Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2497
Andersen is frequently mislabeled a gatherer of tales, like the Grimm brothers, or Asbjørnsen and Moe, Norwegian collectors of folktales, but he is quite different from these collectors, his contemporaries. Some of his early tales are based on traditional Danish stories that he had heard as a child, but he was a creative writer who added and altered characters, changed incidents, and above all, wrote in his completely unique style.
Furthermore, as his diaries show, many of the tales were based on his personal experiences. For example, in one of his best-known pieces, “Den grimme ælling” (“The Ugly Duckling”), Andersen is easy to identify as the duckling, the outsider, the different one who triumphs after hardships.
There are other flattering self-portraits. In “Svinedrengen” (“The Swineherd”) he is a prince, spurned by the silly princess, and in “Den standhaftige tinsoldat” (“The Steadfast Tin Soldier”) he is the loyal lover. There are also some negative self-views. In “Grantræet” (“The Little Fir Tree”) the artist is always discontented; in “Fyrtøiet” (“The Tinderbox”) the fortune-hunter stops at nothing to gain his goal.
Since so much of Andersen’s work is closely related to his life experiences, it is important to separate, to the extent possible, fact from the account Andersen gives in his autobiographies. For example, although he freely admits in his accounts of his life to his humble beginnings, he is loath to admit his fears of becoming mentally unbalanced like his paternal grandfather, or of being embarrassed, as a successful adult, by an unsolicited contact with his older half sister.
Possibly the greatest barrier to a complete understanding of his work is that he wrote in Danish, a language not familiar to many people. Often his stories were translated first into German, sometimes imperfectly, and then from German into English. Inaccurate translations were frequent. Mary Howitt, responsible for the first English version (1846) of his tales, committed elementary mechanical errors. Charles Boner elevated Andersen’s language. Caroline Peachey embellished and bowdlerized the tales.
Another barrier to understanding is that some critics have incorrectly assumed that Andersen wrote only for children. His tales, however, were meant to appeal to readers of all ages. They are replete with colloquialisms, Danish puns, and irony. His conversational tone is a conscious stylistic device, not the result of careless composition.
Andersen does not point out a moral at the end of each tale, but rather allows the allegorical and ironic levels of the narrative to speak for themselves. This is also indicative of the tales’ value as literature. There are, however, pure fairy tales, such as “Tommelise” (“Thumbelina”), in which animals and flowers are personified. There are science-fiction stories, such as “Om aartusinder” (“In a Thousand Years”), in which Andersen foretells air travel and concludes that “America’s youth will visit old Europe, seeing it all in eight days” when they can fly. There are simple, realistic stories, such as “Vanddraaben” (“The Drop of Water”), in which Andersen likens the voracious organisms visible under a magnifying glass to the citizens of Copenhagen, who devour one another without reason.
Some of his tales, such as “Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne” (“The Little Match Girl”), “Hun duede ikke” (“She Was No Good”), and “Gartneren go herskabet” (“The Gardener and the Lord and Lady”) are critiques of the society of his time, in which a child could freeze to death on the street, a good woman could be exploited, then relegated to a pauper’s grave, and an aristocratic couple could fail to appreciate the superior knowledge of their faithful gardener.
His themes frequently include a quest for fame and fortune, as in “The Tinderbox,” or “Sommerfuglen” (“The Butterfly”), in which the bachelor does not find a wife because he is indecisive about which flower he prefers. In some stories there is a philosophical quest—for example, a search for God, as in “Klokken” (“The Bell”), in which two young boys, a prince and a poor lad, are both called by the ringing of an unknown bell and the promise of revelation.
Sometimes Andersen writes of the triumph of the artist, as in “Sneglen og rosenhækken” (“The Snail and the Rose”), his answer to Søren Kierkegaard’s critique of his novel Kun en Spillemand (1837; Only a Fiddler, 1845). Sometimes he writes about the defeat of the creative person, as in “Skyggen” (“The Shadow”), in which a crass imitation is venerated above the genuine. Some of the tales, such as “Lille Claus og store Claus” (“Little Claus and Big Claus”) are quite violent (in a fairy-tale way), but more deeply frightening is the haunting “De røde sko” (“Red Shoes”), the story of a young girl who must keep dancing until she dies.
