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Sunday, April 2, 2017

Happy Birthday HCA

Hans Christian Andersen
(Photo Source Wikipedia)

Today, Hans Christian Andersen would be given drugs and therapy, and then more drugs. He would be put into a study about repressed homosexuals and boys with a mamma fixation. All this because of his stories. Andersen’s stories are also not very happy when you truly think about them. For every happy story, like “The Ugly Duckling”, there are at least two sad stories.

"Ugly Duckling"illustration by Theo van Hoyetma
(Source Pinterst)

Yet Andersen, at least in American circles, is considered a children’s author. Whether this is due to those editions or retellings of Andersen’s stories that make the ending happy, I don’t know. I do know that I have read Andersen more times than I have read the Brothers Grimm and that Andersen speaks to more people than the Grimm brothers ever will.

Princess and the Pea by Carter Goodrich
(Source Pintesret)

The Grimms were interested in collecting folktales and folklore. Andersen is interested in telling stories. Outside of Demark and other northern countries, he is known for his stories, in particular for his fairy stories. This is misleading for Andersen also wrote plays and poems as well as travelogues and autobiographies. His first success wasn’t with his fairy stories. His poem about a mother mourning her dead children is touching (and a theme that enters into one of his tales). Even just considering his stories, people are misled. Everyone thinks they know “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling”, or “The Little Match Girl”, fewer people know the stories how they actually are and even fewer know more of Andersen’s work, such as “The Shadow” or ‘”The Storks”. This does Andersen a huge injustice.

Little Match Girl Stamp
(Source Pinterst)

Andersen was heavily influenced by several things in his writing. It is common knowledge that he was influenced by folklore and the stories told to him by his grandmother, but he was also influenced by the German writers that predated him or who were his contemporaries. While it is not apparent in his better known tales, he had a strong love of country (even though he always seemed to be traveling away from it) as well as a good dose of patriotism. He was also religious, though this seems to come though in his tale more than anything else.

Danish Coins featuring Andersen
(Source Pinterest)

Several critics have pointed out that Andersen has a cult of suffering. His leads his heroes and heroines always suffer. The Ugly Duckling gets frozen in water, the Little Mermaid feels as if she is walking on knives (or broken glass); the Marsh King’s Daughter is transformed into a frog, the little Match Girl freezes to death, the money pig breaks, the storks deliver dead babies. Andersen’s characters seem to suffer far more than those people in the Grimm’s tales (though that isn’t a cake walk either). Andersen, however, is still a considered a children’s author because of the tone, his use of sound (read his tales aloud if you don’t believe me), of putting himself in a child’s shoes (who doesn’t imagine the flowers coming to life).

Love's Teeny Lure Teapot, inspired by "Little Mermaid"
(Source Pinterest)

Too often people look at Andersen in the simplest terms. Take “The Little Mermaid” for example. Many today know the story not as Andersen’s but as Disney’s. They think that the mermaid marries her prince and everyone lives happily ever after. While the cursory reader of Andersen knows that this is not the ending, a deeper reading reveals, if not a happy ending, perhaps a slightly hopeful one as well as a few details about the prince. In the mermaid’s story, Andersen presents a people where the women seem to help each (the witch, the mermaid’s sisters, the mermaid herself) and where the only male who does anything is the prince himself. The mermaid and her sisters are desexualized (she loses her voice, they their hair). The prince treats the mermaid like his pet dog. The mermaid, however, wants a soul more than a prince. She acts more as if she has a soul more than prince. By taking “The Little Mermaid” and reducing the plot to a love story, the adaptor or reader does Andersen a disservice and dismisses the larger issue. In the story, it is the non-humans, the merfolk, who appear to have those virtues that humanity claims – compassion. The mermaid might eventually get her soul though she doesn’t get her prince. Today, there is a movement to de-religion stores (look at Narnia in both the movies and the exhibit), but to do so to Andersen guts this story.

"Marsh King's Daughter" Illustration by Artus Scheiner
(Source Pinterst)

Or take “The Marsh King’s Daughter”, one of Andersen’s lesser known popular tales. Fairy Tales always treat rape as a non issue or blame the victim. Sleeping Beauty, for example, in some versions is woken by the birth of twins, yet never seems to feel any emotional upheaval. Andersen is one of the few fairy tale writers to deal with the issue of rape and not fully gloss over it. Like the Grimms, who buried the incest theme of some tales, Andersen glosses over the attack that starts “The Marsh King’s Daughter”. The daughter of the title is the offspring of the Marsh King and the Egyptian princess who he attacks. This daughter is full of rage and pain except at night when she becomes a frog. Part of the story is about the daughter coming to terms with this rage. Where else would the rage come off except for the attack on the mother?

Illustration for Thumblina by Dani Soon
(Source Pinterest)
Many of Andersen’s tales are concerned with relationships, in particular those of mothers and children. Many critics have discovered or argued for the presence of Andersen’s own relationship with his mother in these tales. Andersen’s mother, who gave birth to a bastard daughter before marrying Andersen’s father, comes off looking less like a saint and more like a drunk if this is true. But then, there is a tale like “She Was a Good for Nothing” where the mother is a drunk who dearly loves and cares for her son. In this story, Andersen contrasts public view versus private life, of how the upper class views the lower class.

