I’ve always had kind of a soft spot for traditional fairy tales, which is interesting because I don’t recall them being more than a very small part of my childhood. I mean, certainly I saw a few Disney movies based on fairy tales and that kind of thing, and liked some of those to a modest degree, but I’m talking about the actual, original fairy tales. I don’t know that I even read very many of those as a kid; I don’t recall ever having a big collection of hundreds of such tales, for instance. Probably I read a few here and there, heard about or was told about some others with maybe a summary being given to me, and came across modernized, bowdlerized, or spoof versions of others (like the aforementioned Disney movies, or various cartoons), but I think I just had more a kind of vague awareness that a vast number of such stories exist, and a vague impression that from what I gather they’re pretty cool.
Kind of like if you have a general awareness of various characters and incidents from the Bible, just because it’s such a huge part of the culture, but you’ve never read it, or have only read small portions of it.
So anyway, I decided recently to pick up as complete collections as I could find of what as far as I’m aware are the two most famous sources of fairy tales: Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.
One thing I found out in my preliminary reading about them—this is how new I am to this stuff—is that the major difference between them is that Andersen was the author of his tales, whereas the Brothers Grimm were researchers who compiled the already existing, traditional stories of their culture. So the Brothers Grimm are to fairy tales and their storytellers as Alan Lomax is to folk songs and folk singers.
I don’t know that that difference has any bearing on which set of stories is better than the other, but having become aware of it I suppose it made my expectations very slightly higher for the Grimm stories than the Andersen stories, just in the sense that in addition to however good the stories themselves are, there’s something additionally anthropologically interesting about learning what sorts of stories developed organically in a certain culture over the generations, as opposed to having been written by just some guy fairly recently. (Andersen is from the 19th century, so really not so long ago.)
One thing I wondered about as I commenced reading is whether more of the well-known, classic fairy tales would turn out to be Andersen stories or Grimm stories, or whether many I’d assumed would be one or the other would in fact be neither. Also I was curious if the stories would typically be darker or otherwise differ in tone from what we’re used to, as I’ve multiple times read that the 20th and 21st century pop culture version of these tales have typically been sanitized for children, whereas the originals often had adult themes and plenty of violence and such.
But I can’t really make any comparisons until I’ve read both collections, and as I write this I’ve only read the Andersen collection, so let’s stick to that.
This particular collection—well over a thousand pages—has 156 Andersen stories. Depending on where you draw certain lines (should poems count or just prose?, if something is long enough to be a novel does it not count as a story?, do incomplete or draft versions of tales published posthumously count?), this is either all his stories or very close to all his stories. It also includes a short section at the end that reprints some notes Andersen published in various places about his stories.
In the aforementioned section, by the way, I learned that it’s not quite so simple or absolute a distinction to say that Andersen wrote his stories and the Brothers Grimm compiled theirs. Andersen says a little bit about most of the stories, and it turns out a substantial number of them he did not create himself after all. Especially early in his writing career, quite a few of his stories were versions of existing tales, some that he had heard in his childhood. The famous The Emperor’s New Clothes, for instance, is from a Spanish tale from about 1300. In some cases, he wrote down pretty much the story he was already familiar with—so really not different from what I take it the Brothers Grimm did—but most of the time he got the basic idea from an existing story but then fleshed it out in his own way such that much or most of his version really was his own creation.
Translator Erik Christian Haugaard notes that the older translations of these stories that most people are familiar with were from the Victorian era and made little changes in keeping with the mores of that era, e.g., a kiss on the mouth became a kiss on the cheek. There were also a few simple inaccuracies. For example, the Danish word that was the root of the name commonly translated as “Thumbelina” means “inch,” not “thumb,” thus the name is better rendered in English as “Inchelina.” Haugaard states that he has striven for the greatest accuracy in his translations rather than sticking with the familiar.
Obviously I’m not going to write about each of the 156 stories, but I’ll comment about several, starting with the very earliest impression I got from the first story in the book: The Tinderbox.
I would have expected fairy tales to be like fables, to maybe teach lessons, to show the pitfalls of excessive pride, a bad temper, cockiness, whatever. You know, a simplistic, exaggerated tale where someone’s comeuppance is generated by their own flaws. But what struck me right out of the gate with the very first story The Tinderbox was that it seemingly had no lesson like that at all.
A soldier is walking through the woods. He comes across a witch. (He’s not the least bit surprised by the way, or scared or anything. This is apparently a reality in which encountering a witch is about like encountering a deer.) The witch needs help retrieving something from underground, a tinderbox. She enlists the help of the soldier, telling him that he can take all the money he finds down there as long as he gets the tinderbox for her.
