Andersen and the “fairy tales”

Among the most universal and well-known authors of children's literature is the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875).

Andersen and the “fairy tales”

   Who does not remember stories such as “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Tin Soldier”, “The Nightingale”, “The Brave Little Tailor”, “The Cocky Little Rat”, “The Little Mermaid” or “The Ugly Duckling”?

   Undoubtedly, many of these little stories, told in an everyday language, full of expression and feeling, have wrapped up our childhood, accompanying us throughout the process of transformation at such a delicate stage.

    Andersen’s best stories, as well as the best stories of the popular tradition (“Snow White”, “Cinderella”, “The Cat with Boots”, Little Red Riding Hood”, etc.) contain messages that act on different levels of the child’s personality, helping the child to solve his existential conflicts.

    Those who are not used to dealing with children, or have a sweet and idealized image of them, may be surprised – or simply reject – the mere idea that children suffer from “inner conflicts”. However, nothing is truer.  Like adults, children are assaulted, from time to time, by tensions, narcissistic frustrations, rivalries, lack of self-esteem, etc., that have their origin in the most primitive and violent human impulses.

    Usually, because they do not rationally understand what is going on inside them, children experience a whole series of confusing feelings: fear, anger, hatred, guilt. In many of the traditional stories, called “fairy tales”, these internal conflicts are dealt with. It is in fairy tales that the child finds the keys that allow him to master his conflicts and live with them. Similarly, many of Andersen’s stories address some of the deepest existential dilemmas of human beings.

   Take, for example, “The Ugly Duckling,” a story that, by the way, is very often used by therapists to help adopted children, since it addresses the issue of rejection of those who, either because of their appearance or for other reasons, are considered “different”.

   “The Ugly Duckling”, written in 1845, contains a fundamental teaching for the development of the human personality. Who has not felt at some time in his life “rejected” by those around him? Who has not felt “strange”, as if out of place, as if living in a world that is not his own, that does not belong to him? No doubt, in their deepest essence, such must be the feelings of our soul, for, certainly, our souls feel themselves to be temporarily exiled, in the material world.

   Without entering into such depths, and without too much difficulty, we can understand that the ugly duckling, object of continuous mockery because of its clumsiness and “ugliness”, and later witness of a new identity as a swan, is a precious metaphor of the process of growth of infants.

   On another level, the story describes a phase in the writer’s own life. The story deals with his humble origins and the conquest of fame and the corresponding honors. Andersen, who comes from a very humble family, lost his father at the age of eleven. Before his fifteenth birthday he travels to Copenhagen to try his luck as an opera singer, dancer or actor at the city’s Royal Theatre. Due to his poorly proportioned figure, his eccentric appearance and his humble attire, he was rejected amidst ridicule. Fortunately, he got the support of Maestro Siboni, who offered him enough financial help to be able to devote himself to writing comedies that certainly did not seem to interest anyone.

   In 1828 he obtained his bachelor’s degree and, after several failures, he abandoned the idea of being an actor, dedicating himself fully to the task of writing. Success came in 1835 with the publication of his first novel (“The Improviser”) and the first volume of “Adventures Told for Children”, which was received with great enthusiasm by the public.

   The atmosphere of extreme poverty in which he spent his childhood was reflected in “La vendedora de fósforos” (1845), one of the saddest stories in all children’s literature. The story tells of the life of the writer’s mother who, as a child, was forced to beg for alms and returned home without a penny because she spent the day crying due to her shame.

   In “The Nightingale”, Andersen has also left us some autobiographical brushstrokes. The story is inspired by the permanent disappointments he suffered in matters of love, specifically in the unrequited love of a twenty-three-year-old singer who was known as “the Swedish Nightingale”.

  However, the stories for children written by Andersen transcend the purely personal and convey messages that are clearly universal. Such is the case with “The Emperor’s New Clothes” – which reflects, in a humorous way, human hypocrisy – and “The Tin Soldier” – a true song to love, capable of rising above all difficulties – or “The Little Mermaid”, to give one last example, which masterfully reflects nostalgia for a higher existence. The story of “The Little Mermaid” has ended up being the unbeatable model of love that transcends, through disinterest, generosity and the renunciation of self-centered interests.

  Thus, we see that Andersen’s stories not only entertain, but are revealed to us as true nourishment for the child’s soul.


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Date: June 30, 2020
Author: Jesús Zatón (Spain)
Photo: Ronile-Pixabay CCO

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