by Terri Windling
It's commonly supposed that all fairy tales are stories from the folk tradition, passed through the generations by storytellers since the dawn of time. While it's true that most fairy tales are rooted in oral folklore, to a greater or lesser degree, many of the best-known stories actually come to us from literary sources. In previous columns, we've looked at the literary fairy tales of 16th century Italy (written by Straparola and Basile), and at the salon fairy tales of 17th and 18th century France (by Madame D'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, etc.). In this column, we turn to 19th century Denmark, where Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) penned some of the best loved fairy tales of all time: The Little Mermaid, The Wild Swans, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Nightingale, The Tinder Box, The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Red Shoes, The Fir Tree, The Snow Queen (his masterpiece), and many others.(1)
Hans Christian Andersen's own life had aspects of a fairy tale, for he was born the son of a poor cobbler and he died a rich and famous man, celebrated around the world, the intimate of kings and queens. Although today Andersen is primarily known as a writer of stories for children, during his lifetime he was also celebrated for his other literary works, including six novels, five travel journals, three autobiographies, and numerous poems and plays. The modern image of Andersen (as portrayed in the sugary 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye) is of a simple, innocent, child-like spinner of tales, a character from one of his own stories. Letters and diaries by Andersen and his contemporaries, however, draw the picture of a very different man: a sharply intelligent, ambitious writer with a hardscrabble past, a love of high society, and a tortured soul. Likewise, Andersen's fairy tales, when read in the original Danish (or in good, unabridged translations), are far more sophisticated and multi-layered than the simple children's fables they've become in all too many translated editions, retellings, and media adaptations. The writer was no innocent naïf recounting fancies whispered by the fairies; he was a serious artist, a skillful literary craftsman, a shrewd observer of human nature and of the social scene of 19th century Denmark.
Reading Andersen's prose after growing up with abridged and altered versions of his stories can be a surprising experience — much like reading J.M. Barrie's sly, subversive Peter Pan in the original. Both Andersen and Barrie wrote children's stories into which they carefully, skillfully embedded comedy, social critique, satire, and philosophy aimed at adult readers. Andersen pioneered this style, and writers like Barrie are indebted to him, as are numerous children's writers today — including Jane Yolen, Roald Dahl, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling — whose works are beloved by adult readers. "I seize on an idea for grown-ups," Andersen explained, "and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds." His fairy tales can be read simply as magical adventures, but for the discerning reader they contain much more, bristling with characters drawn from Andersen's own life and from the many worlds he traveled through in his remarkable life's journey.
Like the Ugly Duckling, born in a humble duck-yard yet destined to become a swan, Andersen was born the son of a poor cobbler in the city of Odense, where the family shared a single room and lived a hand-to-mouth existence. There was always food, but never quite enough; there were books on the shelf, but no money for grammar school. Andersen was sent to the Poor School instead, and expected to learn a trade.
Tall and gawky, ill at ease with other children, the boy spent his time reading, dreaming, sewing costumes out of scraps for his puppet theater, and haunting the doorway of the city's theater when traveling players came to town. Odense, at that time, was a provincial city still rooted in its rural past, with a living tradition of Danish folklore and colorful folk pageantry. In The True Story of My Life, Andersen relates how he learned Danish folk tales in his youth from old women in the spinning room of the insane asylum where his grandmother worked. "They considered me a marvelous clever child," he recalls, "too clever to live long, and they rewarded my eloquence by telling me fairy tales, and a world as rich as that of The Thousand and One Nights arose before me." The Arabian tales of The Thousand and One Nights also fired the boy's imagination, for this was one of the few precious books owned by Andersen's father.
Andersen began writing at an early age -- an unusual preoccupation for a boy of his class, but his true ambition was to go on the stage as an actor, dancer, or singer. He memorized scenes from plays and poems and loved to declaim them to anyone who'd listen; he also possessed a fine singing voice (he was know as the Nightingale of Odense), and this talent in particular began to open doors for him. The boy received invitations to sing at dinner parties in rich men's houses, where his precociousness, combined with his shabby appearance, provoked as much amusement as admiration. This was Andersen's first taste of "superior" society (as it was called in those days of rigid class demarcation), a taste that he never lost as he subsequently climbed into Denmark's highest circles.
