Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Context


The Danish Golden Age (1800–50)

The early to mid-1800s were both a politically tumultuous and a culturally active period for Denmark and its people. Unwilling to give in to English demands to stop merchant fleet trade with France, Denmark sided with France against England in the Napoleonic Wars despite initial attempts to remain neutral. The English assault on Copenhagen in 1807 is sometimes referred to as the world's first bombardment of civilians.

After the wars ended in 1815, Denmark experienced a period of relative prosperity. Since world markets were flooded with wheat transported by steamship, Danish farmers shifted to the more lucrative production of high-quality bacon and dairy products; by 1900 Danish farmers were among the most prosperous in Europe. The prosperous government began a widespread program of public education, which provided an opportunity for poor Danes like Hans Christian Andersen to enter skilled professions. Works of art and research in the sciences were royally subsidized, making operas, ballets, plays, and public lectures and demonstrations in the sciences available to every Dane at minimal or no cost. The result was a "Danish Golden Age" of the arts and sciences in which Andersen took part.

German Romanticism

German Romanticism had a distinct influence on Danish writing in the first three decades of the 1800s, and the literary movement played an important role in Andersen's work. Writers in the movement championed nostalgia for pre-Renaissance literature, culture, and architecture; an idealistic perception of and appreciation for the beauties of nature and the simple life; glorification of the visionary poet as a prophetic guide for humankind; and increased interest in the realms of intuition, feeling, and dreams. All these elements appear in Andersen's writing. For example, it is the scholar with his vivid imagination and not the prosy councilor who knows what's really going on in "Little Ida's Flowers." Andersen, who often walked on foot, brings nature's beauty to life in such stories as "The Traveling Companion." The power of a child's purity of vision features in such stories as "The Snow Queen."

Although some of Andersen's stories are light and joyful, many also incorporate nightmarish fears and violence, another aspect of Romantic literature. Violence is notable in Goethe's play Faust (published in 1808 and 1832) and the darker supernatural tales of German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822). It is also a characteristic of traditional folktales and fairy tales in general, and Andersen does not shy away from it. For example, in his first published story, "The Tinder Box," the soldier strikes off the head of the ugly old witch and commands three magic dogs to toss everyone except the princess up in the air so they smash to pieces. The scholar in "The Shadow" is "done away with" so the shadow and the princess who believes he is a real man can get married.

Enduring Archetypes

Stock Characters

Street entertainments in Andersen's day included puppet plays, and even royally endowed performances of ballets, dramas, and operas were open to the general public at minimal cost. These entertainments invariably presented stock characters, popular figures whom audiences could easily identify, such as the clever servant, the pair of lovers, or the old miser. Andersen made good use of stock characters in nearly all his stories. They include the following:

  • Vain emperors. The emperor in "The Emperor's New Clothes" is predictably vain until a child brings him to a recognition of his arrogance, while the emperor of China in "The Nightingale" is taught a valuable lesson in humility.
  • Foolish princesses. The princess in "The Swineherd" is foolish, greedy, and superficial until her father throws her out. Even the prince disguised as a swineherd has a hard time forgiving her. The princess in "The Shadow" shows no sign of realizing she has accepted a very clever shadow of a man instead of a real one for her husband in Andersen's story "The Shadow."
  • Thwarted lovers. Young lovers confronted with parental opposition to their union often attempt an elopement. This happens in Andersen's story "The Shepherdess and the Chimney-Sweep."
  • Clever servants. Andersen makes good use of this stock character in the story "Little Claus and Big Claus."

Stock Plots

Just as audiences in Andersen's era delighted in familiar and lively characters, they also enjoyed predictable, or "stock," comedy plots. Andersen often incorporated stock plots in his tales, though he gave them a twist. For example, he gives an "underdog" character a chance to shine by the end of the tale. Examples include the following:

  • A small character who overcomes the odds. Although tiny and at the mercy of larger beings such as the field mouse, the mole, or the mayfly, Thumbelina manages to overcome the odds against her in the story named for the character. The ugly duckling in the titular story surpasses all his critics by enduring long enough to grow into a glorious swan.
  • Misconceptions and mistaken identities. In some stock plots, action moves forward because of misconceptions and mistaken identities. These stories create dramatic irony, in which the audience is in on the truth before the characters are. Since the prince is disguised as a dirty laborer in "The Swineherd," he is able to trick the princess into kissing him so she can get some of his trinkets. And due to an evil spell, the princely brothers wander as swans, while their sister frantically works to uncover the truth in "The Wild Swans."
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