Hans Christian Andersen: Tales That Enchant and Haunt

Based, in part on a Smithsonian Associates Lecture by Sara Cleto and Dr. Brittany Warman.

“What is it about Andersen that distinguishes him from other writers of fairy tales?” our hosts begin. “Andersen’s wizardry is the mix of the wild and the weird, the charming and the brutal, the droll and the bloodcurdling.” (scholar Maria Tatar) Cleto and Warman call their subject’s work “Metaphoric tales that address universal social problems, known for beautiful imagery and creating for his characters what scholar Maria Tatar calls “a cult of grotesque suffering.”

Cut-out by Hans Christian Andersen Left: Scherenschnitt – Pierrot
Right: Scherenschnitt – Tänzerinnen – H C Andersen (both Public Domain)

Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) wrote plays, travelogs, novels and poems, but it’s fairy tales for which he’s remembered. The 156 stories across nine volumes have been translated into more than 125 languages becoming the fabric of countless nationalities. Surprisingly, his mother was illiterate, his father received only an elementary school education, and the sole book Andersen had to fuel childhood imagination was The Arabian Nights. An autobiography reveals that he was exposed to Danish folktales from an old woman in the spinning room of an asylum where his grandmother was employed.

The boy attended a school for the poor – where he was evidently abused – worked as an apprentice weaver and tailor, then because of a lovely soprano voice, was admitted into Royal Danish Theatre. When his voice changed, Andersen began to write short stories.

Fairy Tales Told for Children – First Collection was published in three installments. Of his most popular tales, “The Tinderbox,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “Little Idea’s Flowers,” were among those in the first; “Thumbelina,” inspired by Tom Thumb appeared in the second;  “The Little Mermaid” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” were among those in the third.

Reviews were enthusiastic, but Andersen was often rejected by those from whom he hoped for admiration. He didn’t get along with Charles Dickens, despite the latter being a fan – not the least because of Hans’s flamboyance, language issues, and overstaying what was to have been a short visit by 4 ½ weeks. Later approaching Jacob Grimm, the Dane discovered his work unknown to the popular author. (Wilhelm Grimm made up for this.) Apparently bi-sexual, Andersen gravitated to unavailable relationships in both his professional and personal lives.

Our academic hosts seem to feel the author focused as much if not more on surface beauty than underlying meaning. I disagree. We look closely at some of the most well known stories.

Edmund Dulac- The Mermaid and the Prince (Public Domain)

“The Little Mermaid” features a sea creature named Undine who trades her voice for human legs in order to live the human life whose ephemera she’s collected for years, and to acquire an eternal soul – not only to be with the glimpsed Prince as is commonly assumed. A sea witch literally cuts out her tongue. New movement is not graceful compensation. “Every footstep felt as if she were walking on the blades and points of sharp knives.”

Undine is referred to as “a child” or “a foundling” and sleeps on a cushion outside the prince’s door. She’s an object of pity. “The prince is depicted as callous…it’s evident he makes no effort to understand her body language, a sign of entitlement on his part.” (Vivian Yenika-Agban) If she kills the object of her unrequited love and his new bride, the creature can return to sea. Instead, Undine chooses to die becoming a spirit of the air. Disney has of course, changed these aspects. It’s been suggested that her disability is a metaphor for homosexuality.

“The Snow Queen”- Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales published by Rand McNally & Company, Chicago, 1916 (Public Domain)

“The Snow Queen” concerns young Gerda who goes on an epic quest to rescue her best friend, Kay, kidnapped by the evil royal. Frozen and Frozen II are very loosely inspired by the tale which includes, among other facets, a rescuing reindeer. Here the hosts point out the queen exerts control over Kay with kisses which make him increasingly numb, while Gerda’s kisses thaw the boy. When he was very young, Anderson imagined a snow maiden ready to steal him away. It terrified him.

