`My life has been a beautiful fairy tale, rich and happy.’
With these words Andersen described his own life. He was born amidst the squalor which you can find today only in the poverty stricken villages of the Third World. His father was a journeyman shoemaker who patched the shoes of those so poor that they often could not pay him. His mother was a washerwoman who stood in the cold river washing the clothes of others. But in the fairy tale it is often the poorest of boys who marries the princess! In the fairy tale good fortune can be the lot of those born the meanest. At the end of The Ugly Duckling Andersen says: `It does not matter that one has been born in the henyard as long as one has lain in a swan’s egg.’ Even as a small child Andersen believed that he was different, not like other children, and it was true – he had lain in a swan’s egg.
Many people took an interest in the extraordinary child, but most thought that learning a trade was enough of an advancement for the washerwoman’s son. Little Hans Christian did not agree; in the fairy tale of his life there was no room for his becoming a tailor or a carpenter.
Fourteen years old, with little money in his pocket, he set out from his native town of Odense for Copenhagen. True to the heroes of romance and the fairy tale, the goal he sought was fame. Foolish perhaps, but had his ambition been less, he would never have succeeded. It was that very fever of ambition burning within him which made people help him, even, as in a fairy tale, the King of Denmark.
But ambition was not enough, hard work and – terribly important – the ability to overcome defeat and not to be destroyed by it was necessary too. The latter was the hardest, for almost any criticism of his work reduced Andersen to tears. As a child he had described the poet’s lot in these words: `First you suffer so terribly, and then you become famous.’ He was to achieve fame, but he was also to learn that suffering did not stop because of this.
He was thirty years old when the first little pamphlet appeared containing five fairy tales, among them The Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus and Thumbelina. He had already written plays, poetry and novels, but it was his fairy tales which would attain for Andersen the success he had dreamt of when he was a little barefoot urchin in Odense.
The first fairy tales were written `for children in such a manner that adults could listen to them as well’. (I wish that this sentence would be kept in mind by all authors who write for children.) The later fairy tales and stories were composed `for adults but written in such a manner that children could listen to them as well’.
In an Andersen story Dame Fairy Tale herself appears and says: ‘One ought to call everything by its right name, and if one doesn’t dare to do it in everyday life, then at least one should do it in a fairy tale’. This may sound like nonsense to those who believe that such tales are merely idle rubbish created to amuse children. True, the fairy tale contains plenty of fantasy, witches, giants and evil dwarfs but its backbone is reality, truth. The purpose of the fairy tale is to express something which needs to be told in such a manner that it will be heard.
During the German occupation of Denmark an actor decided to read in public a story by Andersen called The Evil King. The Nazis had no doubt about whom the evil king was supposed to portray, and the actor found himself in jail. The little fairy tale had contained enough truth to offend the despot.
In fairy tales animals are often given speech but that inanimate objects – such as darning needles, collars or an iron – also possess a soul is, I believe, Andersen’s own discovery. He made them speak with human voices about their experiences as objects. The darning needle has only the memory of a needle and the ambitions of such a humble tool. He deals in a similar manner with animals: a duck does not question that fatness is beauty any more than a rat would question that a larder is paradise. They have desires and are frustrated when they cannot fulfil them, but their desires are reasonable for their kind. Therefore, they are at times tragic and sometimes funny, but they are never sweet and sentimentalized.
Like many authors in the nineteenth century, Andersen was fascinated by science and technology. In 1850 he foresaw that travel by air would eventually surpass other forms of transportation. In one little sketch he has the future citizens of America who are visiting the ‘old countries’ clutch in their hands the best-seller of the day – Europe Seen in Eight Days.
But it still came as a surprise to me, when I translated a fairy tale called The Philosopher’s Stone, to find that he had an opinion about children and television as well. In that tale `the wisest man in the world’ lives in a castle where, in one of the lower chambers, is a room with glass walls which mirror the whole world and enable him to see what is happening everywhere. `The pictures on the walls were alive and moving; they showed everything that was taking place, no matter where it was happening; all one had to have were the time and desire to look.’ The wise man did not even bother to glance at the pictures, but he had children who did! They were very fond of spending their time in that room in the castle. Then their father would sigh and say to them: `The ways of the world are bitter and filled with grief. What you see is not reality, for you watch it from the safe world of childhood and that makes all the difference.’ Indeed it does; reality and what appears on the TV screen are not the same, for you are merely seeing it, not participating in and experiencing what is being shown.
Books written for children are relatively new, only a couple of hundred years old and the fairy tale is much older than that. It is probably the most ancient form of literature, but just because it was a little late in being written down this might be hard to prove. But does the fairy tale have anything to say to the modern child? After all, the world has changed; grandmother who used to tell such tales in no longer sitting in the chimney corner.
The literature which amuses the child of today is derived from the fairy tale. Science fiction deals, if not with witches and giants, with archetypes; it is a member of the family though not quite a respectable one. Are Professor Tolkien’s books not fairy tales’ I believe that the fairy tale fills a need in a child’s life, and only if that need ceases to be will the fairy tale vanish. We grown-ups often forget what it was like to be a child. If you recall your childhood, you will become aware how much its world resembled the fairy tale’s. Good fairies could appear suddenly and save you, just as ogres could pop up too. Sometimes persons whom you loved and knew well – like your own mother – could be the good fairy and a witch almost at the same time. The wonderful and the horrible were never far apart, and so much that happened was, like magic, past understanding.
The child conceives of its world as surrounded by a wall containing a gate which leads to the much larger world of the adults. Through that gate he will have to pass, and the child both longs for and is frightened by this. In the land of grown-ups things may be acquired by a mere act of will, whereas a child can only wish for things. How fervently one could wish then! The gift of three wishes which the good fairy often bestowed on the hero of the fairy tale was meaningful when one was a child.
If children like fairy tales because they resemble their own world and portray their situation, why do adults like them too’ I think it is because the fairy tale deals in archetypes, it is a world of good and evil without those embarrassing shades in between. Good triumphs and evil is summarily punished. This is refreshing in a world as sophisticated as ours, and it is pleasant to return through the gate to the land of one’s childhood. But suddenly one can sometimes wonder if the fairy tale is not closer to the truth than all the books one has ploughed through since one was deemed a grown-up. Are evil and good relative, or are they absolute as in a fairy tale? Those who perished in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany and Siberia would probably have tended to agree with the fairy tale.
`Once upon a time’ is no time, just as east of the sun and west of the moon, or the end of the world, is no place. In reality, however, it means `at all times, in all places’. It is a declaration announcing that what you are going to hear is the truth – both in time and space. And everyone, be he king or beggar, needs to hear the truth once in a while at least, and that is why I most fervently hope that the fairy tale will always be with us.
Erik Haugaard, born in Copenhagen, now lives in Ireland. A passionate advocate of Andersen he writes, and lectures on the subject frequently on both sides of the Atlantic. As well as translating The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories of Hans Andersen. (Gollancz, 0 575 01776 7, £9.95) regarded as a definitive edition, he has written four books for children.
Hans Andersen: His Classic Fairy Tales (Gollancz, 0 575 02188, £6.95) is a selection of eighteen tales from the collection, illustrated by Michael Foreman.