[This is the second of three edited and updated excerpts from an essay entitled "Hans Christian Andersen and the Victorians," which appeared in translation in Literature, Culture and History in Victorian England: A Festschrift for Professor Matsumura (Tokyo: Eiho-sha, 1999. 68-89).]

In contrast to the Brothers Grimm, Andersen worked first and foremost with his own imagination, playing upon his own experiences. "Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself," he freely admitted. "Every character is from life. I know and have known them all" (qtd. in Spink 70). In this way, despite dealing with plenty of episodes of individual suffering, he generally avoided the crueller, more disturbing scenarios of folklore, which the Grimms had set out to collect and preserve. Although child death and lovesickness were among his favourite preoccupations, these were softened by a sentimentality which his early translators enhanced. More positively, and more acceptably to later readers, such themes were touched in the end by a visionary quality that raises them above both sentimentality and religiosity. Another of his preoccupations, sibling attachment, held and to some extent still holds a special appeal for the younger audience. The same might be said of his gift for animating the abstract or inanimate, a gift that has made him a highly influential figure in the field of children's literature. But perhaps his most enduring appeal lies in his demonstration that, as G. K. Chesterton put it, "the dignity of the fighter is not in his largeness but rather in his smallness" (342).

Three twentieth-century illustrations of Andersen's stories by Honor Appleton — Left: Incessantly she had to dance. Middle: Further and further he flew. Right: It was just as if all the stars of heaven were falling down upon her [Click on thumbnails for larger images.].

Andersen's stories about child death belong to a time when infant mortality rates were high, and bereaved parents were consoled with the idea that early death had spared their child the sins and sufferings of the world. In "The Story of a Mother," for instance, the sorrowing parent makes her way at great cost to "Death's big glass-house" (333), only to decide in the end that the risks of misery on earth are so great that her little son should after all be given over to Death. The piece was included in A Christmas Greeting to My English Friends, published in 1847, one of two volumes dedicated to Dickens. Though hardly merry, it was not as inappropriate as it seems now. Dickens had voiced very similar sentiments when consigning Little Nell to death in The Old Curiosity Shop only a few years before, and winter berries and green leaves had been scattered on her couch as a symbol of the new life awaiting her. Even at the festive season, such sentiments would not have jarred on a generation brought up under Mrs Sherwood's aegis. Andersen himself expressed the opinion that in this and another tale he was offering "consolation and courage" to the bereaved ("Notes" 1084).

A similar mixture of morbidity and consolation can be found in Andersen's tales of hopeless romantic yearning. An example here is "The Rose Elf," which tells a story similar to that of Keats's poem, "Isabella, or The Pot of Basil," in which a young woman mourns her murdered lover and keeps his head in a plant-pot. Andersen wrote that his plot came "from an Italian folksong" ("Notes" 1073; the ultimate source would have been Boccaccio's Decameron). It sounds grisly enough, but, in Andersen's version, jasmine blossoms grow from the plant, which is watered by the young woman's tears until she drifts pleasantly away in her sleep to join her beloved in the afterlife. After that the rose elf and the little spirits that inhabit the blossoms help to avenge the crime and reveal the perpetrator. Here, the young mourner's happy dream, easy death and longed-for reunion beyond the grave, as well as the fairy elements, help to distract the reader from the cruelty and grief in the tale.

The French critic Isabelle Jan has written interestingly on these kinds of unhappy tales, admitting that they can be "traumatic for small children" (53), and accepting too that the orthodox consolations of the Christian heaven are absent. However, looking at the best-known amongst them, Jan notes not simply a gentle easing away from life, but a "splendour at the moment of vanishing" (54). She refers, for instance, to "The Little Match Girl," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" and "The Little Mermaid." Disturbed by the first of these, in 1946 the famous Scandinavian-born children's book illustrator, Gustaf Tenggren, changed the ending so that the little match girl is left "sleeping in a luxurious bed rather than freezing to death" (Hoyle 91). Quite apart from the touch of bathos here, the much more realistic conclusion to Andersen's story is also much more memorable — and inspirational. For this poor child's struggles do not result only (as Naomi Wood suggests) in "a cold blue body and a handful of burnt out matches" (202); on the contrary, she finds the warmth she had lacked when her beloved dead grandmother descends, and transports her to heaven: "No one knew what beauty she had seen, or in what radiance she had gone with her old granny in to the glad New Year" (301). Here and elsewhere (in "The Angel" and "The Red Shoes," for example), Andersen sees death as a kind of consummation, luminous in its intensity. As Jan says, "Through death the living become light and merge into the universe" (54). Small children might find Tenggren's alternative ending more comforting, and that is clearly the kind of assumption behind the Disney version of "The Little Mermaid," in which the heroine becomes human at the end instead of being transformed into an aerial spirit. However, for older children and adults, Andersen's original endings are much more profoundly encouraging.

