At the beginning of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen", when describing the distorting mirror that would then shatter, the word "grin" is used:

If a good thought passed through anyone's mind, it turned to a grin in the mirror, and this caused real delight to the demon.
They even wanted to fly up to heaven with it to mock the angels. But the higher they flew the more it grinned, so much so that they could hardly hold it. And at last it slipped out of their hands and fell to the earth, shivered into hundreds of millions and billions of bits.

What do "grin" and "grinning" mean here? At first I had assumed "turn to a grin" meant that the good thought was reflected as a grimace in the mirror, but I'm having trouble understanding how the mirror "grinning" can cause the demonic pupils to have trouble holding it. Is grinning something physical that is happening to the mirror? What's going on here?

1 Answer 1


The English translation uses ‘a grin’ and ‘grinned’ to render the original Danish grin and grinede. In the original, the quoted passage reads as shown below; I have emphasised the relevant words. The greater length of the original text is due to the fact that the translation from which the quote in the question is taken is to some extent an abridged one (note, for example, that it leaves out any mention of God).

Gik der nu en god from Tanke gjennem et Menneske, da kom der et Griin i Speilet, saa Trolddjævelen maatte lee af sin kunstige Opfindelse. […] Nu vilde de ogsaa flyve op mod Himlen selv for at gjøre Nar af Englene og “vor Herre”. Jo høiere de fløi med Speilet, des stærkere grinede det, de kunde neppe holde fast paa det; høiere og høiere fløi de, nærmere Gud og Englene; da zittrede Speilet saa frygteligt i sit Griin, at det foer dem ud af Hænderne og styrtede ned mod Jorden, hvor det gik i hundrede Millioner, Billioner og endnu flere Stykker,

The problem with the quoted translation is that the Danish words refer to coarse laughter, not only grinning. The intended meaning is therefore that the mirror is literally shaking with laughter.

This is also seen in the use by Andersen of the verb sitre (zittre in the original text as quoted, at the time a relatively recent loanword from the German), to describe what is happening to the mirror. Sitre means ‘to tremble’. The translation above omits that part of the sentence. The quote that follows is from another, much more faithful, translation, that of M. R. James (1862—1936) published in 1930.

If a kind pious thought passed through a man's mind, there came such a grimace in the glass that the troll-devil couldn't but laugh at his clever invention. […] After that they decided to fly up to heaven itself and make fun of the angels and of God. The higher they flew with the glass, the more it grimaced, till they could scarcely keep hold of it. Up and up they flew, nearer to God and His angels, and then the glass quivered so fearfully with grimacing that it fell out of their hands and was dashed on the ground below, where it broke into hundreds of millions, billions, and even more pieces;

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    Although I mention in the answer that James’s translation is the more faithful one, it too contains a number of misleading renderings. For example, in the quoted passage, the word trolddjævel is translated as ‘troll-devil’. This misses that trolddjævel specifically referred to a person (or creature) in possession of magical powers (trolde being a word for ‘using magic’). For this reason Trolddjævelen is better rendered as ‘demon’, as in the other translation.
    – Segorian
    Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 14:56
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    Worth noting that trolddjævel does not necessarily imply magical powers. Folktale trolde are supernatural and to some extent magical beings (with some similarities to trolls in English, but also lots of differences), but the name is also applied to humans. Trolddjævel was originally used mostly for practicians of witchcraft, but already by Andersen’s time, it was also commonly enough used as a more general disparaging term for people deemed to be ‘troll-like’ in temper, appearance, etc. Definitely a stronger association to magic than English troll (or devil), though. Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 17:18
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    (I would translate zittre/sitre as ‘quiver’ here, rather than ‘tremble’, since it’s due to over-excitation and exultancy, rather than nervousness or anything like that. The translation in the question doesn’t fully omit the word, but instead – rather oddly – moves it further ahead to say that the mirror “shivered into […] bits”, which of course isn’t what happens at all.) Commented Aug 23, 2023 at 17:22

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