Notes from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre (English) based at SDU in Odense, new on Twitter for the MOOC. Six weeks, started 19 October. New translations of nine (of a total of 157) fairy tales (defined as an original tale written by a specific author, central in German Romanticism) covering 17 years of HCA’s life (1805-75) on offer.
As with #FLwordsworth it’s the place and cultural heritage stuff I’m after – fairy tales aren’t my thing, although the one about the hens (Det er ganske vist) came as a pleasant enough surprise when I was learning Danish.
In week 1 HCA was presented as a ‘mouldbreaker’ in the established literary community, having come from a working class background, with his fairy tales both universal and culturally specific. Still read all over the world, they are rooted in a Christian culture confronted with modernity.
We were asked to take a moment to consider the man behind the writer:
- How did he think of himself as an artist? In what way can we understand his role as a mouldbreaker in the established, literary community in relation to his background as a working class lad?
- What is the connection between HCA’s special use of the fairy tale genre and the way his life was shaped?
- How can we understand the fact that the author never really – not even as a confirmed celebrity – succeeded in settling down, neither in the outside world, nor in his own imaginary world?
HCA achieved fame and acknowledgement as an artist in both Europe and America while he was in his prime. He was a traveller who undertook long journeys in especially Europe, but he also reached North Africa and Turkey. In his native Denmark, he also travelled a lot, taking residence at manor houses and castles which were, at that time, significant cultural meeting places.
HCA was a restless person who did not create a home for himself but felt ‘at home’ in the journey itself. He travelled in a Europe that was getting ready to become modern. This HCA registers with both delight and fear in his writing. This is also registered in the form of artistic reflections on time, place and distance. When HCA said To travel is to live, he was not only referring to outer journeys but to travelling as a form of existence.
HCA had many homes, for home was the artistic universe and the journey itself, one could say. He travelled all over Europe, time and time again, something that is reflected in his novels, travel accounts, fairy tales and stories as a treasure trove of localities. HCA visited counts, kings and artists, locations and landscapes, because he was full of an insatiable thirst for experiences and a restless longing for the inner balance he probably found in his art, but never wholly in his life.
On 28 October the team sent out a message with details of HCA’s three autobiographies, not least The fairy tale of my life (1871): “HCA wished to present his own life as a fairy tale and wrote in a poetic style. All this lead to a “a strong interest in the personality…during his lifetime and the fantastic story of his life…the beginning of the creation of a myth surrounding the author, which appeared to be a kind of mythologization of the relation between life and art. It offers strong evidence of the romantic belief in genius.”
Then a definite tut tutting about this approach, not helped by word order and general obfuscation: “to judge Andersen from a biographical point of view only is to reduce his great and challenging work. It has been and still is the task of interpreters of Hans Christian Andersen’s life and work to adjust this picture and to try to discover his work independently of the romantic figure of the author – and not least to evaluate the modernity of his original fairy tales.”
Biographies (which the team may/not approve of) include Jackie Wullschlager (2000; Amazon) and Paul Binding (2014; review | Amazon). Internationals in Denmark in particular will enjoy Michael Booth’s Just as well I’m leaving (2005; Amazon), his first riff on Denmark and its idiosyncracies, framed round HCA’s European travels.
The fairy tales
Week 2 looked at the folk tale inspiration and two analysis models (how many?), comparing The tinderbox and the Grimms’ The blue light with the folk tales that provided inspiration:
- the actantial model: the quest
- the narrative pattern ‘home-away-home’, also found in the Bildungsroman
The protagonist – or hero – of the folk tale is the key element. The upper axis represents the fact that a donor gives an object to a receiver – the latter being the protagonist. This is often the king which gives his daughter, the princess, to the protagonist. The lower axis represents the fact that the protagonist has to overcome various obstacles in his quest for the object and that he will have to face and conquer an antagonist and will receive assistance from a helper as a part of this process.
Much was made of HCA’s humour and irony, plus the violence found in many tales, all of which I’m thinking has a specific Danish flavour, although the Grimms had their moments.
