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Type of work: Fairy tales

Author: Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)

Type of plots: Folk tradition

Time of plots: Indeterminate

Locale: Denmark

First published: At intervals, 1835-1872

The Stories

The fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen include several which have become known and loved the world over, such as "The Red Shoes." The heroine of this story is Karen, who was such a poor little girl that she had to go barefoot in winter. An old mother shoemaker felt sorry for her and made Karen a clumsy pair of shoes out of pieces of red felt. When Karen's mother died, the girl had to wear the red shoes to the funeral. An old lady, seeing Karen walking forlornly behind her mother's coffin, pitied her and took the child home. The old lady thought that the red shoes were ugly, and she burned them.

One day, Karen saw the queen and the little princess. The princess was dressed all in white, with beautiful red morocco shoes.

When the time came for Karen's confirmation, she needed new shoes. The old lady, almost blind, did not know that the shoes Karen picked out were red ones just like those the princess had worn. During the confirmation, Karen could think of nothing but her red shoes.

The next Sunday, as Karen went to her first communion, she met ah old soldier with a crutch. After admiring the red shoes, he struck them on the soles and told them to stick fast when Karen danced. During the service, she could think only of her shoes. After church, she started to dance. The footman had to pick her up and take off her shoes before the old lady could take her home.

At a ball in town, Karen could not stop dancing. She danced out through the fields and up to the church. There, an angel with a broad sword stopped her and told her she would dance until she became a skeleton, a warning to all other vain children.

She danced day and night until she came to the executioner's house. There she tapped on the window and begged him to come out and cut off her feet. When he chopped off her feet, they and the little red shoes danced off into the forest. The executioner made Karen wooden feet and crutches and taught her a psalm, and the parson gave her a home.

Karen thought she had suffered enough to go to church, but each time she tried she saw the red shoes dancing ahead of her and was afraid. One Sunday, she stayed at home. As she heard the organ music, she read her prayer book humbly and begged help from God. Then she saw the angel again, not with a sword but with a green branch covered with roses. As the angel moved the branch, Karen felt that she was being carried off to the church. There she was so thankful that her heart broke, and her soul flew up to heaven.

"The Ugly Duckling," another favorite Andersen tale, opens with a mother duck sitting on a clutch of eggs. When the largest egg did not crack with the rest, an old matriarchal duck warned the fowl that she should let that egg alone; it would probably turn out to be a turkey. The egg, however, finally cracked, and out of it came the biggest, ugliest duckling ever seen in the barnyard. The other ducklings pecked it and chased it and made it so unhappy that it felt comfortable only when it was paddling in the pond. The mother duck was proud only of the very fine paddling the ugly duckling did.

The scorn heaped on his head was so bitter that the duckling ran away from home. He spent a miserable winter in the marsh. When spring came, he saw some beautiful white swans settle down on the water. He moved out to admire them as they came toward him with ruffled feathers. He bent down to await their attack, but as he looked in the water he saw that he was no longer a gray ugly duckling but another graceful swan. He was so glad then that he never thought to be proud but smiled when he heard some children say that he was the handsomest swan they had ever seen.

"The Snow Queen" tells of a very wicked hobgoblin who invented a mirror that reflected everything good as trivial and everything bad as monstrous; a good thought became a grin in the mirror. His cohorts carried it all over the earth and finally up to heaven to test the angels. There, many good thoughts made the mirror grin so much that it fell out of their hands and splintered as it hit the earth.

Each tiny piece could cause the same distortions. One of the shards pierced Kay through the heart, and a tiny grain lodged in his eye. Kay had been a happy little boy before that. He had played with Gerda in their rooms high above the street, and they both had admired some rosebushes their parents had planted in boxes spanning the space between their houses. With the glass in his eye and heart, however, Kay saw nothing beautiful, and nothing pleased him.

