Hans Christian Andersen: A Great Life in Brief Critical Essays

Rumer Godden

Critical Context

(Critical Edition of Young Adult Fiction)

The appeal of Godden’s book for young adult readers rests with the subject of the biography. Andersen’s tales are used throughout the world in the classrooms of schools and colleges. It has been ascertained that Andersen’s tales have been trans-lated into as many languages as the Bible. Andersen wrote for children; he read his tales aloud to them to observe their reactions, and those reactions often made him revise his stories and strive to keep his language attuned to the ear of young people. That technique caused a contemporary conservative critic to remark snidely that “it’s not writing, it’s talking.” It is exactly that quality that sets Andersen apart from so many other adapters of folklore and that has ensured the endurance of his tales, and of his life story.

Yet Andersen intended each of his stories to speak to the adult reader as well, and it is tempting to suggest that he wanted to reach people in their teens to warn them against the prejudices, the conformist thinking, and the double standards of the world of the adults in establishment—such as he does in the famous tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Young readers who use Godden’s work may want to consult Elias Bredsdorff’s Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work 180575 (1975) for some corrective views, but Godden’s biography remains a highly readable work that will make readers excited about the story of Andersen’s life and about his marvelous tales.

The major part of Godden’s account, covering Andersen’s amazing rise from poverty to a position as a major European writer, reads like one of those novels of a young person’s determined struggle to succeed against both social odds and prejudice. Many of Andersen’s contemporaries advised him to settle for less and become an artisan or, later, not to strive for fame as an artist. Godden’s Andersen staunchly resists all such temptations and brilliantly succeeds in reaching his goal. Godden gives the readers a very good sense of the obstacles that Andersen had to overcome: His society was a static one with little upward mobility, and in order...

(The entire section is 870 words.)