Christmas Bargain! Not one classic but one hundred and fifty (more or less) and all by Hans Christian Andersen, if not in one volume. One example …
Despite all the guff about folk tales on pages 9-11 we never got round to talking about the magic wheelbarrow story. If that is a folk tale then it is perhaps one only known to the community of wheelbarrows; it is much more likely to belong to that baggy collection of fantastic tales which the Germans call Kunstmärchen – a word for which we need some phrase like ‘invented fairy tale’. That indeed is what a lot of the contes de fées were but the genre was immeasurably extended and brought to a pitch of perfection with the stories of Hans Christian Andersen.
is the only fit description for the fragile little paper-covered booklet through which Andersen introduced his stories to the city and the people: Eventyr fortalte for Børn, Copenhagen, 1835 (and ‘Eventyr’ is almost as tricky a word as ‘Märchen’ so ‘Tales Told to Children’ will have to do as a translation). There were only four of them, but they straightway established the character of Kunstmärchen as close, but rather more fastidious, neighbours to the lively, raggedy folk tales down the street.
But weren’t they folk tales too?
Well – yes and no. The first three stories were ‘The Tinderbox’, ‘Little Claus and Big Claus’, and ‘The Princess on the Pea’, and Andersen claimed that he’d heard them as a child among women in the spinning-room or people harvesting the hops. But the fourth story, ‘Little Ida’s Flowers’, is pure invention, made up (like Alice) to amuse a little girl of the same name and featuring Andersen himself as the student who could tell wonderful stories and do complicated scissor-cuts at one and the same time.
But the provenance is not important.
‘The Tinderbox’ certainly has motifs that can be found in the Arabian Nights and in Grimm; ‘Little Claus’ too has motifs found in several European storytelling traditions; and ‘The Princess on the Pea’ is said to have parallels in Sweden. What matters in them though is what also matters in ‘Little Ida’, a tale that is saved from utter goofiness by the personality of the author. Andersen claimed of his little book that he was trying to sustain in print the living presence of the storyteller (‘spoken language was the thing’) so – unlike the traditional traditional-tale – his version was sacrosanct as to both form and diction.
Andersen’s ‘very self and voice’
is indeed a living presence – observe, say, the snappy exchange between the soldier and the old witch in ‘The Tinderbox’, or the old king going down to open the door to the princess, or the satiric digs at the old chancellor and the graceful description of the funeral procession in ‘Little Ida’. Here are narrative ideas and figures of speech that are Andersen’s alone and his discovery of his gift was to lead him into a forty year exploration of its potential. Occasionally some direct influence from folk tale can be traced but, for the most part, the 152 stories that followed his first booklet are a virtuoso display of narrative invention: histories and travelogues, nursery tales and satires, psychological dramas verging on the surreal … he mastered the lot and sustained throughout the register of his own voice.
Translating that voice
brought many disappointments. Even more than with folk tales the timbre was essential but, as with so many of the folk tale re-tellers, there was a horror of abandoning polite literary phraseology in favour of the salty tones of the original storyteller. (What’s more some of the most frequently reprinted versions in English were made from German rather than Danish.) Expostulations were made as early as 1893, but it was not until the 1930s that a more consistent respect was paid to ‘Andersen’s colloquial style’ which one fine translator – the actor Paul Leyssac – said ‘has never been brought out vividly enough in English’.
Nobody really bothers much though, do they?
Along with Leyssac, authority and an alert ear for the right phrasing have come to the fore in modern translations by R P Keigwin, Reginald Spink, L W Kingsland, and by Andersen’s most sympathetic advocate: Naomi Lewis. Erik Haugaard has been the first to give us an acceptable Complete Fairy Tales, with translations of some of Andersen’s own notes (Gollancz, 1974). But today’s adaptors, publishers and reviewers have little care for the nuances of the argument just so long as texts of some sort are attached to the well-known titles. Our author would have met them with equanimity though. He recognised more than once that even the best of literature is likely to end up in the grocer’s barrel waiting to wrap a hunk of cheese.
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are published, singly or in collections, in many different versions. Shown here is Brian Alderson’s The Swan’s Stories (Walker, 0 7445 3298 1, £12.99) with illustrations by Chris Riddell. Riddell’s swan turns up at the start of each tale, preoccupied in some way with an object that will feature in the narrative.
Brian Alderson is founder of the Children’s Books History Society and children’s book consultant for The Times. He has himself translated Andersen and is the author of a brief study of the history of Andersen translations in England.