One night, he went sledding in the town square. When a lady all in white drove by, he thought that she was so beautiful that he hitched his sled behind her sleigh as she drove slowly around the square. Suddenly, her horses galloped out of the town. The lady looked back at Kay and smiled each time he tried to loosen his sled. Then she stopped the sleigh and told Kay to get in with her. There she wrapped him in her fur coat. She was the Snow Queen. He was nearly frozen, but he did not feel cold after she kissed him, nor did he remember Gerda.

Gerda did not forget Kay; at last, she ran away from home to look for him. She went to the garden of a woman learned in magic and asked all the flowers if they had seen Kay, but the flowers knew only their own stories. She met a crow who led her to the prince and princess, but they had not heard of Kay. They gave her boots and a muff and a golden coach to ride in when they sent her on the way. Robbers stopped the golden coach. At the insistence of a little robber girl, Gerda was left alive, a prisoner in the robbers' house. Some wood pigeons in the loft told Gerda that Kay had gone with the Snow Queen to Lapland. Since the reindeer tethered inside the house knew the way to Lapland, the robber girl unloosed him to take Gerda on her way.

The Lapp and the Finn women gave Gerda directions to the Snow Queen's palace and told her that it was only through the goodness of her heart that Kay could be released. When Gerda found Kay, she wept so hard that she melted the piece of mirror out of his heart. Then he wept the splinter from his eye and realized what a vast and empty place he had been in. With thankfulness in her heart, Gerda led Kay out of the snow palace and home.

Less known, perhaps, is Andersen's story called "The Shepherdess and the Sweep." In the middle of the door of an old wooden parlor cupboard was carved a ridiculous little man with goat's legs, horns on his head, and a beard. The children called him Major-general-field-sergeant-commander-Billy-goat's-legs. He always looked at the china figure of a shepherdess. Finally, he asked the china figure of a Chinaman, who claimed to be her grandfather, if he could marry the shepherdess. The Chinaman, who could nod his head when he chose, nodded his consent.

The shepherdess had been engaged to the china figure of a chimneysweep. She begged him to take her away. That night, he used his ladder to help her get off the table. The Chinaman saw them leave and started after them.

Through the stove and up the chimney went the shepherdess and the chimneysweep. When she saw how big the world was, the shepherdess began to cry, and the chimneysweep had to take her back to the parlor. There they saw the Chinaman broken on the floor. The shepherdess was distressed, but the chimneysweep said the Chinaman could be mended and riveted.

Although the family had the Chinaman riveted so that he was whole again, he could no longer nod his head. When the Major-general-field-sergeant-commander-Billy-goat's-legs asked again for the shepherdess, the Chinaman could not nod, and so the shepherdess and the chimneysweep stayed together and loved each other until they were broken to pieces.

According to "The Emperor's New Clothes," once there was a foolish emperor who loved clothes so well that he spent all the kingdom's money to buy new ones. Two swindlers, who knew the Emperor's weakness, came to town with big looms. They told the people that they wove the most beautiful cloth in the world but that it had a magical property: If someone unworthy of his post looked at it, the cloth became invisible.

The Emperor gave them much gold and thread to make him a new outfit. The swindlers set up their looms and worked far into the night. Becoming curious about the materials, the Emperor sent his most trusted minister to see them. When the minister looked at the looms, he saw nothing; but, thinking of the magical property of the cloth, he decided that he was unworthy of his post. He said nothing to the swindlers and reported to the Emperor, praising the colors and pattern of the cloth as the swindlers had described it.

Others, looking at the looms, saw nothing and said nothing. Even the Emperor saw nothing when the material was finished and then was made into clothes, but he also kept silent. He wore his new clothes in a fine procession. All the people called out that his new clothes were beautiful--all the people except one little boy, who said that the Emperor did not have on any clothes at all.

Then there was a buzzing along the line of march. Soon everyone was saying that the Emperor wore no clothes. The Emperor, realizing the truth, held himself stiffer than ever until the procession ended.