Wood and Jan both commend Andersen for the reality in his fiction, but Jan focuses also on his "conquest of reality" (42), pointing out that in episodes like these the painfully realistic is subsumed into something beyond either reality or fantasy — the visionary. That is, his prose attains a higher level, the level at which, as Tolkien believed, it can console us and deny "the universal final defeat" of death (68). This is what C. S. Lewis would achieve, again for children, in the moving finale of his Chronicles of Narnia: in The Last Battle, Lewis's child heroes and heroines are reunited with their parents in a world beyond this one, a world in which all evil has finally been destroyed. To condemn such art as morbid or sentimental is to misunderstand it entirely. Furthermore, Jacqueline Rose's claim that the whole tendency of children's literature is some kind of conspiracy to control and entrap the young, setting the child figure up "as a spectacle" and fixing it in our gaze (29) — in short, that children's writers have a "colonialist" mentality (57) — is given the lie by such genuinely liberating denouements. In this context it is worth noting that Jan, who is able to respond so sensitively to these key moments in Andersen, has been particularly praised by Catherine Storr, a practicing psychiatrist as well as a children's author herself, for her "perceptive appreciation" of this author (9).

A similarly potent mix of emotions, and their final sublimation, can also be found in Andersen's stories about siblings. Only one of his stories, "Clod-Poll," alternatively entitled "Simple Simon" or "Jack the Dullard," has the typical folktale configuration of the downtrodden third brother, whose problems with his brothers reflect the archetypal rivalry between the child and his two powerful parents (see Bettelheim 106). Instead, as Elias Bredsdorff says, Andersen tends to idealize the brother-and-sister relationship (17). This would have appealed to the Victorians, whose nursery culture encouraged close attachments between bands of siblings. An example here is "The Wild Swans," the story of selfless Eliza who risks pain and death to release her eleven brothers, who have been turned into swans by their wicked step-mother. She must gather nettles in the graveyard to weave into special shirts for them, without explaining why she is doing so. This story does have folktale origins, one of only nine such stories in the collection; but the way Andersen tells and ends the story is all his own (see his Preface 1070, and Bredsdorff 310). The girl succeeds in transforming her brothers just when she is on the point of being burnt to death as a witch. Andersen describes how she is then surrounded by innumerable roses, which blossom magically from the bonfire beneath her. One white rose shines above her like a star. The description draws attention to her purity, and also glorifies the sisterly love which almost turned her into a martyr. Again, there is that luminosity which Jan has noted, and which redeems the story from sentimentality.

Another aspect of Andersen's "conquest of reality" is, of course, his skill in humanizing animals and animating and giving speech to inanimate objects. Both devices were already familiar from nursery rhymes and earlier fairy tales, like those translated from Perrault's Mother Goose collection in the early eighteenth century. Small-scale ventures in this line had been tried more recently, too. Mary Howitt's own best-known and only enduring creative work was the moralistic poem mentioned in the previous section, "The Spider and the Fly," published in 1834, in which the spider invites the fly into his parlour. But, as G.K. Chesterton observed, Andersen's gift for this sort of thing was on a different scale, at once greater and more entirely natural:

Those of the English who were then children owe to Hans Andersen more than to any of their own writers, that essential educational emotion which feels that domesticity is not dull but rather fantastic; that sense of the fairyland of furniture, and the travel and adventure of the farmyard. His treatment of inanimate things as animate was not a cold and awkward allegory; it was a true sense of a dumb divinity in things that are. (342)