A tinderbox, by the way, is a container made of wood or metal containing flint, fire steel, and tinder (typically charcloth, but possibly a small quantity of dry, finely divided fibrous matter such as hemp), used together to help kindle a fire. (No, I didn’t know what it was either; I got that from Wikipedia.)
So he allows himself to be lowered down, finds vast quantities of copper, silver, and gold coins, and brings back all that he can carry as well as the tinderbox. The witch is impatient to get her tinderbox, which leads to an exchange where the soldier gets annoyed and kills her.
As much as he enjoys the money, that eventually runs out, but then he discovers something even better: The tinderbox is a sort of Aladdin’s lamp that summons a supernatural being who grants wishes. He decides he wants the Princess in the land where he lives, and with the help of the tinderbox he’s eventually able to get her and marry her and ultimately become king, though in the process he kills lots of people who get in his way, including her parents. The end.
So you’d think it’s going to be about how cavorting with witches is a bad idea, or greed is bad, or flaunting one’s wealth is bad, or having your wishes come true ironically brings one to grief in Monkey’s Paw fashion, or something along those lines. But no. He gets a bunch of wishes, ends up as rich as he wants to be, and gets to screw a princess on top of it all.
Moving on, I don’t like the princess from The Princess and the Pea. First of all, she shows up drenched from the rain at the door of a castle, alone, and offers no explanation for how she came to be there. (No wonder they were suspicious she was even a princess. I’m reminded of the Steve Martin routine about when he happened to meet Jackie Onassis at a laundromat in Tucson, Arizona.) More importantly, she turns out to be an insufferable whiner. They give her the most exaggeratedly comfortable bed it’s possible to imagine, and all she does is complain about how unacceptable it is. I mean, these people who owe her nothing have taken her in as a stranger in a spirit of hospitality, and instead of being grateful she’s pissed that the accommodations are only 99.999% perfect instead of 100% perfect.
When people put themselves out for you to an extraordinarily excessive degree and you’re still unsatisfied and eager to complain about it, do you think maybe the problem lies not with them but with you, bitch?
The Traveling Companion is a pretty good story. To some extent it rewards a good person for being a good person, but there are also creepy elements to it. A princess/witch kills countless people in cold blood, and when she is finally defeated her only punishment is that she doesn’t get to be a witch anymore, but has to get married and just be a regular princess. Meanwhile all the dead people are still dead.
I had heard of The Little Mermaid, but I don’t think I’d ever read it, and I never saw the Disney movie or any other version of the story. So I really don’t know how much Disney strayed from the original Andersen story. I think the Disney mermaid has a name—Ariel—whereas the mermaid in the story is nameless, so there’s at least that difference.
I was a little surprised, though, that there are many parallels with Splash. I don’t know if Splash got them from this story, or if this story and Splash both are based on older or more general mermaid lore.
It’s one of the stories that struck me as having the most potential as a bedtime story for a young child, though there are bits of it that could be disturbing to a very young child. It has sort of a happy ending, but not in the obvious way. It’s more like it ends sadly, and then there’s almost like a postscript that puts a positive spin on it.
The Emperor’s New Clothes is almost exactly like I remembered it from childhood, except I thought that in the version I read long ago it was specified that the cunning tailors slip out of town before the climactic scene, whereas that’s not mentioned here. It’s also an example of a story that has some kind of moral point (teaching the lesson that if you’re too vain to admit your flaws, then you’ll just get into more trouble), unlike many of these stories, as I alluded to in reference to The Tinderbox.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier is the inspiration for a Donovan song (though one I never cared for).
One of my favorite lines in the book is in The Garden of Eden. A man stumbles into a cave that turns out to be the Cave of the Winds, which is where the North Wind, West Wind, South Wind, and East Wind live, along with their “mother.” The North Wind arrives home to tell about his recent experiences in the Barents Sea. His mother evidently doesn’t appreciate his storytelling style. “Don’t be so long-winded!” she chastises him.
The Storks is a little disturbing. A bunch of baby storks are scared and offended when they hear some young children singing a nonsense song about killing storks. The mother tells them to ignore it, but it bothers them enough that they keep insisting they want to get revenge. When they get old enough to fly, the mother finally relents and tells them how she’ll fix it so they get their revenge.
It turns out these are storks that deliver babies. The mother explains that every child wants a baby brother or sister. So they will refuse to deliver any babies to the families of the children who taunted them. One child who refused to join in will get both a little brother and little sister. The child (a 6 year old) who most enthusiastically sang the song will have a stillborn baby delivered to his home.
