Hans Christian Andersen, Collected Fairy Tales
Manesse Bibliothek der Weltliteratur, published in 1949
Hans Christian Andersen, who is something like a national poet in Denmark these days, comes from a poor background, the son of a cobbler and a simple maid. All his life he dreams of fame and fortune, of making it in society. With discipline and stubbornness he works his way through school and turns to writing full-time as a young man. His works quickly receive favourable reviews abroad, especially in Germany. But at home, appreciation of his works remains absent, which increasingly frustrates him. The publication of an edition with four of his fairy tales in 1835 is barely noted in Denmark. The few reviews which exist attest that he has talent, but advise him not to waste it on fairy tales for children. It is only with the publication of his collected fairy tales in 1843 that he wins the recognition he has been seeking for so long.
We know Andersen for fairy tales such as The Princess and the Pea, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, The Snow Queen, or The Wild Swans. But what makes his fairy tales unique? Why do we read and love them just as much as people did 150 years ago? In the afterword of the Manesse edition, which comprises close to 160 fairy tales, Martin Bodmer finds that the Danish author has the rare gift of striking “a perfect balance between naivety and art, between phantasy and real life”. This naivety and phantasy is especially prominent in a fairy tale like that of the snow queen. It also features the motif of the child that is so central to Andersen’s writing, characterised by very special qualities of innocence, goodness of heart, and the capability of boundless love and compassion. Thus little Gerda takes on the whole world by herself, braves bandits and witches only to save her dearest playfellow Kay, who’s been bewitched by the snow queen with the frozen heart.
“Real life”, on the other hand, is much more palpable in fairy tales like “Little Klaus and Big Klaus” or “The Conceited Apple Branch”. What connects them is a common interest in the order of society, the differences between rich and poor, and in human flaws like stupidity, vanity, or envy. The “conceited apple branch”, for instance, believes itself to be superior to all other plants and much more beautiful than, say, the common dandelion. In the end, it still has to share its vase with the dandelion and realise that every being in God’s creation is beautiful and valuable in its own way.
Other tales are even more concrete, in that they deal with objects such as lighters, tea pots, suitcases, darning needles or bottlenecks. Again and again, Andersen returns to the small and seemingly insignificant, the ordinary, the sphere of domestic life. One of these tales epitomizes the Biedermeier period, which is part of Andersen’s historical reality. “The Money Pig” brings to life such a Biedermeier nursery at night. The selection of objects alone speaks volumes: rocking horse, cane, quirt, and two embroidered cushions, which are “darling and dumb”. What is so great about this fairy tale: These objects now begin to play “being human”, serve tea and engage in mental exercises. And so Andersen returns to that which is always at the heart of his fairy tales: man, with all his strengths and weaknesses.
by Teresa Teklić