (suspicion of authority, and so forth).  They will serve us and cease to be destructive.  I think everybody had the impression that something was a bit off with the very end of the movie.

What does it mean to have Elsa as our century’s Snow Queen?  Perhaps that secularism/”progress” no longer gives the impression of following a rational will–not even a malevolent one–but looks more and more like uncontrollable mass hysteria.

4 Responses

  1. […] is a jack of many trades. And a master of at least one: Disney Princessology. His essay The weakness of God is a little bit about […]

  2. […] surprised.  I’ve written about this before regarding Disney movies (see here, here, here, and here), My Little Pony, and Batman.  The affirmation of official pieties, when present at all, […]

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