Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales Background

Hans Christian Andersen: Fairy Tales Background

The fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen are distinct from those compiled by the Brothers Grimm. Not due to their content so much as their provenance. A little known fact among those who are familiar with the stories of little mermaids and ugly ducklings is that many of the most beloved stories penned by Andersen actually have their basis in his autobiography. Take that duckling that turns out to be a swan, for instance.

Andersen grew up not just facing the ravages of poverty, but the ravages of a mother trying as best she could to deal with encroaching mental illness. Her attempts to impose a restrictive acceptance of conformity upon young Hans was done—like the mother duck's—with the best of intentions. Just like the mother duck, the writer’s mother had no idea her perception was reality was not quite authentic.

The autobiographical inspiration of The Red Shoes is more direct: they were born out of his obsessive attention to the pronounced squeaking which issued forth from his new boots bought specifically to wear during his church confirmation ceremony. The attention drawn to the squeaky boots essentially allowed them to take on a life of their own, much like the title footwear of his fairy tale which in turn inspired a classic film.

Andersen’s fairy tales have retained their power to enchant largely by virtue of delineating universal themes. If the universality of the tales are capable of making individual connections with readers across a broad range of social strata, it should not be at all surprising they spring from personal experience. Anderson was a writer committed to the purity of literary creation. He grew embittered watching less talented writers enjoy greater popularity and success by appealing to fads. Why wouldn’t such a writer eventually conceive a story like “The Emperor’s New Clothes"?

The strain of innocence that continually come fact to face with the deceptive nature of the adult world that recurs in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen speak to a mature intellect that never lost touch with the pain of childhood. A pain that more palpable and tangible in the autobiographical worlds of Andersen’s Snow Queen and Tin Soldier than in the worlds of Cinderella and Snow White assembled by the Grimms, but created by others.

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