"The Steadfast Tin Soldier" provides an image of love and constancy. A little boy had a set of twenty-five tin soldiers made out of the same tin spoon. Since there was not quite enough tin, one soldier had only one leg, but he stood as solidly as those with two legs. The one-legged soldier stood on a table and looked longingly at a paper castle, at the door of which stood a paper dancer who wore a gauze dress. A ribbon over her shoulder was held in position by a spangle as big as her face.

One morning, the little boy put the one-legged soldier on a windowsill. When the window opened, the soldier fell three stories to the ground. There he stuck, head down between two stones, until some boys found him. They made a paper boat for the soldier and sailed it down the gutter. After a time, the boat entered a sewer. Beginning to get limp, it settled deeper into the water. Just as the soldier thought he would fall into the water, a fish swallowed him.

When the fish was opened, the soldier found himself in the same house out of which he had fallen. Soon he was back on his table looking at the dancer. For no reason, the boy threw him into a roaring tire. Suddenly, a draft in the room whisked the dancer off the table and straight to the soldier in the tire. When the tire burned down, the soldier had melted to a small tin heart. All that was left of the dancer was her spangle, burned black.

Another popular Andersen tale is titled "The Tinder Box." A soldier was walking along the highroad one day when a witch stopped him and told him that he could have a lot of money if he would climb down a hollow tree and bring her up a tinder box. Thinking that was an easy way to get money, he tied a rope around his waist and the witch helped him to climb down inside the tree.

He took along the witch's apron, for on it he had to place the dogs that guarded the chests of money. The first dog, with eyes as big as saucers, guarded a chest full of coppers. The soldier placed the dog on the apron, filled his pockets with coppers, and walked on. The next dog, with eyes as big as millstones, guarded silver. The soldier placed the dog on the apron, emptied his pockets of coppers, and filled them with silver. The third dog had eyes as big as the Round Tower. He guarded gold. Placing the dog on the apron, he emptied his pockets of silver and filled them, his knapsack, his cap, and his boots with gold. Then he called to the witch to pull him up.

When she refused to tell him why she wanted the tinder box, he cut off her head and started for town. There he lived in splendor and gave alms to the poor, for he was goodhearted. He heard of a beautiful princess who was kept locked up because of a prophecy that she would marry a common soldier. Idly he thought of ways to see her.

When his money ran out and he had no candle, he remembered that there was a piece of candle in the tinder box. As he struck the box to light the candle, the door flew open and the dog with eyes like saucers burst in, asking what the soldier wanted. When he asked for money, the dog brought it back immediately. Then he found that he could call the second dog by striking the box twice, and the third dog by striking it three times. When he asked the dogs to bring the princess, she was brought to his room.

The king and queen had him thrown into prison when they caught him. There he was helpless until a little boy to whom he called brought the tinder box to him. When the soldier was about to be hanged, he asked permission to smoke a last pipe. Then he pulled out his tinder box and hit once, twice, three times. All three dogs came to rout the king's men and free the soldier. The people were so impressed that they made the soldier king and the princess his queen.

Critical Evaluation

Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are popular among both children and adults. The tales' power has its source in Andersen's use of the form to illumine the psychic wounds and scars of childhood that no adult ever forgets and to uphold the value of childhood purity against adult materialism. Andersen's stories are not self-consciously literary, nor are they usually set in the historical past. Instead, they are, with few exceptions, simple incidents with roots in events of his own life. As he develops them, they come to speak of the innocence of childhood, the falsity of adult rationality and materialism, the heartbreak of the sometimes futile search for unconditional love, and, above all, the need to transcend hardship--or to attempt to transcend it. When Andersen, still in his early teens, left his home for Copenhagen, he told his worried mother, "First one has to endure terrible adversity, then one becomes famous." The tales speak of the terror and adversity, if not always of the fame.