Week 3 contrasted two versions of the same tale, drawing out HCA’s particular narrative style and language:
The spectre (1830) adopted the sophisticated style typical of the literary fairy tales (Kunstmärchen) developed by German Romanticism (writers like Chamisso, Tieck and ETA Hoffmann), whose approach was often marked by ironic reflection. Far from reproducing the impersonal style of the folk tale, The spectre was a piece of literary art, showing the signature of a cultivated writer cumulating explicit references to the Arabian Nights, the Bible, Goethe and Danish contemporary authors.
Its reception, however, was negative, with HCA accused of having missed “the epic tone” of the folk tale. Disappointed, HCA gave up this kind of experimental rewriting and decided to revisit the folk tale genre as part of a literary project of another kind: storytelling for children.
The travelling companion (1835) adopted the more familiar form of the folk tale. HCA purified and simplified his narrative style, aiming to revive the folk tale material and to refresh its imagery. The style resulting from this effort became HCA’s special signature, and to some extent imitates the tone of the folk tale. Nonetheless, he still wrote literary fairy tales. His art was to develop a strategy of storytelling that appears to be simpler than it is.
The ‘exemplary’ analysis of The Spectre makes it sound a gadzillion times more interesting than the more popular fairy tale, almost modernist, a fairy tale about a folk tale. Chief linguistic differences highlighted are general verbosity and description – place and nature writing, very on trend! – vs simplifying the artistic expression.
Week 4 and The little mermaid (1837), one of HCA’s first self invented tales. These meant something special to him and marked his breakhrough as a writer, making him an international star. The tale touches upon traditional questions related to Christianity and ‘modern’ questions such as the identity crises of the main subject. It doesn’t conform to the models (above), doesn’t have a Happy Ending and is open to many interpretations. OTOH Disney’s 1989 version does, and isn’t.
Published along with The emperor’s new clothes, now that is a good one.
Week 5 focused on HCA’s ‘modern’ approach, via two new fairy tales: The story of a mother (1847) and The snow queen (1844):
From 1835-42, HCA carried out his project of writing a series of Fairy tales told for children with increasing success. However, in 1843, he gave his work with the genre a different orientation. The appellation ‘told for children’ disappeared as he published a collection entitled New fairy tales, composed of four tales of his own invention without any immediate debt to folk tales, including The ugly duckling.
In these tales HCA managed to raise religious questions by the means of apparent transgressions of genre conventions, eg qualifying tests, the fight with the antagonist, religious meaning…His intention was to fictionalise – or allegorise – a ‘basic idea’, a project completely incompatible with the folk tale’s perception of the world.
Week 6 looked at The red shoes (1845) and invited participants to write an essay on HCA’s topicality and cross-cultural relevance, quite interesting as it goes. A quick look at the sections on The red shoes confirms that it is just as traumatic as remembered.
The longer the MOOC went on the more distressing the tales became – are the later ones read to children today, undoctored? Part of the Danish canon? They seem to belong to another time, with the illustrations on the MOOC and most collections evoking the last century.
Perhaps as a result retellings abound – see Angela Carter, Transformations (1971; Anne Sexton’s retellings of the Grimms; article inc a diagram by Kurt Vonnegut) and A wild swan and other tales (2015; Michael Cunningham retells the Grimms and HCA; “The steadfast tin soldier turns out happy”; interview). Also Marina Warner’s Short history of fairy tale.
The course took a standard litcrit line, seemingly very popular in Danish higher education, however more innovative approaches must be around somewhere, for example #corpus analyses (2020: Forskere skal kortlægge HC Andersens litterære tricks), distant reading, dataviz of the models? A social network of the Golden Age, based on who HCA rubbed shoulders with, not least Kierkegaard? Should anything be read into the fact that the last conference seems to have taken place in 2005, the year of his bicentenary? Also, how about HCA’s reception and (re)interpretation in Denmark, influence on eg Lars von Trier? How much are his other writings read and performed today? While at rejse er at leve gets cited fairly frequently in newspaper travel sections, is it more than a quote?
As Most Famous Danes HCA and contemporary Kierkegaard make a troubling pair. What is quite fun is that both enjoyed a walk in the city, but while Kierkegaard relished his menneskebad HCA became an old snob, preferring to hobnob with the nobility, or to travel.
pedestrian crossing in Odense
HCA statue in Bratislava by Tibor Bártfay, erected on the 165th anniversary of his visit in 2006