Andersen, Hans Christian 1805–1875

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Hans Christian Andersen


(Also wrote under the pseudonym Villiam Christian Walter) Danish novelist, travel writer, autobiographer, playwright, poet, folklorist, editor, and author of fairy tales.

The following entry presents an overview of Andersen's career through 2005. For further information on his life and works, see CLR, Volume 6.


Although he wrote in many literary genres, including novels, poems, plays, and travelogues, Andersen will forever be remembered as one of the foremost writers of fairy tales in the history of world literature. Known for such stories as "The Little Mermaid," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "The Ugly Duckling," he expanded the scope of the fairy tale genre by creating original stories drawn from a wealth of classic folklore, imagination, and his own personal experiences. In all, Andersen composed more than 150 fairy tales, primarily between 1835 and 1874, publishing his stories in various collected volumes, such as Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (1835) and Danish Fairy Legends and Tales (1846). His works revitalized and expanded the fairy tale genre—which had previously been dependent on the oral tradition—by merging the traditional folk tale with the more sophisticated literary tale. To this end, Andersen utilized the simple premise and structure of the fairy tale to transform his own theories regarding human nature into allegories, written in a conversational language that young audiences can both understand and enjoy.


Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, in the small town of Odense, Denmark. His father, a shoemaker, was an avid reader who encouraged his son's intellectual and creative aspirations by exposing him to works of Danish folklore, the comedies of Ludvig Holberg, The Arabian Nights, and the fairy tales of Jean de la Fontaine. The elder Andersen also built a marionette theatre for his son, allowing Andersen to write and perform his own original plays. In 1819, three years after his father's death, he moved to Copenhagen to pursue an acting career. While Andersen did not succeed as an actor, Jonas Collin, a director of the Royal Theater, was impressed by Andersen's promise as a writer. He arranged for Andersen to obtain some basic schooling, including instruction at elite private schools, and by the late 1820s, Andersen had passed the entrance exams for the University of Copenhagen. In the meantime, Collin had become a sort of surrogate father to Andersen, opening his home to the young man. Eventually, Andersen secured work at the Royal Theater, appearing as an actor in minor roles and translating French plays. In 1829 Andersen's first original play was performed at the Royal Theater—the farcical Kjœrlighed paa Nicolai Taarn, elle Hvad siger Parterret. That same year witnessed the publication of Andersen's mock travel book, Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Amager i Aarene 1828 og 1829, which describes an imaginary walk through Copenhagen. However, Andersen's first true literary success came after his extended trip to Italy in 1833, which inspired his well received novel Improvisatoren: Original Roman i to Dele (1835; The Improvisatore; or, Life in Italy). Many scholars have contended that the trip marked a rebirth for Andersen, who subsequently turned from composing poetry to writing prose and fairy tales. Andersen began compiling his first volume of fairy tales, Eventyr, fortalte for Børn, during his stay in Italy. Although he had originally intended the fairy tales for both adult and juvenile audiences, he amended the title to "tales for children" after critics faulted the simplistic dialogue and style of the stories. Several of his early works were adaptations of traditional folk tales, but Andersen eventually concentrated on producing original fairy tales—all but a dozen of his 156 fairy tales are original creations. By 1837, due to the international popularity of his novels and fairy tales, Andersen was granted an annual stipend from the Danish government which funded the author's living expenses for the rest of his life. Andersen died in 1875 near Copenhagen, though his legacy as a landmark figure in world literature continues to thrive. In 2005 Denmark held a year-long festival to celebrate the bicentenary of Andersen's birth, acknowledging Andersen as the country's national author.


The fairy tales most familiar to English-speaking readers are Andersen's early tales, written between 1835 and 1850. These include such stories as "The Princess and the Pea" (1835), "Thumbelina" (1835), "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837), "The Little Mermaid" (1837), "The Snow Queen" (1844), "The Bell" (1845), "The Little Match Girl" (1845), and "The Shadow" (1847), among others. Although some of his tales end on a positive note, Andersen often deviated from the traditional "happily ever after" conclusion of most fairy tales; death, for example, is the primary motif in more than three-quarters of his tales. Andersen's fairy tales fall into two general categories: adaptations of traditional Danish folktales and original creations. In his adaptations, Andersen frequently integrated plots from more than one source. "The Tinder Box," for example, is based on a combination of an old Danish tale, "The Spirit of the Candle," and an episode from the Arabian Nights. Andersen himself divided his original tales into two distinct classes: eventyr and historier. The eventyr are fairy tales in which a supernatural element contributes to the outcome of the narrative. "The Little Mermaid," for example, is set in a kingdom beneath the sea and tells the story of a mermaid who drinks a magical potion brewed by a sea-witch in hopes that she will be metamorphosed into a human. Andersen's historier are stories that do not employ a supernatural element. Frequently, the historier starkly portray poverty or suffering, leaving readers disturbed when good is not necessarily rewarded at the story's conclusion. The historier also often reveal their author's strong moralistic and religious attitudes: Andersen had a fervent faith in God and perceived death as a reward for a difficult life. This perception is perhaps most vividly portrayed in "The Little Match Girl," a grim story in which an impoverished child dies from exposure on Christmas Eve when no one will buy her matches. The child is finally freed from her suffering when her deceased grandmother arrives to lead her to Heaven. Although many of Andersen's historier and fairy tales end unhappily, most critics concur that the underlying attitude in his stories is ultimately positive. Andersen often offers an optimistic approach to otherwise distressing situations and invests many of his tales with a mischievous sense of humor. Of all his stories, Andersen's semiautobiographical sketches are considered his most enduring. Stories like "The Little Mermaid," "The Nightingale," and "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" reflect, in part, Andersen's own unrequited love affairs in varying degrees of melancholy and satire. "The Ugly Duckling," the story of a homely cygnet who becomes the most beautiful of all swans, is probably Andersen's best-loved and most popular work of this type.


During his lifetime, Andersen was celebrated for his original fairy tales not only in Denmark, but also throughout Europe and beyond. Critical assessment of Andersen's literary legacy has continued to be largely focused on his fairy tales, with some critics arguing that the popularity of his tales—along with the perception of Andersen as primarily a children's author—have overshadowed his other literary accomplishments. However, several scholars have noted that this disparity only speaks to the universality of Andersen's themes in his fairy and folk tales. According to Sven H. Rossel, Andersen's "mythcreating imagination, which broke with all literary conventions, knew how to animate the inanimate. His acute power of observation and strong sense of reality endowed the most fantastic beings with realistic traits, forcing the reader to believe in them." However, many of Andersen's contemporaries disap-proved of his use of colloquialisms and originality of language, criticizing his inability to write in "proper Danish." The first published review of his Eventyr, fortalte for Børn declared that the tales were unfit for children. In recent years, one major trend in Andersen criticism has involved psychoanalytic studies seeking to draw connections between the suffering depicted in Andersen's stories and the troubles of Andersen's own life, including his various psychological problems and anxieties. Throughout his life, as biographers have recorded, Andersen was ashamed of his working-class background and, as such, they claim, was plagued by a sense of inferiority. Some have maintained that Andersen retold his own life story over and over again in his fairy tales—in such works as "The Ugly Duckling"—portraying himself as triumphing over evil, persecution, poverty, and scorn. There has also been interest among modern critics in Andersen's divided role as both an "insider" and "outsider" in the upper reaches of society. Believing that Andersen's tales reveal the author's desire to be accepted by the upper classes, Jack Zipes has argued that the tales also depict the humiliation, pain, and suffering that "dominated" members of society must endure in order to prove their virtuosity and nobility. Nevertheless, Andersen has been typically recognized as a consummate storyteller who distilled his vision of humanity into a simple format that appealed to audiences of all ages.


Fairy Tales: Original Editions

Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. 2 vols. (fairy tales) 1835
Eventyr, fortalte for Børn: Tredie Hefte (fairy tales) 1837
Eventyr, fortalte for Børn: Ny Samling. Første Hefte (fairy tales) 1838
Eventyr, fortalte for Børn: Ny Samling, Tredie Hefte (fairy tales) 1841
Nye Eventyr (fairy tales) 1843
Nye Eventyr: Anden Samling (fairy tales) 1844
Nye Eventyr: Tredie Samling (fairy tales) 1845
Nye Eventyr: Andet Bind, Første Samling (fairy tales) 1847
Nye Eventyr og Historier (fairy tales) 1858
Nye Eventyr og Historier: Anden Samling (fairy tales) 1858
Nye Eventyr og Historier: Anden Rœkke, Anden Samling (fairy tales) 1862
Nye Eventyr og Historier: Anden Rœkke, Fjerde Samling (fairy tales) 1866

Fairy Tales: English Editions

Danish Fairy Legends and Tales [translated by Caroline Peachy] (fairy tales) 1846
Wonderful Stories for Children [translated by Mary Howitt] (fairy tales) 1846
A Christmas Greeting to My English Friends [translated by Charles Beckwith Lohmeyer] (fairy tales) 1847
The Complete Andersen: All of the 168 Stories by Hans Christian Andersen. 6 vols. [translated by Jean Hersholt; illustrations by Fritz Kredel] (fairy tales) 1949
The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories [translated by Erik Christian Haugaard] (fairy tales) 1974
Fairy Tales [translated by Tiina Nunnally] (fairy tales) 2004

Other Major Works

Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Amager i Aarene 1828 og 1829 (travel writing) 1829
Improvisatoren: Original Roman i to Dele. 2 vols. [The Improvisatore; or, Life in Italy] (novel) 1835
Mulatten (play) 1840
Das Märchen meines Lebens ohne Dichtung [The True Story of My Life] (autobiography) 1847; also published as Mit eget Eventyr uden Digtning, 1942
Mit Livs Eventyr (autobiography) 1855
Da Spanierne var her (play) 1865
Breve til og fra H. C. Andersen. 3 vols. (correspondence) 1877–1878
Seven Poems [translated by R. P. Keigwin] (poetry) 1955
Brothers, Very Far Away and Other Poems [translated by Paula Hostrup-Jessen] (poetry) 1991


Gracia Fay Ellwood (essay date summer 1981)

SOURCE: Ellwood, Gracia Fay. "Andersen: Joy, Sorrow, and the Joke Proper." Mythlore 8, no. 2 (summer 1981): 23, 42.

[In the following essay, Ellwood offers a critical analysis of Andersen's novella-length fairy tales, The Snow Queen and The Marsh King's Daughter, comparing the title character of the The Snow Queen to a similar character in C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.]

Recently the Mydgard branch discussed Hans Christian Andersen's two novellas The Snow Queen and The Marsh King's Daughter. The sense of the meeting was that here are treasures that need to be dusted off and cherished anew. This column will therefore be a branch discussion report, so to speak. As it were.

Most of us had not read The Snow Queen for years, and had not heard of the other story at all before this; we were surprised by the density of the material. One luminous image after another appeared, more or less integrated in the story, exemplifying many basic motifs of Romance. Paradisal childhood innocence, capture-and-rescue, snow and ice as symbols of dehumanization, talking flowers and animals, the Wise Old Woman in her womblike hovel, the talisman, the warm, life-renewing tear, the ailing king and his languishing land, the Quest for the Grail-like marvelous object, the shapeshifting protagonist, the seizure of the maiden by the King of the Underworld, the dual-natured child of light and darkness, the life-giving sacrifice of the innocent, the return of the dead, the miraculous recovery of the king, the moment in paradise that takes up many decades on earth.

Another feature of Andersen that we had largely forgotten was his humor. Having long associated him with the sufferings of the ugly duckling, the little match girl, the little mermaid and others, we were surprised that these matters of grave import were often so cavalierly treated. The Marsh King's Daughter is told largely from the point of view of a pair of married storks, who discuss the ordeals and joys of the human protagonists amidst petty domestic carping and appreciative comments about mouth-watering Nile frogs.

One element in The Snow Queen that is bound to interest Lewis enthusiasts is of course its influence on the Narnian tales. The snow queen found her way nearly intact into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, even to the sleigh, the reindeer, and the seduction and imprisonment of the foolish little boy. The submerged sexual motif is more noticeable in Andersen's story, where Kay is kissed, by the Snow Queen, and although he is described as a child, he is confused not long afterwards with the young man who courts (and presumably marries) the clever Princess.

Andersen's icy queen differs from Lewis' in that the former is identified with rationality. As Kay is carried off in her sleigh he tries to pray, but finds that all he can remember is the multiplication tables. Later, in her arctic palace, she sets him to working out a cerebral puzzle. She is almost impersonal—she destroys by virtue of what she is, in contrast to Jadis, who is gratuitously cruel and a betrayer. And correspondingly, she is not destroyed at the climax; she is simply absent when Gerda comes for Kay. Rationality cannot be slain.

Lewis uses the image of cold and snow again in The Silver Chair, a quest to the North, and a sinister female figure who abducts a young man. He is saved by a young heroine, though the tone is rather different in that Jill shares the honors with Eustace and Puddleglum.

In contrast to most romances, and quite un-self-consciously, the author has made the central characters in these stories female. The Quest hero is a heroine who sets out into the wide world to save someone she loves. Gerda encounters one female figure after another, vivid and highly interesting, all of whom hinder or help her in various ways until she succeeds in rescuing Kay. In The Marsh King's Daughter, the Egyptian princess and her daughter with whom she shares the quest do encounter male figures to be reckoned with, principally the Marsh King, who carries off the princess, and the young priest, whom the daughter rescues and who later brings about her transformation through his sacrifice. Nonetheless it is the heroines who are the focus of attention, and who give new life to the king.

Walter Wangerin, Jr. (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Wangerin, Jr., Walter. "Hans Christian Andersen: Shaping the Child's Universe." In Reality and the Vision, edited by Philip Yancey, pp. 1-15. Dallas, Tex.: Word Publishing, 1990.

[In the following essay, Wangerin presents a personal reading of some of Andersen's best known fairy tales, utilizing his own memories and reminiscence to emphasize Andersen's recurring themes of redemption, forgiveness, and hope.]

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child. When I became a man I put away childish things, but the man I became was shaped in childhood, and that shape remains forever.

Fairy tales shaped me. I have since "put them away." That is, the adult is a mostly rational creature, aware that fairy tales are not "real" but are a fantasy, an entertaining escape from the problems of the real world. As a man, I make such tales an object of my attention and maintain an analytical control over them: I read them. I interpret them; they don't interpret me. I master the tales, placing them within my memory and my experience exactly where I wish them to be. Fairy tales dwell within the adult.

But as a child all full of wonder I approached the fairy tale as something real indeed. Children meet the problems of the world with their imaginations, and the fairy tale honors and feeds and abets the imagination. I accepted its invitation to enter in, and dwelt within the tale. As a child I never analyzed the tale I read; I felt it; I sank inside of it; I lived its experience through to the happy conclusion, thereby enacting the solutions of imagination.

The fairy tale was like a well-built house which I inhabited safe and strong and significant. The problems outside didn't vanish when I entered that house, but its walls protected me from immediate danger. More wonderfully, when I viewed those "real world" problems through the windows of the fairy tale, they shrank to proportions equal to my child's size and I discovered marvelous ways to triumph over them. I, by the art of the tale and by the power of my magic imagination, became a citizen and a survivor in an otherwise confusing universe—and sometimes, even, a hero.

Once upon a time my mother was the problem. She, the largest figure of the real world, was beautiful beyond my deserving, and I loved her. I, the oldest child of all her brood, would truly have died for her, could it assure her happiness. But things were not so simple in those days, and I despaired of solving the problem of my mother, until a tale revised my comprehension of the world and whispered to me the secret of mothers in general.

In the dark of the evening my mother would come to tuck me into bed. When she sat on the side of the bed, her weight would sink the mattress and roll me close to her. I felt the warmth of her body. I felt the coolness of her hand upon my forehead. I smelled the holy cloud of perfume that surrounded her. I heard her low voice, thick with the thrill of loving me, and I would nearly weep with the sweetness of the occasion. How often she murmured good night to me in those days; yet always the word was new and exquisite, because this was my beloved.

We prayed together. She wore a deep red lipstick. When we finished praying, she would bend down to me and kiss my cheek, leaving the sign of her lips in red. And then she might go out for the evening, but I could get up and run to the mirror and gaze at her love for me and carry the knowledge back to bed and fall asleep contented. Her lipstick smelled of roses.

In the morning I woke and went downstairs and sought my beloved again. How many mornings I did so, forgetting the problem which every morning I encountered!

She was in the kitchen, standing at the counter stuffing lunch bags. Her bathrobe was snagged and ratty; her hair was wild; but again and again I neglected these signs and swam in the love of the night before.

"Mom," I would say, expecting the beauty to turn and smile on me.

No answer.

"Mom? Mom?" I would repeat, prepared to say, I love you. How did you sleep? But when I touched her to get her attention, it was a different woman altogether who rounded upon me.

"Wally!" she yelled. "Where have you been? You're late!" Lashless eyes, a forehead white with anger, a mouth made stiff, an odor of soiled sheets. "Move it!" this woman would cry. "Where's your shirt? If you're not ready when I leave, you're walking to school. Go!"

If I stood in stunned wonder, this woman would grow more furious, grab my shoulder, snap me around, and push me from her.

Often I moved to my room in confusion and dressed myself slowly, injured by the injustice of it all. I could not fathom the transformation. Who was my mother now? What had happened during the night? Most important: what had I done to cause the change and to enrage her?

She meant her threat about walking. I sat with my socks in my hand, all lonely in the universe, until the car roared and beeped outside, and she and the other children drove away—and then my first feeling was panic, and the second was a bewildered guilt. I walked to school alone. I arrived there both solemn and silent, wounded by the real world, helpless to understand the problem that was my mother, let alone to solve it.

And as long as my mother was unsolvable, so was the whole world an impossibly complex and dangerous place. I didn't talk to my teacher. I withheld myself from the treacheries of friendship. I listened to everyone but spoke to no one.

One day the teacher read aloud a fairy tale whose fiction I entered, whose events I believed and experienced, whose view of the world resolved my own most troubled world—and (as a child, by the marvel of imagination) at last I understood my mother. I could love her again unhindered.

"Snow White " was the tale. It began with an image of simplicity and beauty, one perfectly congenial to my experience: a childless Queen sat and sewed at her castle window. It was snowing. The snow had drifted on the window sill, and the window itself was open to the evening air.

The poor Queen pricked her finger with the needle. Three drops of blood fell onto the snow. The loveliness of those drops, crimson in the white snow, moved the Queen to tears and to a prayer. "Oh, let me have a child," she prayed, "with lips as red as blood and cheeks as white as snow." It was absolutely certain that this Queen was godly and good, that she would love forever the child of her yearning and of her blood.

I recognized that Queen and gave her my immediate devotion. I knew, in fact, that if she breathed on me, her breath would be scented with roses. And when next she bore a baby, I was not surprised. I recognized that baby too.

But then the poor Queen died, and the tale struck out in strange directions. The King remarried, and a second mother appeared, as beautiful as the first, perhaps, but wicked and so self-absorbed that she talked to her face in the mirror. It was sad that the first mother died, but somehow not astonishing. What did astonish and horrify me was that the face in the mirror spoke back to the stepmother. Here was a woman divided into two parts. One part asked and the other part answered, each one independent of the other. This seemed unnatural, and it frightened me.

For a while the two parts were in harmony. "Mirror, mirror, on the wall," said the stepmother, "who is the fairest of them all?"

"You are," said her image, and she was happy.

But in time the baby developed, grew lovely, grew so beautiful, in fact, that she surpassed the beauty of the stepmother; and then the two parts of this woman were divided, for the child had come between.

"Who is the fairest of them all?"

"Well," the face in the mirror replied, "Snow White is." Snow White: the child of that other mother, the Queen, the good and godly one!

Oh, how the stepmother howled at that knowledge, torn asunder by the innocent sweetness of a child. A forehead white with anger, a mouth made stiff—I recognized that woman too. I had met her often in the mornings, in the kitchen; and now I understood (as a child understands these things) her changes and her rages.

This is the explanation which imagination could accept: that I had not one but two mothers, an original and a stepmother, a Mother of the Evening who disappeared not once but ever and again, and a Mother of the Morning who possessed a different nature indeed. What a relief this insight was for me! No longer was my mother's transformation my fault. It was a simple, sad fact of existence—but a reversible fact, since the good and godly mother could spring new every evening, just as I could reread Snow White whenever I wished.

Moreover, even when the loving mother was absent, she still continued to exist—in me! My being was the issue of her prayer, her yearning, her bright red blood, and all her purity. I was the abiding beauty of that mother, which was precisely why the stepmother couldn't stand me. Should I think evil of myself? No. As the graceful offspring of my better mother, my very existence reminded my stepmother of worth and the virtue that she lacked. Not some shame in me, but rather my very innocence enraged the stepmother. I could endure her without guilt, for her anger now became understandable to me. I, the Snow White of the story, had destroyed her self-absorption.

Thus did I peer at the "real world" through the windows of a fairy tale, and thus did I find a certain fantastic sense in all of it, and the sense preserved me. Truly, this explanation of the double mothers is more subtle than I thought it through in childhood. I merely lived it. And I knew on some functional level that Snow White was "just" a fairy tale, that I was engaged in serious pretense. But the comfort it afforded me was actual: I loved better, walked freer, was a better, healthier child on account of it.

The child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment has affirmed my private use of the fairy tale as something common to many children. He writes that the structure of the tale (which is narrative and dramatic, not analytic and intellectual) orders and organizes the overwhelming chaos which children experience. Children are influenced by the tale not because it rationally argues certain principles (scientific, moral, or spiritual), but rather because they identify with its characters and actually experience the events of the story, which mimic in imagination the difficult events of their own lives, but which also proceed to solutions that they on their own might never find.

If, therefore, I speak of the effect Hans Christian Andersen had upon my childhood, please understand that I am not slipping into a personal and irrelevant nostalgia. I'm describing deep influences upon my adulthood, the man and the writer and the Christian under heaven. For the story that shapes a child's universe also shapes the child—and by the child, the man thereafter. The memory of a burning fairy tale can govern behavior as truly as remembered fire will caution against fire forever.

This is how the tales of Hans Christian Andersen so mightily influenced me. They were my world for a while. They named and shaped the universe in which I dwelt, and something of that shape has remained forever: not the fantasy, but the faith that created the fantasy continues even now to explain existence. By his fairy tales Hans Andersen welcomed me to his bosom, and I delivered myself for safekeeping unto him. Those things which were horrible and senseless in my external world were, in Andersen's world, horrible still; but his stories gave them a sense (often a spiritual sense) which I could grasp, by which the horror might be mastered, if not by me then by someone, by goodness, by God.

When my father bought a thick, pictureless book containing all the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and began to read them to his children, he did me a kindness more profound than mere entertainment. He began to weave a world which genuinely acknowledged all the monsters in mine, as well as all the ridiculous situations and silly asides which I as a child found significant. Andersen was my whispering, laughing, wise companion when I most needed companionship.

Night after night my father would read a story in an articulate, baritone voice. Gently the voice invited me. Slowly I accepted the invitation and delivered myself to a wonderful world, and I looked around, and lo, it was confident with solutions, and I was a citizen of some authority and reputation. I was no longer alone, no longer helpless. Even my foolishness seemed canny here. I could, with the soldier and his tinderbox, marry the princess, become a king—or, with the Little Match Girl, enter heaven.

Hans Andersen's stories, though simple on the surface, contain a precise and tender perception of personal development. They are honest about the hard encounter with the "real world"—honest about evil and the tendency to evil in each of us. Andersen did not coddle me, the "me" who was revealed within his fairy tales. He didn't sweeten the bitter facts which I already knew regarding myself. But he offered me hope, for in his tales even when evil has been chosen, forgiveness may follow—therein lies extraordinary hope.

Never, never does Andersen compromise the truth of human experience for childish ears. He may tell it in outrageously fantastical terms. He may make trees to talk and darning needles to take trips, but they talk the truth, and their trips are desperately familiar to children traveling toward adulthood. In his tales, love and loneliness are equally genuine. For me his stories offered sanctuary, a sacred place to dwell in for a while, almost a temple of the observant and merciful God.

Bruno Bettelheim observes that,

The child is subject to desperate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and he often experiences mortal anxiety. More often than not, he is unable to express those feelings in words, or he can do so only by indirection: fear of the dark or of some animal, anxiety about his body. Parents tend to overlook … those spoken fears…. The fairy tale, by contrast, takes these existential anxieties and dilemmas very seriously and addresses itself directly to them: the need to be loved and the fear that one is thought worthless; the love of life, and the fear of death. Further, the fairy tale offers solutions in ways that the child can grasp on his level of understanding.

       (Enchantment [The Uses of Enchantment], p. 10)

Even so did Andersen's tales express what otherwise was mute within me. If I found my feelings in his stories, then I was neither crazy nor alone. Someone shared my woe; someone invited me to chuckle at it. Andersen gave me a frame for things intangible, bewildering, elemental, and urgent. Without apology he structured his world with things of spiritual value: the eternal consequences of actions good or evil, the judging and the benevolent presence of God, the effective reality of repentance, the marvelous power of divine forgiveness. These things surrounded me when I dwelt with him.

So, then, this is the way it is: Dad sits in a chair beside my bed, one lamp low at his shoulder, his pipe clamped between his teeth. Mostly the room, an attic with slanted ceilings, is in darkness. The wind will whistle in the eaves before my father is finished reading tonight. We live in the north and the weather is winter. All that is to the good, because I will ride that black night wind.

"Ready?" Dad asks.

I nod. I curl tight beneath the covers.

"Once upon a time," Dad reads, "there lived in a village two men who had the same name; they were both called Claus…."

"Little Claus and Big Claus ": this is the first of all the tales my father chooses to read to us. It's an astonishing beginning. There is violence here: horse-killings, grandmother-killings, old men sent to heaven, and a great rich fool apparently drowned. But the violence accords with nightmares of my own. And fantasies that I remember, otherwise secret and frightening, are here taken for granted. The spurts of childish rage which would blot out my enemies, but which I fear I can't control, appear here in the very order of things.

And the violence is funny! I listen and laugh till the tears run down my cheeks and my father laughs too. What is happening? Violence is being reduced to something manageable; and because I am the one laughing at it, scorning it, recognizing the blustering silliness of it, then I am larger than it, capable of triumphing over it. This story does not deny the monster in me or the cruelties of the general society. Rather, it empowers me.