OK, I get that the story has a karma theme, warning that if you do bad things then one way or another you’ll pay for them later. But come on. One, the punishment is wildly excessive relative to the crime. Two, the kids being punished are, you know, kids. (How responsible is a 6 year old for not knowing that storks can understand Danish and will have their feelings hurt by some goofy rhyming song?) Three, the punishment is really a punishment of these whole families, especially the parents who are trying to have another child. (Then there’s also the matter of the dubious claim that every child wants a younger sibling.)
Maybe the real message of the story is that storks can be assholes.
The Rose Elf is not a bad story, though a bit on the creepy side like many of these. It’s about an elf too microscopic to be seen with the human eye. He observes everything, and when he sees someone doing something evil he pops into the person’s ear to whisper things to freak him out, and into other people’s ears to tell them what he did so he’ll get in trouble. It’s kind of like a God (or Santa Claus) theme—there’s always someone watching, so you better be good.
The Nightingale is one I’m sure I’ve heard of but probably never read; it was vaguely familiar to me at most. I think it’s one of his better known tales, but had I not been aware of that I wouldn’t have guessed it, as this isn’t one that stood out to me at all.
The Ugly Duckling of course is famous. Again I don’t recall having read it in childhood—though I may have—but have the sense that my familiarity with it comes from cartoons based on it or people describing and summarizing the story to me.
When the ugly duckling is set upon by bullies destined to grow up to be Trump supporters, one of them nicely sums up a depressingly common attitude (of humans if not ducks): “He doesn’t look like everybody else! And that’s reason enough to bite him!” The wild ducks have the more tolerant attitude of racial moderates who distinguish themselves from those who burn crosses and engage in violence and such: “You are ugly, but that is no concern of ours, as long as you don’t try to marry into our family.”
It’s heartening that when the ugly duckling becomes a beautiful swan and everybody likes him, he remains humble and in touch with the emotions he felt when he was bullied. On the other hand, I’m not so sure about the desirability of the message that what makes it wrong to abuse ugly people is that they might become beautiful later. Wouldn’t it still be wrong to torment an ugly duckling even if it never grew up to be anything other than an ugly adult duck?
The Pine Tree is a decent story about why you should appreciate the present rather than focusing excessively on how much better things could be or might be in the future.
I think of elves as harmless or positive creatures, like Smurfs or Snow White’s dwarves or something like that. But they’re more mixed in these stories. They seem to be associated with death and the underworld, maybe the Devil, though not to the extent that they are consistently depicted as evil creatures. (The same is true of witches. They aren’t all malicious beings in league with Satan. Some are just old ladies who dabble a bit in magic but aren’t particularly bad folks. So, a mixed bag.)
Consider this description of elves preparing a meal in The Hill of the Elves:
Out in the kitchen frogs were being roasted on spits, and snakes stuffed with children’s fingers were baking. The salads were made of toadstool seeds, garnished with moist snouts of mice; and for dressing there was hemlock juice. Saltpeter wine that had been aged in tombs and beer from the bog-witch brewery had been poured into decanters. Altogether a festive—though a bit conservative—menu. Rusty nails and bits of colored glass from a church window were the desserts.
Some of that just sounds like a neutral sort of “weird stuff foreigners eat” thing, but there are also ominous elements to it, like the children’s fingers.
The Red Shoes is a more arresting than average tale about a little girl being (disproportionately) punished supernaturally for being vain and having distorted priorities.
Toys and other inanimate objects that are secretly alive when nobody’s looking is a device used in multiple stories. I did like one line in particular in The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep, a love story about two porcelain figurines. Instead of concluding that they loved each other “until the day they died” or something like that, it informs us that they “loved each other until they broke.”
The Little Match Girl I had heard of, but I don’t think I’d ever read it, or if I did I forgot. I had the vague sense it had something to do with a poor girl dying, but that’s about all. And that is indeed what it’s about.
A lot of these stories in fact are about children dying and such. In reading a bit online about Andersen’s stories, I saw a few comments from people who don’t like them because they can be so depressing. I can see that. On the whole they’re not as dark or creepy (the elves eating children’s fingers notwithstanding) as I would have guessed original, unsanitized fairy tales would be (now I’m thinking the Grimm collection I’ll read shortly has more of that kind of thing), but there does seem to be a lot about children suffering and dying and just sad things like that. Granted, such stories generally have happy endings—as I alluded to in the case of The Little Mermaid—with God or angels or whatever coming down to save the day, or welcoming a mistreated child into Heaven, but I can see how some people would be put off by the gloominess of many of Andersen’s tales.