When Andersen was 11, his father died, leaving the family more destitute than ever, and the boy was sent off to factory work, at which he lasted only a few days. In 1819, at the age of 14, he left home and Odense altogether, traveling alone to Copenhagen to make his fame and fortune. Determined to join the Royal Theater, he presented himself to the theater's director, who bluntly advised the uneducated youth to go home and learn a trade. Undaunted, the boy sought out a well-known critic, then the city's prima ballerina, both of whom turned the scruffy urchin out and told him to go home. Growing desperate, running out of money, Andersen pestered every luminary he could think of until he turned up on the doorstep of Giuseppe Siboni, director of the Royal Choir School. Christoph Weyse, an accomplished composer, happened to be dining with Siboni that day. He had risen from poverty himself, and he took pity on the boy. Weyse promptly raised a sum of money that enabled Andersen to rent a cheap room and to study with Siboni and others connected to the Royal Theater.
Thus began a new period in Andersen's life. By day he studied and loitered in the theater, rubbing shoulders with some of the most famous men and women of Denmark's Golden Age; by night he lived in a mean little room in one of the city's most squalid neighborhoods, often going without meals and spending what little money he had on books. As in Odense, the boy was called upon to sing and recite at distinguished dinner parties — and once again the smiles of his hosts were often at his own expense. The aid he received for the next three years was sporadic and precarious, never quite enough to keep hunger from the door, bestowed with a mixture of generosity and condescension that left lasting marks on Andersen's psyche. (He would draw upon this experience years later when creating tales such as The Little Mermaid, in which the heroine submits to loss and pain in order to cross into another world — only to find she'll never be fully accepted, loved, or understood.)
Yet despite the hardships he endured, and the humiliations he suffered through, the young Andersen was thrilled to be on his way to a theatrical career...or so he thought. He practiced scenes from famous plays, he tried his hand at writing a tragedy, and he began to study dance at the Royal Theater's Ballet School. But by the age of 17, his voice had changed; his gawky physique had proven unsuited to ballet. He was dismissed from school, informed that he had no future on the stage.
Another youth than Hans Christian Andersen might have crumbled under this blow, but throughout his life he possessed a remarkable (even exasperating) degree of confidence and never lost faith in his worth, no matter how often he faced rejection. Determined to find success in Denmark's theater but barred from a performance career, Andersen focused on his remaining talent: he'd become a writer of plays. He'd already submitted one play to the Royal Theater, which had promptly been turned down. Now the boy dashed off another play, this time an historical tragedy. It, too, was turned away. Yet the play had shown a glimmer of promise, and this brought him to the attention of Jonas Collin, a powerful court official and the financial director of the Royal Theater. Collin perceived what everyone else had perceived: the boy was badly handicapped by his lack of formal education. Collin, however, decided to do something to solve the problem of Andersen, arranging an educational fund to be paid by the King of Denmark.
Andersen was sent away to grammar school in the town of Slagelse, 57 miles from Copenhagen in the west of Zealand. He was six years older than his fellow students, far behind them in general education, and temperamentally unsuited for long days sitting in a classroom. Nonetheless he persevered, determined to prove himself worthy of Collin's interest, the King's patronage, and the faith of his small circle of supporters back in Copenhagen.(2)
But life as a grammar student would prove to be especially difficult, even for a youth whose life had hardly been easy to this point. Andersen's headmaster was a pedagogue who could have stepped from the pages of a Dickens novel, fond of using ridicule, humiliation, and contempt to bully his students into learning. He was particularly vicious to dreamy young Andersen, determined to crush the boy's pride, conceit, and especially his high ambitions — and to teach him that his place in the world, due to his class origins, must be a humble one. In particular, Andersen was strictly forbidden to "indulge" in any creative work such as creative writing — a deprivation that the youth, who'd been writing since he was small, found particularly hard.
For four years, Andersen endured this tyranny, suffered, worried that he was going mad, and wrote despairing letters home — which Jonas Collin calmly dismissed as adolescent self-pity. In 1826, at the age of 21, Andersen's emotions came to a boil; he defied his headmaster by writing a poem titled "The Dying Child." Based on a common 19th century theme (in the days of high infant mortality rates), this poem was unusual in being told from the child's point of view, and it evoked a haunting sadness fueled by the author's own misery. Andersen's headmaster pronounced the poem rubbish (it became one of the most famous poems of the century) and heaped such abuse on Andersen that a young teacher became alarmed. The teacher spoke to Jonas Collin directly, and Collin swiftly pulled Andersen out of school. Andersen remained haunted by nightmares of his headmaster for the rest of his life.
