Daily Mail 28 May 2004
Even as a child, I was aware there was something unusual and disturbing about the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Traditionally, fairy tales should end with Cinderella marrying the Prince and living happily ever after. What to make of a story where the heroine, a little mermaid, goes through agony to discard her fish’s tail and become a human, in order to be with the prince she loves, only to find that he marries someone else? All that’s left to her is a mermaid’s death of dissolving into sea foam. The comforting afterword – that she might after many years gain an immortal soul – did not, I thought at the time, make up for the pain and heartbreak she had suffered.
Now, re-reading the story of The Little Mermaid, I am struck by its sheer visual beauty. The kingdom under the sea with its red and dark blue trees, shining with a strange blue light, the lair of the sea witch in a weird wood of snake-like polyps, and the land of the prince, its snow-capped mountains and orange groves leading down to the cornflower blue sea, evoke wonderful almost psychedelic images that linger in the mind.
Andersen’s imagination was fed by the nature he saw around him, as an isolated, lonely boy growing up in the Danish countryside, aware of the passing seasons. The ugly duckling is born in summer, when the wheat is yellow. In the autumn a chill wind catches the leaves and sends them dancing, while in winter the duckling freezes fast in the ice. Finally, with spring and the apple trees in blossom, he discovers he is a swan. There is a strong autobiographical slant here, for Andersen, like the ugly duckling, was spurned for his odd appearance and manner. Supersensitive, guileless and gawky, his life was one of thwarted love and ambition until his fairy tales, the swans of his mind, brought him the recognition he craved.
Born in 1805, he had left his village for Copenhagen at 14, telling his mother that he would be famous. Often he went hungry and his clothes were pitiably threadbare, but he was helped by a few who saw his potential and arranged for lessons and schooling. His firsthand knowledge of poverty gives the stories extra depth. The Little Match Girl was inspired by his mother, who had once as a child been sent out to beg and was so ashamed that she spent the whole day, almost frozen, under a bridge, not daring to go home without having earned a single penny.
Andersen’s hobnobbing with the rich of Copenhagen inspired his more satirical stories, such as The Princess and the Pea and The Emperor’s New Clothes – now a catchphrase for our times. Other stories have a harsh morality, like the red shoes little Karen insists on wearing to church, for which crime she is forced to dance interminably, till she begs to have her feet cut off. One of my favourites, The Snow Queen, is about alienation. The devil’s distorting mirror is shattered, and fragments fly around the land, creating havoc when they lodge in people’s eyes or hearts. Kay, his heart turned to ice by a speck of the glass, rides away in the Snow Queen’s sleigh to the land of cold reason. His friend, Gerda, journeys to the Snow Queen’s palace, and her love melts his frozen heart.
“I tell a story for the young ones,” said Andersen, “remembering all the time that father and mother are listening and we must give them something to think about, too.” Which explains the appeal of these magical stories to all generations.