- The Washington Times - Friday, April 29, 2005

The newest edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s “Fairy Tales” (Viking, 2004) should come with a sticker reading, “Parental Advisory: These tales include incidents of marital grief, unredeemable human misery, and self-mutilation in the name of unrequited love.”

Although the book is beautifully translated by Tiina Nunnally (with a lively introductory essay by Andersen biographer Jackie Wullschlager), its cover, a reproduction of one of the author’s many paper cutouts, is a bit of a give-away: Against an austere charcoal-gray background stands a skinny white boy-man with legs akimbo, wearing court jester shoes and with a ghoulish grin on his face.

This month marks the bicentennial of the Danish writer of such classics as “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” However, as the new edition illustrates, his talking mermaids, trolls, witches, thumb-size girls, tin soldiers and swan-men are products not merely of his imagination, but also of his troubled internal life. A gawky, sexually confused, socially insecure outsider, Andersen drew on fantasy partly to entertain children and partly, so we learn, to exorcise adult-size demons.

Of course, after a century of crude Freudian interpretation, the notion that fairy tales play with deep-rooted archetypes in the human psyche comes as no surprise. “Cinderella,” we were told, is really about sibling rivalry, mother-daughter jealousy, or the mortal pain of finding shoes that fit. Put the Three Little Pigs on the shrink’s couch, and they’ll learn that the wolf represents castration anxiety and that their famous abodes suggest either a return to the Oedipal womb or humanity’s quest — from straw, to wood, to brick — for ever more durable construction materials.

The tales of Hans Christian Andersen are different, though. Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who gathered their tales from centuries-old German folklore, Andersen invented many of his stories from scratch. In the mid-1830s, after a period of literary experimentation, he hit upon the idea of new fairy tales for children — told in a chatty, colloquial voice — that also would appeal to adults.

As Andersen wrote to a poet friend, “I seize an idea for grown-ups and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen.”

Indeed, all of his talking toys and teapots and quirky details can distract from the larger, darker themes found throughout his work: a Romantic’s morbid sensibility, the trials of unhappy love or a Dickensian sensitivity to the plight of the poor.

Thumbelina sleeps in a walnut shell and has a rose petal for a blanket. She floats along on a lily pad. But beyond the charming detail, it’s a proto-feminist take on a string of unhappy marriages (to a toad, a beetle and a mole). Shivering and unhappy, she is liberated by a singing bird who whisks her off to the warmer climes of Italy, where the sky is “twice as high.”

In the more macabre “The Little Match Girl,” a little girl freezing to death lights her paltry stock of unsold matches in a vain effort to keep warm. Each match she lights brings on delirious fantasies of a bountiful meal or a reunion with her grandmother until she finally succumbs to the elements. Death relieves her from her suffering, but if that’s Andersen’s idea of redemption, many child readers probably could do without it.

In “The Traveling Companion,” a beautiful princess invites suitors to answer three riddles. The winner will have her hand, but the losers — and there are many — dangle from trees in the garden. Flowerpots are filled with grinning skulls. Again, behind the fantastical imagery — big black grasshoppers playing mouth harps, owls beating their bellies like drums, dancing broomsticks topped by heads of cabbage — lies the lesson of vanity as a wicked spell. The itinerant bum who eventually wins the game has, so the lesson goes, an inner beauty if the vain princess would only open her eyes.

The feel-good theme of inner beauty contains a subtext to the budding meritocrat. Remember “The Ugly Duckling’s” most famous line: “It doesn’t matter if you’re born in a duck yard when you’ve been lying in a swan’s egg.” In the 19th century, this was a bourgeois shot across the bow of the fading authority of inherited nobility.

With wit and talent, any person could make it, no matter how humble his origins. However, beneath Andersen’s surface optimism lay something of an obsession, namely that of a writer using his authorial license as a technique of wish fulfillment, inserting himself into the narrative, much like Woody Allen, to ensure that the awkward loner always gets the pretty girl.

Literature as personal therapy was nothing new to the Romantics, but Andersen stands out by burying his very adult neuroses in the innocence of fairy tales. In some cases, like the late “The Shadow,” a main character, “the learned man,” is modeled on a friend who had spurned the bisexual fabulist’s romantic advances in real life. In the story, he gets his comeuppance through an act of petty vindictiveness.

The origins of “The Little Mermaid” are even more achingly personal. As biographer Jackie Wullschlager points out in her introduction to the new edition, the tale was written in 1836 on Andersen’s native island of Fyn, where he had retreated to avoid the wedding of the man with whom he was in love, the Danish civil servant Edvard Collin.

The Little Mermaid, as we may recall, can only gain an immortal soul with the love of a human. She loses her tongue and endures all kinds of pain to grow feet in order to woo the prince, but on realizing that he will wed another, she throws herself back into the sea. Andersen here — Mrs. Wullschlager’s archival evidence is fairly convincing on this score — is the Little Mermaid herself, an outsider trapped within a secret he/she cannot share.

“The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” of course, can and will continue to be enjoyed as charming morality tales. Viewed through the prism of Andersen’s life story, however, the characters become fantastical alter egos of a paradoxical writer living in the transition period of 19th-century Denmark: a champion of the poor with a weakness for the trappings of status and wealth; a champion of humility given to self-aggrandizement; a champion of the rural life jealous of opulence and urbanity; and most important, a writer for children always hungry for adult recognition.

Many readers may be reluctant to revisit Andersen in this unvarnished, un-Disneyfied form. (Many of the darker stories in this new edition were never included in previous anthologies.) Those who do will be reminded of other literary greats upon whom later generations falsely projected innocence. Particularly susceptible to such idealized misreadings have been the Romantics of the 19th century such as the German ETA Hoffmann, Andersen’s literary hero, and our own Edgar Allen Poe, also influenced by Hoffmann. Romantic literature, and its subgenre of gothic horror, not only reveled in the grotesque and macabre, but also struggled with multiple selves, personality disorder and possibly undiagnosed dementia.

Andersen, it appears with this new edition, has grown up — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If through his writings for children, he sought to exorcise the personal demons in his closet, readers of all ages can be thankful, at least, that he also filled that closet with ducks, trolls, tin men, fairy princesses and talking teapots.

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