As Dad reads my story, I identify with Little Claus. In contrast to the big and brutal Big Claus, I am poor and weak (though cleverer by half), hobbled by kindness while he is strong in amorality. In the beginning I have one horse and he has four. All week long he plows with all five, but on Sundays the team is mine. And because I am not sinless either, vanity makes me cry out: "Giddy-up, all my horses!"

This infuriates Big Claus. "Four of those horses are mine," he yells. "If you say that again, I'll knock your horse in the head, and then you will have none."

But I am not sinless. (This is a troubling and actual fact, both in my life and in this story—which makes, of course, the story true.) In spite of his threat, the passing of churchgoers stirs my vanity again, and I cry: "Giddy-up, all my horses!"

So Big Claus comes and knocks my only horse dead.

Big Claus is an overtly violent man—as I, Wally, am too, in my secret soul. Although I may not like it, I find myself identifying with the brutal big man as much as with the clever little man. Dad is reading my own story in two ways, through two separate characters. But here is the magic of Andersen: his story divides the two tendencies within me, so that the one might be exorcised without destroying the whole of me.

Bettelheim again:

In practically every fairy tale good and evil are given body in the form of some figures and their actions, as good and evil are omnipresent in life and the propensities for both are present in every man. It is this duality which poses the moral problem, and requires the struggle to solve it….

Presenting the polarities of character permits the child to comprehend easily the differences between the two, which he could not do as readily were the figures drawn more true to life…. Furthermore, a child's choices are based, not so much on right versus wrong, as on who arouses his sympathy and who his antipathy. The more simple and straightforward a good character, the easier it is for a child to identify with it and to reject the bad other.

                                        (pp. 8-10)

I like Little Claus. I want to be—I am—him. I dislike Big Claus. I sever myself from—and I am not—him, even though he represents a real iniquity in me. But within the story, by laughter and luck and cleverness (but call luck "grace"), I amputate this evil which I don't want to be.

And here is how I do it. I tan the hide of my murdered horse. I take it to market to sell it. On the way I have the "luck" to witness a farmer's wife involved in an impropriety with a Deacon while her husband is absent: she's feeding the Deacon a fine dinner in her kitchen.

Just before the farmer returns, she hides the dinner in the oven and the Deacon in an empty chest. I see all this, and then the good farmer invites me inside for food.

"I'm sorry, dear, we have no food," says the farmer's wife.

But I, who am cleverer by half than Deacons and wives and Big Claus too, step on the hide of my murdered horse. I make it squeak and interpret the squeaks as a prophecy that there is dinner ready-made in the oven. There is, and the farmer is amazed by my wonderful horse-hide. Moreover, I step on it again, and it squeaks again, declaring that there's a devil-Deacon in that chest. There is! So the farmer buys my horse's hide for a whole bushel of money and sends the Deacon-in-a-chest away with me. I'm so clever that I cannot quit this cleverness: when I come to a river, I pretend out loud that I'm going to toss the chest in. The Deacon roars and pleads and bargains, until I sell him his freedom for another bushel of money. I am rich.

And what do I do to the brutal Big Claus? Why, I use his stupidity and his greed against him. I borrow his measuring pail to measure all my money, then return it to him with a few coins stuck to the bottom.

"Where did you get all that money from?" cries Big Claus, his eyes popping out.

"Oh, that was for my horse hide. I sold it last night."

Immediately Big Claus hurries home and takes an ax and knocks all four of his horses in their heads. He skins them and runs to market to humiliate himself. Who would buy horse-hides for bushels of money?

And so my story goes: I trick Big Claus into knocking his poor grandmother in the head. Ah, me, but the man is dumb! And his nature is violent altogether! Finally, I trick Big Claus into jumping into the river himself in search of a herd of cattle at the bottom, and so I am rid of dumbness, greed, and brutality all at once.

Dad closes the book. He turns out the light and leaves. But I am flying the night wind, living still in a good, good story—"good" in that evil is overcome and suffers its due, in that the Old Adam need not forever be my master. I may be forgiven—and free. But I discover the truth in experience, laughing till the tears run down my cheeks, not in remote and intellectual lessons which my poor brain can scarcely translate into "real life."

Hans Andersen has persuaded me of optimism, a tough and abiding optimism, not the pollyanna sugar which merely sweetens the facts of evil and suffering, danger, and death. I would soon reject such optimism as fraudulent—even as a child I would. It would leave no print upon my personality. But Andersen's optimism both sees and redeems the evil. We travel through it, not around it, and I am impressed forever.

Many who read my writings today are inclined to call me "melancholy." They are wrong. Andersen's fantasies schooled me, rather, in realism. I know no resurrection except that first there's been a death. And as a writer, I cannot speak genuinely or deeply of resurrection except I speak the same of death and the sin that engendered death. That I can speak accurately of death without despairing is hardly melancholic. It is liberty—and victory ("O Death, where is thy sting?"). It is the evidence of the fundamental influence which Hans Christian Andersen had upon a child who did not analyze but lived such stories as "Little Claus and Big Claus. "

So night after night my father wreathes his head in pipe-smoke and reads to the whistle of the north wind, weaving for me experiences of genuine consolation. The number of these stories seems endless (in fact, there are 156), and that is important, for they seem to last a lifetime. As long as I need them, they are here, ever the same and ever new—exactly as are the daily encounters of my life.

I cannot run. I am short, hampered by big buttocks, hunched with a miserable miscoordination, generally inferior in the contests of children—as I say, unable to run. But in the track-meets of the fifth grade, they make me run the hundred-yard dash. It causes me a vomitus anxiety. I have nightmares of running under water. My dreams are not untrue, for when the starting gun goes off, I stumble and am the last to leave the line; slowly, slowly I suffer my way to the end of the race, and when I arrive people have departed to run in other races. I am humiliated. Ellery Yurchuck cries out, "He walks like a girl!" I do. I burn with shame. Mary Enderby slaps my cheek. Only when school is out and I am staring in the mirror of my bathroom do I realize that she had drawn lipstick lips on the palm of her hand, and that a mocking kiss has clung to my cheek the whole day through. And I cannot do what other children do so thoughtlessly. I cannot run.

But Dad, in the nighttime, reads of a duckling more ugly than others, and I curl tight under the covers and listen with unspeakable sympathy for that duck.

"I know, I know," I murmur.

Soon, I am one of the ducklings.

The ugliness alone—not wickedness, not cruelty, not any error on our part—brings shame upon us, the ugly duckling and me. Other ducklings are cute, in the image of our mother. But we were hatched from a larger, vagrant egg—an odd beginning, producing an odd shape. Therefore, we are pecked and pushed and scorned. Our wonderful mother defends us; but we only feel pity for her that she should so unjustly suffer for our own troubles, which are not hers, after all, since she is a beautiful duck. Merely that she loves us is cause for pain. Oh, it is so complicated to be ugly!

She tries to comfort us by saying, "That is the way of the world," meaning that there shall be misery on earth. It doesn't comfort us.

For our own sakes she also says, "I wish you were far away"—from pain and teasing, she means. But we take her literally. We run away to other barnyards, never to see her again.

On our own we discover "the way of the world." It includes the death of the few who befriend us: hunters kill two kindly wild ganders. It includes a sneering judgment against all the things we cannot do: can't lay eggs like chickens, can't arch our backs like cats and make sparks. Do, do, do, cries society; but we can do nothing it likes and therefore are the uglier: can't by taking thought save ourselves or add one cubit to our height.

It is utterly natural that in the end we wish to die. Sorrow drives us to such extremities, even though we are but a child and a duckling.

In the dead of a dreary winter we notice three swans moving in absolute elegance, nobility, and beauty. Surely, they too will despise our ugliness, and their spite will be as intense as their distant beauty. Surely, then, they will kill us. In fact, we desire to die by beauty rather than by any other means. It seems right. We honor the beautiful. We think to ourselves, It is better to be killed by them than to be bitten by the other ducks.

But here appears the outrageous grace that we never anticipated: all along, while we were ugly indeed, another mercy was working within us, uncaused by us but given to us purely as a gift. What was this mercy? What sort of gift is given now to us? Why, it is we ourselves, transfigured!

"Kill me," whispered the poor creature, and bent his head humbly while he waited for his death. So goes the story, and thus do we deny ourselves, surrender ourselves completely. "Humbly …" writes Andersen. "Humbly," my father reads, and I more than hear it; I experience it: I feel fully such humility in my heart. I am the one who cannot run. But what does such humility reveal to me?

In Andersen's words: "But what was that he saw in the water? It was his own reflection; and he was no longer an awkward, clumsy, gray bird, so ungainly and so ugly. He was a swan! It does not matter that one is born in the henyard as long as one has lain in a swan's egg." And Andersen goes on to name the goodness that has existed in all our sorrow, the duckling's and mine. Andersen names the grace upon grace that we have received, and the graciousness that we shall show hereafter (which neither the chickens nor Ellery Yurchuck may ever be able to understand or to show): "He was thankful that he had known so much want, and gone through so much suffering, for it made him appreciate his present happiness and loveliness of everything about him all the more…. Everyone agreed that the new swan was the most beautiful of them all. The older swans bowed toward him."

But does sinful pride or vengeance then rear up in him, or in me? No, and that is much the point: for the suffering transfigures us even to the soul. Humility showed us our new selves; humility remains in our hearts to keep these selves both beautiful and virtuous: "He felt so shy that he hid his head beneath his wing. He was too happy, but not proud, for a kind heart can never be proud."

So then, there is hope—not only that there may emerge from my ugly self a beauty, but also that the suffering which my ugliness has caused is ultimately valuable, making my beautiful self also a good and sympathetic self. In the end I shall love the world the more; and even the people who once did me dishonor, I shall honor.

Can any child receive a better impress on his person, a subtler, more spiritual shape than this, that he be taught grace and to be gracious? And what is more fortified than the self-esteem that comes as a gift from God?

Night after night my father reads the stories from a thick book with pastel-colored pages, pink and blue and yellow. The book goes soft with so much reading. Night after night I live the adventures that order my turbulent days and shape my waking self, my instincts, my faith, my adulthood to come. Optimism grows in me, and hope in the midst of suffering, and this third thing, too, perhaps the most difficult thing of all: forgiveness for my own most self-centered and wretched sins. Not the doctrine of forgiveness. Not the concept. Forgiveness in fact, as a mold to my experience ever hereafter. Andersen's world is a dramatic enactment of theologies which the child simply cannot grasp in the abstract.

My father reads in a murmuring voice, so softly that the words resolve themselves into spaces and things around me. The north wind whistles at the eaves, an almost malevolent warning. This is a treacherous story. Everything is full of foreboding. The curtains stir at the attic window. Shadows twist in the corners. I would not listen if I did not trust the kinder heart of the story-teller. This story has a harmless title, but that's deceptive. The tale is frightening. It knows too well my secret faults and the evil imagination of the thoughts of my heart.

"This story," my father murmurs, the pipe gone dead beside him, "is called 'The Red Shoes.' "

A fatherless girl named Karen appears before me. She is not aware of me, but I am of her. I join her. We are one. And we are both very vain. We think that we are more than pretty: gorgeous. Our gorgeousness so consumes us that we grow hard to those around who love and serve us. On the other hand, we want everyone to notice how splendid we are; therefore, even at inappropriate times, we slip our little feet into a pair of patent leather shoes so red, so red, O Lord, that we shine!

This is how vain we are, and this is how the story begins: at the funeral of our mother we follow the coffin in red shoes. And we are noticed. A kindly old woman notices us. We think it's because of our red shoes and our gorgeousness, but it isn't. It is her love (of which we know nothing) that sees us; she is moved by the sight of a newly orphaned child. So by grace we are granted a second mother, for the old woman takes us in and raises us as her own.

Her eyes grow dim. Ours stay sharp for red adornments. When the time of our confirmation arrives, and when we must buy shoes for the holy occasion, the old woman thinks we've bought black, but it is red we carry home, and it is red we wear to church. Everyone notices our bright red feet. Even the paintings on the wall and the bishop who blesses us stare at our feet. We are so proud! Our mind is scarcely on the words of our "covenant with God to be a good Christian." We are thinking of red shoes.

The old woman learns from others the error of our ways. She scolds us and warns us how improper are red shoes in church. But on the very next Sunday, when we will attend Holy Communion, we can't help ourselves. The red shoes cry out to us, and we put them on.

Just before we enter church an ancient figure steps into our path and stops us. We might be frightened if we would heed him, but we don't. He speaks directly to the shoes. "What pretty dancing shoes!" he says. "Remember to stay on her feet for the dance," he says. But we can think of nothing except the shoes themselves. Even when the golden cup of communion is raised to our lips, we see nothing but the shoes, as though they were reflected in the wine.

And then it happens that the old woman, our second mother, grows sick as our first mother had. Once we were ignorant of the world, of the laws of God, and of our own wicked tendencies. But now we have been taught and scolded and warned. This time we ought to know better. Nevertheless, we do again exactly what we have done before.

On the very night when the doctors say that the old woman is dying, we contemplate the red shoes, the alluring red shoes, the bright red shoes so perfect for our gorgeousness. There is a dance tonight. Looking leads to touching, and touching leads to donning; and as soon as the shoes are on our feet, we have to go. We leave the dying woman behind and steal away to dance. And we do dance. We laugh and whirl and dance the whole night through; for once we have begun, we cannot stop. It is the shoes that are dancing now. The red shoes! Dancing and dancing wherever they wish, taking us with them, down the stairs and out the door. And while they are dancing, the old woman dies….

I know this only too well.

For I have divided my mother into two; and I have dealt with her as though she were only a stepmother, nothing to me. Me! I was then the center and significance of all my life. My mother the dim-eyed old woman, my mother the stepmother, who unjustly (so it seemed to me) punished me for many things, could easily be dismissed, all her wishes, all her scoldings and her disciplines, all her self! I have run out to play when (if I had thought about it) I knew she didn't want me to go. I have stayed gone too long, causing her (if I had stopped to consider it) anguish at my absence. And when she confronted me with my fault, I have whistled. I have presented her with a blank face and have whistled stupid tunes to prove I wasn't listening. I have reduced her, once or twice, to tears at my cold impertinence. Oh, I have made my mother cry, and she has gone into her bedroom and shut the door and grieved in a deep frustration—and I knew I did that by my stubbornness. Then I was burned by guilt to hear her hurt. She was ill in her bedroom, dying. She said so: Dying. "I am sick to death of your disobedience," she said. O Mama! Never again! I have vowed this in my heart: Never again! But always my demons have been too powerful for me, and I have done it again in spite of every resolution. I am Karen, surrendering to sin until my sin has taken me over completely—and even when I want to stop, I cannot. Even when my heart desires goodness, it has it not. Dancing and dancing, our shoes have taken us into the street. Oh, wretched children that we are! Is there no help for us, who cannot help ourselves?

We dance toward the church. Maybe there is help for us in church. But at the door an angel appears dressed in white, holding a shining sword.

"You shall dance," he declares, "dance in your red shoes until you become pale and thin. When you pass a house where proud and vain children live, there you shall knock on the door so that they will see you and fear your fate. Dance, you shall dance. Dance!"

"Mercy!" scream Karen and I together. But we cannot hear what the angel answers, because the red shoes carry us away and away, always dancing.

Dance we must, and dance we do. The shoes have fastened to our feet like skin.

One morning in a lonely place we dance past a solitary cottage. The man who comes out when we cry is the Executioner. "I am the one," he says, "who cuts off the heads of evil men."

"No," we plead, "for then I should not be able to repent. But cut off our feet instead."

We confess our sins (isn't this enough?), and the Executioner cuts off our feet, and the red shoes go dancing away into the forest. For us the kindly Executioner carves wooden feet. He teaches us the psalm that penitent people sing. We kiss his hand and go.

Now have we suffered enough?

We go again to the church. Is this what it takes? That we are severed of our sin? Will ritual and formality receive us now? No, no, this isn't enough. For when we come to the door, the red shoes arrive ahead of us and dance and dance to block our way. In horror we flee. O God! The sins keep coming back! What can we do to be free?

All week long we weep on account of our sins. We are so sorry. We do repent. And by week's end we think, I'm as good as any who sit and pray in church right now. This gives us courage, and we go a third time. But at the gate of the churchyard the red shoes meet us, dancing, dancing, dancing, and we flee.

So now we despair. Nothing we do can save us. Not true sorrow, which we have done. Not true goodness, which we have done. Do this, do that—we've done it all, and still the shoes, they mock us.

Therefore, let us live in misery till we die. We deserve no better.

We go to the minister's house and ask for work. In pity he takes us in, gives us his roof and food. The minister's wife, also in pity, gives us work, and we work very hard though hopelessly, for we know this changes nothing. Look: our feet are still wooden. In the evening the minister reads to his children from the Bible and we listen; but we make no great account of the listening, because we are wiser now and know this changes nothing.

On Sunday the minister's whole family goes to church. We are invited, too, but our eyes fill with tears. They go without us.

We take ourselves to a tiny room and there sit down to read a psalm-book. While we sit, the wind blows hither the music of the church organ. We hear it, and we weep. We lift our face and whisper simply: "O God, help me."

All at once the sunlight seems doubly bright in the room, and the angel of God is standing before us: in the tiny room of the minister's house, in the attic bedroom where my father is reading and the north wind whistles at the eaves. This is the very same angel who held a sword at the church's door—but now he holds a rose branch thick with flowers. He raises the branch and touches the ceiling above Karen and above my bed. The ceiling suddenly sails aloft, and where he touched it a golden star appears. He brushes the walls of my attic, and they widen. Lo, here is the church organ! All around me—even though this is my bedroom and my father is reading still—the congregation is sitting and holding their psalmbooks and singing. The church has come to us, to Karen and me! When the psalm is done, someone sees us and smiles and whispers, "It is good that you came, Karen." Good to see you, Wally.

And this is what Karen replies; so these are the words in my mouth, too, brilliant with significance: "This is the mercy of God."

Mercy! It never was what we might do that could save us. It never was our work, our penitence, our goodness that would forgive us and bring us back to God again. We can do nothing! It always was the pure love and mercy of God—God's doing, given us freely as a gift. When finally we quit trying, then God could take over. When we murmured in perfect helplessness the perfect truth of our relationship, "O God, help me," then God was no longer hindered by our spiritual pride. God was God, and not ourselves—and God was our God too.

Mercy. Mercy is the healing that had waited for us all along. Love. Pure, holy love, unpurchased, underserved.

When my father reads the final sentences of this story, I am crying. I am tingling. For I am not learning, but rather I am experiencing the highest truth of our faith. Not in doctrine, but in fact it is releasing me from the sins against my mother, even as it is imprinting me for adulthood, to show in what I speak, to shine through what I write forever.

But I don't know that yet. I'm just a child, reshaped and borne outside to ride the north wind warmly to a home I shall never, never forget:

"The great organ played," my father reads, his dear head bowed above a tattered book of stories, "and the voices of the children in the choir mingled sweetly with it. The clear, warm sunshine streamed through the window. The sunshine filled Karen's heart till it so swelled with peace and happiness that it broke. Her soul flew on a sunbeam up to God; and up there no one asked her about the red shoes."

In the deeps of my bones I know and believe in forgiveness, for I have lived it. By Andersen's stories I was shaped in it—and the shape remains, forever.

Works Cited

Getting Started with Andersen:

My references to Andersen's tales come from Hans Christian Andersen, The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, translated from the Danish by Erik Christian Haugaard, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1974. (This is not the book my father used. That has long since disappeared.)

I also recommend the foundational book on fairy tales by Bruno Bettelheim (from which my Bettelheim quotations are taken): The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1976.

Frank Hugus (essay date autumn 1999)

SOURCE: Hugus, Frank. "Hans Christian Andersen: The Storyteller as Social Critic." Scandinavian Review 87, no. 2 (autumn 1999): 29-35.

[In the following essay, Hugus argues that Andersen used his fairy tales to highlight the inequities of Danish society and the struggles of the lower class, commenting that, "throughout his works, [Andersen] expresses sympathy for the poor and scorn for the pompous."]

In the minds of most readers, the works of Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875) are not associated with social criticism. And yet, Andersen was acutely aware of the inequities of Danish society, having experienced most of them first-hand, and throughout his works, he expresses sympathy for the poor and scorn for the pompous.

From the earliest to the very last of his 156 tales, Andersen wove criticism of social conditions into his narrative. In "Metalsvinet" ("The Bronze Pig," 1840), for instance, he criticizes the cruelty that results from economic deprivation. "Den lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne" ("The Little Match Girl," 1845) indicts a society that lets its children starve to death in the freezing cold of New Year's Eve. "Alt paa sin rette Plads" ("Everything in its Right Place," 1852) demonstrates the corrupting influence of wealth and power. "Hun duede ikke" ("She Was No Good," 1854) takes to task the upper middle class's uncharitable treatment of the working poor. Longsuffering gardener Hansen of "Gartneren og Herskabet" ("The Gardener and His Master," 1871) is constantly put in his place by his overbearing master and mistress.

These and other tales show that if Andersen was not a firebrand revolutionary or adamant social reformer, he was from first to last the concerned observer who decried the shortcomings in Danish society and spoke out for the "little man."

The Kiss of the Ice Maiden

As paradigmatic of the mature Andersen's view on the individual's struggle with society's inequities, let us take the well known story from 1861, "lisjom-fruen" ("The Ice Maiden"). This tale, which at fifty pages is one of Andersen's longest, might at first seem to be a straightforward narrative of the young man from the ranks of the proletariat who strives for the love of a woman of the upper middle class, wins her hand against great odds, but then drowns tragically on the eve of their wedding. On another level, however, "lisjomfruen" reveals Andersen's criticism of a society in which it is virtually impossible to improve one's place.

Andersen makes clear from the outset that his protagonist Rudy is destined for failure. Not only has Rudy been born into the lower social stratum, he nearly dies in infancy when his mother and he fall into a glacial crevice in the mountains of his native Switzerland. With this "kiss" of death, the Ice Maiden, who personifies the inexorable forces of nature, has marked him as her own for the rest of his life. Rudy is thus under a double disadvantage: He is weighed down by his lower class origins and by the Ice Maiden's unwavering determination to possess him—or, put another way, Rudy carries within him the seeds of his own destruction.

From early in the story, negative prefigurations abound. When very young—Rudy is given an explicit warning by Ajola, the old dog: Things aren't evenly distributed in the world, either for dogs or for people. Ajola concludes his parable with the words: "I hope you make it into somebody's lap and ride around in a carriage. But we can't do these things by ourselves; I couldn't, either by barking or by yawning." And as Rudy enters adulthood, "society" makes its opinion known: "Rudy, was a good match, as they said, as long as he didn't look beyond his class." That he has always been perilously close to his downfall is made clear by his several physical brushes with the Ice Maiden herself. On two occasions Rudy has confronted her as a sensuous young woman in the snowy expanse of the Alps but has managed to escape.

Yet, Rudy's early years are crowned by success. He becomes an expert marksman and hunter, attributes which introduce him into the society of the wealthy miller whose daughter, Babette, Rudy loves. Before he will agree to their marriage, the miller sets a seemingly impossible condition: Rudy must bring him the young eagle that nests on the side of an inaccessible mountain crag. Rudy does so and gains permission to marry Babette. On the evening before their wedding, Rudy and Babette row out to an island in Lake Geneva. Their boat breaks loose, and Rudy swims into the deep water to retrieve it. It is at this point that the Ice Maiden kisses him for a third time and makes him hers forever.

Rudy is only one of a long list of Andersen's lower-class figures who die or are otherwise defeated in their conscious or unconscious striving to attain something higher in life. One can mention Jørgen of "En Historie fra Klitterne" ("A Story from the Dunes," 1859), the young sculptor in "Psychen" ("Psyche," 1861), Rasmus in "Hvad gamle Johanne fortalte" ("The Story Old Johanna Told," 1872), and the washer woman of "Hun duede ikke" ("She Was No Good"). Few, in fact, are the characters who manage to jump the social chasm and remain unscathed.

Over the course of his long life, Andersen had observed that only a few individuals—those who were exceptionally capable or exceptionally lucky, or both—could transcend the constraints of their origins, that the price paid by many who attempted this feat was severe, at times amounting to personal annihilation.

Social Criticism in Andersen's Novels

A different approach to social criticism is evident in Andersen's six novels, which are of course much less well known than the tales and stories. (With the exception of Lykke-Peer [Lucky Peer] none of the novels has been translated into English since the appearance of Mary Howitt's rather awkward translations of the mid-nineteenth century. Lucky Peer can be found in Jean Hersholt's The Complete Andersen, (1942–1949.) Social criticism, in greater or lesser portions, occurs in every one of these novels, from his first, Improvisatoren (The Improvisatore) written when he was barely thirty years of age in 1835), to his last, Lykke-Peer (Lucky Peer,) produced when the author was sixty-five years old in 1870).

Andersen's social criticism is particularly insistent in one novel, Kun en Spillemand (Only a Fiddler, 1837). In this novel, Andersen chronicles the social conditions in Denmark during the first third of the nineteenth century with an immediacy and clarity that must have impressed readers of his time as much as they impress those of us who continue to read them more than 150 years later. The larger format of the novel allowed Andersen to pen finely detailed and vividly realistic descriptions of poverty and despair.

The protagonist of Kun en Spillemand, Christian, like so many of Andersen's lower-class figures, struggles to lift himself out of his impoverished back-ground by means of his talent for playing the violin. Christian is not given the opportunity to polish his artistic talents and is relegated to living out his short life as a village fiddler. Much of the novel's social criticism revolves around Christian.

When innocent young Christian arrives in Copenhagen, for instance, he is taken by two sailors to a house of prostitution. Andersen describes this scene with every bit as much social realism as any European author of the mid 19th century:

… Then they entered some side streets,… and beautiful, fashionable ladies, dressed up as if they were going to a ball, sat in the open windows nodding politely and nicely as if they knew people. At the street corner sitting on the cold, dirty stone doorsteps was a deathly pale young woman dressed in rags. A half-naked little boy lay crying with his head in her lap. A sickly yellow infant nursed at her milkless breast. She leaned her head back and cursed, seeming not to notice the larger or the smaller of the children.

'She's sick!' cried Christian, "Shouldn't we tell one of the nice ladies!"

The sailors laughed and led him into a side street where the sound of flutes and violins was coming from a low, dark building.

Charles Dickens himself could hardly have painted a more compelling picture of misery and cruel indifference.