Illustration from "The Tinderbox"

Andersen is often concerned with class in his tales. The upper classes tend to be dismissive of the lower classes, though it is the lower classes that exhibit more of those human virtues. Sometimes, like in “The Tinderbox”, Andersen even seems to attack the royalty, seemingly suggesting that the old order must give to the new. Even in his class stories, Andersen also shows a great love and knowledge of his country. Some of his stories are about the humble beginnings of Great Danes (no, not the dogs) like Thorvaldsen, whose work Andersen seemed to love if Andersen’s stories are anything to go by. It should also be noted that in some of stories, especially in stories where different classes of children met, Andersen suggests more of equality than out and out class warfare.

Hans Christian Andersen Hus, Odenese
(Source Pinterst)

Andersen’s stories aren’t all for children; in fact, as he wrote more stories, Andersen saw himself as writing more for adults and this would example the class conscious stories, but also the longer stories like “The Ice Maiden” or “Ib and Little Christine”. It is in the longer stories that one can see the German romantic influence on Andersen. While the tales are more adult, they also consider several of the same themes that inhabit his more child friendly stories. While “Ib and Little Christine” can be rather annoying if you are female reader, it is impossible to describe the creeping feeling of unease that stories such as “The Ice Maiden” and “The Shadow” inspire.

Illustration for "The Snow Queen" by Angela Barrett
(Source: Pinterest)

Andersen borrowed from more than his grandmother and the Germans. His “The Rose Elf” presents a revenge minded “Pot of Basil”, a twist on a familiar tale presented by Boccaccio but also used by Keats among others. Andersen’s variation of the “Seven Swans” makes far more sense than other versions, even if it is chaster than those other versions.

Andersen’s most famous story might be “The Ugly Duckling”, a story that many critics, rightly it seems, consider to be Andersen’s most autobiographical work. This isn’t to say that the similar theme of belonging, of fitting in, doesn’t appear in other works. There are shades of “Duckling” in “Thumbelina” as well as some of the class conscious Andersen short stories. “The Ugly Duckling” is more memorable because the plot of the story could happen. The plot of “Thumbelina”, not so much. We believe in the duckling becoming the swan because of the way Andersen sets up the story – a mistake could happen. Today, even with all our supposed advancements, you still have hospital mix ups.

Ice Maiden Cover
(Source Pinterst)

In most of Andersen’s stories, the reader can meet actual places and people that Andersen knew or admired. Edvard Collin, Andersen’s man crush, appears, as does Jenny Lind. Even smaller characters in Andersen’s history, less well known to the average reader, seem to appear. Andersen’s teachers, the women Andersen felt rejected him (or whom Andersen allowed himself to be rejected by); all seem to appear. Copenhagen is a time honored companion in the stories, but so is Andersen’s love of Italy. This sense of place gives another level of reality to the tales, a level that seems to be missing from the works of the Grimms or Perrault.

While many of Andersen’s tales have “morals” or lessons, they are not spelled out as in the work of Aesop or Fontatine. Andersen respects his reader, be that reader a child or an adult, and knows that his reader can follow his lesson without the moral being directly spelled out. Perhaps it is this reason that examines Andersen’s staying power even among, or especially among, female readers.

Moira Shearer by Sir William Russel Flint
(Source Pinterst)
Andersen’s female characters do seem to get punished at far steeper rate than his male characters. While it is true that the Ugly Duckling freezes, his end is far different than those ends of the girls in “The Little Match Girl”, “The Red Shoes” or “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf”. To say that Andersen was sexist would be a mistake. Even in stories where the girl is horribly punished there are good women – the grandmother, the girl who prays for Karen. More importantly, one of Andersen’s most famous stories, “The Snow Queen” presents two strong willed girls, one of whom keeps her independence; another of women is helped by more women than man when she quests to save her childhood fan who also is perhaps her adult love or husband.

The statue of the Little Mermaid in many ways, is a fitting and unfitting memorial to Andersen. Like Andersen himself, the statue has survived various attempts to deface it. Andersen faults against those who mocked him, who tried to educate the imagination out of him, or who ignored him because of his class. He survived the fact that he would not be able to fulfill his first dream, to be a dancer. The statue of the mermaid has overcome beheadings, defacing, and veils to still exist as a tourist attraction. But like the works of Andersen’s own works, few people who see the statue know true story of the character the statue is based on, few know the story of the statue itself or of the Kasslett located nearby. Fewer know that it is not the only statue in Copenhagen depicting a merperson that has connection to Andersen (he wrote a story based on the Forsake Merman). Perhaps it is this sense of mystery that keeps Andersen’s popularity. We are introduced to him at two points in our lives. The first time when we are children. The second time when we are older, perhaps after seeing the statue or reading a story to a child. We can have two different readings of Andersen, the man and his work.

Little Mermaid Statue, Copenhagen
(Photo Source: Love Collage)

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