“The Emperor’s New Clothes” has neither been Disneyfied nor adapted into another live art form, yet picture books, cartoons and the idiom are frequently referenced. The story is one of a vain, naive ruler taken in by two swindlers who claim to weave magic cloth so fine that only the worthy would be able to see it. Loyal servants sent to check on progress lie so as not to be thought stupid. The emperor strips, is “dressed”, and parades in the streets with attendants holding an invisible train- until an innocent child declares him to be naked.

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen– “The Emperor’s New Clothes” (c1899) Philadelphia: Lippincott (Public Domain)

Andersen took pleasure in poking fun at an aristocracy to which he was denied entrance. He referred to it as the “pretentious and indifferent upper class” in his autobiography. Aesthetics come into this with an incorporeal cloth identified as a wondrous object. Weavers might be a metaphor for storytellers.

“The Red Shoes” is another of the author’s stories most often rewritten. Karen, a ”pretty, delicate little girl” is very poor. An old woman adopts the child who becomes somewhat spoiled. One day, she sees the princess in ”beautiful red Morocco shoes,” convinces her half blind foster mother (who may not realize the hue) she must have them, and improperly appears in the colored footwear at church. The congregation reacts badly, but Karen will not be denied.

Next Sunday, wearing the shoes, she encounters a soldier who admires them as appropriate for dancing. “Never come off when you dance,” he says tapping each with his hand. After church, Karen tries them out and cannot at first stop dancing. Her mother hides the offending footwear, but the girl finds and again puts them on. Abandoning her sick benefactor, she goes to a ball…after which the shoes will not stop. At her own request the executioner cuts off Karen’s feet making her wood ones. She offers herself to the parson as help and once again at church dies happy. The story’s anti-heroine is named after Andersen’s own loathed half-sister, Karen Marie Andersen.

Fairy tales from Hans Christian Andersen; (1914) Garden City, N.Y. : Doubleday (Public Domain)

Like the Emperor, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of vanity and pride. “Andersen’s cult of beauty is shadowed by a profound fear that enchantments can turn demonic.” (Maria Tatar) It also evokes dance macabre/the dance of death. Shoes or their lack appear often in fairy tales as signals of poverty. Both “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” employ the signal. “Cinderella” and Charles Perrault’s seven league boots are other examples of footwear’s significance. The phrase “well heeled” means wealthy.

Andersen apparently wore new boots to his own confirmation, “…my only fear was that some people would not see them and therefore I drew them up over my trousers and marched through church. The boots creaked which pleased me no end because the congregation would knew they were new.” (Hans Christian Andersen – The Story of My Life: An Autobiography.)

Stories from Hans Andersen with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. New York: Hodder & Stoughton. 1910 “The Nightingale” (Public Domain)

In “The Nightingale,” an emperor hears that the most beautiful sound in his kingdom is that of a nightingale. He orders the bird captured and brought to the palace where it sings, giving him daily pleasure. The ruler is then gifted a caged, mechanical facsimile encrusted with jewels and loses interest in the small, brown, live bird. No longer wanted, the nightingale flies away. When the toy bird breaks, the emperor falls ill. Hearing of this, the nightingale comes back and sings. The emperor lives.

This story may have been inspired by Jenny Lind, a vocalist deemed “The Swedish Nightingale” for whom Andersen suffered unrequited love. When he had his own lovely soprano, he too was called nightingale. The author knew he was not good looking. The bird who had talent/beauty inside her may also have been a metaphor.

A lot to reconsider.

Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0

Further reading:

Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales ad Stories translated by Erik Christian Haugaard

The True Story of My Life: An Autobiography by Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen: The life of A Storyteller by Jackie Wullschlager

Sara Cleto and Dr Brittany Warman are former instructors of folklore and literature at The Ohio State University and co-founders of the Carterhaugh School of Folklore and the Fantastic.

Opening: Left-Cover of Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, from 1872. Illustrated by Eleanor Vere Boyle. (Public Domain) Right: Portrait by Thora Hallager 1869 (Public Domain)

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About Alix Cohen (1311 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.