Christian is incapable of comprehending the sordid reality behind the glittering facade that society's various classes have erected around their exploitative activities. After he and the two sailors have left Steffen Kareth's bordello, for example, Christian inexplicably continues to remain in his oblivious dream-world, in which the house of prostitution is like a castle and the prostitutes are like royalty:

The fairy tale about the farm boy who became emperor occurred to him. Oh, if that fashionable lady [the prostitute, Steffen Kareth] would take me under her wing, he hoped, then I could play the violin, sit with the other players, or become something even nicer….

This devastatingly ironic passage defines the character of Christian; tragically, Christian's character does not evolve, and he remains credulous and susceptible throughout the novel.

In the end, Christian is overcome by his own deficiencies and almost imperceptibly slips out of existence. By this time, however, Christian has become a marginal figure, and the reader has shifted his attention to the novel's female protagonist, Naomi, whose origins are equally as lowly as Christian's and who has the additional disadvantage of being Jewish. Unlike Christian, however, Naomi has the inner strength to force her way up in the world. She does so by scorning convention and by following her physical passions. Yet, even though she attains an elevated social status that Christian could hardly have imagined by becoming the wife of a French marquis, Naomi is depicted in the novel's closing pages as tortured by the knowledge that her cynical husband could abandon her at any time, that the dark secrets of her proletarian origins and her checkered past could cause her precipitous fall from social grace.

As miserable as both Christian's demise and Naomi's psychological torments are, it is the fate of a minor character in Kun en Spillemand that is more starkly portrayed than the fates of either of the protagonists. I refer to the figure of the above-mentioned prostitute, Steffen Kareth, whose story is so grippingly recounted that, despite its brevity, its memory stays with the reader as emblematic of the inhumanity that permeates the underside of society. In a frantic attempt to break out of the prostitution that has trapped her for more than half her life, Steffen Kareth is reduced to begging for the respectability of marriage from one of the sailors who has exploited her; not surprisingly the sailor rejects her. Equally unsurprisingly, she commits suicide, drowning herself in the icy waters between the wharf and the small ship on which the unsuspecting Christian is a crew member. Yet it is not so much her suicide that Andersen chooses to emphasize; this desperate act is treated rather perfunctorily in fact. What concerns Andersen are the implacable social forces that entrap and destroy the Steffen Kareths of this world. This problem is of such moment that Andersen interrupts the narrative flow of the novel and addresses the reader directly:

If, eighteen years ago, you had seen the slender fourteen-year-old girl with the pure joy for life in her bright eyes, you would have thought of Semele. Yes, Semele expected Jupiter in all his majesty, and her lover arrived—but not as a sun that warms but as a fire that burns, and she became dust in his arms,…

But the Steffen Kareths are not all turned to ashes immediately, many linger on like the living dead:

These apparitions breathe the poisonous stench of the grave. Don't trust the healthy-looking rosiness on their cheeks; a death's head is painted there;… They are dead, but more horribly dead than our own dead. They buried the soul, but the body walks around like a ghost; like vampires they search for human blood to nourish themselves. That is why they cling fast to the drunken peasant, to the crudest farmhand, at whose sight even a man is disgusted. They are terribly unhappy spirits; but they don't descend into their graves at daybreak; oh no, then the dreams of despair arrive and sit on their breasts like nightmares singing about people's contempt, about a better life here on earth, and the tears stream down their painted cheeks. And to chase away these dreams, they take up the bottle. The death marks of the poison stand out more clearly the next night when they resume their ghostly activity. 'Save me! I'm still not completely dead. For a few minutes I can still feel how my soul is alive inside me!' one of these unlucky women will often cry out, but those who hear the voice from the grave flee in fear, and she, the woman who is half dead, doesn't have the strength to lift the coffin lid of her circumstances with sin's heavy earth pressing it down.

Despite the narrator's revulsion for prostitution, this passage is not without sympathy—a great deal of sympathy, in fact—for the unfortunate human beings who are hopelessly enmeshed in the web of this degrading profession. The target of Andersen's censure is not the unhappy "fallen" woman herself but the double standard of a society that condemns the prostitute but not the men, from all levels of society, who use her and cast her aside.

Giving the Reader Something to Think About

The ills of Danish society of the mid-nineteenth century were frequently writ large in the stories and novels of Hans Christian Andersen; the author did not shrink from criticizing what he saw as egregious social flaws, many of which he had experienced personally. Andersen's prose shows that it was not at all an easy matter to climb out of one's lower social environment. That so few of Andersen's figures survive this attempt is as much a criticism of society as it is a testament to the genius and perseverance of those individuals who (like Andersen himself) were able to do so.

Hans Christian Andersen said that he wrote his tales and stories for children but that he wanted to give the parents something to think about as well. Reading Andersen's tales and stories from the perspective of his social criticism surely gives us all something to think about.

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Sven H. Rossel (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Rossel, Sven H. "Hans Christian Andersen." In Fairy Tales, edited by Jann Einfeld, pp. 92-7. San Diego, Calif.: Greenhaven Press, Inc., 2001.

[In the following essay, Rossel discusses the various origins and major thematic motifs of Andersen's fairy tales, noting that Andersen's "acute power of observation and strong sense of reality endowed the most fantastic beings with realistic traits, forcing the reader to believe in them."]

When, at the age of fourteen, Hans Christian Andersen left home to seek his fortune in the big city, his worried mother exclaimed, "Whatever will become of you?" He confidently replied, "I shall become famous." Years later, in his autobiography, The Fairy Tale of My Life (1855), experience led him to say it this way: "First you go through an awful lot, and then you become famous." Single-minded in pursuit of art and recognition, Andersen as a child of the working class, with only a rudimentary education and no social connections, had even more to go through than most struggling young artists. His conviction that he had been gifted at birth with extraordinary talent, however, saw him through much. As he says in "The Ugly Duckling" : "It doesn't matter if one is born in a duck yard, when one has lain in a swan's egg!"

Andersen was the first prominent Danish writer of proletarian origin. Although he moved in bourgeois and aristocratic circles—in his day this was the only way for a writer to gain recognition and support—he never disguised his background but always considered himself an outsider and kept a sharp eye for the shortcomings of the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. In tales such as "The Nightingale" and "The Gardener and the Lord and Lady" Andersen's biting satire is aimed at the arrogance and selfishness of the aristocracy and court circles. Royalty itself, however, he places above criticism: when the nightingale says of the emperor of China, "I love your heart better than your crown," it continues, "and yet your crown has a scent of sanctity about it." Thus, Andersen did not become a great social writer like Charles Dickens, whose background was similar to that of his Danish friend and contemporary.

Early Influences and Early Tales

As a child Andersen had heard retellings of old stories and tales; his father had read the Arabian Nights to him, and later he had become acquainted not only with the German Romantic literary tale as written by Ludwig Tieck, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and Adelbert von Chamisso, but also with the folktales collected by the Grimm brothers and with Mathias Winther's Danish Folktales (1823). All these sources are reflected in the first collection of tales in 1835, of which the first three are retold folktales. The fourth and weakest tale, "Little Ida's Flowers," is Andersen's own invention, but still dependent on a tale by Hoffmann, Nutcracker and Mouseking (1819). The discovery of the folktale became the chief element in Andersen's search for artistic independence. Here he found what he had previously lacked, the short form and firm structure. Here he found the technique of retelling the same episode three times—often with increasing effect—as in "The Tinderbox" (1835), "The Traveling Companion" (1835), and "Clod-Hans" (1855). As in the folktale, so in Andersen's tales there is usually only one main character, and all antagonists of this hero or heroine play subordinate roles. The main character suffers hardship, but usually Andersen's tales, especially those based directly on folktales, have a happy ending.

The first six collections of tales were subtitled "Told for Children." Andersen's statement that he had written them exactly as he had heard them as a child reveals his ingenious discovery that the tales and stories have to be told. Andersen's tales seem so simple, but the manuscripts tell of all his patient labor to find the exact expression that would fit his intention. He read recently finished tales and stories to friends to find out if the words would fall as they should and to register the reactions of his listeners. By 1844 Andersen had dropped the subtitle. He began to write tales of greater length, and the three collections of 1852–55 bear the title "Stories." They contained such different texts as the science fiction fantasy "In a Thousand Years' Time" and the social commentary "She Was No Good." But Andersen did not give up the tale, and the last eleven volumes—from 1858 on—bear the title "Tales and Stories."

Andersen's early tales vary greatly in quality. In fact, only a third of the 156 tales and stories represent him at his best, and most of these date from the 1840s. "The Nightingale," "The Sweethearts," and "The Ugly Duckling" appeared in 1844; three of the finest tales, "The Snow Queen," "The Fir Tree," and "The Bell" in 1845; "The Little Match Girl" in 1846; "The Shadow," "The Drop of Water," and "The Story of a Mother" in 1847. As a whole, the production after 1850 does not reach the quality of the masterpieces from the preceding decade. How-ever, we still find some excellent though less known texts, such as "In a Thousand Years' Time" (1852), "She Was No Good" (1853), "The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream" (1858), "The Butterfly" (1861), "The Snail and the Rosebush" (1862), "What People Do Think Up" (1869), "The Gardener and the Lord and Lady," "The Cripple," and "Auntie Toothache" (1872).

Autobiographical Content of Fairy Tales

In his fragmentary but valuable comments on the tales printed in the collected editions of 1862–63 and 1870–74, Andersen continually emphasizes the reality behind his imaginative treatment. He once stated: "Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself. Every character is taken from life. I know and have known them all." In "The Ugly Duckling" we find the glorification of the author's own genius, whereas "The Fir Tree" is a rather harsh judgment of himself as the ambitious, always discontented artist afraid of having passed his prime. Idealized reminiscences of Andersen's childhood can be found in the opening of "The Snow Queen." We see self-portraits in the fortune-hunting soldier of "The Tinderbox" and the hypersensitive title character of "The Princess on the Pea." Andersen's affairs of the heart can be followed in several tales: "The Sweethearts" describes a meeting with Riborg Voigt thirteen years after his unsuccessful courtship; Louise Collin [daughter of patron, Jonas Collin] is probably the model for the proud princess in "The Swineherd," in which the swineherd, who turns out to be a prince, is Andersen himself; "The Nightingale" in its contrasting of the real and the artificial is a tribute to Jenny Lind [Swedish soprano who refused his proposal of marriage]; finally, he deals with his resignation to lonely bachelorhood in the witty parable "The Butterfly." Portraits of friends and acquaintances can also be found. It has been suggested that the prince in "The Bell" is Hans Christian Ørsted, the loyal friend who praised Andersen's first tales and who was also the discoverer of electromagnetism: in "The Bell" the prince represents the scientific mode of approaching the Divine, while the poor boy, another self-portrait of Andersen, represents the poetic mode. It has also been posited that the poet in "The Shadow" represents Andersen, and the title character has the features of Edvard Collin, just as in "The Ugly Duckling" the cat, the hen, and the old woman portray the Collin family. Andersen also carried on literary combat in his tales. It has been suggested that "The Snail and the Rosebush" is another reply to [Danish philosopher Soren] Kierkegaard's harsh criticism of Only a Fiddler (the snail, of course, is the philosopher, while the blooming rosebush is the poet himself), and "The Gardener and the Lord and Lady" is regarded as Andersen's final and wittiest settlement with his Danish critics.

Philosophical Content

But the tales are more than disguised autobiographies and more than simple entertainment. "I seize an idea for older people—and then tell it to the young ones, while remembering that father and mother are listening and must have something to think about," Andersen says. "I write about what is true and good and beautiful," says the learned man in "The Shadow," stating Andersen's own ideal of art, which reflects the Romantic philosophy of his time. But the bitter irony of "The Shadow" is that everyone disregards the learned man and his values, choosing to follow the title figure, undoubtedly the most demonic character in Andersen's writings. By the end of the story there is nothing left of the Romantic belief that the goodhearted person, such as John in "The Traveling Companion" or Gerda in "The Snow Queen," has nothing to fear from evil: all human efforts are absurd. This is also the main theme of the tale "The Story of a Mother," a tribute to maternal love but also a demonstration of the mercilessness of life. Here we are far from the light gaiety of "The Tinderbox" or the optimism of "The Ugly Duckling."

Optimism and Pessimism

It is characteristic of Andersen's tales and stories that one idea evokes its counterpart, and this duality in his mental and spiritual make-up is recognizable in all his works. The tales deal with optimism and pessimism. In opposition to those which posit a belief in good fortune ("The Tinderbox," "The Traveling Companion," "The Flax," "Clod-Hans" ), in the power of goodness of heart over cold reason ("The Snow Queen" ), and in the possibility of human experience of the Divine ("The Bell" ), we can cite many tales that are hopeless in their pessimism: "The Fir Tree," "The Shadow," "The Little Match Girl," "The Story of a Mother," and "Auntie Toothache." Thus Andersen's intense love of life alternates with a preoccupation with death: unable to accept the course of nature, he continually emphasizes immortality and fights death, as the mother does in "The Story of a Mother" and art does in "The Nightingale." The complete absorption in life as represented by the tiny mayfly in "The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream" remained Andersen's ideal.

But when Andersen aimed his satire at various inequalities in society, he never vacillated. Thus "The Nightingale" and "The Swineherd" should not only be interpreted as allegories, setting true poetry against rigid academic convention, but also as highly ironic depictions of human behavior, a critical tendency which is carried further in the social accusations in "The Drop of Water" and "She Was No Good."

Reviving the Literary Fairy Tale

Andersen was no romantic dreamer with contempt for his own times. On the contrary, he welcomed many new events in art and science. He fantasizes about aircraft in "In a Thousand Years' Time" and about a magnifying glass in "The Drop of Water." What he welcomed was the victory of spirit over matter, and he was interested in every new discovery that seemed to represent that victory. His own contribution along these lines was the renewing of the genre of the literary tale: "The tale is the most extensive realm of poetry, ranging from the blood-drenched graves of the past to the pious legends of a child's picture book, absorbing folk literature and art literature; to me it is the representation of all poetry, and the one who masters it must be able to put into it the tragic, the comic, the naïve, irony and humor, having here the lyrical note as well as the childish narrative and the language of describing nature at his service."

If Andersen himself was able to fulfill these, his own, demands, it was primarily because he, in contrast to the German Romanticists, was able to preserve that primitive immediacy that establishes direct contact with the world around him. His myth-creating imagination, which broke with all literary conventions, knew how to animate the inanimate. His acute power of observation and strong sense of reality endowed the most fantastic beings with realistic traits, forcing the reader to believe in them. Andersen's point of departure is local, Danish—yet his tales and stories live on, even though their creator has long since died.

"Will all beauty in the world die when you die?" the little fly asks the tree. "It will last longer, infinitely longer, than I can imagine!" says the great oak tree.

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Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Pedersen, Viggo Hjørnager. "From the Flying Trunk to the Celestial Omnibus: Hans Andersen's Influence on the English Kunstmärchen." In Proceedings from the 8th Nordic Conference on English Studies, edited by Karind Aijmer and Britta Olinder, pp. 217-32. Göteborg, Sweden: Göteborg University Department of English, 2003.

[In the following essay, Pedersen assesses Andersen's adaptations of classic fairy tales and their strong influence on such later fairy tale authors as Horace Scudder, Oscar Wilde, and E. M. Forster.]

Fairy- and folk-tales are not quite so important in the Anglo-American tradition as in Germany and Scandinavia. In the 19th century, fairy-tales were of-ten regarded with scepticism, and the idea that the form might be used to produce literature for adults only caught on to a very limited extent. Still, Andersen's tales did inspire a number of British and American writers, and in the following we shall compare some Andersen tales which combine realism and fantasy with similar stories by Horace Scudder, Oscar Wilde and E. M. Forster, who all belong to the Andersen tradition.

When Andersen began writing his Eventyr [Eventyr og Historier] —as early as with "Dødningen" ("The Dead Man") in 1830—the form was already established both in Denmark and Germany. Quite apart from the more or less authentic "folk-tales" of the brothers Grimm and other collectors, the form had for decades been used as a sophisticated medium for entertainment and criticism of manners and society. This can be traced as far back as Perrault and subsequent French 18th-century tellers of tales; but a less courtly form had been established in Germany with Musäus, whom Oehlenschläger was so surprisingly fond of, and with Hoffmann and Chamisso.1 In Denmark, Oehlenschläger, Ingemann and Molbech, among others, used what was essentially the form developed by Musäus, and the folk-tale proper was cross-fertilised with elements from the sagn (local legends) which Andersen's friend Just Matthias Thiele was one of the first to collect.2

Musäus and his followers had an 18th-century, ironical attitude to the folktale. They did not share the superstitions of the rustics who originally had told the tales, and they did nothing to hide their amused scepticism.

This attitude also pervades Andersen's "Dødningen," whose fictionality is explicit: it takes place in "Phantasiens Verden", the world of fancy, and the old king is referred to as "Hjerterkonge", the King of Hearts, a cousin of a king in a work by Gozzi. However, when that story was metamorphosed into "Reisekammeraten" ("The Travelling Companion"), the tone was changed. Remnants of the old flippancy are still discernible, as when the old crones drinking schnapps have it coloured black out of sorrow for the princess's wickedness. But otherwise we alternate between the everyday and the supernatural without batting an eyelid (although this does not always appear from H. W. Dulcken's translation):

Ude paa Marken, hvor Johannes gik, stode alle Blomsterne saa friske og deilige i det varme Solskin, og de nikkede i Vinden ligesom om de vilde sige: "Velkommen i det Grønne! Er her ikke nydeligt?" Men Johannes dreiede sig endnu engang om, for at see den gamle Kirke, hvor han, som lille Barn, var døbt, hvor han hver Søndag med sin gamle Fader havde været i Kirke og sjunget sin Psalme; da saae han høit oppe i et af Hullerne i Taarnet, Kirke-Nissen staae med sin lille røde, spidse Hue, han skyggede for sit Ansigt med den bøiede Arm, da ellers Solen skar ham i Øinene. Johannes nikkede Farvel til ham, og den lille Nisse svingede sin røde Hue, lagde Haanden paa Hjertet og kyssede mange Gange paa Fingrene, for at vise, hvor godt han ønskede ham det, og at han ret maatte gjøre en lykkelig Reise.

                                          (I: 68-69)

Out in the field where he was walking all the flowers stood fresh and beautiful in the warm sunshine; and they nodded in the wind, just as if they would have said, "Welcome to the green wood! Is it not fine here?" But John turned back once more to look at the old church, in which he had been christened when he was a little child, and where he had been every Sunday with his father at the service, and had sung his psalm; then, high up in one of the openings of the tower, he saw the ringer [mistake for: the Nisse] standing in his little pointed red cap, shading his face with his bent arm, to keep the sun from shining in his eyes. John nodded a farewell to him, and the little ringer waved his red cap, laid his hand on his heart, and kissed his hand to John a great many times, to show that he wished the traveller well and hoped he would have a prosperous journey.


"The Travelling Companion," of course, is based on a folktale. But the easy slipping in and out of the supernatural is just as characteristic of "The Goloshes of Fortune." This story is indeed still full of irony, but it is not directed at the supernatural element in an otherwise very realistic tale from Biedermeier Copenhagen. Instead, we have an imperceptible transition from the everyday to the supernatural: the story opens with a factually circumstantial account of a bourgeois household, where a party is being held, and then suddenly we meet two fairies:

Det var i Kjøbenhavn, paa Østergade i eet af Husene, ikke langt fra Kongens Nytorv, at der var stort Selskab, for det maa man have imellem, saa er det gjort og saa kan man blive inviteret igjen. Den ene Halvdeel af Selskabet sad allerede ved Spillebordene, og den anden Halvdeel ventede paa hvad der vilde komme ud af Fruens: "ja, nu skulde vi see til at finde paa noget!" Saavidt var man og Samtalen gik, som den kunde.[…]

Under al den Snak […] ville vi gaae ud i det forreste Værelse, hvor Overtøi, Stokke, Paraplyer og Kalosker havde Plads. Her sad to Piger, en ung og en gammel; man skulde troe, at de vare komne for at følge deres Herskab, en eller anden gammel Frøken eller Enkefrue, men saae man lidt nøiere paa dem, saa begreb man snart, at de ikke vare almindelige Tjenestepiger, dertil vare deres Hænder for fine, deres Holdning og hele Bevægelse for kongelig, for det var den, og Klæderne havde ogsaa et ganske eget dristigt Snit. Det var to Feer, den yngste var vel ikke Lykken selv, men een af hendes Kammerjomfruers Kammerpiger, der bringe de mindre Lykkens Gaver omkring, den ældre saae saa inderlig alvorlig ud, det var Sorgen, hun gaaer altid selv i egen høie Person sine Ærinder, saa veed hun, at de blive vel udførte.

                                          (II: 178-79)

In a house in Copenhagen, not far from the King's New Market, a company—a very large company—had assembled, having received invitations to an evening party there. One-half of the company already sat at the card tables, the other half awaited the result of the hostess's question, "What shall we do now?" They had progressed so far, and the entertainment began to take some degree of animation.[…]

While the conversation takes this turn,[…] we will betake ourselves to the antechamber, where the cloaks, sticks, and goloshes had found a place. Here sat two maids—an old one and a young one. One would have thought they had come to escort their mistresses home; but, on looking at them more closely, the observer could see that they were not ordinary servants: their shapes were too graceful for that, their complexions too delicate, and the cut of their dresses too uncommon. They were two fairies. The younger was not Fortune, but lady's-maid to one of her ladies of the bed-chamber, who carry about the more trifling gifts of Fortune. The elder one looked somewhat more gloomy—she was Care, who always goes herself in her own exalted person to perform her business, for thus she knows that it is well done.


We are invited to examine the two women in the anteroom, who are described as ordinary mortals, until we are informed that they are fairies: the transition from reality to fairyland is absolutely seamless.

The above is the 1850 version of the tale. But indeed Andersen had used this technique right from the beginning. In "Little Ida's Flowers" from his first collection (1835), the student introduces the supernatural as the most ordinary thing in the world in his conversation with the little girl:

"Mine stakkels Blomster ere ganske døde!" sagde den lille Ida. "De vare saa smukke iaftes, og nu hænge alle Bladene visne! Hvorfor gjøre de det?" spurgte hun Studenten, der sad i Sophaen; for ham holdt hun saa meget af, han kunde de allerdeiligste Historier og klippede saadanne morsomme Billeder: Hjerter med smaa Madammer i, der dandsede; Blomster og store Slotte, hvor Dørene kunde lukkes op; det var en lystig Student! "Hvorfor see Blomsterne saa daarlige ud i Dag?" spurgte hun igjen, og viste ham en heel Bouquet, der var ganske vissen.

"Ja veed Du, hvad de feile!" sagde Studenten. "Blomsterne have været paa Bal i Nat, og derfor hænge de med Hovedet!"

"Men Blomsterne kunne jo ikke dandse!" sagde den lille Ida.

"Jo," sagde Studenten, "naar det bliver mørkt og vi andre sove, saa springe de lystigt omkring; næsten hver evige Nat har de Bal!"

"Kan der ingen Børn komme med paa det Bal?"

"Jo," sagde Studenten, "smaabitte Gaaseurter og Lillieconvaller!"

                                          (I: 43)

"My poor flowers are quite dead!" said little Ida. "They were so pretty yesterday, and now all the leaves hang withered. Why do they do that?" she asked the student, who sat on the sofa; for she liked him very much. He knew the prettiest stories, and could cut out the most amusing pictures—hearts, with little ladies in them who danced, flowers, and great castles in which one could open the doors: he was a merry student. "Why do the flowers look so faded to-day?" she asked again, and showed him a nosegay, which was quite withered.

"Do you know what's the matter with them?" said the student. "The flowers have been at a ball last night, and that's why they hang their heads."

"But flowers cannot dance!" cried little Ida.

"Oh, yes," said the student, "when it grows dark, and we are asleep. They jump about merrily. Almost every night they have a ball."

"Can children go to this ball?"

"Yes," said the student, "quite little daisies, and lilies of the valley."


The little girl's opening speech is anthropomorphic: in the Danish text (though not in the English) the flowers are referred to as "dead", and she goes on to ask why they look "sick"; however, so far all the metaphor is dormant: Little Ida is hardly thinking of the flowers in human terms. This change is effected by the student, who seizes on the implicit meanings just mentioned to suggest that the flowers do indeed behave like humans.

The remarkable thing about this and similar stories is the effortlessness of the movement from fantasy to realism and back:

"Kan Professoren da forstaae Pantomime?" spurgte Ida.

"Ja, det kan Du troe! Han kom en Morgen ned i sin Have og saae en stor Brændenelde staae at gjøre Pantomine med Bladene til en deilig rød Nellike; den sagde, du er saa nydelig og jeg holder saa meget af dig! men saadan noget kan Professoren nu slet ikke lide, og slog strax Brændenelden over Bladene, for de ere dens Fingre, men saa brændte han sig, og fra den Tid tør han aldrig røre ved en Brændenelde."

"Det var morsomt!" sagde den lille Ida og loe.

                                          (I: 45)

"Can the professor understand these signs?" asked Ida.

"Yes, certainly. He came one morning into his garden, and saw a great stinging-nettle standing there, and making signs to a beautiful red carnation with its leaves. It was saying, 'You are so pretty, and I love you with all my heart.' But the professor does not like that kind of thing, and he directly slapped the stinging-nettle upon its leaves, for those are its fingers; but he stung himself; and since that time he has not dared to touch a stinging-nettle."

"That is funny," cried little Ida; and she laughed.


In this story, all supernatural events and elements are either part of the story that the student tells to the little girl, or they come to her in dreams; but this is really an exception; in most stories of this kind, from "The Goloshes of Fortune," where Justitsraad Knap steps right out of his dull 19th-century existence to literally land in the mud of the Middle Ages, to "The Storm Moves the Signs," where a storm moves the heavy symbols of dull everyday existence around, the central idea is the coexistence of the everyday and the supernatural, as in "The Nisse at the Grocer's" :

Der var en rigtig Student, han boede paa Qvisten og eiede Ingenting; der var en rigtig Spekhøker, han boede i Stuen og eiede hele Huset, og ham holdt Nissen sig til, for her fik han hver Juleaften et Fad Grød med en stor Klump Smør i! det kunde Spekhøkeren give; og Nissen blev i Boutiken og det var meget lærerigt.

                                          (II: 255)

There was once a regular student: he lived in a garret, and nothing at all belonged to him; but there was also once a regular huckster: he lived on the ground floor, and the whole house was his; and the Goblin kept with him, for on the huckster's table on Christmas-eve there was, always a dish of plum porridge, with a great piece of butter floating in the middle. The huckster could accomplish that, and consequently the Goblin stuck to the huckster's shop, and that was very interesting.


