Happy Birthday Hans Christian Andersen!
I have to admit, most of my favourite fairy tales come from Hans Christian Andersen. I’m not against the Grimm Brothers by any means, but I know what I like with Andersen, with the Grimms I generally think they are all pretty good but I wouldn’t know an absolute favourite.
This favourite for Andersen is of course The Little Match Girl. I think it is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking stories, and yet by the end Andersen brings in his own version of happily ever after which was nothing like I had ever seen before.
Knowing the Grimm’s work, I thought Andersen was greater, there was more than princesses, more than forests and enchantments; instead there were conceited kings, and there were ducklings, soldiers in love, silent mermaids, admirable princes: each with their own stories about love and sorrow and justice. There was no attempt to make life fall into place, there was no real justice for those who did wrong, and not simplistic and easy happily ever after to sooth the senses after the tragedy that had been experienced. This is why I admire Andersen so much, possible without meaning to he provides a happily ever after of simple happiness than orchestrating love and marriage and vengeance disguised as justice.
I knew more Andersen fairy tales growing up than I did Grimm, sure I watched the Disney versions of Cinderella, Snow White and knew the story of Hansel and Gretel, but at the end of the day Red Riding Hood scared me, and the idea of a prince saving me from my family, or defeating a witch had no real interest to me; the messages in The Ugly Duckling, or the Steadfast Tin-Soldier did more for my than warning me to stay on the path or defeating a witch in an edible house.
Andersen was on track to do a lot of things before he started writing fairy tales; he began working as a weaver’s apprentice before moving into the world of acting. There he discovered he had an excellent soprano voice he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre. This however did not come to anything as his voice changed, but this seemingly unfortunate turn of events in fact started Andersen on his writing journey. After being told he would make a good poet by a fellow company member, Andersen took this to heart and began writing, his first novel The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave being published in 1822.
The first fairy tale he wrote was called The Tallow Candle, in the 1820s and told the story of a candle who did not feel appreciated. He worked on many short stories as well as theatre pieces and poetry, but it is his collection of fairy tales that have made him well known in the long run; though as soon as I can track down these other works I have every intention of reading them.
The immortal fairy tales we know today were first published in 1835 consisting of nine tales, including The Tinderbox, The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina and The Little Mermaid. New stories were added in later installments in both 1836 and 1837, however like it is with most works of genius, these did not sell well and Andersen went back to novels to get by.
His personal life is fascinating, he was a friend of Charles Dickens, and his life was filled with misfortune and great opportunities at the same time. If you really want to know more about what a troubled yet brilliant person Andersen was you can read his autobiography The Fairy Tale of My Life: An Autobiography. There have been a few film versions of his life as well, though some more fanciful than others.
Andersen paved the way for Kenneth Grahame and A. A. Milne and their stories, and Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter would also take their inspiration from him as well. From slow beginnings it is astonishing how loved and well known his works are, even more so than those he was known for most in his early years.
April 2nd is celebrated as International Children’s Day which I did not know until now. Reading his fairy tales are such a joy and are so moving and emotional at the same time, just as all good stories should be. Where would the world be today without the selfless little mermaid, or the child who spoke against a king, or even the simple prince who judged royalty based on a legume?
You can read a range of fairy tales from a range of authors and backgrounds at SurLaLune. It is a great website where you can find out about variations, histories and general amazing things about fairy tales we know and love, as well as those we’ve never heard of before.