Andersen emphasizes familiar, homelike settings in most of his tales, even when on the surface it may seem otherwise. For example, in “Historien om en moder” (“The Story of a Mother”) a woman searches for her missing child. The realm of the dead is described as a greenhouse, a familiar sight in Denmark. In the same way, Andersen’s royal characters seem more domestic than regal, with the king opening the door of the castle in “Reisekammeraten” (“The Traveling Companion”) and the queen making up the bed for a visitor in “Prindsessen paa ærten” (“The Princess and the Pea”).
Much of Andersen’s work is optimistic but almost as much is distinctly pessimistic—a dichotomy accurately representing Andersen himself. There is no doubt that knowledge of his life makes his writing more impressive. His stories and tales have long been cherished, however, by children and adults who do not have any special knowledge of the author. This signifies that at least the best of his work has the quality of universality that makes it stand the test of time.
“The Little Mermaid”
First published: “Den lille havfrue,” 1837 (collected The Complete Stories, 2005)
Type of work: Short story
A beautiful mermaid falls in love with the prince she has rescued, but fails to win him and must die.
Andersen begins this tale with such a detailed description of the watery world, home of the sea king and his family, it becomes a very real setting. In his magnificent palace, the king, a widower, lives with his aging mother and his six mermaid daughters. Each princess has her own garden, planned with individuality, with the youngest princess wanting only rose-red flowers and a beautiful marble statue of a handsome boy, the remnant of a shipwreck.
The king and his mother have been to the surface many times, and the princesses are intrigued with their stories of the world above. As each mermaid becomes fifteen years old, she is allowed to go up and look around for herself, and each returns to tell the others what she has seen of cities, nature, and humans. These descriptions also are written very imaginatively, so that the reader may believe that one princess is frightened by a small dog, another floats on an iceberg, and a third plays with dolphins and whales. At last the youngest mermaid becomes fifteen and makes the journey to the surface.
She sees a three-masted ship, on which a party to celebrate a prince’s sixteenth birthday is taking place. The little mermaid watches the handsome prince, whom she decides she loves. There is a severe storm; the ship is wrecked; the unconscious prince is left floating amid the rubble. The little mermaid manages to rescue him before returning to her undersea home but says nothing at first to her family about her experience.
Finally, she tells her sisters of her love, and they rise to the surface and show her his palace. She spends each evening gazing at her prince, although he is unaware of her. When she questions her grandmother about humans, she learns that they have a shorter life expectancy than sea people but that they do have eternal souls.
She then goes to an evil witch, who tells her how she can win the prince and acquire a soul. It is a hard bargain, because she must become mute. The sea witch cuts out her tongue. The mermaid drinks a magic potion that changes her tail to legs. If the prince marries her, she will acquire a soul. If he marries someone else, on that day she will turn to foam on the sea.
The prince becomes very fond of the little mermaid, but he does not think of her as his bride. He marries someone else. On the night of his wedding, the mermaid’s sisters rise from the sea to save her. They have given all their hair to the witch in exchange for a knife that the little mermaid must drive into the heart of the prince as he sleeps. This she refuses to do. As she hurls herself into the dissolving foam, she is borne aloft by the daughters of the air, who explain to her that they earn their immortal souls by their good deeds, and she becomes one of them.
At the time of its publication, there was conjecture about the ending’s being contrived, but in a letter, Andersen seems to indicate that he planned it from the beginning, having originally titled the story “Daughters of the Air.” Andersen’s feelings about religion may have made it difficult for him to condemn the loving mermaid with no possibility of acquiring an immortal soul. Andersen, who was not successful in love, perhaps identified with the little mermaid.
The famous bronze statue of the Little Mermaid by Edvard Eriksen was set up on the harbor promenade of Copenhagen in 1913.