This universe, inhabited both by real people living in the real world and by supernatural beings, is perhaps not fundamentally different from that of the folktales proper. But the story does not take place "once upon a time" in fairyland, but in a closely described contemporary society; therefore we get a slight shock when the Nisse joins the student and the Spekhøker, though we might have taken the meeting of a young prince and an ogre or a speaking animal quite calmly in a real folktale.

A similar mixture of the everyday and the supernatural is found in several tales—"The Will-O'-the-Wisps are in Town" and "Hvad man kan hitte paa" ("A Question of Imagination" in Haugaard's translation) spring to mind.

It is this type of text, combining realism of an often very pedestrian nature with glimpses of the supernatural, or, conversely, fairy-tales that offer satirical perspectives on our everyday world, that became fashionable in Britain and America in the last decades of the 19th and the first of the 20th century. In the following we shall look at three prominent examples, Horace Scudder, Oscar Wilde, and E. M. Forster.

Horace Scudder's Tales

While still in his twenties, and before he made contact with Andersen, the American writer and publisher Horace Scudder (1838–1902) issued two collections of Andersen-inspired tales, Seven Little People and Their Friends (1862) and Dream Children (1864).

Scudder's stories have the characteristic Andersen blend of realism and animated or personified nature; animals, plants and even inanimate objects like houses may on occasion reflect or speak. Sometimes this is taken rather to excess, for unlike in Andersen, animation does not always serve a purpose. In Andersen, it always gives a specific perspective, or is used for ironical purposes, if the personified objects or creatures are used to caricature a similar human type. But with Scudder, one must sometimes ask if the in-formation or opinion given might not just as well have taken the form of a speech from a character or an authorial comment.

Not surprisingly, then, there is little irony in Scudder, and if one gets more than enough of sentiment à la Andersen, one misses the humour of Andersen's tales. A pleasant exception is "The Rich Man's Place", which satirizes over people who go to Europe and come back to remodel everything. The story upholds the natural over the artificial, and stands up for American tradition as Scudder knew it—that of the civilized East Coast—as against far-fetched notions from abroad:

              The Rich Man's Place

The rich man had a splendid place,—a house and barns, and a great pleasure-park,—but it was long since he had seen his place, for he had been travelling abroad. When people travel abroad, they expect to learn much, and the rich man when he came home had no doubt learned a great many things. He had brought away as much of other countries as he could carry,—a little in his head, but a good deal in boxes. When these were unpacked, there came forth pictures and statuary and malachite tables, and at least three cart-loads of curious things, which he arranged about the house, so that when his friends came to see him, they all said it was nearly as well as visiting foreign lands themselves; for when they entered the house, the rich man would remind them where he had been. "This hat-tree," he would say, as they took off their hats, "is made of wood from the Black Forest," and then they would shut their eyes, and fancy themselves there. "This table on which I keep my clothes-brush," he would continue, "is a malachite table from Russia." And then they would ask him if he saw the Czar. When they entered the parlor, he would take them on a tour about the room, and feed their imagination with a stone from the field of Waterloo, a splinter from John Knox's house, a piece of pottery from Herculaneum, and a scymitar from Greece; and, if left to themselves, they were given a book of views, or a stereoscope, or allowed to stand before the étagère, and handle the Swiss toys and Scotch pebbles. O it was precisely the same as going abroad, and so the guests all said.

But it was best when some one came who had also travelled, and perhaps with the rich man himself; then the guests would listen as one said to the other, "Do you remember that night on the Campagna?"

And the other would say, "Ah, indeed!" and look knowing. "But the Carnival, ah!" he would rejoin, and turn round to the guests, humming the "Carnival of Venice."

"What a tame country ours is!" the guests would sigh to themselves.


Andersen was himself a keen traveller; but as we see from his story "Lovely," he also took delight in observing the ridiculous aspects of tourist life, and Scudder certainly follows him here.

Arguably the best story in Dream Children is "The Old House in the Wheat Forest", in which there are echoes both of "The Story of the Year" and "The Old House." The theme of the story is the relativity of time as experienced from different points of view: of a family of birds, two children, a couple who have been married for nearly 50 years, and an old house. To the birds, a year is close to a lifetime. Time is not on the children's minds as they play at building a house and starting a farm and a family, while the old couple see their past selves in the children. The house has existed for longer than any of them, being a hundred years old, but it realizes how brief even this is, pointing a moral of which Andersen would have approved:

… Nothing can remain young but our hearts. There love is, and love is everlasting. Yes! the couple that were married here in the parlor, just fifty years ago, are old now, but their love has left their hearts young. And the children who were with them, and who went away hand in hand, for out of my garret-window I saw them, they are young and will grow old, but love will never grow old; love will never die. The wheat will be cut down, as the forest before it. New seed will be sown. The birds that were here last spring have gone away, but there will be new ones next spring. And I shall one day fall down, and no doubt a new house will be built here, and there will be weddings in that. Ah! it is eternally beautiful, for love is eternal.


Of the three writers discussed here, Scudder is the closest to Andersen—often perhaps a little too close for comfort. There are many echoes of Andersen in his stories, but it is especially the sentimental stories of Andersen's later years that appeal to him, not the humour or the social criticism which are also an important part of Andersen's work. It was probably all for the best that when he came to write his Bodley books for children,3 he left the fairy-tale style and instead turned to everyday situations based on history, geography, and travel.

The Rockets and Nightingales of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde wrote about 20 tales and stories, many of which contain a fantastic or supernatural element, and in which the fairy-tale form is often used as a background for a criticism of life or of human character. It is especially the two collections The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891) that show influence from Hans Andersen.

This influence has been variously interpreted. Briggs says that "Hans Andersen was immensely admired and very much imitated in England. Oscar Wilde reproduced almost exactly his mixture of satire and sentiment, something at once sweet and bitter" (179). Murray, on the other hand, in her introduction to The Complete Shorter Fiction of Oscar Wilde rather surprisingly concludes:

Wilde probably learned from Andersen the witty, deflating touches which grace the stories, but never, even in "The Selfish Giant", is he betrayed into such depths of sentimentality as Andersen. He takes over witty talking animals and objects and uses them as frames for stories, as in "The Devoted Friend", but he avoids Andersen's cloying moments, and generally transcends him. Andersen wrote far, far more fairy-tales than Wilde; he did not write more that survive.


Even if Murray probably read Andersen in rather poor translations as a child, there is really no excuse for such preposterous nonsense. But it is true that unlike Scudder's, some, at least, of Wilde's stories are fine works of art in their own right; and a more balanced comparison of the two writers is given by Bidstrup, who does not so much discuss the quality of the two writers as compare and contrast their respective messages, finding Wilde on the whole less optimistic than Andersen, who normally manages to see something good in the end, even in a tragedy like "The Little Mermaid." 4

In the following I shall discuss two stories: "The Nightingale and the Rose" in order to show how Wilde's approach differs from Andersen's, and "The Remarkable Rocket" in order to investigate why Andersen's method does not always seem to work for Wilde.

"The Nightingale and the Rose" contains subtle echoes from many Andersen tales, and, in spite of the exquisite lyrical style much of it is written in, is as bitter and cynical as "The Swineherd." The prince of that story, we remember, offered a rose and a nightingale to a princess who was not interested. In Wilde's story, too, a student is to offer his professor's daughter a red rose to make her consent to dance with him.

Thanks to the nightingale, who gives his life in order that the rosebush may bloom for the student, he is able to offer a rose to the lady; but in the event the lady refuses the rose in favour of some jewels sent by the Chamberlain's nephew, and it is thrown into the gutter to be run over by cartwheels.

Unlike the situation in Andersen's "Nightingale," the contrast here is not so much between the natural and the artificial as between beauty and money, the latter being what the young lady settles for in the end. But there is another important difference between Andersen and Wilde: unlike the prince of "The Swineherd" and many other Andersen heroes, the student of this story is not really a true lover; he lies down and weeps from sorrow (or vexation) when he thinks that he cannot get a rose, but soon falls asleep. He does not appreciate the nightingale's song, "for he only knew the things that are written down in books" (107), and in the end is only too willing to give up love for abstract learning:

"What a silly thing love is," said the Student as he walked away. "It is not half as useful as Logic, for it does not prove anything, and it is always telling one of things that are not going to happen, and making one believe things that are not true. In fact, it is quite unpractical, and, as in this age to be practical is everything, I shall go back to philosophy and study Metaphysics."


The idealistic nightingale, then, has died in vain.

Unlike this story, "The Remarkable Rocket" is strangely pointless and not very entertaining. It displays a whole catalogue of Andersen echoes and devices, but they do not really achieve cohesion. The frame is a fairy-tale wedding, with a prince and princess perhaps more from the French tradition than from Andersen, even though there are echoes of "The Snow Queen." However, we only learn that the young people are married, and then leave them in order to listen to the rocket, which was to be part of a firework-display in honour of the wedding, but which gets damp and never achieves its great moment, only exploding the next day when nobody is watching.

For all that, it is full of self-conceit, rather like Andersen's "Darning Needle," and talks endlessly of itself to other pyrotechnical objects and to a number of animals.

The problem is that it is all pointless: if they were intended merely as background, the prince and princess are too prominent, and, conversely, the objects and animals are absolutely flat. An Andersen Duck talks Duck, and a needle, Needle language. But the characters of this story lack characteristic voices, and could easily exchange parts. Most surprising of all, the humour does not work,5 and in many of the other stories there is no humour at all, only the lyrical voice.

Space does not allow consideration of other stories like "The Selfish Giant", which has little of Andersen but rather draws on Catholic legend, with the infant Christ bringing relief from all sorrows. But if one is to generalise about Wilde's stories, they tend to be lyrical and/or cynical, and many of them deal with the contrast between selfishness and altruism, but, surprisingly for any offspring of the divine Oscar, unlike Andersen's stories, they are not very funny!

E. M. Forster's Celestial Omnibus

In Foster's The Longest Journey the budding novelist, Rickie, confides to his beloved but uncomprehending Agnes the misgivings he has developed about his own work:

They continued the conversation outside. "But I've got to hate my own writing. I believe that most people come to that stage—not so early though. What I write is too silly. It can't happen. For instance, a stupid vulgar man is engaged to a lovely young lady. He wants her to live in the towns, but she only cares for woods. She shocks him this way and that but gradually he tames her, and makes her nearly as dull as he is. One day she has a last explosion—over the snobby wedding-presents—and flies out of the drawing-room window, shouting, 'Freedom and truth!' Near the house is a little dell full of fir-trees, and she runs into it. He comes there the next moment. But she's gone."

"Awfully exciting. Where?"

"Oh Lord, she's a Dryad!" cried Rickie, in great disgust. "She's turned into a tree."

"Rickie, it's very good indeed. That kind of thing has something in it. Of course you get it all through Greek and Latin. How upset the man must be when he sees the girl turn."

"He doesn't see her. He never guesses. Such a man could never see a Dryad."

"So you describe how she turns just before he comes up?"

"No. Indeed I don't ever say that she does turn. I don't use the word 'Dryad' once."

"I think you ought to put that part plainly. Otherwise, with such an original story, people might miss the point. Have you had any luck with it?"


Then as now the general public were none too bright, and sceptical about spiritual matters. But the story referred to is not just a summary of a plot by a fictitious character—it is obviously a draft of Forster's own short story "Other Kingdom" from the collection The Celestial Omnibus (1911).

That story, according to Rickie, is about getting into touch with nature, and its inspiration is classical, like many of Oscar Wilde's. But quite apart from the fact that Andersen himself wrote a story about a Dryad, Forster's stories often resemble Andersen's in effortlessly mixing the supernatural with a satirical description of contemporary bourgeois society.

The stories, reissued by Penguin as Collected Short Stories, 1954 (from which I quote), are 12 in number. Those not taken from The Celestial Omnibus were first collected in The Eternal Moment (1928). From "The Story of a Panic" (originally 1902) to the title story of The Eternal Moment they are all in different ways what Forster in his introduction to the Penguin edition calls "fantasies"; but perhaps the one which is closest to the style of the Andersen who wrote "The Goloshes of Fortune" and "The Nisse at the Grocer's" is the title story of the 1911 collection, "The Celestial Omnibus".

This is a story of a boy who lives with his superficial, uncomprehending parents in an upper middle-class suburb of London. Bored, he explores the farther end of the lane where they live, and discovers a bus stop for a Sunrise and Sunset service direct to Heaven, or perhaps rather Elysium.

He goes, and encounters writers, composers, fictional characters and classical deities, but on his return nobody believes his story. Only clever and cultured Mr. Bons (try that backwards!) is at last persuaded to go with him on his next trip; but though their conductor is Dante himself, Bons is frightened, falls to the ground and is killed, whereas the boy is received into the very gay Elysium, and never returns. Spontane-ous enjoyment of music, spectacle, and the people encountered in books has more value than having, as Mr. Bons, seven Shelleys in your library.

As suggested, the story has homo-erotic undertones, and the direct inspiration is Wilde rather than Andersen. But the legacy from the latter is plainly to be seen in the juxtaposition of realistic detail and the supernatural, as in the following description of "the boy" and Mr. Bons being taken heavenwards by Dante:

[…] the omnibus […] was large, roomy, and constructed with extreme regularity, every part exactly answering to every other part. Over the door (the handle of which was outside) was written, 'Lasciate ogni baldanza voi che entrate'—at least, that was what was written, but Mr Bons said that it was Lashy arty something, and that baldanza was a mistake for speranza.6 His voice sounded as if he was in church. Meanwhile, the boy called to the cadaverous driver for two return tickets. They were handed in without a word. Mr Bons covered his face with his hand and again trembled. 'Do you know who that is!' he whispered, when the little window had shut upon them. 'It is the impossible.'

'Well, I don't like him as much as Sir Thomas Browne, though I shouldn't be surprised if he had even more in him.'

'More in him?' He stamped irritably. 'By accident you have made the greatest discovery of the century, and all you can say is that there is more in this man. Do you remember those vellum books in my library, stamped with red lilies? This—sit still, I bring you stupendous news!—this is the man who wrote them.'


Dante, however, is not impressed. When Bons is afraid of falling to earth, and cries out for help, Dante answers that the arts must be worshipped in freedom and truth; having the classics bound in vellum is not enough.


Each in their own way, the three writers briefly discussed here carry on the tradition from Andersen, which he in his turn developed on the basis of German sources.

Scudder is the closest to Andersen, but his work is consequently derivative, lacking the subtlety and humour of Andersen, and only in a few of the best stories contributing an independent American perspective.

Wilde primarily uses the fairy-tale to criticise the shortcomings of most mortals, condemning their egotism, snobbery and selfishness. So, too, does Forster; but he also uses the form to satirise over the foibles of contemporary middle-class society, exactly as Andersen did himself.

One might add that what Andersen's literary descendants perhaps lack in comparison with the master is his ability suddenly to introduce a spiritual perspective, and to turn the criticism against himself: Having spent almost the entire story of "Deilig" (in English, "Lovely" or "Charming" ) poking fun at poor stupid but beautiful Kala, whom the sculptor Alfred has come to regret that he married, Andersen suddenly turns the tables when Alfred's second wife upbraids the sculptor for suggesting that the dead Kala was all body and no spirit:

"Det var ikke kjærligt sagt," sagde Sophie, "det var ikke christeligt! hist oppe, hvor der ikke skal tages tilægte, men, som Du siger, Sjælene mødes ved Sympathie, der, hvor alt Herligt udfolder og løfter sig, vil hendes Sjæl maaskee klinge i saa fuldelig Kraft, at den overklinger min, og Du—Du vil da igjen udbryde i dit første Forelskelses-Udbrud: Deilig, deilig!"

                                        (III: 168)

Dulcken does not quite manage to do justice to this; but here is his version:

"That was not lovingly spoken," said Sophy, "not spoken like a true Christian. Yonder, where there is no giving in marriage, but where, as you say, souls attract each other by sympathy, there where everything beautiful develops itself and is elevated, her soul may acquire such completeness that it may sound more harmoniously than mine; and you will then once more utter the first rapturous exclamation of your love. 'Beautiful—most beautiful'".


This is the point where criticism must bow its head and be silent; and, as Andersen puts it in "Grief of Heart," those who do not understand it can take shares in the widow's tannery.


1. On the background of Hans Andersen's tales, see Rubow 1927; Rubow 1955 is a shorter English version of this study of Andersen's tales and the tradition behind them.

2. Just Mathias Thiele (1795–1874), the son of a printer, attended the famous Metropolitan School in Copenhagen, and while he was still a schoolboy became acquainted with several of the Copenhagen literati. He was an admirer of Oehlenschläger and wrote several plays for the Royal Theatre. He was one of the first collectors of authentic folk material in Europe, and published Danske Folkesagn (Danish local legends) in four volumes (1818–23). From 1817 he worked at the Royal Library, and did valuable work in the Kobberstiksamlingen (the department of prints), whose director he became in 1861. He was one of the first to help the young Andersen, who was influenced by his legends, and by the Danske Folkeeventyr published by Matthias Winther in 1823, inspired by and in part based on Thiele's Folkesagn.

3. The Bodley series anticipates the series of children's books so widespread in the 20th century. It is good American Victoriana, describing a typical middle-class family consisting of father (very much in the centre), mother, and children, and recounting their experiences. A lot of these call for comments from all-knowing papa, but the books are quite charming and reasonably entertaining of their kind.

4. By and large I agree with this. But there is not really much consolation to be found in stories like "The Swineherd" or "Auntie Toothache", and conversely Wilde falls back on religious consolation in a story like "The Selfish Giant".

5. Only occasionally do we get glimpses of the great dramatist to come. The Selfish Giant returns to his house after a prolonged visit to his friend the Cornish Ogre: "After the seven years were over he had said what he had to say, for his conversation was limited …" (110).

6. Bons is wrong, of course: he might very well keep his 'speranza', hope, if he would leave his 'baldanza', (exaggerated) self-confidence.


Andersen, Hans Christian. 1964–91. Eventyr og Historier. 7 vols. Ed. E. Dal and E. Nielsen. Copenhagen: Det Danske Sprog- og Litteraturselskab.

―――――――. (1889) 1993. The Complete Illustrated Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Transl. H. W. Dulcken. (original ed. Stories for the Household) London: Chancellor Press.

―――――――. (1974) 1985. The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Transl. E. C. Haugaard. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bidstrup, Iben K. 1999. "H. C. Andersen i Oscar Wilde—en komparativ analyse". In Oversœttelse af Litteratur II. DAO 8. Ed. V. Appel and V. H. Pedersen Copenhagen: Center for Translation Studies, Copenhagen University, 41-61.

Briggs, Katherine M. 1968. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. London: Routledge and Keagan Paul.

Forster, E. M. (1907) 1978. The Longest Journey. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

―――――――. 1954. Collected Short Stories. (Earlier ed. Collected Shorter Fiction, 1947). Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Rubow, Paul V. 1927. H. C. Andersens Eventyr: Forhistorien, Idé og Form, Sprog og Stil. Copenhagen: Levin og Munksgaard.

―――――――. 1955. "Idea and Form in Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales". In A Book on the Danish Writer Hans Christian Andersen, etc. Copenhagen: Samvirkerådet for dansk kulturarbejde i udlandet, 97-134.

Scudder, Horace. 1862. Seven Little People and Their Friends. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

―――――――. 1864. Dream Children. Cambridge, Mass.: Sever and Francis.

Wilde, Oscar. 1979. The Complete Shorter Fiction of Oscar Wilde. Ed. by I. Murray. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Diane Wolkstein (essay date April 2005)

SOURCE: Wolkstein, Diane. "The Finest Quality Dirt: A Look at the Life and Sensibilities of Hans Christian Andersen." School Library Journal 51, no. 4 (April 2005): 36-7.

[In the following essay, Wolkstein examines Andersen's legacy as an innovative adaptor of classic fairy tales, drawing particular attention to his imaginative retelling of "Hans Clodhopper."]

For nearly 40 years, I've been telling Andersen stories at the statue of Hans Christian Andersen in New York City's Central Park. One story that never fails to delight both the audience and me is "Hans Clodhopper." I had read every one of Andersen's 156 stories, but it was not until I heard Kathryn Farnsworth's wonderfully wry, whimsical telling that Clodhopper came alive for me. In celebration and commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth—he was born on April 2, 1805—I would like to explore this particular story, for it reveals much to us about the life of its author, his craft, as well as the storyteller's craft. Here is a brief synopsis; the full text is available with the online version of this article at

The princess announces that she will marry the man who can speak for himself. Two brothers prepare by memorizing the dictionary and the local newspapers. The father gives each of them a horse. Clodhopper, the third and youngest brother, leaps onto a billy goat and takes the princess three gifts: a dead crow, a broken wooden shoe, and dirt. Dirt? Yes, but the finest quality dirt! Indeed, what could be of more importance to the well-being of a kingdom than the quality of its earth? With his outrageous yet meaningful choice of gifts, (heaven, human, earth—a bird, a shoe, dirt), Hans Clodhopper wins the princess. But winning is not keeping, and each hero must secure his own treasure. The youngest brother must now be bold and defend his treasure before the media (who were as inclined to distort facts in 1858 as they are today).

Born the child of a washerwoman and a cobbler, Andersen was an innovator, an outsider, and a daring upstart. Some even believed he was crazy, for from the time he was a child, he continually refused to accept society's norms. At six years old, when a teacher hit him, he never returned to that school. At 11, when he was working at a cloth mill and the adults shamed him by pulling off his clothes to see if he were a girl or boy, he ran away and never returned to the job. Fortunately, both his mother and father doted on their only child and protected him, refusing to allow others to abuse him.

At 14, the young Andersen had the extraordinary courage and self-confidence to leave his town of Odense to set off by himself for Copenhagen to win his heart's desire—artistic success and the possibility of being able to express himself ("speak for himself"). He first tried his luck by singing until, after a few months, his high soprano voice cracked; next he tried dancing, then acting. He persisted with his intense desire to express himself and wrote poetry, novels, plays, and travelogues until, at the age of 30, he invented a new art form that became a mixture of all the forms he had previously experimented with. Andersen's artistic success was the fairy tales he crafted.

As unexpected an innovator as Clodhopper, Andersen broke the established literary precedent with both his style and his content. Previously, Danish literature was constructed in a formal language that had little relationship to the colloquial speech of the day. Andersen, whose background was as a performer—a singer, dancer, actor—understood the need to connect directly with his audience and was the first Danish writer to write in the language that people spoke.

In context as well, Andersen was an innovator and a revolutionary. In rewriting the folktales he had heard as a child, he gave the poor, the less fortunate, and the child the role of chief protagonist. He animated and elevated everything in the ordinary world from the beetle to the needle. And he transformed the endings. A most marvelous example of transformation (which all writers will enjoy) occurs when his story "The Emperor's New Clothes" was at the printer's and Andersen had a last-minute inspiration. In his original version everyone admires the Emperor's new clothes, and the story ends with the Emperor saying, "I must put on that suit of clothes." In the version that was revised at the printer's, the child murmurs, "But he hasn't anything on!" With these words, the child, like Hans Clodhopper, becomes the unexpected voice of wisdom and authenticity in the kingdom.

"Hans Clodhopper" also offers many profound insights for the craft of the storyteller. Andersen begins his tale by poking fun at memorizing as a means of connecting with oneself, with the world, as well as with achieving one's goals. The two older brothers, who fill their minds with facts and structures, prepare for the future and lose the present. When they enter the palace to speak to the princess and she does not ask them the questions they are prepared to answer, they are speechless. They are so intent on the future that they lose the joy of the moment. Most experienced storytellers learn with time that when they are too worried about the correctness of each word or transition, they lose the opportunity to enjoy and participate in a relationship with their audience, which is the soul of storytelling.

Clodhopper has no script in his mind. He has intention. He wants to win the princess and says, "If she takes me, well and good; if not, I'll take her anyhow!" He is filled with joy as well as consideration. He is the only one to think to bring her gifts. When his father doesn't have a horse for him, he improvises and jumps onto a billy goat. So, too, the storyteller or performer needs to remember that there are alternate transports to taking a journey; maybe the storyteller needs to enter the audience, maybe to stand on a crate. The means are not as important as the willingness to experiment and to communicate. Upon entering the palace, Hans, who has no answers prepared, responds to the circumstances in which he finds himself. It's summer and a stove is lit. It's hot! He does not complain about the heat, as his brothers do; rather he rejoices in the possibilities of cooking his crow.

Just as the story is about to reach a happy folktale conclusion, Andersen surprises us with his protagonist heaving the finest quality dirt at the "Quality" (those who are recording what is happening). Not only are the journalists and politician jolted, but the audience is as well. A bit of Brecht is thrown into the fairy tale, and the princess is not offended. In fact, she's delighted and says, "I would never have thought of that. But I'll learn!" If, indeed, we go to listen to stories to understand more deeply, Andersen is throwing reality in our faces.

At the moment the story reaches its happy conclusion, Andersen surprises us for the third time. He widens the context of his relationship with the story and its listeners. He walks in front of the scrim, breaks down the fourth wall, and reveals that the story we have just shared together is just that … a story. As the tale ends, we return to the narrator's voice. In storytelling, it is important to be aware of our voice. Who is telling the story? We are not the story; we are telling the story. Andersen, who experimented with all aspects of story—the writer, the director, the actor—engages us with the trickster's device of the story within the story, so that for a moment, the crack in our perceptions opens and we are all caught—storytellers and audience—in the play of imagination. The storyteller, as fool and trickster, allows us to see ourselves as mere perception.

After years of storytelling, it is clear to me that storytellers choose to tell those stories that engage the work of their soul. They continue to tell those stories until that particular work is completed. I love the character of Hans Clodhopper because he does not memorize, because he revels in the joy of life, because he appreciates what is broken, what is dead, what is ordinary. And also because he is bold.

In our times, it seems especially relevant to rescue and care for what is discarded and broken (the broken wooden shoe) and not leave it to decay but to recycle and transform its possibilities. Death awaits each of us every moment and Clodhopper does not avert his eyes before death. He honors the dead crow. He picks it up and offers it a proper, although unexpected, funeral by transforming it into nourishment. And as for the finest quality dirt, we are all standing on this dirt. We shall all return to this dirt. We need to acknowledge and appreciate its well being. How silly a gift—the finest quality dirt—and yet how profound; and also, revolutionary.

The fool, the simpleton wins the kingdom, for the one who can perceive and express the truth deserves to be king. Hans not only perceives reality; he is daring enough to express it, and, like a Zen monk, to deliver it directly to those who "claim" they are in search of it.