I’ll also note that while some of these more serious stories about suffering and injustice can be moving to a degree, they don’t reach me emotionally the way the same kind of material from, say, Dostoyevsky would.
One of the more peculiar stories is The Shadow. I’m sure it’s all symbolic, and unfortunately deciphering symbolism in fiction has never been a strength of mine, but I thought it was an intriguing little tale.
A scholar has a shadow that takes on some of the characteristics of an independent being. He sends it to investigate the identity of a mystery woman, but then loses touch with it for years. He becomes a philosopher, but finds that it doesn’t get him far in life, because people don’t care the way he does about truth, beauty, love, and all those noble abstractions that he spends all his time on.
Then one day his shadow (the scholar has since grown another, more modest, more shadow-like shadow, by the way) shows up at his door, even closer to human than before, and now apparently very rich and successful. He finally tells the scholar what he found out about the mystery woman—she’s “Poetry”—and tells how he has amassed a great fortune through his ability to sneak in wherever he wants unobserved, see all the worst things people do when they don’t think anyone is watching, and then blackmail them.
Ultimately the shadow manipulates the scholar into more or less switching roles, where he is now a person, and the scholar is his shadow.
I suppose it has something to do with the conscious and the unconscious, or a person’s better nature and darker nature, and how giving more rein to your darker nature will help you to achieve ends such as conventional, material success, but is dangerous because you can then lose control of this negative side of you and you can end up losing your identity and becoming that darker self. Or something like that.
The Story of a Mother I thought was one of the more powerful of Andersen’s tales, though, again, a sad one that would turn off certain readers.
A woman’s only child is taken away by Death. The distraught mother chases after Death to beg for the return of her son. She is assisted by several people (well, actually several objects, but this is another of Andersen’s stories where inanimate objects have personalities and can talk and such) along the way, though always at a price. She gives them whatever they want, including gouging out her own eyes and continuing her pursuit blind.
She eventually catches up with Death. Ultimately she is made to understand that God decides all these matters, and no person can ever know if someone were to live past their time if that life would be filled with joy or filled with suffering, or make the world a better or a worse place, and thus even if she could reclaim her son it’s impossible to know if she’d be doing him a favor or the opposite. She realizes this is true, and breaks down, now praying to God not to restore her son to life, as she had been so fervently praying all along, but to accept only her prayers that are consistent with His will and reject those that are not.
Many of the stories have religious or Christian themes like that, generally of an appealing, humane, compassionate, humble, “loving your fellow man is how you manifest that you love God” style, rather than a Religious Right, Falwell style.
The selection simply titled A Story is a pleasing example. In it, a fire-and-brimstone style preacher who believes he’s doing God’s will by constantly hammering home the message that sinners will and should be tortured horribly for eternity is led around one night by a specter in A Christmas Carol fashion and persuaded that people who do evil are brought to it by circumstances and sickness, and are already suffering, and thus deserve pity and mercy rather than further punishment. (Interestingly, a later story—On the Last Day—is about a dying man who comes to realize, “‘What good I did in the world I did because I could not do otherwise, but the evil—that I chose to do myself.’” Put them together, and while there is a logical tension, the combination makes some sense attitudinally: Be understanding of other people and willing to excuse and forgive, while being humble about your own imperfections and taking responsibility for them.)
In many stories—really more moral than religious I suppose, though, again, they fit with a liberal Christianity—Andersen manifests an appealing compassion and sympathy toward the poor. She Was No Good is an example.
I got the feeling as I read this book that many of the stories were autobiographical, at least in a very broad sense. Some stories, for instance, are about how a child was influenced toward being a writer or poet when he grew up. For example, in The Old Gravestone, an elderly man laments that a couple he knew—that were elderly themselves when he was but a child—will be forgotten upon his death since no one else who knew them is still around. He tells the story of their lives, at least what he knows of it. One of the people in the room is a child who, we are told, grew up to write a story about these people so that they would have some permanence after all. The implication is that the child was Andersen, and the story was this story.
In the notes from Andersen that are included after the stories, my feeling was confirmed, in that he indicates that quite a few of the tales were based on his own experiences. (Not so much The Old Gravestone itself though. While it was loosely inspired by some things he experienced or heard about, it did not come from his knowing an old couple like that when he was a child.)