An example here is in "The Flying Trunk," when some kitchen implements get out of hand. The episode ends with the shopping basket complaining, "Is this a proper way to spend the evening? Wouldn't it be better to set the house to rights? That would put everybody in his place, and I'd be in charge of the whole pack of you! You'd see a change then!" (143-44). This sort of humorous inventiveness presented a real challenge to the established tradition of the heavily didactic full-length children's book, so it is in this area that Andersen's influence on other children's writers was most immediately noticeable. Take, for example, his story "The Snail and the Rose-Bush," in which the snail interrogates a rose about her quality of life: "you haven't done a scrap for your inner development .... Can you justify this?" (401). It is a very short step from here to the caterpillar that presents Lewis Carroll's Alice with her first challenge in Wonderland. Both the Alice books are full of the young heroine's encounters with speaking creatures and fantastic situations like those found in Andersen's stories. Indeed, it is through these that Alice begins to discover her identity and learns to act independently. Memorably, as his last proof of his heroine's growing self-confidence, Carroll shows her acting decisively against a feast that comes to life — again, very much in the Andersen tradition, even down to the tone of voice employed: "'What impertinence!' said the Pudding. 'I wonder how you'd like it, if I were to cut a slice out of you, you creature!'" (276).

As well as humanizing animals, pots, pans, toys and so on, Andersen likes to bring abstract concepts to life. Here he is far more successful than earlier writers such as Mrs Sherwood, who had attempted to personify religious ideas. Perhaps the only interesting such character in Mrs Sherwood's work is nasty little In-bred Sin in The Infant's Progress: From the Valley of Destruction to Everlasting Glory, completed in 1810. Andersen's forte, however, is the (sometimes quite literally) uplifting figure. The ending of "The Little Match Girl," discussed above, provides an image of dying which is quite different, in its perfect balance of naturalness and splendour, from anything found in the old Penny Tracts: "Granny had never before been so beautiful and so big. Lifting the little girl on to her arm, she flew with her in radiance and glory so high, so very, very high. And there was no cold, no hunger, no fear: they were with God" (Spink 301). This sort of episode made Andersen a potent influence on George MacDonald, one of Lewis Carroll's friends. Of MacDonald's three children's novels, the one that owes most to Andersen is At the Back of the North Wind, a fantasy of 1871 about another dying working-class child who is taken to heaven, this time by the powerful North Wind. Humphrey Carpenter praises MacDonald as a children's writer for "creating an alternative religious landscape which a child's mind could explore and which could offer spiritual nourishment," suggesting that he was "almost unique in it" but adding casually, "Hans Christian Andersen had done something of the same" (383). Andersen's pioneering literary efforts in this area should be more fully recognised. Again, his ideas would be picked up by C. S. Lewis as well, in The Chronicles of Narnia, and passed on to still more recent children's writers like Madeleine L'Engle.

However, perhaps the most important point about Andersen as a children's writer is that his tales are so often empowering. The classic example here is "The Ugly Duckling." Many have suggested that this story encapsulates the author's own autobiography, his own self-congratulation about his rise to fame. This is unlikely: it was one of his early works, and his popularity only really began to spread after its publication (see "Notes" 1074). Be that as it may, Andersen shows the "duckling" triumphing not just by chance, but largely by his own efforts. True, he is bound to turn into a swan eventually — but only if he does manage to survive. First, he flutters away from the farmyard where he is being bullied. Then, when the wild ducks notice him at the marsh, he greets them as best he can. After lying low during the wild goose shoot which follows, "he scampered away from the marsh as fast as his legs would carry him; over fields and meadows he ran, though there was such a wind that he had hard work fighting his way against it" (207). It is the "duckling" himself who finds his way through a crack into a cottage for shelter, and the "duckling" again who decides to venture out "into the wide world" where he eventually sees some swans (210). After further adventures, he discovers his true identity as a swan only when he takes the last-ditch decision to "fly over to the royal birds" and put himself at their mercy (213). The aspirational nature of this story is sometimes seen in a negative light now, as betraying "class bias" and even "racist tendencies" in the author (Zipes 102); but it primarily reflects the protagonist's resilience and drive.

