Andersen's Fairy Tales Analysis

The Stories (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Red Shoes. Karen is such a poor little girl that she has to go barefoot in winter. An old mother shoemaker feels sorry for her and makes Karen a clumsy pair of shoes out of pieces of red felt. When Karen’s mother dies, the girl wears the red shoes to the funeral. An old lady, seeing Karen walking forlornly behind her mother’s coffin, pities her and takes the child home. The old lady thinks that the red shoes are ugly, and she burns them.

One day, Karen sees the queen and the little princess. The princess is dressed all in white, with beautiful red morocco shoes. When the time comes for Karen’s confirmation, she needs new shoes. The old lady, almost blind, does not know that the shoes Karen picks out are red ones just like those the princess wore. During the confirmation, Karen can think of nothing but her red shoes.

The next Sunday, as Karen goes to her First Communion, she meets an old soldier with a crutch. After admiring the red shoes, he strikes them on the soles and tells them to stick fast when Karen dances. During the service, she can think only of her shoes. After church, she starts to dance. The footman has to pick her up and take off her shoes before the old lady can take her home.

At a ball in town, Karen cannot stop dancing. She dances out through the fields and up to the church. There an angel with a broad sword stops her and tells her she will dance until she becomes a skeleton, a warning to all other vain children.

Karen dances day and night until she comes to the executioner’s house. There she taps on the window and begs him to come out and cut off her feet. After he chops off her feet, they and the little red shoes dance off into the forest. The executioner makes Karen wooden feet and crutches and teaches her a psalm, and the parson gives her a home. Karen thinks she suffers enough to go to church, but each time she tries she sees the red shoes dancing ahead of her and is afraid. One Sunday, she stays at home. As she hears the organ music, she reads her prayer book humbly and begs help from God. Then she sees the angel again, not with a sword but with a green branch covered with roses. As the angel moves the branch, Karen feels that she is being carried off to the church. There she is so thankful that her heart breaks, and her soul flies up to heaven.

The Ugly Duckling. A mother duck is sitting on a clutch of eggs. When the largest egg does not crack with the rest, an old matriarchal duck warns the setting fowl that she should leave that egg alone; it will probably turn out to be a turkey. The egg, however, finally cracks, and out of it comes the biggest, ugliest duckling ever seen in the barnyard. The other ducklings peck it and chase it and make it so unhappy that it feels comfortable only when it is paddling in the pond. The mother duck is proud only of the very fine paddling the ugly duckling does.

The scorn heaped on his head is so bitter that the ugly duckling leaves home. He spends a miserable winter in the marsh. When spring comes, he sees some beautiful white swans settle down on the water. He moves out to admire them as they come toward him with ruffled feathers. He bends down to await their attack, but as he looks in the water he sees that he is no longer a gray ugly duckling but another graceful swan. He is so glad then that he never thinks to be proud, but he smiles when he hears some children say that he is the handsomest swan they have ever seen.

The Snow Queen. A very wicked hobgoblin invents a mirror that reflects everything good as trivial and everything bad as monstrous; a good thought turns into a grin in the mirror. His cohorts carry it all over the earth and finally up to heaven to test the angels. There many good thoughts make the mirror grin so much that it falls out of their hands and splinters as it hits the earth. Each tiny piece can distort as the whole mirror did.

A tiny piece pierces Kay through the heart, and a tiny grain lodges in his eye. Kay was a happy little boy before that. He played with Gerda in their rooms high above the street, and they both admired some rosebushes their parents planted in boxes spanning the space between their houses. With the glass in his eye and heart, however, Kay sees nothing beautiful, and nothing pleases him.

One night, Kay goes sledding in the town square. When a lady all in white drives by, he thinks that she is so beautiful that he hitches his sled behind her sleigh as she drives slowly around the square. Suddenly, her horses gallop out of the town. The lady looks back at Kay and smiles each time he tries to loosen his sled. Then she stops the sleigh and tells Kay to get in with her. There she wraps him in her fur coat. She is the Snow Queen. He is nearly frozen, but he does not feel cold after she kisses him nor does he remember Gerda.

Gerda does not forget Kay; at last, she runs away from home to look for him. She goes to the garden of a woman learned in magic and asks all the flowers if they have seen Kay, but the flowers know only their own stories. She meets a crow who leads her to the prince and princess, but they have not heard of Kay. They give her boots and a muff and a golden coach to ride in when they send her on her way. Robbers stop the golden coach. At the insistence of a little robber girl, Gerda is left alive, a prisoner in the robbers’ house. Some wood pigeons in the loft tell Gerda that Kay went with the Snow Queen to Lapland. Since the reindeer tethered inside the house know the way to Lapland, the robber girl sets him free to take Gerda on her way.

The Lapp and the Finn women give Gerda directions to the Snow Queen’s palace and tell her that it is only through the goodness of her heart that Kay can be released. When Gerda finds Kay, she weeps so hard that she melts the piece of mirror out...

(The entire section is 2393 words.)

Andersen's Fairy Tales Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Hans Christian Andersen’s tales appeared nearly yearly in small collections from 1835 to 1872; the first complete edition was gathered during Andersen’s lifetime as Eventyr og Historier (1863-1874; fairy tales and stories); the English translation used here is The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories (1974), by Erik Haugaard.

Andersen often imitated the magic tale—ancient, oral stories that begin with the tantalizing “once upon a time” and, after many tribulations for hero or heroine, end with the deeply satisfying “and then they lived happily ever after,” as shown in “The Traveling Companion” (1835), “The Tinderbox” (1835), and “The Wild Swans” (1838). The same structure is used, if more freely, in “The Ugly Duckling” (1837), “The Snow Queen” (1845), and in “The Little Mermaid” (1837). The protagonists are striving for a goal, meet opposition, must pass tests, and finally are rewarded with their dreams being realized: In “The Snow Queen,” the powers of cold reason are defeated, and heroine and hero are reunited; “The Little Mermaid” seems to fail the tests that will grant her the prince’s love, but she is nevertheless rewarded by being the recipient of that which she desired most of all, not mortal love but an immortal soul. These tales tend to be optimistic, but, more explicitly than the folktales, they confront existential issues—such as growing up, dreaming oneself away from this world, and even death. Andersen, however, always added touches of humor and could even poke fun of these quest...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Andersen's Fairy Tales Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Blegvad, Erik. Hans Christian Andersen: From an Artist’s Point of View. Washington, D.C.: Children’s Literature Center, Library of Congress, 1988. Critique of Andersen’s fairy tales from a noted Danish illustrator. Describes visual qualities of Andersen’s tales that are rarely noted. Based on a lecture, this book is casual about references; the reader needs some familiarity with Andersen’s works.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hans Christian Andersen. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2005. Collection of essays about Andersen’s life and work. Some of the essays discuss the heroes and heroines in the...

(The entire section is 361 words.)