What’s not to admirebout the Danes, a people honored for their rescue of endangered Jews in World War II and an astonishing linguistic facility? When you throw inHamletand the greatur-classic of Englit,Beowulf, which both take place on Danish soil, it seems almost incidental that they were written in England.
And lest we forget, we must add to this roll call Hans Christian Andersen (1805-75), who, along with the brothers Grimm, was one of three godfathers of the fairy tale. What grown-up child has forgotten “The Princess on the Pea” or “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or “The Ugly Duckling”? According to Paul Binding, Andersen ranks as a European, not just a Danish, figure: In the words of his best English translators, Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, he was “a major literary figure enclosed by a minor language.”
Binding, a British critic and biographer, writes about Andersen in the heavyweight scholarly style, omitting nothing and citing no passage without including the original Danish and the English translation. Such is the density of his informative work that one wonders about its intended audience. It is meant for specialists, certainly, but perhaps not the common reader. The Franks’ translations of more than 30 of the familiar fairy stories—from The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen (Duke, 2005)—are pleasantly idiomatic and echo Andersen’s invention of a new Danish idiom.
Andersen was born in the village of Odense of unpromising antecedents. As is often the case in such circumstances, there was a family romance that there was nobility somewhere in the family tree, but it was not found. When Andersen’s father, a cobbler, died, his mother, a drinker, went to work as a laundress, no doubt leaving their gifted child with the determination that his destiny would surpass the visible horizon.
He might have said, with his American coeval Abraham Lincoln, that his were “the short and simple annals of the poor.” But he didn’t. As an adolescent, anticipating that he could charm his way into the kindness of strangers, he went off to Copenhagen with theatrical ambitions and soon gained a patron in Jonas Collin, director of the national theater, who arranged further education for Andersen. The Danish king also took a hand. By the age of 30, Andersen had to his credit not only many unforgettable stories but, according to the Franks, the invention of a “new” demotic Danish as their medium.
Fairy tales got a boost nearly 40 years ago with the appearance of Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, in which grownups were urged not to launder children’s stories of their darker elements. Children are resilient, the great psychoanalyst argued, and parents and publishers do their psychic health no favor by shielding them from tragedy and adversity. Stock figures, he also said, are more heavily freighted with sub-surface meaning than we imagine. His most startling suggestion was that the “wicked stepmother” who figures in so many fairy tales embodies the flaws that children are reluctant to see in actual mothers.
Fairy tales remain a challenging form. Sometimes, as with Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” they seem merely pathetic: The girl freezes to death in the icy streets after striking all her matches to keep warm and witnessing celestial visions. Sometimes, as with “The Ugly Duckling,” in which the odd duck turns out to be a misplaced swan, the story seems parabolic, a transmutation of Andersen’s struggle against the currents of a society that promised children of his origins very little. As for “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which has made its way into common metaphor, everyone (including the king himself) refuses to admit that the clothing woven for him out of plain air leaves him naked: It seems to anticipate the tinsel and pretense of any and all official behavior.
My childhood favorite was “The Princess on the Pea.” I insisted that my mother read it again and again. The story offers a test to identify real princesses, since only they would lose sleep or lie awake on a bed furnished with 20 mattresses on top of a single pea, having a refined royal sensitivity to bodily irritation. The story seems free of deeper subtleties, but could it reflect Andersen’s failed family romance? He couldn’t feel the pea?
In fairy tales generally, and certainly in Andersen’s, yearning is the engine of fate, and the yearnings are often royal. Every deserving girl is a princess and every boy a disguised or thwarted prince (if only a prince among birds). The tales are populated by monarchs in such profusion as to suggest a universal aspiration to the gilded life of court and castle. Perhaps Andersen saw more deeply than others into the reverse snobbery that animates our ambivalence about kings and queens—even when they are benevolent Danish kings. But it is no doubt the wiser course to concede Bruno Bettelheim a monopoly on theories and content ourselves with the simple charm of deceptively simple yarns.
Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of Vacancy: A Judicial Misadventure