Hans Christian Andersen Essay - Critical Essays

Hans Christian Andersen Short Fiction Analysis

Following publication of his 1844 collection of tales, Hans Christian Andersen explained in a letter that he wanted his tales to be read on two levels, offering something for the minds of adults as well as appealing to children. Three examples of such adult tales, “The Snow Queen,” “The Shadow,” and “The Nightingale,” demonstrate how, as Andersen said, in writing from his own breast instead of retelling old tales he had found out how to write fairy tales.

“The Snow Queen”

Comprising seven stories, “The Snow Queen” begins with a mirror into which people can look and see the good become small and mean and the bad appear at its very worst. Andersen could remember, in later years, that his father had maintained that “There is no other devil than the one we have in our hearts”; and this provides a clue to the plot and theme of “The Snow Queen.” Only when the demon’s followers confront heaven with the mirror does it shatter into fragments, but unfortunately those fragments enter the hearts of many people.

The second story introduces Little Kay and Gerda, who love each other and the summer’s flowers until a fragment of the evil mirror lodges in Little Kay’s eye and another pierces his heart. Having formerly declared that if the Snow Queen visited he would melt her on the stove, Kay now views snowflakes through a magnifying glass and pronounces them more beautiful than flowers. He protests against the grandmother’s tales with a but for the logic of each one, and, apparently arrived at adolescence, transfers loyalty from the innocent Gerda to the knowing Snow Queen. He follows the visiting Queen out of town and into the snowy expanses of the distant sky.

The journey from adolescence to maturity becomes for Gerda her quest for the missing Kay, her true love and future mate. Fearing the river has taken Kay, she offers it her new red shoes; but a boat she steps into drifts away from shore, and, riding the river’s current, she travels far before being pulled ashore and detained by a woman “learned in magic.” Gerda here forgets her search for Kay until the sight of a rose reminds her. In one of the story’s most abstract passages, she then asks the tiger lilies, convolvulus, snowdrop, hyacinth, buttercup, and narcissus where he might be; but each tells a highly fanciful tale concerned with its own identity. The narcissus, for example, alludes to the Echo and Narcissus myth in saying “I can see myself” and fails to aid Gerda. Barefoot, Gerda runs out of the garden and finds that autumn has arrived.

A crow believes he has seen Kay and contrives a visit with the Prince and Princess, who forgive the invasion of their palatial privacy and then outfit Gerda to continue her search. All her newly acquired equipage attracts a “little robber girl,” a perplexing mixture of amorality and good intentions, who threatens Gerda with her knife but provides a reindeer to carry Gerda to Spitsbergen, where the wood pigeons have reported having seen Kay. At one stop, the reindeer begs a Finnish wise woman to give Gerda the strength to conquer all, but the woman points out the great power that Gerda has already evidenced and adds, “We must not tell her what power she has. It is in her heart, because she is such a sweet innocent child.” She sends Gerda and the reindeer on their way, with Gerda riding without boots or mittens. Eventually the reindeer deposits her by a red-berry bush in freezing icebound Denmark, from which she walks to the Snow Queen’s Palace.

Here she finds a second mirror, a frozen lake broken into fragments that is actually the throne of the Snow Queen; the Queen calls it “The Mirror of Reason.” Little Kay works diligently to form the fragments into the word “Eternity,” for which accomplishment the Snow Queen has said he can be his own master and have the whole world and a new pair of skates. Gerda’s love, when she sheds tears of joy at finding Kay, melts the ice in his heart and the mirror within his breast; and Kay, himself bursting into tears at recovering Gerda and her love, finds that the fragments magically form themselves into the word “Eternity.” The two young people find many changes on their return journey but much the same at home, where they now realize they are grown up. The grandmother’s Bible verse tells them about the kingdom of heaven for those with hearts of children, and they now understand the meaning of the hymn, “Where roses deck the flowery vale,/ There Infant Jesus, thee we hail!” The flowers of love, not the mirror of reason, make Kay and Gerda inheritors of the kingdom of heaven, the Snow Queen’s elusive eternity.

Only the style makes such stories children’s stories, for “The Snow Queen,” with devices such as the snowflakes seen under a microscope, obviously attacks empiricism; at the same time, the story offers the symbol of the foot, important to folklore, and the journey of Gerda through obstacles and a final illumination constitutes a “journey of the hero” as delineated by the mythologist Joseph Campbell. So also Andersen’s “The Shadow” presents an alter-ego with psychic dimensions well beyond the ken of children.

“The Shadow”

The setting with which “The Shadow” begins reflects Andersen’s diary entries from his trip to Naples in June, 1846, when he found the sun too hot for venturing out of doors and began writing the story. With the hot sun directly overhead, the shadow disappears except in morning and evening and begins to assume a life of its own. Its activities, closely observed by its owner, the “learned man from a cold country,” leads him to joke about its going into the house opposite to learn the identity of a lovely maiden. The shadow fails to return, but the learned man soon grows a new shadow. Many years later, once more at home, the original shadow visits him but has now become so corporeal that it has acquired flesh and clothes. Further, it divulges, it has become wealthy and plans to marry. Its three-week visit in the house opposite, it now reveals, placed it close to the lovely maiden Poetry, in whose anteroom the shadow read all the poetry and prose ever written. If the learned man had been there, he would not have remained a human being, but it was there that the shadow became one. Emerging thence he went about under the cover of a pastry cook’s gown for some time before growing into his present affluence.

Later, the learned man’s writing of the good, the...

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