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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