Happy Birthday, Mr. Andersen!
As you may have noticed, fairy tales are hot right now. From books to television
to movies, fairy tales in all their various permutations (straight-forward, fractured, updated, post-modern) seem to have the market cornered. The Grimm Brothers have certainly received their due; so let’s celebrate another man of fairy tale renown on his birthday: Hans Christian Andersen, who was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark.
His is a classic poor boy-makes-good story. Born of a shoemaker father (I kid you not!) and a laundress mother, his family background flavors many of his tales, as he frequently explored class differences between the poor and the wealthy. He was teased by school mates for his ungainly appearance and was later bullied by a teacher who told him his writing was fit only for the trash can (any writer can relate to that!). At age 14, he left home to make his fortune. He dabbled in art, music and acting; was not especially successful at any of those trades, and sank into poverty. The director of the Royal Theatre took pity on him and gave him some money to continue his education. He high-tailed it to Copenhagen, the capitol city, entered the university and found a new interest in writing.
Andersen explored poetry, and finally found some success. Wealthy patrons sponsored his way on a Grand Tour of Europe. Through his travels, he became interested in writing for children and his first book of fairy tales was published in 1835. He hit the big time and followed it with numerous volumes of children’s stories, writing at the pace of almost one book a year. In his lifetime, he wrote more than one hundred and fifty fairy tales, and his stories have been translated into over 100 languages!
The difference between Andersen and the Brothers Grimm is like the difference between directors Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino: one goes for the soft-kill of psychological suspense and the other gives you the blood-and-guts.
Melancholy and longing permeate Andersen's stories. Many of his humble characters long for love and/or acceptance into a higher realm of society or what they perceive as a more exalted existence. A mermaid pines for a human prince; an ugly toad crawls up from the bottom of a well to seek something "higher"; a starving beggar child who sells matches on a streetcorner imagines ever more beautiful tableaux of prosperity as she freezes to death.
Little Match Girl illustration courtesy of BluePen
Andersen was an expert of personification and throughout his stories you will find objects such as darning needles or candles that have thoughts, intentions, and feelings. He had a sharp eye for pretension and vanity, and often satirized these human flaws. The emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes is so fearful of being thought stupid that he (and his courtiers) allow themselves to be tricked into ridiculous behavior by a pair of charlatans. Andersen consistently elevated the stock figures of traditional fairy tales with human weaknesses and strong personal emotions.
Steadfast Tin Soldier illustration courtesy of Kay Nielsen
Andersen's stories often have unhappy endings. In The Little Match Girl, a starving child dies alone in a freezing ally; in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the toy is reduced to a lump of melted metal; The Little Fir Tree sees its protagonist thrown into a fire. Andersen eschewed the usual fairytale ending which endows the hero or heroine with love and wealth as a redemption or reward for suffering; instead he preferred to examine how integrity, humility and goodness can ennoble the final moments of a lonely and poverty-stricken life. The starving child does not truly die alone; we, the readers, feel sympathy for her plight. The toy soldier's love does not really remain an eternal secret; we, the readers, empathize with his unrequited emotions. The traditional fairy tale usually shows how bad luck can be tranformed (with a little magical intervention and plucky persistence) into amazing success. Andersen, a revolutionary in gentleman's clothes, instead focused on the beautiful glow of spiritual dignity in the face of the most relentless ill fortune.
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