Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 11, 2010

Classic Friday: H. C. Andersen

Fairy Tales and Legends by Hans Andersen (1835-1837), illus. Rex Whistler, The Bodley Head, 470 pp.

There’s a lot in Andersen that’s difficult to take. Here, for instance, is a first sentence (for “The Angel”) that would lead these days to instant rejection by nearly every editor:

Whenever a good child dies, an Angel of God comes down to earth, takes the dead child in his arms, and, spreading out his large white wings, flies with him over all the places that were dear to him.

But then Andersen redeems himself, for all the Christian sacrifice that permeates so much of his work, with a 400-word story like “The Real Princess” (aka “The Princess and the Pea”) .

I’m not going to spend time on the well-known works that have become ballets, movies, and musicals. Let me, instead, focus on a few that have been favorites of mine since my childhood.

The Flying Trunk” has fireworks, a Turkish princess, a lucky wastrel who loses a fortune (he “made bank-notes into paper kites, and played at ducks and drakes in the pond with gold pieces instead of stones”), and a story-within-the-story featuring a bundle of matches and some pots and pans, all trying to figure out who has the most prestigious background.

What the Old Man Does Is Always Right” tells of a farmer going to market to trade or sell his horse for something that might be more useful. Through various barters on his trip into town, the farmer eventually ends up with a bag of rotten apples. While in a tavern, he tells two men the story of his day, and they bet him two bags of gold that his wife will give him what-for when he gets home. He takes their bet, and his wife’s reactions to his various trades make the story.

Even better than the tales of people were those of animated things. It’s difficult not to imagine Andersen’s influence on Disney, when you read conversations between a darning needle and the fingers that hold it, or between a proud shirt collar as it woos, in close succession, a garter, an iron, a pair of scissors, and a comb. “The Shirt Collar” ends with this perfect moral:

… the shirt Collar was made into this very identical sheet of white paper now before you, gentle reader — the sheet upon which this history is printed. And this was the punishment for his shameless boasting and falsehood. And it is well that we should all read the story, and think over it, that we may beware how we brag and boast as the shirt Collar did; for we can hardly make sure that we may not, some unlucky day, get into a rag-chest, too, and be made into white paper, and have our whole history, even our most secret thoughts and doings, printed upon us, and thus be obliged to travel about the world, and make our misdeeds known everywhere, just like the shirt Collar.

Andersen seems to take great pleasure in such stories of Nemesis bringing down Hubris. When the tales are about shirt collars, or darning needles, or bundles of flax or matches, I don’t mind at all. Just as long as he stays away from angels and doomed children.

NB: The story links are to an Andersen website on which you can find English translations of all his stories, as well as biographical information and links to his other writing. Check out the Victor Borge greeting to HCA under Miscellaneous. The HC Andersen statue that Borge found in NYC can be seen at this link.

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