“The Emperor’s New Clothes”
First published: “Kejserens nye klaeder,” 1837 (collected in The Complete Stories, 2005)
Type of work: Short story
An emperor is hoodwinked by two dishonest men who pretend they can weave magic cloth, seen only by the wise.
Based on a Spanish story from the fourteenth century, this tale was so cleverly altered by Andersen that it is still cited as an example of the foolish behavior of those in authority. He changed the Moorish king to an emperor. He reduced the number of swindlers from three to two. Most significantly, he changed the magic quality of the cloth so that those who could not see it were presumed either “unfit for their posts or hopelessly stupid.”
The vain emperor spends his time and money on his only interest—his wardrobe. Along come two men who claim to be able to create a magic cloth. They are given money, silk, and gold thread without limit to complete this marvelous fabric. The fabric will be made into clothing for the emperor. The two men work on an empty loom, pretending to weave, while pocketing all the money and supplies.
Curious about the enterprise, the emperor first sends his honest prime minister to report on the progress, but when the old man sees nothing, he is afraid to tell the truth for fear it means he is unfit for his post or hopelessly stupid. The prime minister repeats to the sovereign what the swindlers tell him about the glorious design and wonderful colors of the cloth. Next, the emperor sends a second official with the same result.
At this point the emperor decides to see the fabric for himself, but both the emperor and the courtiers with him are afraid to say that they see nothing but an empty loom. When the day comes for the emperor to don the suit made from the nonexistent cloth, everyone pretends that it is real. The emperor heads a public procession in his underwear, with the crowd continuing the pretense.
Then, in innocence, a little child speaks: “But he hasn’t anything on!” This fact is whispered from person to person; all the spectators shout the truth. The emperor says to himself: “I must go through with it, procession and all,” and, drawing himself up still more proudly, he continues to walk with his chamberlains following—carrying the train that is not there.
It is only the child who has not yet become corrupted by the world who will tell what he or she sees. Another implicit moral lies in the emperor’s knowing that he has been swindled, but refusing to acknowledge his error publicly.
First published: “Nattergalen,” 1844 (collected in The Complete Stories, 2005)
Type of work: Short story
A Chinese emperor is given a bejeweled mechanical nightingale to replace a live one, but the real bird returns to save him from death.
The story begins as the Chinese emperor reads in a book about the best thing in his empire being a little nightingale that sings in a wood. He then demands that the bird be found, and after all the royal minions have failed, an assistant kitchen maid leads them to the bird.
The little nightingale is brought to the court, given a golden perch, and sings so beautifully that tears come to the eyes of the emperor. That is enough reward for the bird, who declines the gift of a golden slipper. The nightingale is put in a golden cage. Its daily walks are monitored by servants, and the bird believes that its freedom is gone.
The emperor of Japan sends a gift of a magnificent bejeweled mechanical nightingale to the Chinese court. A duet is arranged between the live bird and the mechanical one. The live nightingale is, after the failed duet, banished. The artificial bird, thought to be superior, is placed next to the emperor’s bed. It plays the same song over and over, and in time, a wheel in its workings breaks. Even after repair, the bird can sing only once a year.
Five years pass, and the emperor is mortally ill. As the author puts it, “Death was sitting on his chest and had put on his gold crown and held in one hand the imperial gold sword, and in the other, his splendid banner.” The emperor’s good and wicked deeds come as troublesome images. A replacement emperor has been chosen. The emperor cries out to the mechanical bird to sing, but there is no one to wind it up.
The live nightingale returns to a branch outside the window and makes a bargain with Death—a song for the gold crown, a second for the gold sword, and a third for the splendid banner. As the bird sings about the quiet graveyard, Death’s garden, watered by mourner’s tears, Death drifts away in a cold white mist.
The emperor, fully recovered, understands when the nightingale tells him that he must fly free and “sing of good and evil which is kept hidden from you.”
Written as both an allegory and a tribute to Jenny Lind, this tale is frequently cited as Andersen’s best. It contains ironic references to the hierarchical social system; it has humorous touches; it speaks to the superiority of nature over mechanical, artificial copies of reality; and it appeals to all ages.