Part of the appeal of the story of "Hans Clodhopper" is that it touches children who relish boundary-breaking fun and silliness. Adults enjoy fun as well, and we also know that the path to such joyful liberation is through much perseverance, mindfulness, and courage. The story, for those who have come in contact with it, reaches out to every age and continues after 200 years to delight and inspire.

Is it true? The child asks.

And Andersen answers, as true as our imagination.

A Selected List of Books

Andersen, Hans Christian. The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. tr. by Eric Christian Haugaard. illus. by Maurice Sendak. (Doubleday, 1983).

Andersen, Hans Christian. Eight Fairy Tales. tr. by R. P. Keigwin. illus, by Vilhelm Pedersen & Lorenz Frolich. (Knopf, 1982).

Frank, Jeffrey & Diana Frank. The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation from the Danish. illus, by Lorenz Frolich & Vilhelm Pedersen. (Houghton, 2003).

Yolen, Jane. The Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen. illus. by Dennis Nolan. (Penguin, 2005).

Stephen Pettitt (essay date 25 June 2005)

SOURCE: Pettitt, Stephen. "Is He Worth It?" Spectator 298, no. 9229 (25 June 2005): 55-6.

[In the following essay, Pettitt debates Andersen's literary significance—on the occasion of the bicentenary of Andersen's birth—and argues that the general public is only familiar with an "idealised" version of Andersen's life and works.]

I have a good Danish friend in France, as well read as anyone I know. On the door to her downstairs loo is fixed a spoof road sign. It depicts within a red circle and in instantly recognisable profiled caricature her country's greatest national hero. A red diagonal stroke through it signifies prohibition. In this house we scarcely dare mention Hans Christian Andersen. When I tried to, in connection with this article, a pair of very sage eyebrows soared to the heavens, accompanied by a cry of utter exasperation. And her reaction is shared by many Danes of taste and intellect, she assures me. Never mind that the man wrote 127 fairytales, which have been translated into the most obscure languages and dialects and published in countless editions, with illustrations by the most illustrious, and which are beloved by children and adults everywhere from Argentina to Zimbabwe, from Addis Ababa to Zurich. Setting him on a high pedestal—a pedestal that has been raised still higher this year, thanks to the fact that Andersen was born in 1805—just for that very minor achievement, my friend would contend, is absurd.

She is right, of course. In the grand scheme of matters literary, writing fairytales, however beautifully executed, cannot possibly be compared with the momentous work of creating a Hamlet or a Faust. Despite that, an essay by an academic expert called Jens Andersen—no relation, surely?—printed in the lavishly produced official programme confidently places Andersen side by side with Shakespeare and Goethe. Surely, if they were faced with the searching questioning of an Artistic Truth Commission, even Andersen's most devout apologists would find it hard to sustain such an extravagant claim faced with the hard evidence. Yes, the fairytales are very well told. Andersen's language, I'm assured by all Danish speakers, is vivid, economical, straightforward, unpretentious. The stories aren't just idyllic fantasies with princesses kissing frogs and living happily ever after, but deal unflinchingly with the darker sides of life, with poverty, ridicule, ugliness, rejection, salvation through death. Tales like The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, The Red Shoes and The Emperor's New Clothes rather touchingly reflect Andersen's own life story, his experience as an unattractive, lonely, unsettled man constantly conscious of his own background of dire poverty, constantly striving for acceptance, not least through his compulsive social climbing. Yet many of these fairytales are not Andersen's own stories, but retellings of well-known folk tales.

Moreover, they are the only works for which Andersen is now widely known. His six novels and 50 plays, modestly successful in his own time, and his collections of poems languish in one degree or another of obscurity. Most of those Danes who've read them think that they're second-rate, or worse, though one does come across the odd dissenter who thinks that they're unfairly neglected. The verdict is generally that Andersen adopts a high literary tone which doesn't suit him at all. There's an element of misguided pretentiousness in his language, a self-conscious, consistent attempt to write in an elevated manner. It's significant that it is only when he writes for children or for his own diaries that he becomes himself, that his writing gains a natural charm.

Yet, if he does not figure among the very greatest writers of all time, he's a fascinating subject for a biographer. Was his ambition absurd, and was he really just a somewhat precious mummy's boy less gifted than he himself thought? Was that bearing, that ostentatious wearing of his trademark stovepipe, a mark of arrogance or a defiant gesture in the face of a deep-rooted inferiority complex? Was he a thick-skinned man, as his infamous outstaying of his welcome at Charles Dickens's house in 1857 would suggest, or acutely sensitive? Was he a repressed or a practising homosexual? (Certainly, there was never a deep, real relationship with a woman, and fuel is only added to the gay theory by his opera queen-like adoration of the singer Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'.) Why was he so rootless, constantly travelling throughout Europe and beyond from the time, in the early 1830s, when he first became successful, and never owning his own property despite being well able to afford it?

Using the bicentenary to reconsider these matters, and to weigh up again the literary significance of the man, is all well and good, and the publication of a new 18-volume complete critical edition of Andersen's works is certainly not an event to be sniffed at. But the bicentenary celebrations seem to be erring heavily on the side of commercialisation. Who have the powers that be commissioned to write a full-length opera about Andersen? None other than Elvis Costello, the last person on earth I'd ask to write an opera about anything. The annual summer Green Concert, a touring rock event, this year will be saturated with hip, Andersen-related numbers, and there's to be a rock album called Andersen's Dreams. The year's celebrations opened with celebrity-infested open-air galas in Odense (Andersen's birthplace) and Copenhagen on 2 April, the latter starring, at notorious, budget-ruining expense, Tina Turner.

Further down the economic tree, it seems that every cultural organisation in Denmark has been more or less obliged this year to adopt an Andersen theme. In the case of classical music, that's a hard challenge to meet, since the number of existing good works inspired by Andersen is curiously small. The Danish National Symphony Orchestra has adopted a two-pronged solution. It has commissioned new works, by Bent Sorensen, Per Norgard, Poul Ruders, Bo Holten, Bright Sheng and Bobby McFerrin. And it has included pieces by composers Andersen sort of knew—Wagner, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Grieg. The Odense Symphony Orchestra has responded even more inventively by touring some of the places Andersen visited and thereby offering itself more or less carte blanche.

Vast numbers of the great, good and mostly irrelevant in the international community have been appointed Hans Christian Andersen ambassadors for the 2005 celebrations. Britain mystifyingly boasts the quartet of David Frost, Roger Moore, Elizabeth Hurley and Derek Jacobi, as well as Sandi Toksvig (of course) and the writers Antonia S. Byatt, Michael Morpurgo and award-winning Andersen biographer Jackie Wullschlager. They are charged with helping 'to create awareness of the bicentennial events'. Thus Frost, Moore et al. will no doubt devote chunks of their time alerting Britons to Bent Sorensen's new BBC Proms commission, The Little Mermaid, which will be played by the Danish National Symphony Orchestra on 12 August under its conductor Thomas Dausgaard (and which forms part of the Proms's 'Fairy Tales' thematic strand this year). The libretto is by Peter Asmussen and the work interweaves passages from the diaries with the story. Sorensen is a fine composer, so this could turn out to be a worthwhile, questioning commemoration.

Otherwise, Britain escapes the bicentenary pretty lightly. The British Library last month opened an exhibition about Andersen in Victorian Britain, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has already been involved in the international Symphonic Fairy Tales project, which consists of ten new Danish Andersen-related orchestral works (those poor Danish composers) given on four continents, playing Per Norgard's The Will-o'-the-Wisps Go to Town twice in early April. Arc Dance is repeating its 2004 Linbury Theatre staging of Kim Brandstrup's The Anatomy of a Storyteller in Denmark and elsewhere, and the group The Tiger Lillies will be showing its take on The Little Match Girl at the Copenhagen Theatre Festival in August.

In Odense there's a permanent museum devoted to Andersen's life and work, attached to the little house where he was born. Here you can see seemingly every last little piece of Andersen-related ephemera—that stovepipe hat, for instance, or the length of rope he insisted on carrying around with him as a kind of portable fire escape. There's also a room devoted to his artwork, including those papercuts he used to make as he told his stories. Magical, we're told. They strike me as remarkably unremarkable. But making the unremarkable remarkable is what these celebrations are about. For, just as is the case with trainers or beefburgers, it's an idealised image of Andersen, not the reality, that sells him to the world.

Brian Alderson (essay date November-December 2005)

SOURCE: Alderson, Brian. "H. C. Andersen: Edging toward the Unmapped Hinterland." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 6 (November-December 2005): 671-77.

[In the following essay, Alderson comments on the commercialization of Andersen's literary legacy—on the occasion of the bicentenary of Andersen's birth—and notes the "dubious reliability" of several translated and edited editions of Andersen's fairy tales.]

If we allow them to, the stories of Hans Christian Andersen can pose some trenchant questions to students of narrative and its illustration. But "which stories?" you may ask, and I am tempted to answer "the whole damn lot"—except that few readers seem to be aware of the size and contents of that particular rattle-bag.

Self-obsessed as ever, but perhaps also trying to be helpful, Andersen was from the start given to writing notes on the origins of his eventyr og historier, his "wonder tales and stories." An initial brief reflection appeared in 1837 as a preface to the two stories published then only a couple of years after his first volume of eventyr, and the volumes of stories that appeared in 1862 and 1874 (a year before his death) contain a serial commentary on the complete collection. This confirms what is now universally accepted as the Andersen canon, and the author numbers there its constituent eventyr og historier at 156: "what remains of my wealth."

That quantity and that division into "wonder tales and stories" are essential factors in any attempt to assay the wealth. Andersen's collected works include novels, plays, libretti, travel books, and hundreds of poems. The 1835 arrival of the tales that would fulfill his craving for fame (and make him rich) seems in-auspicious—a tiny, unillustrated book called Eventyr, fortalte for Børn, or Wonder Tales Told for Children —and indeed, at that date, the concept of anyone, anywhere, being preoccupied exclusively with a child audience would probably have seemed incomprehensible.

So it comes about that the great Andersen bicentenary brouhaha of 2005 is launched from a very flimsy bit of staging. For only about a quarter of those 156 eventyr og historier have currency as a "legacy to the world," while little is known about the remainder. Furthermore, that quarter, the thirty or forty tales of undisputed genius, themselves live a vulnerable existence. Publishers, promotionists, and the generality of readers are content to refer to them as "fairy tales" and to see them as belonging in the same category as the traditional tales collected or edited by such persons as Charles Perrault, or the Brothers Grimm, or Joel Chandler Harris. (Only this morning I opened the June 2005 issue of Children's Literature in Education to find an article on the "gender bias of the traditional fairy tales" negligently naming among the culprits "Grimm, Perrault, Lang, Andersen and Disney"!) While it is true that Andersen does acknowledge a few folktales as a source for some of his stories—"The Tinderbox," say, or "The Wild Swans" —what arrives on his pages is not a retelling but a wholly independent creative act arising from his engagement with the original. And those few stories take their place in the canon alongside a huge preponderance of tales that have nothing of "fairy tale" about them at all. The particular-to-Andersen "wonder" in such superlative fantasies as "The Snow Queen" and "The Nightingale" ; the imaginative farce and satire in "The Collar" or "The Darning Needle" or "The Money Pig" ; the wholly Andersenian bittersweet quality of "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep" or "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" —these stories come from nowhere but the author's imagination.

As if this experimentation with the potential of the short story were not enough, however, Andersen also chooses to play games with the telling. He can of course hardly be blamed for casting the stories in a language that was native to only a tiny proportion of his ultimate audience, but he exacerbates the problem by using that language not as a politely educated literary gentleman but as a companionable storyteller, catching you by the sleeve on a park bench, or ruminating over a pint in the local bar. "You should have known my old auntie …" begins one anecdote, or "Here's a tale I was told when I was a little lad, and every time I've thought of it since it's seemed better and better …"

This insistence on the colloquial voice, which runs through tale after tale from start to finish, was reprobated by some of Andersen's countrymen at the time when he was writing and publishing the stories, and it made for particular difficulties as the news of his genius spread—to begin with via translations into German. (Seven of the first nine translations into English were made from unreliable German versions, and these formed the staple for the earliest editions published in America.) Although Edgar Taylor and his associate, David Jardine, had recognized the presence of oral tradition in their first Englishing of the Märchen of the Brothers Grimm in 1823, and although, at about the time when Andersen was publishing his first tales in Denmark, Charles Dickens was beginning to show the English the spirited possibilities of colloquial speech, readers and writers were not accustomed to meeting such an uninhibited storytelling vernacular and knew not how to transfer Andersen's mannerisms into another language. Observe a moderately accurate recent attempt (mine) at translating the opening of "The Snow Queen"

Come on now—look! We're going to begin. And when we get to the end of this story we shall know more than we do now, because here's a wicked troll—really—one of the nastiest, and that's the Devil himself

—and compare it with the first-ever version (from German) by Charles Boner, as found in an early U.S. printing—

Now then, let us begin. When we are at the end of the story we shall know more than we know now: but to begin.

Once upon a time there was a wicked sprite, indeed he was the most mischievous of all sprites

Quite apart from avoiding Andersen's abrupt jump into the substance of the story (and eliminating the Devil), Boner cannot help modulating the initial call to attention down to a polite request.

The reluctance of many of Andersen's translators to labor after a convincing representation in their own language of his often jokey and throwaway diction has affected for the worse countless editions of his most famous stories. (You still find Caroline Peachey's hopeless versions from 1846—the second English translation ever to appear—turning up in selections and as picture book texts.) Indeed, as one bi-ographer remarked, he "has been so mutilated by most of his English translators it seems surprising that he should have survived at all." This bicentenary year has, however, brought forth several new, or freshly revived, translations that readily acknowledge the difficulties of the job and attain a sufficient informality.

For all this respectful behavior, though, the new translators show little interest in exploring the unmapped hinterland beyond the much-trodden pathways among the old favorites. Readers of the Horn Book will surely know every one of the thirteen Tales (Candlewick) in Naomi Lewis's selection for children, elaborately illustrated by Joel Stewart. They will know at least sixteen of the twenty-two in the Stories (Houghton) translated for "modern readers" by D. C. and J. Frank; and at least twenty-two out of the thirty in the Fairy Tales (Viking) translated by Tiina Nunnally. Only Neil Philip—an authority on our hero—in what is unquestionably the best of the new volumes, despite its vulgar get-up and illustrations, the Fairy Tales (Reader's Digest), offers you a more generous glimpse of lesser-known stories: seventeen in a total of forty.

Thus, thanks no doubt to the prudent conservatism of both publishers and the readers they serve, our bicentenary translators have balked not only at tackling a hundred or so of the eventyr og historier but also at admitting their existence. Certainly Jackie Wullschlager in her introduction to the Nunnally selection draws attention to "the pioneering new style, a high-voltage short story for adults" that characterized the later tales, but she mentions only two or three of these, while the Franks confine themselves to the damning faint praise that Andersen "wrote many more stories, most of which had moments of brilliance" but that "some were quite bad—filled with gooey sentimentality—and some were fascinating curiosities."

Such slapdash summaries really will not do. These dismissive remarks by today's Andersen celebrants consign to oblivion over a hundred stories. Can that cargo of work really be cast overboard with barely a comment—especially if there's some "high-voltage" stuff in there—and could not the new presenters of old goods at least offer readers some more literate guidance as to where access to the missing treasures might be found? It is disturbing that Nunnally confesses to never having met "The Ice Maiden" before she began her translating; what else hasn't she read?

In justice to the editors and translators, it must be said that complete English translations of the stories are few and far between and of dubious reliability. Even the most recent collection, The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories (Doubleday), translated by Erik Haugaard, takes many liberties with the source texts. Nevertheless, complete texts in Danish are readily accessible, and it so happens that now—in England anyway—a majestic, but overweight, reprint has arrived of The Complete Stories as translated by Jean Hersholt for the Limited Editions Club in New York in 1949—an edition that ran to six volumes, illustrated with stencil-colored drawings by Fritz Kredel.

Mr. Hersholt was more than generous in his interpretation of "complete," since he offered 155 of the 156 stories of the canon together with thirteen additional pieces. Furthermore, being both Danish and an actor with a feeling for the spoken word, he was well qualified to deal with the verbal peculiarities of his originals, even though he does seem to have had at his elbow a rather awful English translation by H. W. Dulcken from the nineteenth century.

Peculiarities certainly abound, for there's no denying that the later tales are a queer bunch—although that in itself demands that they deserve a much closer analysis than they usually get. "Gooey sentimentality" is indeed to be found in such pieces on death and retribution as "A Story" and "On the Last Day," which have all the makings of religious tracts. But the preponderance of stories reveal a writer who has moved away from or, perhaps more tellingly, turned upside-down the fantastic or comic stories for children to probe the murkier depths of the human condition, whether in individuals, including himself, or in society. That may sound an inflated or pretentious ambition, but it gives rise to an extraordinary variety of narratives as he ventures toward the doleful, if not tragic, heart of his vision, and it is tempered always by the powers of his diction, which can give savor to many of the triter passages ("humor is the salt of the tales," he said in a late entry in his diary).

Perhaps the best way of indicating the oddity of these often-experimental exercises is briefly to describe two contrasting stories that show something of his varied inspiration. The first is "Pebersvendens Nathue" of 1858 (whose title Haugaard nicely translates as "The Pepperman's Nightcap" ). This is something of an adult parallel to "The Little Match Girl" and seems to have been prompted by Andersen's knowledge of a street of small houses in Copenhagen where, at one time, dwelt the indigent agents of German spice-dealers. The lowly existence and death there of Anton the pepperman frames an ac-count of his long-past disappointed love, while his nostalgic tears, falling into his nightcap—"pearls of his memories"—infect it with a melancholy for all who might subsequently wear it.

A weird conceit, no doubt partly explicable by Andersen's own woebegone experiences as a failed lover, but outdone in weirdness by the violently satirical take on "The Ugly Duckling," the 1861 story "I Andegaarden" ("In the Duck Yard") —which, had it been written today, would be seen as a parable about the fate of immigrants and asylum-seekers. A little songbird with a broken wing is chased by a cat into the duck yard. There he is adopted by a Portuguese duck (subject of much mirth throughout the tale). Pride, greed, hypocrisy, and stupidity are evinced among the fowls who inhabit the place—a very human society—and the Portuguese duck, in a tantrum, bites off the songbird's head. "Ooh!" she says, "what's up with him then? Couldn't he even take that? Well—he wasn't for this world. Why! me, with all my loving-kindness, I've been like a mother to him." And the life of the yard goes on.

Andersen's involuntary designation as a writer-for-children may well have hindered a dispassionate assessment of his later stories, with their burden of pessimism. And since they appeared in the latter half of his storytelling career, they are bunched together without the leavening of the lighter wonder tales of earlier days. When they were first published in Denmark, however, they arrived more manageably in small volumes usually containing about six tales at a time and always accompanied by the line drawings of Lorenz Frølich. As "house-illustrator" to the author, he is a vital presence in the final seventy-eight stories of Andersen's oeuvre, just as Vilhelm Pedersen, who died in 1859, had been in the first seventy-eight. Frølich's contribution to the comic, the satiric, the touching events of the late works is marvelously responsive and would in itself offer a stimulus to readers on the brink of exploring the outermost seas of Andersen's imagination.

That said, it should nonetheless be remarked that Andersen himself does not seem to have been too much preoccupied by illustration. When the first booklets of tales were published, they carried no pictures; Pedersen's work was brought into being through the urging of his German publisher in 1849. Germany had already pioneered illustrative elaboration through the drawings and lithographs of Count Pocci and Otto Speckter (which were later re-worked in English and American editions), and once Andersen was well and truly launched in Great Britain, his best-known stories became fair game for artists to have a go at in every conceivable graphic form. (Among the most—inappropriately—lavish was the folio album illustrated by Eleanor Vere Boyle, dated 1872. After seeing a proof-sheet, Andersen remarked in a letter to a friend that a royalty would be even more interesting, and later commented in another letter that he could ascribe no artistic importance to the sumptuous display of color and gilding.)

In all the plethora of visualizations, though, the salient quality of those first unillustrated booklets was—like the songbird in the duck yard—ignored. Andersen's own indifference to illustrative accompaniments (except insofar as they might enhance the cash return) stemmed from his conviction that, as storyteller, he was also picture-maker and that his job was so to inspire his listeners/readers that they might discover their own big-eyed dogs, their own unclothed emperors, and (this cannot be said forcefully enough) their own Snow Queens. (While there is nothing sacrosanct about such unconvincing ladies as Little Ida or Thumbelina, the Snow Queen is a force of nature, a manifestation of Robert Graves's White Goddess, and dressing her up like a furrier's advertisement should lay the culprits open to demolition by "the next bright bolt.") The penchant that illustrators have for booking themselves ego-trips on the back of any passing classic tale is of long standing, and a proper judgment of their work hinges not on the aesthetics of the thing but on the adequacy of their response to the text that prompted it. From the days of Eleanor Vere Boyle onward, Andersen has been vulnerable to overkill by gift-book merchants and picture book publishers, and the examples set by Pedersen and Frølich still stand as a salutary corrective. The wonder in the wonder tales is in the telling.

Elena Abós (essay date November-December 2005)

SOURCE: Abós, Elena. "The Ugly Duckling Goes to the Castle: Hans Christian Andersen at the International Youth Library." Horn Book Magazine 81, no. 6 (November-December 2005): 681-88.

[In the following essay, Abós examines the various celebrations surrounding the bicentenary of Andersen's birth, the history of the International Board on Books for Young People's Hans Christian Andersen Medal, and how Andersen's fairy tales have become indelibly "part of the world's cultural heritage."]

Once upon a time, two hundred years ago in fact, Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark. Son of a shoemaker and a washerwoman, the poor ugly ducking managed to climb an exceedingly steep social ladder to become the most famous Danish writer of all time. He was a prolific writer, gifted storyteller, singer, actor, traveler, poet. But it was his fairy tales that earned him literary immortality. Tales such as "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen," "The Princess and the Pea," and many others have become part of the world's cultural heritage.

It is on his birthday, April 2nd, that we celebrate International Children's Books Day. The highest international prize for children's literature, awarded every other year by IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People), bears his name: The Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Just to have an idea of how Andersen fares as a global author in 2005, at least in quantifiable terms, I checked the Index Translationum, the UNESCO project that documents translated books published all over the world. Andersen is listed as number ten of its Top 50 Authors (after Disney, Agatha Christie, the Bible, Jules Verne, Lenin, Enid Blyton, Barbara Cartland, Shakespeare, and Danielle Steel. The brothers Grimm are twelfth and thirteenth).

Andersen's 200th birthday is being celebrated not only in his home country but all over the world. Through the year there will have been festivals, congresses, plays, and exhibitions (go to or for more information). He was remembered at the International Children's Book Fair in Bologna with exhibitions and an illustrators' meeting. And of course, there are books: many newly illustrated editions of his popular fairy tales are being published all over the world. In the U.S. and Canada, a new book on Andersen by Jack Zipes (Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller [Routledge]) and several illustrated biographies for young people (The Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen [Dutton] by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Dennis Nolan; The Young Hans Christian Andersen [Scholastic] by Karen Hesse, illustrated by Erik Blegvad; and Hans Christian Andersen: His Fairy Tale Life [Groundwood] by Hjørdis Varmer, illustrated by Lilian Brøgger), to name a few, mark the anniversary.

As part of Andersen's year, last June the International Youth Library in Munich devoted its second Illustrators' Forum to his work. Seven renowned illustrators came together to talk about their versions of his fairy tales: Dušan Kállay and Kamila Štanclová from Slovakia, Lisbeth Zwerger from Austria, Rotraut Susanne Berner and Nikolaus Heidelbach from Germany, and Joel Stewart and John A. Rowe from Great Britain.

The forum's location itself has earned a place of honor in the world of children's books. The International Youth Library was founded in 1949 by Jella Lepman, born out of the idea that children's books could become a bridge between people, that books could help to promote understanding and encourage new hope and values after the horrors of World War II. Blutenburg Castle, home of the IYL since 1983, is a fifteenth-century castle surrounded by a moat, with a charming inner yard and its own chapel. Its cellars house a collection of some five hundred thousand children's books in more than 130 languages (and to learn more about the International Youth Library, visit

As I approached the castle to attend the Andersen forum, I saw hanging on the sign of the IYL a brocade coat that looked as if the Emperor had just taken it off in order to try on the amazing new clothes the two swindlers had presented to him. The seminar took place in a wonderful exhibition hall with wooden rafters that could have been the Emperor's throne hall. I wish I could work a little Andersen magic to convey something of the marvelous pictures that were shown and discussed at the seminar.

Peter Nickl, from the IYL foundation, introduced the seminar, addressing the blurry line between reality and fantasy in Andersen's fairy tales and how Andersen shows the tension between them in very simple and understandable language, fancy free. Then Barbara Scharioth, director of the IYL, spoke, underlining Andersen's gift as a storyteller. Indeed, one finds many clues to the oral quality of his stories: he addresses the audience directly, uses onomatopoeia, and writes in a conversational tone. Considering childhood the most important stage in life, Andersen said that he had written his tales "as a child would have told them." Eschewing lessons or morals, he broke the rules of his time about how one was supposed to talk to children and about children. In doing so, he created a new form of telling and a new form of tale that subverted the expectations of traditional fairy tales. In his own time, it won him many critics but ultimately proved to be his passport to immortality.

Just as Andersen found new ways of storytelling, the illustrators who spoke and showed slides at the Illustrators' Forum are finding new ways to portray his tales. Dušan Kállay (winner of the Andersen Medal in 1988) and his wife Kamila Štanclová have joined forces for the first time to illustrate all 156 of Andersen's fairy tales. Kállay, professor at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, is a versatile artist: book illustrator, engraver, painter, and designer. He has illustrated books, posters, stamps, and postcards, has exhibited his paintings worldwide, and received many prizes and honors. Kamila Štanclová is also a fine illustrator with many books and prizes of her own. This is the first time that the whole of Andersen's oeuvre has been translated and illustrated in Slovakia. The first of three volumes of Märchen (cbi, an imprint of Random House, is the publisher of the German edition; Brio, the Slovakian) is just out, and it is an impressive work of art. Some of the original pictures hang in the IYL in an Andersen exhibit, and, viewing them together, one can appreciate the sensibility and depth of the two artists' vision.

