Andersen's Fairy Tales Introduction
In A Nutshell
Everyone's seen Disney's The Little Mermaid, right? (If you haven't, you should probably get up from your computer now and go watch it because… you really haven't seen it? Like, really? It's a classic.) Some of you probably know that Disney didn't write the story: they adapted it from the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, and changed it quite a lot. In fact, "changed" might be too mild a word, since aside from the basics of the plot—the little mermaid makes a bargain with the sea witch to have a shot at a human prince—pretty much everything is different.
- First of all, Andersen's mermaid dies at the end. No Hollywood endings here.
- The prince marries someone else.
- The sea witch gruesomely cuts out the mermaid's tongue as part of the deal.
- Oh yeah, and the whole point of the mermaid trying to marry the prince in the first place is to get in on his whole eternal soul thing, since mer-people lack souls and thus cannot go to heaven.
You see what we mean here. Andersen wrote some pretty strange stuff.
A few of his other tales are well known—"The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "The Steadfast Tin Solider" spring to mind—but you've probably never heard of plenty of 'em. And these tales cover a wide range of topics in a variety of tones. There are stories based on folklore ("Little Claus and Big Claus," "The Traveling Companion") alongside dream-like musings on the nature of religion and art ("The Little Match Girl" and "The Nightingale").
Andersen first started publishing his tales in 1837, and by 1874, he'd published 156 of 'em. Not bad, eh? The dude was prolific, that's for sure. But he didn't just write short stories, and his intended audience wasn't restricted to children. In addition to his fairy tales, Andersen wrote poems, plays, novels, travel books, essays, and more. He hungered for recognition at home (Denmark) and abroad—and he got it! Eventually. Today, his stories can be read in over one hundred languages.
But no matter what language they're in, Andersen's tales have got something for everyone. In them, you'll find beauty, tragedy, nature, religion, artfulness, deception, betrayal, love, death, judgment, penance, and—occasionally—a happy ending. They're complex tales, but since Andersen himself was pretty complex, we like to think that art imitates life. Or something like that.
Why Should I Care?
He was just a poor boy, nobody loved him! Hans Christian Andersen was the son of a cobbler and an illiterate washerwoman. He grew up in heartbreaking poverty. So becoming a famous author who traveled all around Europe and hung out with royalty was a pretty big change of pace for him.
Andersen was self-conscious about his lower-class background, despite his success. In a lot of his tales, we see him grappling with ideas about wealth, self-worth, and the meaning of life. He cared a lot what other people thought of him and worried about fitting in, like the anxieties expressed in "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "The Ugly Duckling."
Maybe you don't always feel like you fit in. Maybe you have a vision or a dream that you want to accomplish someday. Maybe it feels like the odds aren't in your favor (which is probably not true, assuming that you're not living in The Hunger Games).
Andersen was awkward and earnest. Even coming from a totally downtrodden background, he managed to find his voice and write his stories. So if he could pull it off, then maybe, just maybe, there's hope for the rest of us.