Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Roses are red, violets are blue, symbols are hard, so Shmoop's here to help you! It's corny, but it's true, so we're giving ourselves a pass on this one.
Anyway, roses actually pop up in a lot of places in Andersen's writing. They appear in titles ("A Rose from Homer's Grave," "The Rose Elf," "The World's Most Beautiful Rose") and in the environments of Andersen's characters (in "The Snow Queen," "Little Ida's Flowers," and "Inchelina"). But what do all these roses mean? What do they represent in Andersen's tales?
Some of Andersen's roses symbolize royalty. They're, like, totally the awesome emperors of all the flowers' itty bitty secret societies, just like you always dreamed of when you were playing make believe. Okay, maybe that was us. Anyway, if you're weird and you personify everything—which Andersen is and does, since his stories are rife with talking thistle, nightingales, and pieces of paper—roses rule.
In "Little Ida's Flowers," an adorable little girl dreams about flowers attending a ball. And guess what? She sees "two roses who wore gold crowns" (4.54). Here, they're obviously the tiny, petal-y kinglettes and queenlettes who lord over all the other, more common flowers.
Another rose has a serious ego issue because he totally knows that he's better than all the other flowers. And probably all of the animals and people as well. When a nightingale tries to get this rose's attention, he says:
Here rests the greatest singer the world has ever known… My fragrance shall scent the air over his grave; and when the wind tears me apart, then my petals shall fall on it. The poet who composed the Iliad became earth in the earth from which I have sprung. I am a rose from the grave of Homer. How can I who am so sacred bloom for only a poor nightingale? (19.4)
Wow, what a narcissist. Like, yes, it's a huge honor to grow on Homer's grave and all… but really? Are roses that much better than other plants and animals? Andersen thinks so, and it seems like he's making yet another link between beauty, vanity, and pride with this version of his rose symbolism.
Holy Roses, Batman!
Not to get all mystical on you, but roses are symbolically connected to innocence and salvation in some of Andersen's tales. When Elisa's about to be burned at the stake in "The Wild Swans," her brothers show up at the last minute and are disenchanted. Funnily enough, this spell-breaking is understood as evidence that she's not a witch, though we'd say turning swans into men looks a lot like doing magic.
Elisa faints and one of her brothers begins to explain the dealio: "While he spoke a fragrance of millions of roses spread from the wood that had been piled high around the stake. Every stick, every log had taken root and set forth vines. They were a hedge of the loveliest red roses, and on the very top bloomed a single white rose. It shone like a star" (13.91).
We're gonna go out on a limb here and wager that the white rose symbolizes innocence. As in, Elisa's innocent of the accusations tossed her way, and she's also got all this beautiful, pure love for her brothers, who she was working so hard to save.
To take another example, in "The World's Most Beautiful Rose," we see a dying queen who's been told that the "the world's most beautiful rose, the one that symbolizes the highest and purest love" (57.2) is the only thing that can cure her. Okay, okay, we understand; thanks for beating us over the head with this explicitly explained symbolism, Mr. Andersen. Interestingly, in the story, the dying queen's potential mode of salvation leads to a discussion of the merits of the various kinds of roses out there—the rose that blossoms from the blood of heroes, the rose to be found in a smiling child's red cheeks, and so on.
It's only when the queen's son "sat down by his mother's besides and read about Him who suffered death on the Cross in order to save humanity" (57.13) that they locate the world's most beautiful rose. Here's how it goes down:
The queen's pale cheeks took on a pinkish shade, and her eyes became big and clear, as from the pages of the book grew the world's most beautiful rose, the one that grew from Christ's blood on the Cross.
"I see it," she said. "And those who have seen that rose, the most beautiful in the world, shall never die." (57.14-15)
So yeah, if you buy into the whole roses = redemption = Christ's blood equation, then you can see even more clearly why roses would be a big deal in Andersen's world. They represent the promise of eternal life, in heaven if not on earth, as well as innocence and royalty.