You know, I can’t seem to write anything without using a colon. Academics love them! Ah, woe is me, gone haplessly pretentious…
The subject of today’s post suffers from the same thing, actually. “Hapless” is a pretty descriptor for Hans Christian Andersen, whose life was a sad one that was often beyond his control. Andersen penned some of today’s most popular tales – like The Red Shoes and The Little Mermaid and so I think it makes sense to start asking questions about Andersen himself. What was the man like, and how did his life affect the stories that have been told to countless children? What lessons are these children getting from these stories anyway?
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, Andersen was a pretty dependent character, most of his life centered around gaining the approval of his patrons, the Collinses, who never let him forget that he was beneath them. This sadly turned Andersen into a rather timid figure, as the German poet Heinrich Heine noted:
He seemed to me like a tailor. This is the way he really looks. He is a haggard man with a hollow, sunken face, and his demeanor betrays an anxious, devout type of behavior which kings love. This is the reason why they give Andersen such a brilliant reception. He is the perfect representation of all poets, just the way kings want them to be.
Heine’s legendary wit and talent for exaggeration notwithstanding, Andersen was a pretty subservient character, though that by no means necessitates that he played the part gladly. In a biography of Andersen from the Hans Christian Andersen center, Johan de Mylius points out that Andersen lived his life constantly between two worlds: between Odense (his hometown) and Copenhagen, between Denmark and Europe, between high and low class. Andersen constantly felt torn between expressing himself as the artistic genius that he was and seeking acceptance from his patrons. This manifested itself in his fiction, sometimes blatantly so.
Take for example “This Fable Alludes to You,” which you can find the Signet Classics version of Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The story is super short: the narrator tells the reader that fables allude to people, but the content is always non-humanoid centric so that it will be easier for the reader to understand/recognize their follow. Except of course, Andersen doesn’t say “non-humanoid” because he is not a character from Star Trek.
The narrator then relates a story about a dog rummaging for food between two mountains. He hears a trumpet call from one mountain and runs up it, thinking to find food. Then he hears a trumpet from the other mountain and – thinking it will be easier to get food there – runs back down the mountain and starts up the other. This gets repeated until evening, and in the end the dog has no dinner at all.
You can see where this is going, right?
Andersen often inserted himself into his tales, whether as the Little Mermaid who could never be with the one she loved, or as a dog caught between two possibilities for meals (acceptance), and getting nothing in the end.
Which brings me to another point; Andersen’s fairy tales are not folktales from the people. Though is true that he often based his stories off of pre-existing folkstories, he also used literary sources for his work; “The Little Mermaid,” for example, can be partly traced back to Czech legends about a “Rusalka,” a water being in love with a Prince, as well as to Fouque’s romance “Undine.” Sometimes Andersen made up fairy tales right out of his head, like “The Little Match Girl.” I mention this specifically because some have turned to Andersen’s tales to tell them something about the human spirit in general – which, I might add, isn’t something one should necessarily do with authentic folklore either – when in reality they tell us far more about Andersen than they do about the people of Denmark, Europe, or the world. I also mention this because people can lose sight of what a genius Andersen is; he did not steal his stories from the mouth of the people, but rather created them out of his own mind. Andersen was an immensely gifted writer, who not only wrote fairy tales, but also plays, travelogues, and (three!) autobiographies.
What does this mean for the children reading Andersen? Should Andersen’s stories be read to children? An absolute “yes” or “no” is impossible. Many people – myself included – read Andersen as a child without turning into an awkward, bowing and scraping person with a serious inferiority complex. Andersen is great…in moderation, and in the company of a variety of other fairy stories.
But Jack Zipes (all hail the Zipes!) is quite right to point out the dangers inherent in Andersen’s prose. Says Zipes:
All his tales make explicit or implicit reference to a miraculous Christian power which rules firmly but justly over His subjects. Such patriarchal power would appear to represent a feudal organization but the dominant value system represented by providential action and the plots of the tales is thoroughly bourgeois and justifies essentialist notions of aptitude and disposition. Just as aristocratic power was being transformed in Denmark, so Andersen reflected upon the meaning of such transformation in his tales. – Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion, page 80
Yet Zipes’ reading of Andersen is more complex than just saying that Andersen’s discourse of domination is problematic. It *may* be possible to use Andersen’s tales subversively, and to develop readings of them that give power to those dominated socially. Does this constitute using a fairy tale for one’s own purposes, developing readings of it that can be empowering despite everything: the tale, its history, and even its author? Can we turn “The Little Mermaid” around and make that tragic figure – who at the end of the story gives up her life and is doomed to 300 years of limbo – into an empowering character?
I’m ambivalent about this, actually. I’ll admit that when I read Andersen, I get scared; there’s just too much domination going on. In general, I do think that there are subversive elements in classical fairy tales; subversive narratives are all over the places in the Brothers Grimm, who write stories about peasants outwitting kings. They may very well be there in Andersen, too, though Zipes point out that when Andersen does question authority, “he rarely suggests alternatives or rebellion” (page 94). Stories like “The Snow Queen” showcase the triumph of the little over the powerful, but what does the post-Snow Queen future look like for the children? Revolutionary and transformed, or the stuck in tired social patterns?
Obviously I don’t have answers to these questions, despite having spilled a good deal of digital ink over them. HCA is a difficult, brilliant dude, and I guess that means that we’ll have to find some way to make his tales work for us, since they sure as heck aren’t going away. Whether that means rewriting them or reinterpreting them or re-educating our children about them. In any case, we’ll be reading about Andersen’s princesses and Snow Queens for many, many years to come.
What other authors can you think of who have interesting backstories and/or problematic tales? Drop us a line in the comments, and we’ll see if we can profile them on the blog!