"The Red Shoes" has its source in new boots that Andersen himself wore for confirmation. In consternation and delight, he noticed that the squeaky boots distracted the congregation, and he, like Karen, could not concentrate despite the solemnity of the occasion. Karen, too, is ambitious, but the voices of law and church stifle and even cripple her, as they attempted to cripple Andersen. Karen finds peace in heaven, where, says the story's ending, no one will be concerned about her red shoes--or a child's harmless vanity; Andersen found escape from pettiness and provincialism by fleeing Denmark into a wider world.

"The Ugly Duckling" is clearly autobiographical. The swan in the duck's nest is no more unlikely than was the future writer in the Odense nest of poverty, illiteracy, illegitimacy, and insanity from which he arose. The mother duck, like the author's own mother, makes a kindly but misguided effort to force him to conform; the hardships after leaving the nest are those that Andersen himself experienced as he created his career. Just as in Andersen's own life, the other swans caress the ugly duckling and welcome him as one of their own only after his hardships are over and his success is assured.

In "The Snow Queen," the queen is identified with the death, which came to take away Andersen's father when the child was eleven. As the tale progresses, however, the Snow Queen also becomes identified with adult reason and intellect, with the mathematics and geography that were imposed upon Andersen by a sadistic, and hated, schoolmaster who attempted to kill the boy's poetic gifts. Opposed to this sterility is emotion, embodied in Gerda, with her love and her tears, and the outlaw robbers and old crones, who advise her and the various flowers and beasts who see her on her way. When Gerda finds Kay, he is seated, quiet as death, in the Snow Queen's icy world, vainly trying to spell "eternity" with pieces of her frozen mirror. Gerda's tears free the boy. They return to springtime and to a world of steeples and church bells, as Grandmother reads, "Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter the Kingdom of Heaven."

In "The Shepherdess and the Sweep," conflict also exists between the coldness and materialism of adulthood and the purity of innocence. The young porcelain lovers are thwarted by the worldly old Chinaman, who assumes authority he does not possess (the adult world is often arbitrary) and forbids the marriage between shepherdess and sweep. The girl is unwilling to risk the open, insecure world up beyond the chimney, just as the women Andersen adored would not risk marriage with the rootless and insecure artist. If in life unconditional love is rarely realized, the ending of a story can be happier. The authority of the old Chinaman is first broken and then rendered impotent, and the lovers are united.

The futility of adult wisdom likewise underlies "The Emperor's New Clothes." There, adults combine to reinforce the foolishness and vanity of the Emperor. Only the child in the crowd has the ability to see truth and the courage to express it. It is not stretching interpretation to see the Emperor's supposedly beautiful clothing as the equivalent of what Andersen perceived as second-rate art, which dominated the world into which he painfully tried to break. This art, perhaps also created by frauds, is that cultivated by fads, cliques, coteries, and place-seekers, while Andersen's own pure voice went unnoticed.

In "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," the topic turns back to the search, this time futile, for love. The tin soldier is another cripple, much as Andersen had been crippled by ungainly appearance and early adversity. The soldier, like his creator, is unwavering despite unspeakable hardships. He is rescued, but, unlike the successful Andersen, he is cast aside; the family prefers toys that are new and shiny to those that have been tested by life. The soldier is thrown into the tire, but chance, or God, ensures that there, finally, he is united with the paper doll he loves. The overcoming of hardship must in some way be rewarded, if only at the moment of extinction.

"The Tinder Box," too, deals with adversity, but its hero is spoiled in the process of overcoming it, much as Andersen, in his autobiographical writings, sometimes recorded his fear that he, also, would take Iris success too seriously. This story's hero forgets gratitude and kills the crone who helped him; he wastes the wealth he has gained and loses the friends who surrounded him when he was rich. Nonetheless, he can call upon the magic of the tinder box--the magic of art itself--to save him from his own folly. Ultimately, it saves him from death and wins him the hand of a princess.
COPYRIGHT 1991 COPYRIGHT 1989 Frank N. Magill
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Publication:Masterpieces of World Literature
Article Type:Work Overview
Date:Jan 1, 1991

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