"Tomalise" or "Thumbelina" is another success story, in this case, featuring a girl of tiny dimensions — especially heartening for the young and powerless child reader. The little heroine's happy existence is interrupted when an ugly toad carries her off to be his son's wife. The fish take pity on her, and help her to escape over the waters on a leaf, after which she herself harnesses the leaf to a butterfly. Further adventures follow: Thumbelina is captured by a cockchafer, abandoned in the woods, taken in by a field-mouse, and expected to marry the field-mouse's neighbour, a dull, scholarly mole. But through such experiences the tiny girl learns resourcefulness. In the woods, for example, she lives successfully by herself all summer and autumn, gathering honey and drinking dew, and making herself what shelter she can when the cold weather strikes. Moreover, she never once loses her good nature. In the end, she faces a difficult choice, torn between gratitude to the kindly field-mouse, and the offer of a swallow to take her away from the heartless mole. "Very well, I'll come with you," she tells the swallow at last (46); and that is her salvation, because the result of this decision is that she (quite literally) meets her prince. Not surprisingly, this tale is now often read as a story of specifically female empowerment. Hence perhaps Roger Ebert's criticism of the feeble 1994 animation of Hans Christian Andersen's Thumbelina, for its "vapid" and "passive" heroine. The original heroine is not passive at all.

Not all Andersen's victims can overcome their difficult circumstances. The merchant's son in "The Flying Trunk," for instance, loses his chance of marriage when his magic conveyance burns up from a spark from his own firework display. The young man is left solidly on the earth at the end, not only without a bride, but without a home. Still, even this hero's luck has run out in a blaze of glory, to enthusiastic acclaim. And he is still left to tell his stories! With the celebration of Andersen's second birth centenary in April 2005 has come a new spate of responsible and lively translations of his work, and (as some of my earlier comments suggest) a host of new trenchant readings of it. There is also a new recognition of just how widespread and profound his influence has been. So Andersen too is still telling his stories, conveying a vision of life to which generations of children in Britain and indeed all over the world have responded. No wonder his work is still on the shelves of children's libraries, and, what is more, is surrounded there by books that it has helped to inspire.

Related Material

Works Cited

Andersen, Hans Christian. Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales. Trans. Reginald Spink. London: David Campbell (Everyman), 1992. All quotations from Andersen, unless otherwise specified, are from this translation.

———. "Notes for My Fairy Tales and Stories" in The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard. New York: Anchor, 1983. 1071-96.

———. "Preface, 1837: For the Older Readers" in The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories of Hans Christian Andersen, trans. Erik Christian Haugaard. New York: Anchor, 1983. 1069-70.

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Bredsdorff, Elias. Hans Christian Andersen. The Story of His Life and Work, 1805-75. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Carpenter, Humphrey. "George MacDonald." Victorian Fiction. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1989. 371-85.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There in The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. London: The Heirloom Library, 1949. 139-287.

Chesterton, G. K. "Hamlet and the Danes." The Crimes of England. Collected Works, Vol. V. Ed. Michael Novak and John McCarthy. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987. 336-44.

Ebert, Roger. "Hans Christian Andersen's 'Thumbelina.'" Rev. Chicago Sun-Times. Viewed 3 December 2008.

Hoyle, Karen Nelson. "Scandinavian Writer/Illustrator: Bicultural Contribution to American Children's Literature." Aspects and Issues in the History of Children's Literature. Ed. Maria Nikolajeva. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 1995. 89-95.

Jan, Isabelle. On Children's Literature. Ed. Catherine Storr. London: Allen Lane, 1973.

Rose, Jacqueline. The Case of Peter Pan, or The Impossibility of Children's Fiction. London: Macmillan, 1984.

Spink, Reginald. Hans Christian Andersen and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1972.

Storr, Catherine. Preface. On Children's Literature. By Isabelle Jan. London: Allen Lane, 1973. 7-10.

Tolkien, J. R. R. "Tree and Leaf" in "Tree and Leaf," "Smith of Wooton Major," "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth." London: Unwin, 1975. 7-102.

Wood, Naomi. "The Ugly Duckling's Legacy: Adulteration, Contemporary Fantasy, and the Dark." Marvels and Tales: Journal of Fairy-Tale Studies. Vol. 20, No. 2 (2006). 193-207.

Zipes, Jack. When Dreams Came True: Classical Fairy Tales and Their Tradition. London: Routledge, 1998.


Victorian Web Overview Genre, Technique, and Style Children's Literature

Last modified 9 December 2008