Under the Willow Tree is one of the sadder of the many sad stories. A boy learns the lesson from a children’s story that one should not refrain from expressing one’s love, for by keeping it inside you might never find out that it was reciprocated. So as a young man he puts this lesson into practice by declaring his love for his beloved. It doesn’t work, though, as in this case it is unrequited. Before long he is dead, basically having died of sadness.
The Story Old Joanna Told is kind of similar. It features an ensemble cast of characters, but multiple of them, like the protagonist of Under the Willow Tree, are folks whose lives don’t turn out as they might have wished due to the whole soulmate thing just not clicking. That is, there’s some sense when they’re young that so-and-so is, or could be, the love of their life, but circumstances, and perhaps their own lack of skills in this area, prevent them from ending up with that person. And so there’s the “what might have been” sadness.
These unrequited love stories certainly don’t fit the fairy tale tradition of “and they lived happily ever after.” In fact they typically even lack—or include only in a perfunctory way—the common Andersen ending of, “Oh, but it’s fine that it all turned out shitty, because after they died they went to Heaven and lived happily ever after there.” These are sad stories that are just sad.
By the way, I really don’t know what to make of the description contained in the first sentence of the story Anne Lisbeth: “Anne Lisbeth was like milk and blood: young, gay, and lovely to look at.” What about milk and blood evokes “young, gay, and lovely to look at”? Is it a reference to complexion? She’s very pale in an attractive Nordic way, and yet has rosy cheeks perhaps? I just have trouble imagining complimenting a young, pretty girl who is full of life by saying, “You’re like milk and blood!”
I mentioned that inanimate objects in these stories routinely have personalities and can communicate, talk, make decisions, experience emotions, etc. The same is true of nonhuman animals and plants. I suppose that’s fitting for children’s stories in the sense that, as I recall reading, it takes young children a number of years of development before they are able to make a distinction between the types of things that have an internal life (other people) and the types of things that don’t (presumably everything else). (Actually, adults who engage in certain forms of religious or spiritual thinking arguably still haven’t developed this ability.) Until then, they implicitly attribute consciousness, the ability to understand language, etc. to a teddy bear, a cat, a flower, a snowman, a chair, whatever.
This anthropomorphizing of things and animals is a mildly interesting or entertaining tactic, but over the course of over a thousand pages of stories, I got tired of the gimmick.
It’s kind of cool here and there though, like in The Wood Nymph when a bunch of fish speculate about the strange anatomical features and behavioral quirks of the humans they observe.
Or another story of that kind that I liked more than not is The Great Sea Serpent. Again it’s about fish—and other assorted aquatic creatures—this time trying to figure out what in the world the transatlantic telegraph cable lying at the bottom of the ocean is. It begins:
There once was a little fish. He was of a good family; his name I have forgotten—if you want to know it, you must ask someone learned in these matters. He had one thousand and eight hundred brothers and sisters, all born at the same time. They did not know their parents and had to take care of themselves. They swam around happily in the sea. They had enough water to drink—all the great oceans of the world. They did not speculate upon where their food would come from, that would come by itself. Each wanted to follow his own inclinations and live his own life; not that they gave much thought to that either.
Multiple of the stories—one example being A Question of Imagination—take shots at critics. I found these lame, since they never rise above the cliché insult that critics only set themselves up as judges of others’ talent because they themselves lack such talent.
I have never found such dismissive attitudes toward critics persuasive; they just sound like bitterness from someone who has not always received unanimous praise from critics and can’t handle that. I agree that dishonest criticism is bad—e.g., a critic pans someone because they won’t pay him or won’t sleep with him or have expressed political opinions the critic doesn’t share—but that’s different from a universal rejection of critics as critics.
Nor do critics all lack talent. It’s routine, for instance, for accomplished authors to write book reviews of other authors. And even if a critic isn’t a world class artist, musician, writer, whatever, criticism itself is a talent. To not just say that you liked or didn’t like something, but to be able to explain what there is to like and dislike about it, to put it in the context of the history of the art, to intelligently compare and contrast it to what other prominent artists in the field are doing, etc. aren’t things that everyone is just born able to do well.
Overall, I’d say I found the works of Andersen mildly disappointing. That’s not to say I disliked them all; in fact, to varying degrees I liked many of them. But as far as taking me back to pleasant feelings I’d had as a child, or being an anthropologically fascinating journey into the traditions of a culture, or just being charming, memorable stories in general, I can’t say I experienced this book in any of these ways more than quite modestly.
Andersen is OK, but I’m not a huge fan. My guess is that I’ll get more of what I vaguely hope to get from fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm collection, but we’ll see.