An extract from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, available on Oxford Reference.
Although Andersen considered himself a novelist and playwright, his novels, dramas, and comedies are almost forgotten today, while his unquestionable fame is based on his fairy tales. He published four collections: Eventyr, fortalte for børn (Fairy Tales, Told for Children, 1835–1842), Nye eventyr (New Fairy Tales, 1844–1848), Historier (Stories, 1852–1855), and Nye eventyr og historier (New Fairy Tales and Stories, 1858–1872), which were an immediate, unprecedented success and were translated into many languages during his lifetime. Yet only a handful of his fairy tales and stories are widely read today.
Sources of his stories: from folklore to literature
Although Andersen could have read Grimms’ fairy tales, the sources of his stories were mostly Danish folk tales, collected and retold by his immediate predecessors J. M. Thiele, Adam Oehlenschlæger, and Bernhard Ingemann. Unlike the collectors, whose aim was to preserve and sometimes to classify and study folktales, Andersen was primarily a writer, and his objective was to create new literary works based on folklore, although some of his fairy tales have their origins in ancient poetry (“The Naughty Boy”) or medieval European literature (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”). He also found inspiration in the literary fairy tales by the German Romantics such as Heinrich Hoffmann and Adelbert von Chamisso.
And they didn’t live happily ever after
There are several ways in which Andersen may be said to have created the genre of the modern fairy tale. First, he gave the fairy tale a personal touch. His very first fairy tale, “The Tinder Box,” opens in a matter-of-fact way instead of the traditional “Once upon a time,” and its characters, including the king, speak a colloquial, everyday language. This feature became the trademark of Andersen’s style. Quite a number of his early fairy tales are retellings of traditional folktales such as “Little Claus and Big Claus,” “The Princess on the Pea,” “The Traveling Companion,” “The Swineherd,” and “The Wild Swans”; in Andersen’s rendering, however, they reveal a certain uniqueness and brilliant irony. Kings go around in battered slippers and personally open the gates of their kingdoms; princesses read newspapers and roast chicken; and many supernatural creatures in later tales behave and talk like ordinary people. An explicit narrative voice, commenting on the events and addressing the listener, is another characteristic trait of Andersen’s tales. However, there are no conventional morals in the tales, possibly with the exception of “The Red Shoes” or “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf.” By contrast, many of them persistently explore the theme of true and false art, as in “The Swineherd” and, more subtly, in “The Nightingale.” The motif of physical and spiritual suffering, for instance in “The Wild Swans,” is accentuated in a manner uncommon in folk tales. Most of Andersen’s fairy tales are radically unlike traditional folk tales as they lack happy endings, the token of true folk tales. The little match girl freezes to death, the little tin soldier is thrown into the oven and melts, the daisy withers, and the fir tree is chopped into firewood.
In addition, Andersen brought the fairy tale into the everyday. His first original fairy tale, “Little Ida’s Flowers,” reminds one of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s tales in its elaborate combination of the ordinary and the fantastic, its nocturnal magical transformations, and its use of the child as a narrative lens. Still closer to Hoffmann is “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” with its animation of the realm of toys. However, in both tales, Andersen’s melancholy view of life is revealed: both end tragically, thus questioning the essence of children’s literature as depending on happy endings. These may be counterbalanced by more conventional stories of trials and reward such as “Thumbelina” or “The Snow Queen,” the latter based on a popular Norse legend of the Ice Maiden and featuring the invincible power of love, a recurrent theme in Andersen’s works, perhaps reflecting his own wishful thinking. The origins of the title figure in “Ole Lukkøje” (translated into English as Willie Winkie, The Sandman, The Dustman, Old Luke; the title means literally “Ole, close your eyes,” Ole being a boy’s name), harks back to the German folklore character Sandmännchen, a little man or dwarf, who makes children go to sleep. He may be viewed as one of Andersen’s many self-portraits as a skilful storyteller.
In a group of fairy tales, Andersen went still further in animating the material world around him and introducing everyday objects as protagonists: “The Sweethearts” (also known as “The Top and the Ball”), “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep,” “The Collar,” “The Silver Penny,” and “The Darning-needle.” He is credited as a pioneer in this respect. Even flowers and plants are ascribed a rich spiritual and emotional life: “The Daisy,” “The Fir Tree,” and “Five Peas from One Pod.”
Andersen’s animal tales are also radically different from traditional fables. While in “The Storks” he presents an original interpretation of the popular saying that babies are brought by storks, Andersen uses animals to represent different opinions on life in several stories, such as “The Happy Family,” “The Sprinters,” and “The Dung-Beetle.” The stories themselves are closer to satirical sketches of human manners than fairy tales for children. “The Ugly Duckling,” probably Andersen’s best-known story, is one of his many camouflaged autobiographies, echoing the writer’s much- quoted statement:
“First you must endure a lot, then you get famous.”
The animals, including the protagonist, possess human traits, views, and emotions, making the story indeed a poignant account of the road from humiliation through suffering to well-deserved bliss. The message is, however, ambivalent. The fairy tale is usually interpreted as a conventional Cinderella plot: after many hardships, patience and perseverance will be rewarded. On closer examination, the ugly duckling turns into a beautiful swan only because he was hatched from a swan’s egg. Some scholars believe that Andersen was the illegitimate child of a nobleman, perhaps even the king of Denmark (or alternatively, secretly believed himself to be). Perhaps “The Ugly Duckling” is the author’s way of saying:
“I have achieved fame and wealth only because I am in fact of noble birth.”
Andersen’s impact on children’s literature cannot be overestimated. His fairy tales are translated into dozens of languages, often in a horrendously corrupted and oversimplified manner, and his most famous characters, such as the Little Mermaid, the Little Match Girl, and the Ugly Duckling, are known all over the world. The fairy tales have been made into picture books, plays, films, operas, and merchandise, and Andersen’s life has become the subject for theater and film. Many children’s writers have acknowledged their debt to Andersen as model and inspiration. The significance of Andersen may be illustrated by the fact that the world’s most prestigious prize in children’s literature, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, is named after him, and that his birthday, 2 April, is celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.
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