The BS column: Hans Christian Andersen

(This column first published in Business Standard: Speaking Volumes, March 29, 2005)

This was a bread-and-butter piece, but writing it was…weird. I’ve had malaria for the last two weeks, and spent the week before I wrote this in bed with Andersen’s fairy tales. Let’s just say that delirium isn’t helped along much when you’re dreaming of giant dogs with eyes the size of teacups and mermaids with bloody footprints. Had fever when I sat down to write this; remember flexing my fingers over the keyboard, remember getting back into bed and going off to sleep, and remember absolutely nothing in between. If you hate the column, don’t blame me, go shoot a mosquito.

In the two centuries that have passed since Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, his fairy tales have endured the demands of time. They have been prettified and Disneyfied, like The Little Mermaid , leached of some of their darkness and terror in order to be made more palatable to an audience accustomed only to cartoon evil.

They’ve been used as corporate fables or re-interpreted by the likes of Clarissa Pinkola Estes as primers for women who run with the wolves. Some stories have entered the English language, though they were originally written in Danish: Jassi still undergoes a transformation from ugly duckling to swan, emperors are even now revealed to have no clothes. Some have lost ground over the years, like The Tale of Little Tuk ; some, like The Snow Queen , peaked in popularity over a century ago and are now less told. Some, like Thumbelina and The Ugly Duckling , have become so much part of the corpus of fairy tales that it comes as a slight shock to think that the story was invented, rather than part of the general body of folk tales.

In the menagerie of creatures Hans Christian Andersen brought to life, from the dogs with eyes like saucers and the brave little tin soldier with one leg or the strange undersea witch, he was perhaps the oddest inmate. From his portraits it appears that he cut a strange figure—gawky and awkward at over six feet, “with a face as pale as blessed Werther,/ And a nose as big as a cannon,/ And eyes as tiny as small green peas”, as he wrote of himself mockingly in a poem. As a boy, he had survived great hardship and much mockery. He was born in Odense and his early years were marked by poverty: his father was a shoemaker with pretensions to a better lineage, who died when Hans was barely eleven, and his mother was an uneducated seamstress.

But they passed on to him a love of stories. He heard folk tales and women’s stories from the poor women of Odense at the workhouse; his father may have had no more than a one-room house, but he filled it with books and read to his son from Shakespeare’s and Holberg’s plays and from A Thousand and One Nights. Andersen’s mother may have been illiterate, but she, too, told him all the stories she remembered—chiefly tales from myth and legend and more homely local folk stories. After his father’s death, he was allowed to stay at home for a while; he became known for his puppet theatre, his remarkable memory and his love of telling stories.

The full extent of his imagination would only become clear in later years: one scholar estimates that out of the hundreds of fairy tales he wrote, only 12 were based on extant folk tales—everything else came out of Andersen’s mind. Unlike earlier exponents of fairy tales, such as the Brother Grimm or Charles Perrault or even the writers of the Panchatantra and the Jataka tales, Andersen’s technique didn’t depend on rewriting or updating old material. Unlike some later writers, such as Oscar Wilde, Andersen’s fairy tales have lasted beyond his time and have passed into popular mythology: the ugly duckling belongs on the same shelf as the wolf in Red Riding Hood in a way that Wilde’s selfish giant doesn’t.

But the fairy tales that made Andersen famous and that are being celebrated this week, in commemoration of his birth anniversary, were not what he had intended to build his life upon. He wrote according to one calculation over half-a-million words during his lifetime, adding to a history of peculiar and persistent failures. He meant to be an actor but his looks and his shyness went against him. He fell in love, with men on several occasions, women on at least three, but this was never reciprocated. He never married, and by his own account, nor did he ever have more than a Platonic relationship with any of his objects of adoration. He earned early success as a travel writer, with a fantastical account of a journey, and his first novel was praised as much as it was attacked. It seemed, in the period between the 1820s and the 1840s, that Hans Christian Andersen would make a career as an acclaimed literary writer after all.

But then the setbacks began to accumulate. The career he had dreamed of in the theatre failed to materialise; his plays were not successes. The fairy tales that had received a lukewarm welcome when they had first been published began to be in demand through the 1840s; three decades later, Andersen was still, if increasingly reluctantly, adding to the corpus. He did not take them seriously himself, and it must have been uncomfortable to realise that this was what readers now wanted from him, not the novels that he was anyway struggling to write. He had written many of them for children; as with many other authors, the best side of his character showed with them.

He drew and illustrated his stories for children; he created cunningly constructed papercuts that unfolded to reveal hidden mysteries; he even made entire books of drawings and papercuts for some of his younger friends. With children, he could let go of the insecurities and unpleasantnesses of character that led Charles Dickens, who met him, to cariacature him as Uriah Heep. He could share with them the secret of his life: “He beheld his own image, and it was no longer the reflection of a clumsy, dirty, gray bird, ugly and offensive. He himself was a swan! Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg.”

This year will be full of tributes to Hans Christian Andersen, from Tina Turner concerts to symphonic performances of fairy tales, readings and the rest. I’m reminded, however, of the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park, that has a bronze version of the author seated on a park bench. Children are encouraged to clamber all over it; the duck at his feet and the open book on his lap are supposed to be favourite perches for the young. The best tribute to Andersen this year might be to go back to his stories and rediscover them as he told them, from the sorrowful tale of the Nightingale who sang her heart out to the Little Match Girl lighting inadequate fires, to the Ugly Duckling who found his happiness eventually.

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