The large-format volume boasts lush paper, large print, and generous margins and is profusely illustrated with vignettes, whole page illustrations, and double-page spreads in pencil and watercolors. The rich palette, with lots of reds and blues, gives the paintings a unique lighting that I think suits Andersen especially well: it manages to depict reality with a fantastic twist, or fantasy with a realistic touch. The pictures do not try to re-create Andersen's Denmark or ancient China (as in "The Nightingale" ), but they have their own brand of magical realism. If Andersen looked at the world with a painter's eyes, as Vincent van Gogh suggested in 1888 to his friend Rappard (and as publisher Hans-Joachim Gelberg cited in this seminar), he would have been pleased with the Slovakian artists' portrait of his world in their Märchen.

Štanclová and Kállay have been immersed in Andersen for three years. They divided the workload by each choosing what felt more natural to illustrate according to their tastes and styles, but it is not easy to distinguish the hands since the paintings are not signed. They recounted that Andersen (who in real life could be an exasperating guest) shared their home in Bratislava without outrageous demands, enriching their work. They were often surprised by him, by his life, by the many fairy tales they did not know, and by the quality, range, and voice of those stories.

From their talk, it struck me how humbly they came to the text. They met Andersen as if for the first time, without prejudices. They did not seem to have the need to justify their choices, to talk about overcoming dislikes or suspicions. They approached Andersen the way Andersen approached children: taking them seriously, without talking down to them, with a brand-new language. Maybe that's why the artists have been so successful. They have managed to create a compelling, stunning Andersen that may well become a new classic and a reference for illustrators to come.

Lisbeth Zwerger is an Andersen Medal winner who needs no introduction. She first illustrated Andersen in 1980, with Thumbelina, and has since illustrated The Nightingale (both North-South), a collection of stories, and now a new edition of The Little Mermaid (Minedition). It would seem that Andersen fits perfectly with the melancholic mood, dreamy landscapes, and elegant line of Zwerger's watercolors, but she admitted that this assignment did not bring her much joy. Through a slide show of some of her illustrations for different tales, she expressed her dislike of Andersen, if not as literature then as illustration material. She thinks his themes are too big for picture books. In fact she finds her latest, The Little Mermaid, unbearably sad and tragic. It was commissioned by a Japanese publisher for a series of individual picture books of Andersen tales. In her opinion, most of the stories lack enough illustratable moments to carry a picture book by themselves. She quoted Robert Ingpen, who illustrated The Ugly Duckling for the same project, as saying that only somebody who has suffered would be able to illustrate Andersen. But despite Zwerger's feelings on the matter, she does a beautiful job with the tales, and her books belong to the most widely known and loved of all Andersen editions.

Rotraut Susanne Berner of Germany is a famed illustrator in Europe but not very well known in the United States. She has illustrated, among many other books, The Number Devil by Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Her style is bold and quirky; she always manages to surprise. She shows a preference for strong lines and colors and infuses her drawings with humor and irony. She has illustrated a collection of Andersen stories for Insel, a German publishing house. This slim, small-format volume is not aimed specifically at children, but she explains that she has them always in her mind as her audience, with the caveat that one cannot know who "the children" are; they are a group as heterogeneous as "the adults."

She finds that Andersen tales offer a mixture between innocence and sophistication in their structure, with different reading levels, and she plays with those levels in her illustrations. She describes her way of working as very tactile: she approaches the text to feel if it is "soft" or "hard," and it gives her the clues about how to illustrate it best. If, for example, the text poses questions and turns things around, she does the same with the illustrations.

British illustrator John A. Rowe, author of Peter Piglet, Baby Crow, and Monkey Trouble, among many other books, has illustrated a new edition of The Emperor's New Clothes (Minedition). Rowe brings his personal touch to this baroque emperor, a jolly fashion victim with a red clown nose. On bright white backgrounds, the courtiers and subjects are painted with eccentric detail and expressive animal faces. He found the story a little strange, too serious, and wanted to make it funnier. He sees the Emperor as quite human and even innocent, and that's why he wanted an ending without morals and with hope that could offer a change for the future. So he decided to have the portly monarch laughing with the rest of them. Rowe's is a very personal, lively take on one of Andersen's best known tales.

Nikolaus Heidelbach is an award-winning German illustrator whose books have not yet been translated into English (with the exception of his alphabet book Where the Girls Are). Among his most celebrated works are a collection of Grimm tales, a retelling of Pinocchio by Christine Nöstlinger, and several original picture books. For Andersen's Märchen (published by Beltz in Germany) he has painted 120 pictures for a collection of forty-three tales, freshly translated by Albrecht Leonhardt. With a mixed technique of watercolor and gouache, Heidelbach uses the thinnest of lines to create a naturalistic effect that infuses realism into his sometimes grotesque characters. His complex compositions show a precise attention to the tiniest details.

Heidelbach mentioned two hurdles that he faced, as does surely every artist attempting the task of illustrating a beloved tale. The first challenge is the images that readers already have in their minds. As a little girl once told the artist during a radio show about his Andersen, "Yes, your book is very nice. But it is wrong." She had read a different version, and of course the one she knew was the real one, the right one. The second challenge is how to reillustrate the most famous tales so that they can excite the reader as well as the artist. To overcome the sense of repetition or boredom, Heidelbach tries to surprise himself, choosing his colors as he goes or including visual jokes. For example, when the little mermaid looks toward the city at night, the jutting rocks have the nosy profile of Andersen.

Joel Stewart, illustrator of Viviane Schwarz's The Adventures of a Nose, Carroll's Jabberwocky, and his own Me and My Mammoth, among others, is the youngest of the group and brings his unconventional style to Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Candlewick). This brilliantly designed volume offers new translations from Andersen specialist Naomi Lewis, including an introduction, notes on each story, and a brief Andersen biography. This book seems to me especially well suited to children and young adults. The translation reads beautifully, and the biography and introduction are accessible and interesting.

Each of the thirteen stories is preceded by a short introduction. On the opposite page Stewart introduces the tale as well, with a theater stage—props, curtain, lighting, and all—on which some character from the story appears. As an example, in the illustration for "The Princess and the Pea," the king carries a ladder haughtily across the stage. As Stewart mentioned in his talk, the idea of the theater, which occurred to him before he knew how important theater was to Andersen, permitted him to put himself at a remove. The theater structure reveals the artifice of storytelling and gives the pictures a distance that the text does not have, adding extra perspective.

After the introductions, one enters the story itself and lets the pictures converse with or even contradict the text. The main illustrations whisper with muted tones and soft lines; in some instances they are tinged with somber undertones that might remind the viewer of Edward Gorey. Stewart's human figures are highly stylized, drawn with an easy, flowing line. He approaches the border between fantasy and reality with a mix of humor and matter-of-factness. For example, the beetle that carries Thumbelina away looks as if it belongs in an entomology book (in fact, that is where Stewart got every detail of his beetle, red legs and all), and so the little girl struggling to hold on to her hat also has to be real.

The most personal parts of the book, according to the illustrator, are the small characters in frequent vignettes that accompany the story and "comment" on it. The little figurines are whimsical and clever, both modern and quaint. They provide yet another perspective on the tale, often in a wholly different mood. In "The Princess and the Pea" one of the little figures throws a pea at the other ("look out for those rogue peas")—hardly royal behavior.

Stewart was refreshing in his openness. He talked about his work in a very self-critical, candid way, was ready to give away secrets of his art, and (gasp!) even admitted that he uses computers as a fundamental tool in his drawing. He also admitted that before starting this project he was not familiar with Andersen and was a little reluctant to take it on because of the sentimentality he associated with the tales. But he changed his mind when he read the stories. The blending of humor and melancholy appealed to him.

After listening to these illustrators and looking at their dramatically different takes on Andersen's fairy tales, I came away with many different Andersens. The Andersen that I remembered from childhood, pure saccharine and melodrama, was a product of the puerile versions of the time, very far in spirit, picture, and word from the real thing. Most of these illustrators seem to have gone through very similar experiences. They received an offer to illustrate Andersen and had some misgivings about it. But then they found things that surprised them, even in stories that they thought they knew. They had to get rid of the image of Andersen à la Danny Kaye: sentimental and naive. The real voice of Andersen comes across in the new translations: sometimes mocking, sometimes ironic, and, yes, a bit melodramatic.

In the case of illustrated tales, the pictures are so dominant that they have the power to alter the mood of the story, and in fact what mainly remains, the aftertaste, are not the words of Andersen or his translators but the interpretation of the illustrators. With editions like these, each unique and praiseworthy, Andersen will certainly celebrate many more birthdays on the international Top 10 Authors list.



Hollis Robbins (essay date autumn 2004)

SOURCE: Robbins, Hollis. "The Emperor's New Critique." New Literary History 34, no. 4 (autumn 2004): 659-75.

[In the following essay, Robbins addresses the frequently overlooked characters and themes in Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" in order to study the story's "sociopolitical-literary-critical complexities."]

"Custom," continues the Professor, "doth make dotards of us all."

                        —Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

Hans Christian Andersen's "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837)1 is a tale so transparent that there has been little need for critical scrutiny. Most grown-ups vaguely recall that it is the story of a king who is tricked into donning imaginary clothes (encouraged by courtiers who praise his suit) and showing them off publicly until a child cries out "but he has nothing on!" Scholars well-acquainted with the tale confirm its transparency, asserting that it is a simple story of a seeing through the trappings of power to reveal "the truth" of the Emperor's vanity and the courtiers' pusillanimity. Jacques Derrida proposes that the tale's transparency is its truth; or rather that the truth of Andersen's tale is that it flagrantly stages truth as a scene of public unveiling.2 That is, the story not only describes a scene of reading (the little boy who "reads" the absence of the Emperor's clothes) but also assigns the position of the reader in search of (and finding) truth and closes with the reader publicly pronouncing truth to general acclaim. With its notion of "truth" as a thing that can be unveiled, Andersen's tale, for Derrida, is a fantasy for analysts. With its final image of the heroic romantic child-critic, the tale seems to suggest that anyone with a little pluck and independence can see and say "the truth."

But Andersen's tale is also a critique of criticism, Derrida's criticism suggests. As tale, teller, interpreter, and critical case study all in one, it knows what it is about in offering such a transparent fantasy. Yet if it is true that the tale's very transparency is a critique of the desire to critique—or rather, the exhibitionistic desire to unveil publicly—Derrida's privileging of the themes of analysis, truth, and unveiling in his (albeit brief) reading of "The Emperor's New Clothes" provides evidence that the awareness of this desire does not reduce its influence. The desire to read "The Emperor's New Clothes" as either a fantasy of critique or a critique of the fantasy of critique is symptomatic of our assumptions about what it means to be a reader-analyst. That is, to be a reader-analyst is to occupy the position of Andersen's child and to assert that things are not as they seem—or, rather, that things are exactly as they seem, but that few can recognize this. But this critical stance requires the privileging of (and the reinvestment in) the critical stance. The critical fantasy that Andersen's tale critiques is that when there is something wrong in the world, all that is needed is a brave, insightful individual to set things right. The tale's mythic popularity suggests that something about Andersen's ac-count of seeing and saying the truth is attractive. The tale's truth is the fantasy-desire for the kind of truth that can be revealed.

Yet to say that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is actually critiquing the thing that millions of readers and admirers believe the story is "about" is to risk putting myself in the position of the little boy. To critique the story at all is to step out of the mainstream; since its publication it has been read as a simple tale of aristocratic vanity that promises little beyond the obvious.3 For Marshall McLuhan, "The Emperor's New Clothes" is simply a perfect illustration of how perceptive but antisocial individuals—children, poets, artists, sleuths—can see what is really going on more clearly than "well-adjusted" individuals.4 For Sigmund Freud, who alludes to the story briefly in The Interpretation of Dreams, the story simply offers proof of a "typical" desire for the natural nakedness of childhood.5 For Derrida, as noted above, the tale offers simply another example of the truth that a text is its own best critic. (For him this is true of all texts, of course; but in Andersen's tale, the ironies are richer.) "The Emperor's New Clothes" is a "scene of writing" that exhibits/dissimulates "the baring of the motif of nakedness" well before the analyst arrives on the scene ("PT" ["The Purveyor of Truth"] 39). (Not surprisingly, the figure of the little boy has been used in a popular critical theory textbook to describe Derrida's early acts of speaking truth to power.6) But none of these observations are critiques of the story qua story. They are accounts of the story's illustrative power.

The story would be easy enough to critique—by this I mean to read and analyze the text following one or more of the accepted critical methodologies—and I am tempted to do so. But if I take seriously Derrida's admonition that the text also already critiqued itself before I have even begun, and if I take seriously my own observation that to read the text as a plucky, independent, "unhailed" individual is to reinvest in this critical position, then my analytical project becomes complex. I do not want to play the role of the little boy and exhibitionistically unveil the tale and all those who have refused to see its truths. But what are my alternatives? Most of the traditional metaphors for reading, especially those that are medical-surgical, vegetable, or archeological, involve some sort of opening up, stripping off, peeling, probing, and focusing light on. Is there another position the critic can take in reading a text?

I suggest that we test the effect of enlisting some new verbs in analytical criticism. I propose that "The Emperor's New Clothes" offers several other critical positions besides that of the courageous romantic child. These positions are figured in the story by five very familiar "characters": the Emperor, the "rogue weavers," the ministers, the canopy, and the public. Each of these positions offers us critical verbs: to rule, to weave, to minister, to parade, and to applaud. In the critique that follows I will present and parade "The Emperor's New Clothes" by weaving the threads of the tale's often ignored characters and words, and in doing so, address and applaud its sociopolitical-literary-critical complexities.

The Emperor

Many years ago, there was an Emperor, who was so excessively fond of new clothes, that he spent all his money in dress. He did not trouble himself in the least about his soldiers; nor did he care to go either to the theatre or the chase, except for the opportunities then afforded him for displaying his new clothes. He had a different suit for each hour of the day; and as of any other king or emperor, one is accustomed to say, "he is sitting in council," it was always said of him, "The Emperor is sitting in his wardrobe."

To review Andersen's story and its immediate historical context, recall that the central ruse of "The Emperor's New Clothes" is predicated on the notion of "fitness for office." The specific setting of the tale is a bustling mercantile town whose ruler cares more about clothes than the business of state. "As it was said of other kings 'he is in council,' they said 'he is in his wardrobe.'" Two rogue weavers arrive on the scene to exploit both the king's vanity and administrative insecurity. Those who are unfit for office or are "simpletons," the rogues claim, cannot see the fine cloth they will weave.7 By wearing a suit made from this cloth, the Emperor thinks (rather uncharacteristically), "I might at once find out what men in my realms are unfit for their office, and also be able to distinguish the wise from the foolish!"

The Emperor gives the weavers gold to set up looms and begin immediately. After some time, a faithful minister is sent in to view the cloth and is shocked that he can see nothing. "What can be the meaning of this?" he asks himself. "Can it be that I am unfit for my office?" He listens carefully while the weavers describe the colors and patterns and repeats the words back to the king. Another court official is sent in, only to ask himself "am I not fit for my good, profitable office?" He too reports back that the cloth is extraordinarily magnificent. The weavers ask for more silk and gold thread, which they put in their knapsacks.8 Finally, the Emperor himself is shown the cloth, and he, like his ministers, is puzzled by his first deduction. "Am I unfit to be an Emperor? That would be the worst thing that could happen—Oh! The cloth is charming," he says aloud, and allows himself to be dressed in the new suit.

It is easy to make fun of this poor Emperor. Everyone does, though he is clearly the most important character, and his stature gives weight to the little boy's famous observation (ID [The Interpretation of Dreams] 242-48).9 Yet the Emperor seems to be practicing a kind of focused undertaking that should be just as familiar to us as the little boy's critical outburst. If one character in a story is allegorical, aren't the others equally allegorical? We often expect our leaders (and ourselves) to take risks based on instinct, desire, or philosophy and to try on for size positions that they (and we) do not, or do not yet, fully understand. If so, then we, as critics who believe all perspicacious children who publicly proclaim truths that nobody seems to see, must recognize that we are also Emperors, cloistered in our closets, often ignoring much of the world around us, sifting through and trying on new ideas—partly for display and partly for vanity, but also partly because it is what we like to do.

The Weavers

One day, two rogues, calling themselves weavers, made their appearance. They gave out that they knew how to weave stuffs of the most beautiful colors and elaborate patterns, the clothes manufactured from which should have the wonderful property of remaining invisible to everyone who was unfit for the office he held, or who was extraordinarily simple in character.

These weavers resemble nothing so much as a new English Ph.D. on a job talk or a member of the MLA writing a proposal for a panel discussion. They are promising to create a text(ile) that will distinguish between the worthy and the unworthy; only the highly qualified will "get it." Theirs is a speculative endeavor but also a wholly critical one. Rather than pointing out truth, they are weaving a discourse that reveals truth.

The obvious (and all too familiar) critique is that these weavers are not really producing anything. They are rogues and frauds profiting from the insecurity and gullibility of others. Economic thought before Marx proposed that productive labor was only that which resulted in a material product, thus the labor of teachers and critics could not be considered productive. But for Marx all products of labor are "social things whose qualities are at the same time perceptible and imperceptible by the senses."10 Andersen's weavers are merely insisting that the value of their labor be recognized apart from its material embodiment. Their presence in the text (and the fact that they are also coat-makers) signals an engagement with the highly charged political debate about the materiality of an artist's, craftsman's, or scholar's labor.11Capital opens with a sustained exploration of the handloom weavers' plight, investigating the social character of their labor and the mystical character of the coats they make.12 Initially, the tale seems committed to a more optimistic future (or at least one less bleak) than Marx prophesies. In this bustling town, the handloom weavers'/tailors' work will lose neither its individual character nor its charm, artisans will be paid more than merely the objective cost of production, and they will convince the Emperor's ministers that it is in the town's best interest to appreciate the subjective value of their labor. The "truthful" child, who cannot see invisible labor, puts an end to this fantastic vision.

Moreover, the problem with the truth-telling child as a figure for the critic-analyst is that he does not labor prior to his outburst. The weavers, by contrast, succeed in selling the Emperor on their idea, and getting paid up front (like any good fellowship-recipient). They set up looms and request "the most delicate silk and the purest gold thread" (read: office and library privileges), which they promptly put in their knapsacks. Then they begin, "affecting to work very busily." The labor that the weavers/tailors will expend in turning the cloth into a coat may be invisible to some, they explain, but its beauty will appear to those who appreciate it. A "fit" minister or Emperor will fully perceive the artisans' labor in the coat. "Does not the stuff appear beautiful to you?" they ask. "Is not the work absolutely magnificent?"

The Ministers

So the faithful old minister went into the hall, where the knaves were working with all their might, at their empty looms. "What can be the meaning of this?" thought the old man, opening his eyes very wide. "I cannot discover the least bit of thread on the looms." However, he did not express his thoughts aloud….

The Emperor now sent another officer of his court to see how the men were getting on, and to ascertain whether the cloth would soon be ready. It was just the same with this gentleman as with the minister; he surveyed the looms on all sides, but could see nothing at all but the empty frames.

"Does not the stuff appear as beautiful to you, as it did to my lord the minister?" asked the impostors of the Emperor's second ambassador; at the same time making the same gestures as before, and talking of the design and colors that were not there.

"I certainly am not stupid!" thought the messenger. "It must be, that I am not fit for my good, profitable office! That is very odd; however, no one shall know anything about it."

Any scholar-critic who does not recognize herself (from time to time) in these subalterns is as blind as … well, one of the Emperor's subalterns. What is the basis for "Subaltern Studies" but the recognition that those with restricted voices speak in complicated, indirect ways? The critic or analyst who works for an institution (or within an academic field) is also a subaltern whose very dissimulation is an alternative form of critique. Literary critics are the last people who should privilege the direct speech of the little boy.

New Historicist literary critics should be especially attuned to the historical significance of the ministers' behavior. Evidently, the Emperor's court is caught up in a particularly nineteenth-century European controversy over objective qualifications for civil service. In the 1820s and '30s, the conservative Danish bureaucracy, which enjoyed power and prestige under the king's absolute rule, was under increasing pressure to respond to the needs of a growing merchant and middle class. Bourgeois liberals pressed the centralized governing structures for press freedoms, free trade, and an end to aristocratic privileges. Older bureaucrats reluctantly joined their younger, university-trained colleagues in the reform movements that would lead to a new constitutional monarchy by 1849.13 This pattern replicated itself across Europe.14

Following the logic of Danish and British (as well as French and German) civil service reform, Andersen's high-level ministers and lower-level chamberlains find themselves asked to demonstrate their qualification for positions they are already holding. The old trusted minister is shocked and worried, but the reader should not be—the story suggests he and his fellow (civil) servants have proven themselves to be qualified for their jobs. The Emperor's vanity has been economically beneficial to the town: while he has been closeted with his wardrobe and ignoring his soldiers, people have prospered, and "time passed merrily in the large town which was his capital." This transparent government has been working. If the chamberlains (who are traditionally political, not sartorial) have successfully served the state by suiting the sovereign, it may be wise policy to continue.15

Unfortunately, however, the fashion advice that they have been used to giving has suddenly been constituted as an objective test of their fitness. They are left with a difficult choice: to acknowledge publicly that their subjective flattery has been objectively good for the capital (thus embarrassing the Emperor) or just quietly continue serving him (and keeping the peace) by admiring his clothes. All of the folk-tale precursors to "The Emperor's New Clothes" feature a courtier who must "see" a painting or a turban or a play or else reveal that he is illegitimate.16 Andersen's updated version not only reflects a culture in which professional competence was quickly overtaking legitimacy and heritage as a source of aristocratic anxiety, but also weaves a new layer of complexity into the narrative. That is, while the problem of "legitimacy" follows a binary logic and is (for the most part) an objective question, professional fitness is enduringly subjective. The understandable uncertainty about the idea of "fitness" provides an incentive to admire the invisible cloth.17 While we might indulge ourselves in picturing the Emperor's state of dishabille, the chamberlains who mime carrying the invisible train are clearly guided by their critical faculties. Their investment in the materiality of the Emperor's clothes is apparently so great that they will persist despite the public turmoil at the close of the story.

The Canopy

And now the Emperor, with all the grandees of his court, came to the weavers; and the rogues raised their arms, as if in the act of holding something up, saying, "Here are your Majesty's trousers! Here is the scarf! Here is the mantle! The whole suit is as light as a cobweb; one might fancy one has nothing at all on, when dressed in it; that, however, is the great virtue of this delicate cloth…."

"How splendid his Majesty looks in his new clothes, and how well they fit!" everyone cried out. "What a design! What colors! These are indeed royal robes!"

"The canopy which is to be borne over your Majesty, in the procession, is waiting," announced the chief master of the ceremonies….

The invisible "cobweb-light" fabric shares the stage with another very material piece of cloth with objectively discernible effects: the ceremonial canopy under which the Emperor will proceed. The short narrative mentions it twice. It precedes the procession and plays a crucial role in it. Its obvious critical analogue is the diploma.

The relation of the canopy to the invisible cloth (or the diploma to the journal publication) is perhaps the same relation as the physical to the metaphysical—what Adam Smith famously called a "cobweb science."18 But it is not a binary relation; both are fabrications whose value can only be perceived by one "in the know." Not surprisingly, nobody who reads the story "sees" the Emperor's canopy. It is part of the ceremonial text of kingship.

Oscar Wilde remarks that "the true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible." Likewise, the riddle of the invisible cloth's—and the story's—significance is solved by the customary visible covering of the king. Seen or unseen, it is not the cloth qua cloth but the position and function of the cloth within the story that determines each character and produces certain of the story's effects (to paraphrase Barbara Johnson's evaluation of a certain missing letter).19 Until the child speaks, that is, the invisible material performs the same role as the visible. The function of the canopy is to announce that the Emperor is the emperor, whatever he happens to be wearing.20

In Freud's reading of "The Emperor's New Clothes," the "typical" invisible cloth (not the canopy) is evidence of repression and thus is of interest to the analyst (as might be the modern reader's active forgetting that Marx's Capital begins with a discussion of coats).21 But if the invisible textile inside the text becomes for Freud the whole text, why does it, and it alone, remain so even in Derrida's whole-cloth reconsideration of Freud's reading? Why the collective critical blindness to the visible fabric of the story—kingship and the cloth that signifies it?

The Public

So now the Emperor walked under his high canopy in the midst of the procession, through the streets of his capital; and all the people standing by, and those at the windows, cried out, "Oh! How beautiful are our Emperor's new clothes! What a magnificent train there is to the mantle; and how gracefully the scarf hangs!" In short, no one would allow that he could not see these much-admired clothes; because, in doing so, he would have declared himself either a simpleton or unfit for his office. Certainly, none of the Emperor's various suits, had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.

In initially making manifest the social utility of the Emperor's invisible formal garments, the story exposes the invisible social conventions that bind the townspeople together and to the Emperor. The text suggests that the importance of these invisible customs is greatest in periods of social upheaval. But if the problem of invisibility engages the axes of veiled/unveiled and blindness/sight simultaneously, it is unclear whether a customary act of not seeing is an act of self-protection or self-exposure.

"The Emperor's New Clothes" dramatizes the dangers of habitual blindness in the name of social discretion. "What is perfectly correct and in order if practiced within the autonomous life of sociability," cautions Simmel, "becomes a deceptive lie when it is guided by non-sociable purposes or is designed to disguise such purposes" (SGS [The Sociology of Georg Simmel] 49). The pretense of "seeing" the Emperor's invisible clothes is traditionally read as artifice at best and a lie at worst. But by foregrounding questions of sociability against a backdrop of political and economic turmoil, Andersen's tale clearly suggests that social discretion can engender democratic social solidarity. The townspeople's initial admiration for the cloth is a function of an altogether different reason. While the modern civil servant is trained to disregard (or be indifferent to) what is not in his particular purview, the townspeople remain, by contrast, fascinated with each other. "All the people throughout the city had heard of the wonderful property the cloth was to possess; and all were anxious to learn how wise, or how ignorant, their neighbors might prove to be," the narrator continues. But even while they are curious, their sense of social discretion subtly evokes bureaucratic detachment: they do not want to reveal their curiosity. Simmel observes that in all human intercourse, everyone knows more about everyone else than what is voluntarily revealed, but endeavors to be discreet about it. In general, however, "man arrogates to himself the right to know all he can find out through mere observation and reflection, without applying externally illegitimate means" (SGS 323). Both the townspeople and the ministers have a personal stake in admiring the invisible cloth. Their long-term economic stake, however, may be even greater.