Andersen was now allowed to return to Copenhagen, where he lived in a small, clean attic room, studied with private tutors, and took his meals with the Collins and other prominent families, in rotation. His particular attachment to the Collin family solidified during this period and would become a steady source of both joy and pain in the years that followed. Jonas, he loved as a second father; the five Collins children were as dear to him as brothers and sisters; and the Collins, in turn, grew used to this odd young man sitting at their hearth. Much has been written by Andersen scholars about the complicated relationship he forged with the family, who were pillars of Danish society and moved in the highest court circles. Jonas Collin's support of Andersen was both generous and unwavering, and Collin's household provided the young man with the family and stability he craved. But although they opened their home to him, included him in family gatherings, and assisted him in countless ways, Andersen was never allowed to forget that he was not entirely one of them, for he was not a member of their class. Even in the days of his world-wide fame, when he was home with the Collins family he was still the cobbler's son from Odense, the Royal Theater's charity boy, the Little Match Girl with her nose pressed to the glass of a rich family's window.
Most complicated of all was Andersen's relationship with Jonas's son Edvard, who was not only Andersen's closest friend but also, Andersen scholars now believe, the great love of Andersen's life. Edvard's response to Andersen, by contrast, was stolid and unsentimental. He expressed his loyalty to Andersen with tireless acts of practical assistance, yet always held a small part of himself back from his friend. This was symbolized by Edvard's refusal to use the familiar pronoun Du, insisting on the formal De instead. "If you will forget the circumstances of my birth," Andersen wrote to Edvard poignantly, "and always be to me what I am to you, you will find in me the most honest and sympathetic friend." It did no good. Edvard stuck to the formal De for the rest of their lives.
A year after his return to Copenhagen, Andersen sat down in his little attic room and wrote his first book, A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of Anger. Though the title sounds (purposefully) like a travel book, this clever and fantastical work, written when he was just 22, follows a young poet through the streets of Copenhagen over the course of a single night. Unable to interest a publisher, Andersen scraped together the means to publish it himself — and the book was a hit, quickly selling out its entire print run. He then wrote a play, which, to his delight, was accepted at the Royal Theater. Titled Love on St. Nicholas Tower, it proved to be a popular success. Now Andersen left his studies for good and concentrated on writing.
Despite this bright beginning, the early years of his literary career were rocky ones — full of lows as well as highs and marred by unsympathetic reviews in the Danish press. It was not until his books and poems began to excite attention abroad, particularly in Germany, that critics started to take him seriously in his native land. This mixture of praise from abroad and censure at home was hurtful and confusing to Andersen, as were the intermingled messages of acceptance and rejection he received from his upper-class friends. He grew a protective armor of wit, but kept a tally of each hurt, each blow; and in later years, no praise was ever enough to balance the scorecard. He grew into a man with two distinct and conflicting sides to his nature. In his talents he was supremely confident, speaking candidly of his high ambitions and rhapsodizing over each success — which made him something of an oddity to his friends, and a figure of ridicule to his enemies, in a social milieu where displaying signs of personal ambition was frowned upon. Yet Andersen could also be sensitive, emotional, and hungry for approval to a debilitating degree. This made him, at times, an exasperating companion, but many found his friendship worth the trouble, for he was also capable of great warmth, humor, kindness, and moments of surprising wisdom.
We see this side of Andersen most clearly in his fairy tales, which he began to write at the age of 29, with great excitement. A volume containing his first four tales -- The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida's Flowers -- was published in May, 1835, followed up by a volume of three more tales the following December. Andersen's earliest stories are more clearly inspired by Danish folk tales than his later works — yet none are direct, unadorned retellings of Danish folk stories. Rather, these are original fictions that use Danish folklore as their starting point and then head off in bold new directions, borrowing further inspiration from The Thousand and One Nights, the salon tales of seventeenth century France, the German tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, and the fantasies of E.T.A. Hoffman, among other works.
