Fairy Tales

“It matters not to have been born in a duck-yard, if one has been hatched from a swan’s egg.”

Hans Christian Andersen

Everyone loves a good fairy tale, right? True Love and High Adventure? The much-vaunted Happy Ending? The Disney songs?

Well, one out of three isn’t too shabby.

Seriously, though, a lot of these tales aren’t very happy at all. Most of them involve death or unrequited love, or both together. And quite a few of them, for some reason, are about inanimate objects. There’s a story called “The Shirt-Collar”. I am not joking.

All the famous ones are here – “The Snow Queen”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Steadfast Tin-Soldier”. And there are plenty of lesser-known ones, as well: “The Goblin and the Huckster”, “The Fellow-Travellers” and “A Thousand Years Hence” being among the more charming ones. My favourite remains “The Wild Swans”, although I spotted a considerable plot hole. The heroine can’t speak, for complicated reasons, and as a result is unable to explain herself when she is suspected of witchcraft, and is therefore sentenced to death. My question is, why couldn’t she write a letter? And, more importantly, if she couldn’t speak how did she get married?

But then, fairy tales are not exactly known for their plot, so perhaps I’m overthinking this. And they’re written for children, who tend not to question stories as much as adults do. There’s a marvellous piece of jingoism in “The Flying Trunk” – perfect for impressing young minds with racial prejudice:

Among the Turks, everybody goes about clad as he was, in dressing-gown and slippers.

And what about this one, from “The Elfin-Mount”, which verges on the incestuous:

I have been choosing you a mother, now you come and choose yourselves wives from among your aunts.

It’s also very clear from these tales that Andersen was fiercely patriotic. There are a few references  – especially in “Holger the Dane”, which appears to be a vaguely Arthurian tale, except Danish – which I suspect anyone but a Danish reader will miss.

I suspect this book is better dipped into every now and then rather than read cover to cover, as the tales become a bit predictable towards the end. But really, it’s fascinating to look back at the original stories and realise just how different they are to what we might consider a fairy tale.


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