The Little Boy

The Emperor is ecstatic, until a little boy remarks, "But the Emperor has nothing at all on!" His father exclaims, "Listen to the voice of innocence!" and the child's words are whispered from one to another. "But he has nothing at all on!" they all cry out at last. The story concludes:

The Emperor felt most uncomfortable, for it seemed to him that the people were right. But somehow he thought to himself: "I must go through with it now, procession and all." And he drew himself up still more proudly, while the lords of the bedchamber walked after him carrying the train that wasn't there.

Ceremonies and formal performances have played a positive role in the community. The procession through the town was apparently already planned in advance of the weavers' arrival. "All [the Emperor's] retinue … advised his majesty to have some new clothes made from this splendid material, for the approaching procession." As Simmel notes, the sociable world—"the only world in which a democracy of the equally privileged is possible without frictions—is an artificial world" (SGS 48). These stewards of the artifice are steadfastly maintaining the "certain reserve and stylization" that Simmel suggests constitutes the social (SGS 48). In their steadfastness, the chamberlains are also perhaps exhibiting a rather Hegelian act of courage: "absolute obedience, renunciation of personal opinions and reasonings, in fact complete absence of mind, coupled with the most intense and comprehensive presence of mind" in order to realize and actualize a more open government.22 They will persist in observing the proper, albeit artificial, forms despite the little boy who "sees through" it all.

Curiously, Andersen's original version had no child. The story ended this way:

Certainly, none of the Emperor's various suits had ever made so great an impression, as these invisible ones.

"I must put on the suit whenever I walk in a procession or appear before a gathering of people," said the emperor, and the whole town talked about his wonderful new clothes.

(HCA [Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work, 1805–1875] 312)

This original version clearly registers the growing democratic political climate of the time and closes with an image of fellowship. It is a story of a successful enchantment. The townspeople simultaneously like seeing the Emperor naked (which makes them feel powerful) and like having to pretend publicly that nobody can see him naked (which keeps the crowd in check). The magical cloth enables the people's twin desires for power and security to be satisfied.

But just before publication Andersen had second thoughts about this conclusion and told the proofreader to delete the final paragraph and replace it with the final three paragraphs we are all too familiar with, hoping, he said, to give it a more satirical appearance (HCA 313). He succeeds. The fairy tale that we know does not end happily. The townspeople had been quite happy to ignore the Emperor's metaphoric nakedness for years, but the child's declaration abruptly ends this charade. The ceremonial fictions of sovereignty have become a problem that needs fixing. The child's words are disruptive—not for having leveled the difference between ruler and ruled, but for endangering the formal process by which it is accomplished without being openly acknowledged. While the public outside the text applauds the boy's act of disenchantment, the community inside is fractured and diminished.23 The rogue weavers disappear from the story, the townspeople are deflated, and the chamberlains are left holding invisible robes. Read along the grain of history, the little boy whose antisocial remark is embraced as romantic insight emerges as scandalously reactionary: he calls the people fools and tells the king to get dressed. His particular version of "transparent" social interaction is intended to expose social difference rather than foster equality, and he succeeds in utterly rending the social fabric of the town by seeing through the Emperor's clothes.

That is, the Emperor is still the emperor. The townspeople's enthusiasm for his naked vanity is exposed, but (as the canopy manifests) his sovereignty is not in doubt. To paraphrase Barbara Johnson again, if the invisible cloth poses the question of its own rhetorical status, it is answered (at least initially) by a resounding "yes": "It is [visible] 'in' a symbolic structure, a structure which can only be perceived in its effects" ("FR" ["The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida"] 498). The people are traumatized not by the realization that the cloth is invisible but by the public acknowledgement that they have subscribed to its visibility. They have consented to what the Emperor's accoutrements (robes, canopy), however invisible, signify. The relationship between the robes and the townspeople is only underscored by their initial blindness to their (the robes') invisibility.

The complex social desire that "The Emperor's New Clothes" imagines—a vision of a certain kind of economically beneficial performance that is not publicly acknowledged as simply a performance—may have been exposed, but the number of people who labored to carry it off demonstrates its materiality. I will not say that readers of "The Emperor's New Clothes" have been fooled when they read the text as a story of an Emperor (and a town) that has been fooled, because Andersen's text so very much wants this to be the case. The romantic idiom (a child who seems to speak the truth) is deployed precisely to create this effect. And yet this effect is wholly a function of the belief that art is objective (that there is an essential truth), that labor is invisible, and that Emperors ought to be clothed—all of which the child is somehow already socialized to believe. The pessimism of Andersen's text is located precisely in the conservatism of this child. To read him any other way is to be blind to the fact that nakedness has its "truth" in clothing—the Emperor is not naked until the child insists that he must "truly" be clothed.

The Text

What is at the heart of this story's remarkable cultural/political relevance? Why is it that the allegorical "emperor's new clothes" circulates so widely even as we resist becoming on intimate terms with it? Lurking beneath our appreciation of the story's fairy-tale moral, I suggest, is an apprehension of the serious ontological and epistemological social problems it dramatizes. Recalling its much longer cognate text, Sartor Resartus (and sharing its engagement with metaphysics and fabrication), ["The Emperor's New Clothes" ] vision of invisible fabric furnishes an idiom that will to some degree underwrite the investigations of the next generation of social theorists.24 As Ruskin will ask (putting aside "tiresome and absurd" questions of objectivity, subjectivity, and truth), what is the difference between true and false appearances when under a contemplative fancy? As Marx will ask, can something invisible have value? As Weber will ask, are individual subjectivity and bureaucratic function contradictory? As Simmel will ask, why is it that secrecy—the hiding of realities—is one of man's greatest achievements? As Wittgenstein will ask, can I ever know what someone else sees or that he sees at all, when all I have is signs of various sorts that he gives me?

The brief critical attention that Jacques Derrida pays to "The Emperor's New Clothes" (which is largely a critique of Freud's reading of the story) functions as a kind of dumb show for his longer and more famous critique of Jacques Lacan's reading of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter."25 But although the presence of Andersen's story in a critique of critique hints that the story may have something new to say about the project of critique, Derrida never proceeds beyond descrying (or decrying) the typical project of critique and truth-telling by unveiling. In Derrida's view, both Poe's story and Andersen's feature a king whose manhood is imperiled, who is surrounded by habit-driven and blindly ineffectual civil servants, and who is saved by an individual who sees what is obvious. Both Dupin and the little boy respond to the crisis of kingly exposure with flashes of insight; both save the crown further embarrassment. Both Dupin and the boy are wholly conservative and patriotic. In their view, there is never a question that a king could or should fall from grace.

It is understandable that politics in a reading of "The Purloined Letter" should take a back burner: after all, there is a woman involved, as well as a little gold knob hanging between the cheeks of a fireplace. But "The Emperor's New Clothes" offers no such distractions. The tale's Zelig-like appearance at the periphery of a famous twentieth-century quarrel over the nature of truth, speech, nakedness, and disclosure is all the more remarkable for the fact that the story remains essentially unexamined. Indeed, there has been surprisingly little interest in the historical, textual, and sociopolitical agenda of Andersen's story. Unlike several of his other works (notably, "The Shadow," "The Little Mermaid," and Only a Fiddler), "The Emperor's New Clothes" has provoked little academic interest.26 Perhaps, as a noted authority of the story's many folkloric antecedents suggests, the tale resists critical scrutiny because its moral is too obvious and "too bitter a pill" (AT 17).27

Even this briefest of readings of "The Emperor's New Clothes" makes manifest that it has cultural and political relevance well beyond the popular figure of the little boy. The story quite clearly rehearses four contemporary controversies: the institution of a meritocratic civil service, the valuation of labor, the expansion of democratic power, and the appraisal of art. The story's potency, I argue, is not a function of the tale's engagement with these crises but its seductive resolution of them. We are seduced by the figure of an innocent analyst who pipes up and appears to clarify.

"Andersen's text has the text as a theme," Derrida observes (PT 37). He introduces his reading of Andersen by calling it an "apologue or parabolic pretext" for his "Purloined Letter" reading that he arrives at by opening up The Interpretation of Dreams "somewhere near the middle." The first two texts Derrida mentions after opening the Freud are Oedipus Rex and Hamlet. Thus we find grouped together, on one page, four stories about blindness, kingship, and threatening speech. Two of these stories, remarkably, are about Danish kings. It is a point too provocative to ignore.

The weavers' text, like the ghostly voice whispering at midnight, like the existence of a lover's letter, like the words of the prophecy, threatens to bring down a king. To their auditors, the words are "true." They sell a particular idea that the king has something to be embarrassed about, whether it is fitness for office, the right to the office, or the loyalty of his wife. The material effects of these words are the basis for these four stories, all of which are "resolved" in a manner that cleans up the office of the king.

In 1835, the Danish government, like most of its European counterparts, prohibited political meetings. But that year the Society for the Proper Employment of the Freedom of the Press was formed to resist Royal encroachment on the limited right of free speech in the country. In Germany, the Carlsbad Decrees of 1835 had killed press freedoms for the most part and sent authors such as Andersen's friend Heine into exile. Andersen, as Alison Prince suggests, could not have been unaware of the dangers of his profession.28 In this context, Andersen's tale of an Emperor who believes in the materiality of words (who clothes himself in textual description) might also be read as an exploration of a constitutional monarchy in which the public conspires to preserve the myth of monarchial fitness. But this reform could be fraught with practical problems: the Emperor risks revealing that he has nothing on because children—the most skeptical and conservative of readers—are apt to see right through the fabrication.


1. Hans Christian Andersen, "The Emperor's New Clothes," Andersen's Fairy Tales (E-text #1597), Project Gutenberg, Jan 1999, All quotations of the story in this essay are from this e-text version, which is the most literal translation available.

2. Jacques Derrida, "The Purveyor of Truth," tr. Willis Domingo, James Hulbert, Moshe Ron, and M. -R. L., Yale French Studies, 52 (1975), 38-39; hereafter cited in text as "PT".

3. First published in 1837 and translated into English in 1846, there are probably thousands of versions of "The Emperor's New Clothes" extant. It has been translated into hundreds of languages and is by now a cultural icon. See Elias Bredsdorff, Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work, 1805–1875 (New York, 1975), part 2, chapter 2 for specific details of this translation history; hereafter cited in text as HCA. See also Jon Cech, "Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales and Stories: Secrets, Swans and Shadows," Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, ed. Perry Nodelman, vol. 2 (Summit, Pa., 1987), pp. 14-23. Cech quotes Andersen scholar Bo Gronbech: "Andersen's tales have been translated into over a hundred languages; only the Bible and Shakespeare have been translated into more" (16). The tale of the naked king and the little boy has been modernized, embellished, reimagined, and recontextualized in print, on stage, and on film. Steven Spielberg recently published a new illustrated version with himself as star. Last year Disney offered a film entitled The Emperor's New Groove. In a New York Times Book Review essay on the latest biography of Hans Christian Andersen, Brook Allen writes that "The Emperor's New Clothes" is "a masterpiece whose very title has become a byword for human vanity" (Brook Allen, "The Uses of Enchantment," The New York Times, 20 May 2001, late ed., section 7, 12). A quick database search reveals that the phrase "emperor's new clothes" is used hundreds of times every year in newspaper articles, congressional testimony, and academic journals as a tool for oppugning established policies and colleagues. Every field's iconoclasts, whistle-blowers, and revolutionaries want to see themselves as the little boy—the analyst who sees the real truth and proclaims it to the world.

4. Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium Is the Massage (New York, 1967), pp. 88-89. Bredsdorff sums up: "Andersen's universally applicable tale ridicul[es] the snobbery of people who pretend to understand or appreciate things they do not really understand or appreciate, in order not to be considered ignorant or stupid" (Hans Christian Andersen, p. 252).

5. Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (London, 1990), pp. 242-48; hereafter cited in text as ID.

6. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, eds., Critical Theory since 1965 (Tallahassee, 1986), p. 79.

7. Freud and Derrida mischaracterize the prerequisites for seeing the cloth as "virtue and loyalty."

8. In some versions, there is a suggestion that the Emperor has paid for the cloth out of his own pocket.

9. Freud recognized the Emperor's central role but stopped short of recognizing his potential as a model for the analyst. For Freud, the Emperor is a typical dreamer dreaming the typical dream of nakedness. Freud suggested that the Emper-or's social predicament of being naked and yet unashamed is made sense of by the weavers' deception, which he calls "the secondary revision." That is, the dream concocts the weavers in order to "clothe" the dreamer's desire for nakedness. But although Freud acknowledges his own dreams of nakedness, he does not perform his analysis from the position of the Emperor. Typically, he casts himself in the role of the little boy, stripping away the secondary revisions and revealing the desire for nakedness that shames the patient.

10. Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, ed. Frederick Engels and Ernest Untermann (New York, 1906), p. 83.

11. For contemporary readers, fictional rogue weavers would resonate with their real-life counterparts who were actively petitioning their governments and demanding piecework rates, or being arrested and jailed for burning machines. In the first decades of the nineteenth century large-scale manufacture of power looms and expanding assembly-line production had devastated the rural economies of Europe and put thousands of handloom weavers and spinners out of work.

12. That is, Marx conceives of the relationship between the labor of a weaver/tailor and his final product as "imagined" but "invisible" material, beginning with the admonition that a product's utility is not a thing of air. Employing the idiom of invisible cloth, Marx "sees" the labor of these weavers and tailors. The coat produced by a weaver and tailor has value "only because human labor in the abstract has been embodied or materialized in it," and this labor is both visible and invisible (Capital, p. 45). The tailoring of the coat "shows" this labor, he continues, "but though worn to a thread, it does not let this fact show through" (60). The price of a commodity, he continues, is "a purely ideal or mental form," as is its value, which is made perceptible by its equality with gold, but which really exists only in one's head (107).

13. See Kenneth E. Miller, Government and Politics in Denmark (Boston, 1968).

14. The British transformation from aristocratic patronage to professionalism in the civil service began in earnest in 1802, when Parliament rather than the king became responsible for civil-service salaries. It continued through 1833 with the founding of Statistical Societies and with the merit-based reorganization of the India Office on John Stuart Mill's philosophy that "efficiency should be substituted for influence." It reached fruition in the famous 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report, which recommended restructuring and centralizing the entire British civil service and instituting competitive exams for both recruitment and promotion. The discourse of fitness continued in fictional form in Charles Dickens's Little Dorrit, Honore de Balzac's The Bureaucrats, and Anthony Trollope's The Three Clerks.

15. A chamberlain is a king's (or queen's) private chamber attendant or administrator. The role of England's Lord Great Chamberlain is hereditary and requires attending upon and attiring the sovereign at his/her coronation, caring for various palaces and halls on formal state occasions, and attending upon peers and bishops at their creation. The Lord Chamberlain of the Household and the Mistress of the Robes share the oversight of all officers of the Royal Household. Shortly after "The Emperor's New Clothes" was published, the infamous 1839 "Bedchamber Crisis" in England provoked public debate about the political power of intimate advisors. In one of his first official acts, Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel demanded that several of Queen Victoria's Ladies of the Bedchamber and Mistress of the Robes be removed, because their husbands were Whig politicians. His fear, of course, was that each of these ladies would be looking after her own—that is, her political party's—best interest by discrediting Peel's government in the privacy of the Royal apartments. After the resignation of Melbourne's government in 1839, the new Prime Minister Robert Peel demanded this of Queen Victoria during his first meeting with her. His belief was that because their husbands were Whigs opposed to his government, these ladies-in-waiting would fill the Queen's ears with criticisms of Tory policy and compromise her confidence in Peel's government.

16. Archer Taylor, "The Emperor's New Clothes," Modern Philology, 25 (1927/28), 17-27; hereafter cited in text as AT. Taylor identifies a thirteenth-century, German jestbook tale about an artist whose paintings can be seen only by those who are legitimate. There is a fifteenth-century Turkish tale that turns on a silk turban. There is a seventeenth-century play by Cervantes in which not only does an individual have to be legitimate to see a theatrical spectacle, but he cannot have a single drop of Jewish blood. In the source text that Andersen acknowledged, a fourteenth-century cautionary tale by Infante don Juan Manuel, translated into German as "So ist der Lauf der Welt," magic cloth woven by fraudulent weavers is similarly visible only to those who are legitimate. Taylor bases his genealogy on the shared characteristics of the "fraud," the "chain of falsehood," the disclosure of "the self-imposed deception," and the moral that "truth will out" (24). "All exemplify the idea [that] knaves will lie for their own supposed advantage, even if the act involves boldfaced deception" (17).

17. If the function of art is to make the invisible visible, both the weavers and the chamberlains prove themselves aesthetically (as well as ethically) proficient in their specific references to what the cloth actually looks like. Their repetitive description of the cloth's immateriality paradoxically reinforces a sense of its ontological stability. "The whole suit is as light as a cobweb," the weavers say, while fitting the Emperor; "one might fancy one has nothing at all on, when dressed in it; that, however, is the great virtue of this delicate cloth." Yet despite its existence as mere fabrication, the cloth has objectively discernible effects on the individuals it touches: the two subordinate chamberlains bend down and pick up the invisible train as the Emperor prepares to parade through the town. Their dogged determination to keep holding this train even after the little boy speaks is usually considered proof positive of the ministers' lack of common sense.

18. Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (London, 1896), book 5 "Of the Revenue of the Sovereign or Commonwealth," chap. 1 "Of the Expenses of the Sovereign or Commonwealth," article 2 "Of the Expense of the Institutions for the Education of Youth," p. 292: "When metaphysics and physics are set in opposition to one another, they naturally give birth to a third, Ontology, which treats of qualities and attributes common to both." The "subtleties and sophisms" could "compose the whole of this cobweb science of Ontology." For Carlyle, metaphysical clothes are (pun intended) a physical habit: "Consider well, thou wilt find that Custom is the greatest of Weavers; and weaves airraiment for all the Spirits of the Universe; whereby indeed these dwell with us visibly, as ministering servants, in our houses and workshops; but their spiritual nature becomes, to the most, forever hidden" (Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus (London, 1896), book 3, chapter 8, p. 206). That is, we are blind to what is customary.

19. Barbara Johnson, "The Frame of Reference: Poe, Lacan, Derrida," Yale French Studies, 55/56 (1977), 457-505; hereafter cited in text as "FR."

20. Kurt H. Wolff, ed. and tr., The Sociology of Georg Simmel (New York, 1964); hereafter cited in text as SGS. As Simmel notes, "in earlier times, functionaries of the public interests were customarily clothed with mystical authority, while, under larger and more mature conditions, they attain … through their distance from every individual, a certainty and dignity by means of which they can permit their activities to be public" (336). Without the "mystical authority" of visible robes, the canopy gives the Emperor, his chamberlains, and the townspeople "cover," and reminds the crowd who and what the Emperor is. As an allegory of nineteenth-century political dismantling, this preoccupation with ceremony makes sense. In the emerging democratic political movements of the 1830s, a naked king—a king divested of power—was just what people were clamoring for. (Only a decade would pass before Denmark's absolute monarchy was in fact abolished and replaced by a constitution establishing a popularly elected Parliament and guaranteeing new freedoms.)

21. Recall that for Freud, Andersen's tale enacts and is a disguise: the dreamer, vaguely ashamed by his public nakedness, has to clothe his dream in a secondary revision—in this case the onlookers' approbation—which the analyst/boy will pull off (The Interpretation of Dreams, pp. 242-48). Thus Derrida: "the baring of the motif of nakedness as secondarily revised or disguised by Andersen's fairy tale, will be exhibited/dissimulated in advance by the fairy tale in a piece of writing that therefore no longer belongs in the realm of decidable truth" ("Purveyor of Truth," p. 39).

22. Hegel's Philosophy of Right, tr. T. M. Knox (Oxford, 1945), part 3, chap. 2, sec. 328, pp. 211-12.

23. "In comparison with the childish stage in which every conception is expressed at once, and ev-ery undertaking is accessible to the eyes of all," Simmel argues, "the secret produces an immense enlargement of life" (Sociology of Georg Simmel, p. 330). The image of the naked king evokes and complicates traditionally positive metaphors of "transparent" and "open" government operating under a policy of "full disclosure." By contrast, the idea of a "coverup" is wholly negative.

24. Carlyle's text, like Andersen's, was influenced by Goethe's writings. The similarities between the two texts are remarkable, though they are not the focus here. From Sartor Resartus: "Often in my atrabiliar moods, when I read of pompous ceremonials, Frankfort Coronations, Royal Drawing-rooms … and I strive, in my remote privacy, to form a clear picture of that solemnity, on a sudden, as by some enchanter's wand, the—shall I speak it?—the Clothes fly off the whole dramatic corps; and Dukes, Grandees, Bishops, Generals, Anointed Presence itself, every mother's son of them, stand straddling there, not a shirt on them; and I know not whether to laugh or weep…. What would Majesty do, could such an accident befall in reality; should the buttons all simultaneously start, and the solid wool evaporate, in very Deed, as here in Dream? Ach Gott! How each skulks into the nearest hiding-place; their high State Tragedy … becomes a Pickleherring-Farce to weep at, which is the worst kind of Farce; the tables (according to Horace), and with them, the whole fabric of Government, Legislation, Property, Police, and Civilized Society, are dissolved in wails and howls" (Sartor Resartus, book 1, chap. 9, p. 48).

25. To summarize Barbara Johnson, "The Emperor's New Clothes" raises the problem of the ability of subjective "seeing" to interfere with the polarity "hidden/exposed." She alludes to Andersen's tale to critique the ways that Derrida "sees" only what is within his own sight lines—that is, in focusing on a literary text solely as a signifier of literary text, Derrida is blind to what the social circulation of text signifies ("The Frame of Reference," p. 482).

26. Otto Rank treats "The Shadow" in some depth in The Double [1914], tr. and ed. Harry Tucker (New York, 1979). Søren Kierkegaard's first published work is a critique of Andersen's third novel, Only a Fiddler (1837), written the same year as "The Emperor's New Clothes" (see Bredsdorff, Hans Christian Andersen, pp. 128-30, for a discussion of Kierkegaard's "From the Papers of One still Living. Published against His Will by S. Kierkegaard. About H. C. Andersen as a Novelist, with Special Reference to His Latest Work, Only a Fiddler").

27. See also Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion: The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization (New York, 1983), pp. 71-97. Zipes claims that "the widespread, continuous reception of Andersen's fairy tales in western culture" is due to the stories' ideological embrace of "bourgeois notions of the self-made man or the Horatio Alger myth … [and] a belief in the existing power structure" (80-81).

28. Alison Prince, Hans Christian Andersen: The Fan Dancer (London, 1998).


Gwyneth Cravens (review date 11 May 1992)

SOURCE: Cravens, Gwyneth. Review of "The Little Mermaid" from The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales, by Hans Christian Andersen. Nation 254, no. 18 (11 May 1992): 638-40.

[In the following review, Cravens alleges that Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" is an example of a thematically rich fairy tale which celebrates qualities of curiosity, love, and independence.]

Since "The Little Mermaid," by Hans Christian Andersen, was first read aloud to me by my mother when I was 4 or 5, I've read it over and over—to myself, to my own daughter and to other children. I always forget that it's a tale. It seems instead an immediate, intimate part of my life, yet suspended outside of time. When I was small, elements of the story troubled me. Growing up in the high desert of the Southwest and never having seen the ocean, I'd have given anything to be a mermaid rather than a girl, and yet the heroine yearned to become a human and live on the land. And what suffering! How could she abide the sensation, once she had legs, that she was walking on knives? But even though her trials seemed intolerable, I felt as though the deepest part of my nature were being addressed by a sincere friend, and I was satisfied and uplifted by the ending without understanding the reason.

Recently I revisited the story in The Complete Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales (edited by Lily Owens, translated from the Danish for the most part by Mrs. H. B. Paull and H. Oskar Sommer in the 1880s and published by Avenel/Crown in 1981). I was struck anew by its richness and power, and by how radical, how subversive, how steely it is in disclosing a definition of love enormously contrary to the one most commonly celebrated. What of its subtleties I could have articulated to myself back then I don't know, but some part of me readily absorbed them. Consciously I only knew that the tale somehow wanted to awaken me to the truth that there was more to my being than I thought, more possibilities than the ones that lay close at hand.

The little mermaid is a quiet, pensive child who dwells in a kingdom so accurately described, with its glowing colors and constant undulations and gliding shadows and billowy magnifications, and the sun like a purple flower with light streaming from its calyx, that you might wonder how a Dane living in the early nineteenth century before the invention of scuba diving was able to conjure up such a scene. She has a sweet singing voice, a curiosity about things human and a sense of not being at home in the element in which her elder sisters are so content. They enjoy collecting the bounty from wrecked vessels; she's pleased to have only a little statue of a handsome boy, a garden she has planted in the shape and color of the sun, and whatever impressions she can gather of the ships, towns and animals above as reported by her sisters and her grandmother. On the day she turns 15 she's allowed to visit the surface, and there she glimpses, on a boat, a prince. So begins her new life. When a storm arises and the ship founders, she rescues him from drowning, kisses his unconscious brow and leaves him on a beach. There a girl finds him, and he believes her to be his savior. The little mermaid continues to watch him longingly from a distance, remembering "that his head had rested on her bosom, and how heartily she had kissed him; but he knew nothing of all this, and could not even dream of her."

She inquires of her grandmother about the ways of mankind and learns that when mermaids die they become seafoam but that humans, after the body has been turned to dust, have a soul that lives forever. "It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars," says her grandmother. "As we rise out of the water, and behold all the land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see." The little mermaid, recognizing that her death means she will never again perceive the beauty of the world, asks how she can win an immortal soul. She's told that if a man were to love her with such fidelity and wholeheartedness that his soul would flow into her body, a soul of her own would spring into being—but even attraction is impossible, because humans consider fish tails ugly.

To find a way to be with her adored prince and to achieve a soul, the little mermaid visits the sea witch in her whirlpool, braving snakelike half-plant, half-animal monsters who grasp in their clinging arms the skeletons of those who have perished at sea, and even a little mermaid, whom they've caught and strangled. As Andersen is unafraid to show—and as I must also have been aware, because children do sense such things and are always wondering about them—the darkness never stops reaching out its tentacles. "I know what you want," says the sea witch. "It is very stupid of you … and it will bring you to sorrow." She prepares a draught—adding a drop of her own black blood—that will turn the mermaid's tail into legs. "All who see you will say that you are the prettiest little human being they ever saw. You will still have the same floating gracefulness of movement, and no dancer will ever tread so lightly; but at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow." She adds that the mermaid can never again return to her former life, and that if the prince marries another, her heart will break and her life will end. In payment, the sea witch asks for the mermaid's voice and cuts out her tongue—the promise of love is not to be won without sacrifice. At the boundary between water and land, the mermaid drinks the potion and, feeling as if a two-edged sword were passing through her body, swoons. When she awakens, she has become human, and there stands the prince.

