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Hans Christian Anderson

I’ve long been a fan of Hans Christian Anderson. Of course, he is the creator of some of the world’s most famous and enduring of fairy tales – The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Ugly Duckling, The Snow Queen, The Red Shoes and The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep. Most of these have been translated widely, and adapted for film, television, radio, theatre, and ballet. I doubt there’s a reader out there who has not heard, watched or read a version of one or more of these stories, every one of which has become part and parcel of western culture.

According to Wikipedia, Anderson wrote 3381 fairy tales and his works have been translated into 125 languages. Some are quite short – The Little Match Girl (1845) was only two pages long. Others are quite long, involved and required several chapters to complete – The Snow Queen (1844) is 18 pages long in my Canterbury Classics (Baker & Taylor, San Diego, 2014) version.

Anderson was born in Odense, Denmark in 1805, the son of a poor shoemaker and illiterate washerwoman (sounds like the beginnings of a fairy tale right there). Benefitting from a small library of children’s books and access to the stories of pauper women in a nearby asylum where his mother worked (I’m not making this up), he was saved from a lifetime of poverty through being an exceptional listener, having great ambition, an undying drive to overcome rejection and the good fortune of wealthy benefactors. The Ugly Duckling could easily have been his own life story.

But the prolific storyteller wrote much more than fairy tales. Also poems, novels, plays and travelogues. Initially, he was recognized for these works, not the fairy tales, which did not sell well on first being published in 1835. He travelled to England twice, meeting Charles Dickens both times (1847 and 1857); it appears they admired each other’s writing and shared themes (the challenging lives of the underclass, the effect of the Industrial Revolution, for example).

The cover of my Hans Christian Anderson collection (a Costco purchase – inexpensive but without illustrations!) and two pictures of “The Ugly Duckling” by W. Heath Robinson taken from Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales Book Two (first published in 1913 by Constable and Co. Ltd., London).

Only the Brothers Grimm, who were publishing in the same era in (what is now) Germany, were as prolific and as popular. But whereas they more or less retold stories they’d learned elsewhere, Anderson was a complete original. In the end he became one of the world’s greatest storytellers and is considered the father of the fairy tale genre.

As a writer of books devoted to anthropomorphic animals – what has appealed to me most about Anderson is his ability to give characters and emotions to inanimate objects. For my part, I cannot see a bird flying overhead (or from my mountain-top home, down below) without creating a story about its backstory: where it came from, where it’s going to and what it’s thinking. I used to do the same for stuffed animals, exploring their creation myths and developing a tale about their supposed stationary life on shelves, beds, cupboards, etc. (akin to the Toy Story series).

So, it delights me to see Anderson write in this fashion. His very first story, The Tallow Candle, also less than two pages long, represents this kind of thinking – the story of a candle that the world does not understand and thus misuses and discards.

“Now, the poor tallow candle was lonely, abandoned, and at it’s wit’s end. It felt cast off by what was good and discovered that it had been nothing but a blind tool used to advance what was bad. It felt so terribly sad because it had lived its life without purpose – perhaps it had even tarnished some good things by its presence. It could not grasp why and to what end it had been created, why it was put on this Earth where it might destroy itself and others.”

The candle becomes ever more despondent. Fortunately, all is not lost, for the candle meets up with a small flame, a tinderbox. “The tinderbox knew the light better than the tallow candle knew itself, for the tinderbox saw everything so clearly – right through the outer layer, and inside it found so much good. Therefore, it went closer, and bright hopes emerged in the candle. It lit up, and its heart melted.”

And then the “flame shone brightly – like a wedding torch of joy. Everything became bright and clear, and it showed the way for those in its company, its true friends – and helped by the light, they could now successfully seek truth.” And so on. The candle finds its true place in life, and the light “shone for a long time, spreading joy for itself and its fellow creatures.”

The story is of course an allegory that needs no explanation here. An interesting footnote is that this story remained unknown to scholars and the public for two centuries, lying amongst papers donated to the Danish National Archives. Historians have confirmed it was written in the 1820’s, well before his first set of four tales, published in booklet form in 1835.

Anderson does the same for a darning needle, a broken bottle, a shadow, houses, tin soldiers, a family of snails, a sunbeam, the branch of an apple tree, an oak tree, a pen and inkstand, a rosebush, a teapot and even a pile of rags. Doubtless, many more similar examples can be found and, of course, no end of talking, feeling insects and animals in his stories.

My readers will know that not only am I a huge fan of fairy tales I also love the illustrations that accompany them. Thus, I’d encourage any interested reader to see this web post that celebrates a 2013 Taschen Books edition of twenty-three Anderson tales. The post explores both the life of Anderson but also includes a great number of delightful illustrations from many sources, both old and recent.

Illustrations of Anderson stories by three of the greatest illustrators of the 20th Century (from my own book collection):

“When night was come and the shop shut up.” Illustration by Arthur Rackham (George G. Harrap & Co., 1932)

“The bud opened into full blown flower, in the middle of which lay a beautiful child.” The Marsh King’s Daughter. Illustration by W. Heath Robinson (Constable & Co., 1913)

“Among these trees lived a nightingale, which sang so deliciously that even the poor fisherman, who had plenty of other things to do, lay still to listen to it, when he was out at night drawing his nets.” The Nightingale. Illustration by Edmund Dulac (Hodder & Staunton, date unknown)