Study Guide

Andersen's Fairy Tales Introduction

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Andersen's Fairy Tales Introduction

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.


What is Andersen's Fairy Tales About and 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.


Andersen's Fairy Tales Resources


The Hans Christian Andersen Center
Want a bunch of links and resources related to Andersen's life and works? Look no further!

Andersen Fairy Tales
Click here for a charming, short bio of Andersen, a selection of his tales, and one question that will haunt you for the rest of your life: why did the people who got the domain name do so little with the site?

The Hans Christian Andersen Museum's Website
This page has links to Andersen's stories in 123 different languages. But you have to figure out what the languages are called in Danish in order to navigate the site… So, um, happy Googling!

Movie or TV Productions

The Little Mermaid
Duh. We suggest you go read Andersen's version of this tale, then re-watch the movie. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Disney's take on Andersen's "The Snow Queen" is… uh… interesting to say the least. Here, the Kai character saves the Gerda character, which is a switcheroo from the original. And we're expecting some cute singing animals to join the party, because it is Disney, after all.

Fantasia 2000
This Disney film contains a retelling of Andersen's "The Steadfast Tin Soldier." Check it!

Hans Christian Andersen
Everybody loves Danny Kaye, right? Though this biography of Andersen is far from factual, Kaye rocks as Andersen. And we enjoy the film as a fun, optimistic reimagining of his life.

Browse Other Andersen-Inspired Movies on
There've actually been a bunch of movies inspired by Andersen's tales, so check out the IMDB listing about him here.

Articles and Interviews

Terri Windling on Andersen's Tales and Life
Noted fairy tale author Windling discusses Andersen's fairy tales and life story. Sweet.

Denmark on the 200th Anniversary of Andersen's Birth
One journalist visits Andersen's hometown Odense and other parts of Denmark for the 2005 Andersen bicentennial. Bi. Cen. Tennial. That's a lotta years, Shmoopers.

Andersen's First Fairy Tale?
"The Tallow Candle," a story believed to have been written by Andersen while he was still a schoolboy, was found in an archive in 2012. Who doesn't love a good whodunit? (Or, in this case, whowroteit?)


Death and the Mother
This 10-minute adaptation of Andersen's tale "The Story of a Mother" is hauntingly beautiful. Forreals.

Snippets of "The Snow Queen" and "The Red Shoes" in Dance
Andersen's tales have inspired experimental dancers to create all kindsa adaptation. This trailer for a show called Musée des Femmes features clips of Karen from "The Red Shoes" (she's the one all in red) and the Snow Queen (in a white dress with a high collar). Kinda cool and kinda freaky. Both.

Clip from the 1948 film The Red Shoes
Stay with us: it's a movie, about a ballet, about a fairy tale. Yup. With some really pretty dancing in it, to boot.

Pre-Disney Anime "The Little Mermaid"
In the mood for some live-action footage of 1970s Denmark followed by a Japanese anime take on "The Little Mermaid"? This one's for you!


NPR Coverage of Andersen's Bicentennial in Denmark
Discussion of a week long fairy-tale festival in Denmark to honor Andersen. And who doesn't love some NPR?

Gregory Maguire's Adaption of "The Little Match Girl" for NPR
Listen to this take on Andersen's "The Little Match Girl" as a Christmas-time radio special.


Central Park's Statue of Hans Christian Andersen
Check out that book he's holding on his lap. It's huuuuuge!

The Little Mermaid Statue in Copenhagen
Trust us, you've seen this before even if you've never been to Copenhagen. It's super famous.

An International Gallery of Andersen-Inspired Art
Some of these are pretty trippy.


Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller
Want to dig through juicy quotes from Andersen's diaries and letters? This book by fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes contains a wealth of information about Andersen's life and tales.

The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films
More Zipes for the win. The chapter on Andersen adaptations in film contains a bunch of cool examples of artsy European films based that you've probably never heard of… but now you'll be able to impress your friends by knowing all about them!

The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen
Fairy-tale scholar Maria Tatar presents a selection of Andersen tales, along with annotations that explore the social context informing the tales. Which is really awesome.

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