For readers who take Andersen seriously, as an author who probes into social, psychological, and religious issues, the impossibility of designating a single worldview as Andersen’s may seem baffling. His views of life seem to fluctuate, and one text may easily contradict the next—for example, the harmonious tale “The Snow Queen” is placed next to “The Pine Tree” (1845), which ends with the unfulfilled protagonist dwindling into nothingness. A contrast can be detected by juxtaposing “The Ugly Duckling” with “In the Duck Yard” (1861). In the former, the ugly duckling goes through many hardships, but in the end all turns out well, for he is in reality a swan and has now found his true home. In the latter, a little songbird finds himself among philistines and eventually is destroyed. Both stories are strongly autobiographical: In one, a perfect future life is envisioned, and in the other a destiny that could have been Andersen’s is imagined. Andersen wrote often about artists and art, but, once again, one should not expect consistency: In “The Nightingale,” the artist is the vehicle for truth and beauty, and art is seen as a life-giving force; but in “The Flying Trunk” (1839), the artist is not only a parasite but also a subversive prophet of social change. In “The Professor and the Flea” (1868), the artist is a self-serving con man, and, in the late “Auntie Toothache” (1872), the artist belittles and rejects his own talent. Both the agony and the ecstacy of Romanticism speak through Andersen’s tales: “The Nightingale” is a textbook example of harmonious Romanticism, in which the natural and the artificial in life are juxtaposed, and the...
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Hans Christian Andersen’s tales made him world famous; his tales are translated into numerous languages, and the anthologies that continue to be published suggest that he is very much alive today. His other works—novels, plays, and poetry—have fared less well, but his lively travel chronicles—for example, En Digters Bazar (1842; A Poet’s Bazaar, 1988)—have kept their charm. He has also had an impact on other writers of tales, who have often tried to interpret his complex texts by rewriting them; a notable example is the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom’s In Nederland (1984; In the Dutch Mountains, 1987), in which “The Snow Queen” is playfully redone. The film industry has, naturally, taken to Andersen’s fairy tales, for example with versions of The Red Shoes (1948) and The Little Mermaid (1989). These films tend to demonstrate how difficult it is to transfer the complexity of Andersen’s tales to the big screen.
By using the ancient form of the tale in experimental ways, Andersen incorporates the entire gamut of human emotions, from rollicking comedy to bleakest tragedy, and in that span of emotions—as in his truly innovative narrative technique—lies his greatness.
Hans Christian Andersen was a dreamy little boy whose thoughts were very much like those of many of the characters in his fairy tales. When his father died and his mother remarried, he asked to go to Copenhagen to make his fortune. A soothsayer told his mother that her son would be Denmark’s pride, so she let him go. When he tried to enter the theater, he had little success. Some influential men, however, realized that he was a poet and helped him until his publications began to attract attention. By the time Andersen died, he was Denmark’s most beloved countryman. His tales may be fantastic, encompassing many moods, but they merely reflect his own character, which was equally fantastic, though lovable.
The 168 tales written by Andersen may be classified in two general groups. The first group comprises the traditional European folktales retold by Andersen and includes selections such as “Little Claus and Big Claus,” “The Wild Swans,” and “The Three Little Pigs.” These are excellent versions in which the spirit of the source is maintained while the tale is enhanced by the author’s gift for storytelling. The majority of the tales, however, belong to the second group, composed of Andersen’s original stories; among these one finds a great variety, ranging from stories imitative of the folktale style, to moral allegories, to stories that seem to foreshadow modern fantasy tales. Despite their diversity, however, all of Andersen’s tales are marked by common features in both their content and their style.
To a greater or lesser degree, almost all the tales directly reflect the author’s personal experiences. Perhaps the most striking example of this is “The Ugly Duckling,” which may be read as both a literal and a spiritual autobiography. Similarly, Karen in “The Red Shoes” directly parallels the young Andersen, who at his confirmation was more thrilled with his leather shoes, so new that they squeaked, than with the religious ceremony. In addition to occasional fictionalized accounts of the author’s past, readers find a multitude of tales that are more subtly sprinkled with the author’s childhood experiences and with the rich lore and colorful traditions of Odense, the provincial town in Denmark where he was reared. The appearance of benevolent grandmothers in so many of the stories, for example, reflects Andersen’s own kindly grandmother, who not only gave the boy sympathy and support but also fed his imagination with peasant tales and reports of the eerie happenings in the insane asylum near which she worked. The many portraits of witches in the fairy tales owe their vividness to the author’s terrifying memories of the local “witches” for whom his mother sent when he was ill; towns such as Odense in the early nineteenth century were still steeped in medieval beliefs, and mothers of peasant background might still trust in a witch’s potion rather than turn to a doctor’s prescription to cure their children. Still other tales in the collection are built around recollected daydreams rather than the actual experiences of the author. Such is the case in the beautiful story “The Nightingale,” inspired by Andersen’s fanciful habit as a boy of singing in the evening to the emperor of China, reputed by the peasants to reside directly under...
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