Probing the Social and Psychological Shadows of a Master Storyteller
I have always been an avid fan of fairytales. As an adult, one of my most treasured books is the beautifully illustrated 1880 edition of ‘Andersen’s Stories for the Household’, aptly found in the medieval English town Arundel in a creaky old bookshop, worthy itself of magic and myth. I savour the stories in this book. To honour the spirit of the genre, I read them in winter by the fire, connecting myself to the early days of storytelling.
Visiting Copenhagen a few months ago, I was geekily excited to see the HCA Fairytale ‘house’. Touristy, small and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it it was, but it was also here that I discovered the story of HCA, the writer of those dark and strange tales that I had for so long been fascinated by.
Hans Christian Andersen: The King of Not Quite
As the H.C Andersen Centre website puts it, HCA was “a product of two towns, two social environments, two worlds and two ages”. He was born in 19th century Denmark in a small town where his father struggled as a shoemaker. Andersen spent his childhood in poverty, sickness and loneliness.
Moving to Copenhagen to seek his fortune, he experienced even greater depths of hunger, cold and squalor but also the possibilities of the city. Gaining the patronage of the rich Collins family led to him going to school and being introduced to elite society. These experiences made him acutely aware of his social status but would allow him to eventually find fame, artistic merit and wealth. But his early traumas of poverty and neglect never left him. There was a feeling of being the ugly duckling, the outcast, the weed. His past was a ‘bog’, something always ready to grip him back and drag him down, to scorn his success, his privileges and his worthiness. He saw himself as “a marsh plant; deeply rooted in mire and mud, constantly extending towards the sunlight”. (Ref)
The result of this seems to be something that often arises from such deep internal conflict. Hans Christian Andersen could never really ‘fit in’. In his soul he was an outsider, everywhere he went.
Reports of him in society show this in action. He was strange looking, taller than average and clumsy; physical aspects that only heightened his social unease. Perhaps he was conscious of a world he could not penetrate, a whole network of invisible things- rules, codes, cultural cues – that allow us to belong to a societal ‘class’.
This kind of problem could only be magnified when travelling to different countries, which HCA unusually (and tellingly) for his time liked to do. Choosing no fixed place to reside, he moved around frequently, spending his entire life “in modest, rented rooms or staying with wealthy patrons and friends” (Ref). An infamous example of one of these stays is the unwelcome visit to one of his idols, Charles Dickens, who was confounded by HCA’s inability to heed increasingly obvious exit cues.
Dickens later purportedly parodied him in David Copperfield as the insidiously “’umble” Uriah Heap. Andersen, meanwhile, was forever to be confused and hurt that Dickens did not reply to his letters.
Knowing this about him certainly puts his work in a new light. In fact, in learning about HCA I realised how little I’d actually interrogated the tales I so often read by the fire. In the way I didn’t know much about the man, I also realised I didn’t know much about his stories. Fortuitously, my attention was drawn to this wonderful Future Learn MOOC, which opened my eyes to the complexity of his writing.
Not quite for children, not quite for adults (but also for both), not quite despairing, not quite hopeful (but also both), his stories are as conflicted as him.
They are full of injustice, cruelty, double standards and hypocrisy, of the difference between organised religion and ‘God’, and the ambiguity of morality. He shows a world that is hostile and severe, judgemental, cruel, but always somewhere striving for love and faith.
The Longing For Something Else
This brings me to The Little Mermaid, one of Hans Christian Andersen’s first original tales.
This haunting, ghostly story tells of a mermaid (or sea-maid, in my edition, translated by H.W Dulcken) who is fascinated by the human world, a condition that leads her to desperately desire two things: The love of a human Prince, and ‘an immortal soul’. Here’s her Grandmother explaining the difference between the sea-world and the shore:
“We can live to be three hundred years old, but when we cease to exist here, we are turned into foam on the surface of the water, and have not even a grave… Men, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, which lives on after the body has become dust, it mounts up through the clear air, up to all the shining stars! As we rise up out of the waters and behold all the lands on earth, so they rise up to unknown glorious places which we can never see.”
In a bid to marry the Prince – the only way to gain an immortal soul – the mermaid sacrifices her voice in order to gain a pair of legs, even though they will cause each step to “be like treading on a sharp knife”. The pain she endures to live on land isn’t just physical, she feels anguish as the plaything of the Prince, and sorrow at the misery she has caused her family. In comparison to when she was “down below, stretching up her white hands towards the keel of [the] ship”, on land she stands in the sea and thinks of “the dear ones in the deep”.
“Once, in the night-time, her sisters came arm in arm. Sadly they sang as they floated above the water…and told her how she had grieved them all. Then she visited them every night; and once she saw in the distance her old grandmother, who had not been above the surface for many years, and the Sea King with the crown upon his head. They stretched out their hands towards her…”
See the repetition of stretched out hands there?
Her hardships, however do not win her the goal. The Prince meets and happily marries someone else, unknowingly condemning the little mermaid to dissolve into sea foam, vanishing into nothing.
“It was the last evening she should breathe the same air with him, and behold the starry sky and the deep sea; and everlasting night without thought or dream awaited her, for she had no soul and could win none”
At this point, what becomes particularly interesting in this story is its relationship with HCA’s main inspiration, the folk tale.
A key convention of a folk tale is the home-away-home model. This outlines how the hero takes leave of their childhood environment to go on a quest. Having achieved the object they set out for (a wife/a princess/fortune) the hero establishes a new, enriched home. In The Little Mermaid we see this structure in play right up until the end – until she fails the quest. However, it’s not over.
After choosing not to save herself by killing her beloved Prince (her sisters cry “Kill the Prince and come back! Make haste!…In a few minutes the sun will rise and you must die!”), the mermaid finds that instead of dissolving into sea foam, she becomes a transparent ‘air spirit’, who must work her way to an immortal soul by doing good deeds.
“Whither am I going? She asked; and her voice sounded like that of the other beings, so spiritual, that no earthly music could be compared to it”
By giving the mermaid a third ‘place’, the ending (or non-ending) almost conforms to the home-away-home structure, but it also sets the model off again. It’s another quest, another trial, another journey. From beginning to end, this story is told in a tone of mournfulness, conveying the deep yearning for a something ‘else’ that all the characters only ever seem on the cusp of getting.
This, obviously, is not the route that Disney took when adapting the tale in 1989. However, I would argue that even here the spirit of the story is actually intact. If you ever happen to be learning how to play the film’s signature song ‘Part of Your World’ you’ll note that the chord progressions are often hesitant and sad, with soaring flats and minors. If the mer-sisters, or indeed the sad, lonely sea sirens of Greek mythology are still singing somewhere, I bet it would be in B flat minor.
The Disney film (which actually re-navigates the story back to the structure of a folk tale by providing a happy ending) also names the mermaid ‘Ariel’. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest – a play of shipwrecks and sea storms – the character ‘Ariel’ is a trapped spirit who desires to be human. See – Disney’s not all bad.
I often think about Hans Christian Andersen sloping around Europe. Gauche. Standing a little too close. Smiling too much, too forcefully. His head in the cultured elite and his feet in the ‘marsh’. It makes me sad to think that out of the two ‘worlds’ he inhabited, – the one he wanted and the one he wanted to escape, he didn’t belong anywhere. But then, because of that and because of his stories, he belongs everywhere and to everyone.
So not quite sad, not quite happy. Also both.
 Sea foam, incidentally, is what Aphrodite – the goddess of love in the myths of ancient Greece – emerged from