It's impossible today to fully understand the sensation these little stories caused, for nothing quite like them had ever been seen in Danish literature. The tales were revolutionary for several reasons. Across Europe, the field of children's fiction was still in its very early days, dominated by dull, pious stories intended to teach and inculcate moral values. Andersen's magical tales were rich as chocolate cake after a diet of wholesome gruel, and the narrative voice spoke familiarly, warmly, conspiratorially to children, rather than preaching to them from on high. Despite the Christian imagery recurrent in the tales, typical of 19th century fiction, these are remarkably earthy, anarchic, occasionally even amoral stories — comical, cynical, fatalistic by turns, rather than morally instructive. And unlike the folk tales collected by the Grimms, set in distant lands once upon a time, Andersen set his tales in Copenhagen and other familiar, contemporary settings, mixed fantastical descriptions with common ordinary ones, and invested everyday household objects (toys, dishes, etc.) with personalities and magic. Even the language of the stories was fresh and radical, as Jackie Wullschlager points out in Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller: "The raw and unpolished Danish of these first stories was so radical as to be considered vulgar at a time when literary convention demanded rigorous, high-flown sentiment of the sort practiced by the playwright Heiberg. Andersen, by contrast, was deliberately direct and informal."
Andersen carefully crafted the narration of his tales to evoke the power of oral storytelling, yet the narrative voice is a distinctive one, not the impersonal voice of most folk tales. He perfected his stories by reading them aloud within his social circle, and many a dinner party ended with children and adults alike clamoring for a story. As Andersen's fairy tales became known and loved, he found himself much in demand as a dinner guest, and he also began to receive requests to read his work in public.(3) Though he hadn't been destined for an acting career, his youthful theatrical training served him well. George Griffen, an American diplomat, wrote of Andersen's performance:
"He is a remarkably fine reader, and has often been compared in this respect to Dickens — Dickens was in truth a superb reader, but I am inclined to think that Andersen's manner is far more impressive and eloquent. Both of these men have always read to crowded houses. Dickens voice was perhaps better suited for the stage than the reading desk. It was stronger and louder than Andersen's, but nothing like as mellow and musical. I heard Dickens read the death-bed scene of Little Nell in New York, and I was moved to tears, but I knew that the author himself was reading the story; but when I heard Andersen read the story of the Little Girl with the Matches, I did not think of the author at all, but wept like a child, unconscious of everything around me."
George Griffen was not the only adult reduced to tears by Andersen's tales — which were startling, fresh, and urgent in ways that we can only imagine now that Andersen's stories have acquired the patina of age and familiarity. 19th century readers were particularly affected by the way the tales gave voice to the powerless (the young, the poor, the very old) and imbued them with special strength, wisdom, and connection to the natural world, in opposition to the artifice of reason or the follies of society. Gerda, for instance, goes up against her rival — the rich, dazzling, coldly intellectual Snow Queen — armed only with her youth and compassion; in The Emperor's New Clothes, a child displays more wisdom than the King. We find this theme in traditional folk tales: the good-hearted peasant girl or boy whose kindness wins them riches or a crown, but Andersen gave such figures new life by placing them in contemporary settings, layering elements of sharp social critique into their stories.
Wullschlager places this aspect of the fairy tales in context, noting that Andersen "was a product of his times — of Romanticism, of the revival of the imaginative spirit and of the growth of democratic ideas — in addressing himself to the child in the adult through a shift in perspective, by allowing the child, or toy, or later farmyard animal, to speak with his or her own voice and feelings. In doing so, he joined the wider movement of cultural decentralization, which was beginning to dominate in Europe and America in the early 19th century. In Denmark, Blicher gave voice to Jutland peasants for the first time; in Britain, the rural themes and regional speech and images of peasant life in Sir Walter Scott's novels shaped the Victorian novel; across the Atlantic, James Fenimore Cooper painted pictures of pioneer and American Indian life on the prairies. Suddenly the disposed and the poor were acceptable literary subjects. The crucial contributions of Andersen and Dickens in the 1830s and 1840s were to focus on children, another traditionally mute and oppressed group. The urge to speak out, to claim equality of talent and emotional need...was a driving force for the new 19th century writers who did not come from genteel urban classes, and none came from so deprived and uneducated a background as Andersen."
Art above: A portrait of Hans Christian Andersen by Russian illustrator Anastasia Arkhipova, published in her edition of The Snow Queen.