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Hans Christian Andersen and His Fairy Tales
by Melvin Burgess
 
Melvin Burgess is a British writer of acclaimed and often controversial children's fiction. He is author of Junk (1996) which won the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize, Lady: My Life As A Bitch (2001) and most recently his controversial novel for teenagers, Doing It (2003).


When I think of Hans Christian Andersen, the story that comes first to mind is The Snow Queen, followed perhaps by The Little Match Girl. But these are by no means his most well-loved or popular stories. Those would be (in highly selective order of importance) The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor's New Clothes, and The Princess on the Pea. I might also add The Tinder Box, but I think that's just me. There's something about those dogs with eyes as big as saucers and mill wheels that stuck very early on. And perhaps The Little Mermaid, which has certainly been well known for years, but I'd be concerned that it would be courtesy of Uncle Walt.

The point is, we all know these stories, they came into us almost with mother's milk, but there is a sense in which they have become so much a part of our consciousness, that it is as if they no longer have an author. I've never been surprised that they were written by Andersen, but if someone had told me they were written by the Brothers Grimm, or Aesop, or emerged anonymously sometime in the 16th century, I wouldn't have been in the least surprised. This quality, of producing stories that become so much a part of us that we can quote them without a thought for the writer, as if they grew up with us, is the rarest of all. Even Shakespeare, who seems to rule the roost in so many ways, or Dickens, have never escaped their names; their stories are decidedly Shakespearean or Dickensian. Andersen stories are not Andersenian, but there they are in our minds, more clear and doubtless more longer lasting than Pickwick, Oliver Twist and Fagin, or Hamlet, Macbeth and Sir Toby Belch. Along with the Billy Goats Gruff, Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, they are part of us all forever.

Hans wrote traditional tales. I get the feeling that they felt traditional, that they'd been around forever as soon as he did them. And in one sense, they had. At this point in his career Andersen was adapting folk stories. Unlike the Grimm brothers, he was more than a collector, he was a writer. And like Shakespeare, (and Andy Warhol, come to that), he had genius for choosing what to begin with, which he was able to use in a way that combined ancient and modern.

I find fairy tales one of the most difficult written forms to think about. One reason is that we come across them so early in our lives, before we've developed the facility to consider our likes and dislikes. Andersen's tales are among the very earliest that most of us come across, but I don't think that's all there is to it. Myths, legends, and their little brother folk tales are among the simplest of stories. Elements like character are almost non-existent. They are peopled by beings who only exist for the story. It would be a mistake to call them pure narrative—they can be told well or badly after all—but it is the narrative that becomes embedded in our minds. Like a quote or a classical reference, they seem to sum up a situation so well that they become the statement of it for the rest of our lives.

Andersen's ability to do this is masked by the fact that his stories feel as if they've been there forever—his very gift renders him peculiarly anonymous. It seems to me that no one since has been able to do this as well. Oscar Wilde did a few fairy tales which are certainly very pretty and often very sad—new editions of them are brought out regularly. We live in a period when stories for young children are turned out by the thousand—picture books are big business, there are some great talents working in that area. But no one has managed to do what he did, and turned out stories that have become a part of our national consciousness.

What was it that enabled him to do this? There's probably no real answer to that one, but unlike that other great fable writer, Aesop, we do know a lot about his life. Andersen was born and brought up in poverty in rural Denmark with a great urge to go and seek his fortune—he was off to Copenhagen at the age of fourteen, rather like the hero of a folk tale himself. At that time and in that place, traditional tales and legends were still commonplace—his mother, although a Christian, inhabited a world that still had its feet in the old pagan beliefs and believed in trolls and fairies and so on. On the back of the Brothers Grimm, who published their own work when he was seven, Hans was able to bring to intellectual Europe a great store of fables and stories that were shortly to die out. There is some evidence that he wrote his little tales in an autobiographical way, using them to illustrate his own life with its very modern conflicts and problems and it may well be this that enabled him to go one better than the Grimms and other collectors, to make the form his own and start inventing his own fables. That collaboration between the dying world of folk tales and his sometimes desperate climb up the modern literary ladder may have given him a unique opportunity which he took with both hands. He was the right man in the right place.

Folk tales contain a variety of different story types, and Andersen tried his hand at a great many of them. The ones that stick most in my mind are those tales from the nursery—The Ugly Duckling, what you might call an early road story, The Princess on the Pea, a fairy tale, and The Emperor's New Clothes, a pure fable. He was sucker for royalty, by all accounts, but the element that makes the Princess story work so well as a fairy story is its humour. Unlike the other two, the message and image here is not quite what it seems. I most often think of that one when dealing with an unduly fussy person. It calls to mind a phrase my father once used when the cats were both sick on the carpet—"These cats have stomachs like Duchesses!" It's also the brevity of these stories which makes them what they are. The longer stories—The Snow Queen for instance—didn't always work so well.

The Snow Queen—surely the inspiration for CS Lewis's Narnia—and The Little Mermaid, belong to a class of tales that didn't really sink into my imagination until I was older myself. The central story is so striking and memorable, but we you sit down to the read them, they drag. Strange stories, to be both boring and mesmerising, especially The Snow Queen, which is interminable in places. Why can I remember those adaptations from childhood on the TV so vividly, when I found them dull? Why do I remember the picture book of The Snow Queen, when I always get bored reading the wretched thing? I suspect, once again, that it is the essential narrative—the Snow Queen herself, the kidnap of Kai, the splinter of glass in the eye, which makes everything look ugly, and in the heart, which makes the person hard; and little Gerda wandering endlessly around looking for him. The telling of it, which goes on far too long often makes hard reading.

Foremost of the stories of this type—the heartbreakers—is The Little Match Girl—the inspiration for another children's writer; where else does Oscar Wilde's story of the Happy Prince come from? It's only a couple of pages long—a heart-breaking, almost heartless tale of misery, which is only ended with death and then the glories of heaven. Which brings us to another characteristic of Andersen, one that is much out of step with modern sensibilities—unhappy endings. So many of his stories end with death; a romantic death in the romantic tradition and a glorious ascent to Heaven, but death all the same. The little match girl, the steadfast tin soldier and his paper ballerina—the list goes on. Why was this? Was Andersen in love with death? Or did he so much believe in Heaven and the afterlife that he was actively looking forward to it? There's not much evidence for either of these—he was a practising Christian, but not a particularly active one. He was a true romantic, full of sentiment, something which he shared with his contemporary Charles Dickens. It seems to me, simply, that death works so well with what he was doing. A legend is always representative of something—vanity (The Emperor's New Clothes); misery with a pure heart (The Little Match Girl, The Little Mermaid). Death ends things with these qualities intact. The Tin Soldier is all the more steadfast if he's steadfast until death; the little Match Girl is pure innocence untrammelled if she dies in the snow. Unto death is as far as you can go.

Finally there are the stories of his final period, the least known, the most complex, the most modern and adult. This new collection introduced me to these stories for the first time, I have to admit, and while they are unlikely to become a part of our culture in the way that the earlier ones have, they have in some ways more to offer, for adults and children alike. I recommend The Shadow in particular. And as a final thought—I have a workshop in which I use fairy tales as the start of a film script. Why has no one so far used this story as the basis for a horror film? I can just see a really scary Japanese-style movie based on this one, and the remakes could go on forever.

Hans Christian Andersen
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