Just as Andersen accurately discerns the depths of the sea, he also comprehends something profound about the metamorphosis in consciousness at the boundary between girlhood and womanhood and about the hardships of that initiation: the dramatic transformation of the body, accompanied by blood and the two-edged blade of desire and pain; the irrevocable exchange of ease and freedom for the gravity and responsibilities of maturity; the solitary nature of the quest for a new sensibility and the will necessary to accomplish it; and the silence that surrounds these mysteries.

The heroine can ask for nothing; she can only hope, communing with her beloved through her expressive eyes and her enchanting—though secretly excruciating—dance. The prince, seeing a resemblance to the girl who apparently saved his life, lets his "dumb foundling" sleep on a cushion outside his room and shows her the delights of his kingdom. His parents want him to marry, but he's reluctant; if he were forced, he tells her, he'd choose her as his bride, and he "laid his head on her heart, while she dreamed of human happiness and an immortal soul." Nevertheless, it happens that he becomes betrothed to the young woman he thinks rescued him. Our assumptions and conventions can blind us to the miraculous at our door. "She is the only one in the world I could love": he tells the little mermaid. "My fondest hopes are all fulfilled. You will rejoice at my happiness; for your devotion to me is great and sincere." The mute creature can do nothing but kiss his hand.

At his wedding, aboard a ship, she carries the bridal train, thinking of all she has lost, and joins in the dancing. "She knew this was the last evening she should ever see the prince, for whom she had forsaken her kindred and her home," Andersen writes. "She had given up her beautiful voice, and suffered unheard of pain daily for him, while he knew nothing of it." And we begin to sense that it's best that the prince remain ignorant; the goal of love is not to invoke guilt and obligation.

After the couple retire for the night, the sisters of the little mermaid rise up from the swells with a knife. The sea witch, they say, has agreed to return to the little mermaid her tail and her undersea life if she will only kill the prince, and they plead with her to do it. Such is the sort of grim advice that we often receive when our fate becomes unbearable. And what disappointed lover has not cherished the impulse to turn on the person who has been everything to him or to her? With a stroke, say the inner and outer voices, you can destroy the presence of the beloved and regain your freedom, and all will be as it was before you met. The little mermaid accepts the knife. Toward morning, she goes to the dreaming prince, but upon hearing him whisper the name of his bride, she flings the knife into the water and throws herself overboard, dissolving into foam on the crest of a wave.

But this is a story suffused with light. The little mermaid has passed the crucial test: She has turned away from the temptations of darkness. Now, in the bright dawn, she finds herself rising upward surrounded by beautiful, transparent beings. Because of the purity of her endeavor, she has been turned into one of the daughters of the air, who travel about the world making helpful breezes blow. "A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being" they tell her. "On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can by their good deeds procure one for themselves." The mermaid, lifting her eyes to the sun, feels them filling with her first tears. Invisible, she kisses the forehead of the bride, fans the prince and then mounts up into the sky with her companions.

The Disney movie by the same name, no doubt seen, if not memorized, by virtually every little girl in the United States since it came out a few years ago—it's one of the most successful Disney movies ever made, and it's been one of the top ten best-selling videos for over seventy weeks—has a different finale and a different agenda. If you don't know the original, or if you can expunge it from your brain, then the movie might be entertaining in the way that Las Vegas shows are. All of the sorcery of animation has been put into the service of the banal. Steel has been replaced by cotton candy. Force and magical gratification triumph. The virtues of patience and endurance are given scarcely a nod—the cute, determined heroine has three mostly fun-filled days to catch her prince. Her trials are superficial and over quickly, and she's helped along by friendly marine life. She's not interested in acquiring a soul but rather in collecting things—she has a vast cave crammed with loot from sunken ships. The "soul" comes up only in a tune about how other mermaids have sold theirs in a Faustian pact with the sea witch, who resembles the female impersonator Divine and who masquerades as the little mermaid, nearly tricking the prince into marriage as a part of her plot to rule the ocean. In a violent denouement, the witch is killed, leaving the prince free to wed the little mermaid. Now painlessly human and dressed in a snazzy outfit, she's handed over to him by her father. The screen fills with the nuptial kiss. This is how adults who know how to make money believe children should be nourished. Children, apparently happy on a diet of sugar, agree; according to my local bookseller, they now want only the Disney version, which, with its copyrighted artwork, toys and other spinoffs, threatens to crowd the original off the shelves, as has already happened, for instance, to "Pinocchio."

But I believe that Andersen's story, so full of sadness and loveliness and redemption, so subdued in its splendor, like the glimmer of the sun in the ocean depths, will survive, at least for those children—and adults—who want an experience of substance. (There's a great deal more to the story than I've mentioned here. Unlike the ending to the movie and the conclusions we learn to expect in fairy tales and in life, the little mermaid never gains the love of the prince, who remains content with counterfeit and ever oblivious to his silent friend's remarkable origins and her role as his rescuer (just as we can be to the extraordinary side of our being and its quiet help). And her fulfillment doesn't come through marriage. Rather than simply passing from the domain of her father to that of a husband, she attains an independent destiny, and her reward is her continuing capacity to give love whether or not she receives it. And that love grows beyond the particular. She even bestows affection on the bride: Real love has no rivals. Dissatisfied on the bottom of the sea and drawn toward the illumination of the upper realm by the strength of her sentiment for a man, she has, through her own efforts, now gone beyond mundane life and reached the sky, and may even arrive at something much greater that lies beyond the stars.

"THE BELL" (1845)

John L. Greenway (essay date summer 1991)

SOURCE: Greenway, John L. "Reason in Imagination Is Beauty: Oersted's Acoustics and H. C. Andersen's 'The Bell.'" Scandinavian Studies 63, no. 3 (summer 1991): 318-25.

[In the following essay, Greenway explores the influence of Hans Christian Oersted's theories of physics, acoustics, and the nature of God on the narrative of Andersen's fairy tale "The Bell."]

It may come as a surprise to those who do not consort with scientists save under duress to find that Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851), the preeminent scientist of the early nineteenth century, discoverer of the relationship between electricity and magnetism in 1820, was the genial hub of cultural debate in Denmark for a generation. Friend and confidant of poets and critics, Oersted convinced a dubious Hans Christian Andersen to publish his Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Tales Told for Children) in 1835. Andersen wrote to Henriette Wulff on March 16, 1835, that he had "Dernæst skrevet nogle Eventyr for Børn, om hvilke Ørsted siger, at naar Improvisatoren gjør mig berømt, gjør Eventyrene mig udødelig, de ere det meest fuldendte jeg har skrevet, men det synes jeg ikke, han kjender ikke Italien" [Topsøe-Jensen 1: 211] ("Then I wrote some tales for children, about which Oersted says that if The Improviser makes me famous, the tales will make me immortal, that they are the most accomplished things I have done, but I don't think so: he doesn't know Italy").

Discussing Andersen's use of the supernatural, Paul V. Rubow pointed out that Andersen was able to modernize the world of the eventyr by incorporating Oersted's theories of physics and aesthetics (Rubow 85-94). Andersen not only found the aesthetic bases of Oersted's acoustical theories congenial, but he used them to regulate the representation of reality in at least one of his eventyr: "Klokken" (1845; "The Bell" ).

"Klokken" is not as familiar to English-speaking readers as are others of Andersen's tales, so a brief summary will help later show the importance of romantic acoustical theory to the story. Along about evening, people hear a sound like a church-bell coming from the woods. The adults search for the source of this sound, and, coming to the edge of the woods, promptly set up a store. The Emperor offers a title to the discoverer of the melodious tones' source, the award going to the theorist who concluded that the sound came from a wise owl knocking its head on a hollow tree. True, he did not go very far into the forest, but he annually published an article about the owl.

On a glorious, sunny Confirmation Day, the children hear the mysterious sweetness of this bell and decide to find it. Some stop at the store, another stops at the "kluk!" of a brook, and the others go on until they find a hut with a little bell. Yes, they all say, this must be it. All, that is, but the king's son, who says that the bell is too small to produce tones "som saaledes rørte et Menneske-Hjerte" [206] ("that so could move a human heart").

The king's son goes on alone, for as the others say, "saadan En vilde nu altid være klogere" [206] ("someone like him always wanted to be smarter"), meeting a poor boy who had left the group early. They do not go on together: the king's son goes to the left, (the side of the heart): "det var snart ligesom et Orgel spillede dertil" [207] ("it was as though an organ played along"). The boy goes to the right, for that side looked more beautiful.

At sunset, when nature was "en stor, hellig Kirke" [208] ("a great, holy church") and the colors of the day blended with the starry gleams of night, at the shining altar of the sun, in total joy the king's son "bredte sine Arme ud mod Himlen, mod Havet og Skoven" [208] ("spread out his arms toward the heavens, the sun and the forest"). The poor boy joins him then, and holding hands "i Naturens og Poesiens store Kirke" [208] ("in the great church of nature and poetry"), there sounded around them "den usynlige hellige Klokke" [208] ("the invisible holy bell").

Clearly, the story demands interpretation. Grønbech points out that, while Andersen's literary works resist being regulated by a systematic philosophy, "Klokken" belongs to that class of Andersen's stories where an idea regulates the narrative (177-78). True; the transcendent experience is not for all: many are misled by bourgeois motives (the shop) or deceived by empirical evidence (the bell in the hut). Still, the church of nature stands accessible to some, be they rich or poor. It exists; it can be found. So far, so obvious.

While "Klokken" should be a charming allegory of romantic innocence, knowledge of the acoustical theories of Andersen's scientist friend and mentor will allow us to read the story on a deeper level and help explain why, at the end, we do not find the transcendent bell. Now obsolete, Oersted's theories lent what would at the time have been a realistic dimension to Andersen's tale.

Oersted's lifelong interest in acoustics complimented the studies in electromagnetism which made him famous. In order for us to see the aesthetic role physics plays in "Klokken," we must enter his imaginative world for a moment and understand the reciprocal relationships Oersted saw among sound, light, nature, and God.

Although Oersted became famous for his discovery of electromagnetism, his first serious experiments were conducted on acoustical figures (Klangfigurer). In 1808, he found that if one draws a bow along the edge of a pumice-covered glass plate, symmetrical patterns emerge. In the conclusion of his "Forsøg over Klangfigurer" (1808; "Experiments upon Acoustical Figures") he suggests that electricity could be generated through sound vibrations, and that light acts on the eye much as sound does on the ear. Anticipating later directions in his research, he then speaks of nature's "dybe, uendelige, ufattelige Fornuft, som igiennem Tonestrømmen taler til os" [Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:34] ("profound incomprehensible reason which speaks to us through the flow of music").

He continues this line of thought in his "Om Grunden til den Fornøjelse Tonerne frembringe" ("On the Cause of the Pleasure Produced by Music") in 1808. The symmetry of acoustical figures becomes beautiful, he argues, because the oscillations express the underlying "reason in nature." Although Oersted modified his theories as he matured, he always insisted that nature's hidden reason expresses itself in tones. In his collection of philosophical essays Aanden i Naturen (1850; The Soul in Nature, 1852, 1966), appearing a year before his death, he makes the point explicit by titling an essay "The Same Principles of Beauty Exist in the Objects Submitted to the Eye and to the Ear" (325-51).

Oersted's experiments with acoustical figures seem to have been immensely interesting to non-scientists as well as to scientists, for to Oersted they demonstrated the scientific basis of beauty's physical reality. Søren Kierkegaard noted that Oersted's inner harmony reminded him of an acoustical figure; the artist Ekeberg painted him with a glass plate in his hand, and Oersted in a verse used acoustical figures as a metaphor for scientific inquiry (V. Andersen 111). Authors as diverse as Frederika Bremer and Carsten Hauch employed the image, and H. C. Andersen refers to acoustical figures in Kun en Spillemand (Kuehle; Rubow 86).

We may better understand the importance of acoustics in Oersted's imagination, as well as its role in Andersen's tale, by returning to Oersted's repeated emphasis upon the "unity of nature" (Knight, "The Scientist" 82-87). A second reading of "Klokken" leads one to notice that Andersen emphasizes the day's bright sunshine, and at the end of the story the king's son and the poor boy are inundated by color as well as sound. Oersted would read this ending as subtle and realistic: to Oersted, electricity, light, heat and sound were all forms of oscillation in the physical world and, hence, express Nature's fundamental unity, symmetry, and essential reason, much as did his early work with acoustical figures.

While Oersted's theories, with their aesthetic bent, differ markedly from our own, his contemporaries held similar views. Humphry Davy (who read the galley proofs for the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads) held similar theories and expressed them in poetry (Fullmer 118-26; Knight, "The Scientist" 72) while distrusting Oersted's Germanic background. If we look briefly at Oersted's view of light, we see that the transcendental epiphany at the end of "Klokken" becomes an aspect of romantic physics, as well as a literary phenomenon, indeed a realistic event if we remember that sound, electricity, and light are but differing expressions of the unity, of the "spirit in nature." Oersted saw the significance of his 1820 discovery of electromagnetism as proving just this unity of Kraft (later called "energy").

In 1815–1816, Oersted argues in his "Theorie over Lyset" ("Theory of Light") that light comes from a unification of electrical and chemical forces, heat be-ing a slower form of light. In his "Betragtninger over Forholdet mellem Lyden, Lyset, Varmen og Electriciteten" (1829; "Observations upon the Relationship among Sound, Light, Heat, and Electricity"), he relies again upon oscillations to show that their interdependence expresses the fundamental unity of nature. In the later "Undersøgelse over Lyset med Hensyn paa det Skjønnes Naturlære" (1842; "Investigations of Light with a View to the Natural Doctrine of the Beautiful"), Oersted develops the metaphorical implications of this theory: light connects the universe and lets us feel like participants in all creation (Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:509).

In "Theory of Light," Oersted describes the psychological effect of light as the bringing forth of joy, an assertion to which he repeatedly returned. The assumption of a unity in nature, an assertion which regulated his research (and that of other nineteenth-century scientists in diverse fields as well) led him in his "Observations on the History of Chemistry" (1806) to conjecture that human neural sensibility might be a form of his earlier "Law of Oscillation," operating upon the organism as a consequence of sound, light and electricity (Soul in Nature 320-23). With "Experiments on Acoustical Figures," Oersted argues that this operation cannot be reduced to mere mechanics, for aural effects symbolize nature's transcendent unity and reason: "det som i Tonekunsten henriver og tryller os, og lader os glemme alt, medens vor Siæl svæver hen paa Tonestrømmen, det er ikke spåndte Nervers mechaniske Pirring," he says, "men det er Naturens dybe, uendelige, ufattelige Fornuft, som igiennem Tonestrømmen taler til os" [Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:34] (in acoustics, that which exalts and enchants us, letting us forget all while ascending on the stream of sound, is not the mechanical excitement of tensed nerves, but it is nature's deep, infinite incomprehensible reason which speaks to us through the stream of sound).

The mind, Oersted asserts, evolved under the same dynamics as did nature. In "On the Physical Effects of Tones," Oersted believes that the "meeting of numerous oscillations, which you assume in the nervous system, is not an exception from the usual mode of operation in nature, but belongs to her universal laws" (Soul in Nature 363). In the "Investigations of Light" (1842) he again draws the metaphorical implications of his theory by concluding that light is in essence an image of life, dark of death (Naturvidenskablige skrifter 2:507).

Oersted repeatedly admonished his many friends who wrote imaginative literature that narratives set in the present should not violate this underlying reason in nature (and hence, for him, its beauty and divine origin). In Mitlivs eventyr (1855; The Story of My Life ) Andersen credits Oersted's belief that "Jeg vil at den af Digteren fremstillede Verden, med al dens Frihed og Dristighed, dog skal beherskedes af de same Love, som det aandelige Øie opdager, den virklege Verden, og uden hvilke det er ikke værd at leve deri" [2:167] ("I want the poetically represented world, with all its freedom and daring, to be circumscribed nonetheless by the same laws the spiritual eye discovers: that real world, without which it is not worth living in").

Andersen was not immune to criticism of this sort, and he took Oersted's comments seriously. He relates that when he translated Byron's "Darkness" into Danish in 1833, Oersted objected that Byron's bleak vision of entropic anarchy at the end of things was wrong: Oersted is said to have commented that "'Digteren tør tænke sig,' sagde han, 'at Solen forsvinder fra Himlen, men han maa vide, at der kommer da ganske andet Resultater, end dette Mørke, end dette Kulde, disse Begivenheder, dette er en Vanvittigs Phantasie!'" [2:10-11] ("'The artist might well imagine,' he said, 'that the sun disappears from the heavens, but he ought to know that something very different from the darkness, from this chill would occur; these occurrences are the imagination of a madman!'"). Andersen writes that, having thought about it, he agreed. After Oersted's death, Andersen recalled that "Ørsted forlangte med Rette stræng Sandhed selv i Phantasiens Raaderum" [2:245] ("Oersted correctly insisted upon strict verisimilitude, even in the chamber of the imagination").

As we return to Andersen's story after this excursion into one aspect of his friend's physics and the aesthetic judgments stemming from them, we see how Andersen could well have used Oersted's theories of sound and light to underscore his theme with what, at the time, would be realistic detail: realistic in the sense of conforming to contemporary scientific theory. The narrator of "Klokken" says that the sound "affected human hearts so strangely"; Oersted suggests in "The Physical Effects of Tones" that the harmony regulating the acoustical figures on glass could be extended to human sympathy. We need only recall his emphasis on the unity of nature to see how Oersted would connect chemical affinity, acoustical effects, and an affinity between nature and mind. "This accordance between nature and mind can hardly be ascribed to chance," he says in "Observations on the History of Chemistry" (Soul in Nature 323).

Andersen says he wrote to Oersted that The Soul in Nature prompted his essays on "Faith and Science" and "Poetry's California" in his collection I Sverrige (In Sweden) where he asserts that "Videnskabens Sollys skal gjennemtrænge Digteren" [121] ("the sunlight of science must penetrate the poet"). Oersted replied, according to Andersen in Mit livs eventyr, that "maaske bliver De Den af Digterne, der vil udrette meest for Videnskaben" [2:117] ("perhaps you are going to be that very poet, who will accomplish the most for science"). Andersen, when he received the second part of The Soul in Nature, replied that "hvad især gjør mig glad, er, at jeg her synes kun at se min egen Tanke, den, jeg tidligere ikke saaledes har gjort mig klar selv" [2:118] ("what above all gladdens me is that here I seem to see only my own thoughts, which I had not previously clarified for myself").

Oersted seems to have had a similar vision of the relationship between literature and science. Years before, in 1807, he wrote to his friend Adam Oehlenschläger that the scientist and the poet begin at different points: the scientist begins with the real world and ends in a sort of artistic experience; the poet, though, begins with intuition, which he strives to clarify for others: "Naar han har naaet Grendsen af sin Bane, sammensmælter han Kunsten med Videnskaben. Saaledes skiller Digteren og Tænkeren sig ad, ved Begyndelsen af deres Vej, for ved Enden at omfavne hinanden" [Oehlenschläger 3:21] ("When he has reached the end of his course, he fuses art with science. The poet and the scientist differ at the beginning of their path, only to embrace each other at the end").

Some critics have speculated that Georg Brandes's interpretation of "Klokken" was wrong: the king's son is not poetry; Andersen saw himself as the poor boy in the story and Oersted as the king's son (Holm 43; Rubow 94). If we accept this conjecture, interesting interpretations unfold: Andersen does not tell of the travails of the poor boy, who takes the path on the right because it is beautiful, but of those of the king's son, who takes the path on the left because that is where the heart is. The king's son knows enough empirical acoustics to realize that the small bell the children found was much too small and delicate to be heard so far away, but he is not limited by the empirical. He lets his heart guide his reason to the ultimate, transcendent experience.

If indeed Oersted was the model for the king's son, Andersen understood his older friend deeply, particularly at the end of the story. After having made a fool of himself early in his career by venturing into the speculative physics of the Naturphilosophen (Gower), Oersted eventually broke with Schelling and, later, Steffens over their lack of experimental rigor and their belief that one could attain ultimate knowledge through philosophy alone (Naturvidenskablige skrifter 1:25; Michelsen 35; Stauffer 39).1 Oersted had a bitter feud with Grundtvig and the latter's Verdens Krønike, in part because of Grundtvig's assumption he could speak with God's voice. Oersted insisted that human reason could never be complete unto itself, "for our Reason, although originally related to the infinite, is limited by the finite, and can only imperfectly disengage itself from it. No mortal has been permitted to penetrate and comprehend the whole" (The Soul in Nature 451). Importantly, while the bell the children find in the forest is beautiful, the source of the sound is invisible to the king's son and the poor boy alike. They do not discover the bell but experience transcendence through light. Oersted maintains that light allows us to penetrate into nature and not only knits us into the universe, but catalyzes the feeling of joy as it does to the king's son (The Soul in Nature 113).

Michelsen points out Oersted's preference for organic metaphors over the abstract: he did not call his final collection of philosophic essays "The Idea in Nature," as would a Platonist or a Naturphilosoph, but The Soul [Aanden] in Nature (Michelsen 36). We have no evidence that Oersted communicated his 1807 views to Andersen, but given the continuity of Oersted's views, in particular his belief in the unity of nature, the conjecture is plausible. Indeed, I suspect Andersen pays quite a compliment to his friend and envies the moment of scientific insight: at the moment of transcendence for the king's son, oscillations fuse, and nature becomes one with mind. The waves of the ocean meet the light of the setting sun, "Alt smeltede sammen i glødende Farver," acoustically mingling: "Skoven sang og Havet sang og hans Hjerte sang med" [208] ("everything melted together in glowing colors: the forest sang and the ocean sang and his heart sang along"). When the poor boy (whose imagination we do not share) arrives, the final synthesis becomes that symmetry Oersted saw expressing creation's inner reason: in the great church of nature and poetry the last sounds we hear from the holy bell are hallelujahs of "salige Aander" ("blessed Spirits").

After Oersted's death in 1851, Andersen's view of nature seems to have changed to one extolling the drama of conquest and power, as we see, for instance, in "Den ny Aarhundredes Musa" [1861; "The New Century's Muse" ] (Busk-Jensen 6:65-66). In "Klokken," however, Andersen's view is the same as that of Oersted. Oersted almost paraphrases Andersen's poetic conclusion with his own elevated prose: "The holy engagement of art does not spring from conscious reflection, but from an unconscious and mystic sanctuary…. Every melting harmony, every resolved dissonance, is again a higher combination, which in itself bears the same stamp of reason, and which all its parts cooperate towards an inward unity" (The Soul in Nature 351).

As we have seen, we cannot separate Oersted's physics from his aesthetics, and Andersen, I believe, incorporated Oersted's physics of sound and light to give his tale a realistic context we no longer recognize. Thanks to Oersted, "Klokken" displays a physics of spiritual beauty: in a verse to Andersen, Oersted wrote: "Fornuften i Fornuften er det Sande,/Fornuften i Villien er det Gode,/Fornuften i Phantasien er det Skjønne" [Mit livs eventyr 2:245] ("Reason in Reason is Truth; Reason in Will is Goodness; Reason in Imagination is Beauty").


1. He did, however, retain their faith in the unity of nature, which not only guided his experiments in electromagnetism but later led to the articulation of the Conservation of Energy (Stauffer, Knight, "Steps").

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. I Sverrige. Romaner og Rejseskildringer. Eds. Morten Borup and H. A. Paludan. Vol. 7. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1944.

――――――. Mit livs eventyr. Ed. H. Topsøe-Jensen. 2 vols. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1951.

――――――. "Klokken." Eventyr. Vol. 2. Nye eventyr 1844–48, Eventyr 1850, samt Historier 1852–55. Ed. Erik Dal. Copenhagen: Hans Reitzels Forlag, 1964. 204-08.

Andersen, Vilhelm. Tider og typer af Dansk aands historie. I, 2 (Goethe), 2 (2nd half of 19C). Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1916.

Busk-Jensen, Lise, et al., eds. Dansk litteratur historie. Vol. 6. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1985.

Fullmer, J. Z. "The Poetry of Sir Humphry Davy." Chymia 6 (1960): 102-26.

Grønbech, Bo. Hans Christian Andersens Eventyrverden. Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1967.

Holm, Søren. "'Klokken' og de to store H. C. er." Om Filosofi og religion. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1942. 43-46.

Knight, David M. "The Scientist as Sage." Studies in Romanticism 6 (1967): 65-88.

――――――. "Steps towards a Dynamical Chemistry." Ambix 14 (1967): 179-97.

Kuehle, Sejer. "H. C. Ørsted og Samtidens unge Digtere." Gads danske Magasin 45 (1951): 167-81.

Michelsen, William. Om H. C. Ørsted og tankebilledet bag Oehlenschlägers Aladdin. Oehlenschlägers Selskabets skriftserie nr. 3. Copenhagen: Bianco Luno, 1963.

Oehlenschläger, Adam. Breve fra og til Adam Oehlenschläger: Januar 1798–November 1809. Ed. H. A. Paludan, et al. Vol. 3. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1945.

Oersted, Hans Christian. Naturvidenskablige skrifter. Ed. Kirstine Meyer. 3 vols. Copenhagen: Andr. Fredr. Høst, 1920.

――――――. The Soul in Nature. Trans. Leonora and Joanna B. Horner. London: N.p., 1852. London: Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1966.

Rubow, Paul V. H. C. Andersens Eventyr. Forhistorien, Idé og Form, Sprog og Stil. 2nd ed. Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 1943.

Stauffer, Robert C. "Speculation and Experiment in the Background of Oersted's Discovery of Electromagnetism." Isis 48 (1957): 33-50.

Topsøe-Jensen, H., ed. H. C. Andersen og Henriette Wulff: En Brevveksling. 3 vols. Odense: Flensted, 1959.

"THE SHADOW" (1847)

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Additional coverage of Andersen's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 57; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 6; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Popular Fiction and Genres Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; European Writers, Vol. 6; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 7, 79; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to World Literature, Eds. 2, 3; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 6, 56; Something about the Author, Vol. 100; Twayne's World Authors; World Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Writers for Children; and Yesterday's Authors of Books for Children, Vol. 1.

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Andersen, Hans Christian 1805–1875

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