Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

Translated by Tiina Nunnally.

2004 translation. Viking. Hardcover. 437 pgs.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

This is a collection of thirty fairy tales written by the famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen and translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. The collection includes famous tales such as “The Little Mermaid”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Little Match Girl” and “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” as well as lesser known tales. The tales are ordered chronologically from when they were published.

From Jackie Wullschlager’s introduction:

[Andersen] was the first writer who was not only skilled at adapting existing stories in an original and lasting manner, he was also capable of creating new tales that entered the collective consciousness with the same mythic power as the ancient, anonymous ones.

p. xvi


I loved this book. I was familiar with Andersen’s stories, but they were usually the simplified versions put in children’s picture books. I can’t believe I have been missing out on his writing and his voice all of these years. Andersen adds to his stories funny observations, lovely setting detail, haunting dream and vision sequences, and little asides to the reader. His writing is apparently notoriously difficult to translate, which makes me appreciate Nunnally’s fresh and vivid translation even more.

I became interested in reading Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales after hearing a Stuff You Missed In History Class podcast about him. The hosts of the podcast described a man who rose from poverty to become a beloved author and Danish national treasure. The introduction to this book, written by Jackie Wullschlager, does a splendid job in portraying who Andersen was, as a writer and person. Wullschlager explains how his tales reflected his regard for art and story, and also his deep sense of being a lonely outsider. I recommend reading the introduction after reading the rest of the book, not because of spoilers, but because reading about Andersen’s life was more moving to me after reading his stories.

Andersen’s early stories were largely inspired or adapted by folk tales and myths. “The Tinderbox” features a witch whose magic treasures are guarded by dogs with very large eyes. According to the back-of-the-book notes, the violent “Little Claus and Big Claus” is based on traditional Danish landlord-and-tenant stories. The main character is a kind of trickster figure. In “The Traveling Companion” a princess flies with black wings to the home of a troll, and Andersen gives us this nightmarish vision of the troll’s throne room:

The throne itself was made of milk-white glass, and the cushions on the seat were little black mice who were biting each other’s tails. Above was a canopy of rose-colored spiderwebs, studded with the most exquisite little green flies that sparkled like gemstones. (p. 59)

“The Little Mermaid” was an exquisite tragedy. I knew that Andersen’s story did not end happily for the mermaid, but the end made my heart twinge anyway. (Well, not the very end, which was a slapped-on lame moralistic ‘lesson’.) “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” and “The Wild Swans” were also very lovely tales. “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” was notable for being Andersen’s first published tale that was not based on a prior folktale or story.

“The Flying Trunk” was an odd tale, because half of it consists of the main character telling a story to win the hand of a princess. The story features various  household items talking together like high society snobs.

“Now I want to dance!” said the hearth tongs, and started dancing. Yes, God save us, how she could fling one leg in the air! The old upholstery on the chair split at the very sight. “Could I have a wreath too?” said the hearth tongs, and they gave her one.

“They’re nothing but riffraff!” thought the matches.

Then the tea urn was supposed to sing, but she said she had a cold; she couldn’t sing unless she was boiling. Yet that was sheer snobbishness. She didn’t want to sing unless she was standing on the table in the parlor and the master and the mistress of the house were there. (p. 128)

Andersen has a number of stories that feature anthropomorphized objects. Of course “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” is the most famous, but there is one where a top falls in love with a leather ball; a fir tree wishes always to be where it’s not; a porcelain shepherdess is engaged against her will to a cupboard carved with the figure of a man.

Jackie Wullschlager points out in her introduction that Andersen often uses animals, plants and even the wind to act as a sort of Greek chorus in the stories. “The Marsh King’s Daughter” is an odd and dark tale about a girl who is a beautiful hellion by day and a froggish sad creature by night. She is raised by Vikings but decides to free a captured Christian priest. Throughout the story, a family of storks observe and comment. In “The Ice Maiden”, two cats swap gossip about the main characters.

“Is there any news from the mill?” said the parlor cat. “Here in the house a secret engagement has taken place. The father doesn’t yet know about it. Rudy and Babbette have been stepping on each other’s paws all evening under the table. They stepped on me twice, but I didn’t meow because that would have attracted attention.”

“Well I would have meowed,” said the kitchen cat.

“What’s proper in the kitchen is not proper in the parlor,” said the parlor cat.

p. 357

Two of my favorite stories in this collection were also two of the longest stories: “The Snow Queen” and “The Ice Maiden.” In “The Snow Queen”, young Gerda goes on a quest to save her best friend Kai from the Snow Queen who has abducted him. Along the way, she meets, among others, a garden full of flowers that talk to Gerda but don’t say anything useful; a couple of friendly crows; and a little robber girl (one of my favorite minor characters who gets an awesome line near the end.) “The Ice Maiden” is set in Switzerland and Andersen both intentionally and unintentionally evokes a bygone world, as he describes Swiss men who hunt on the glaciers as well as the modern locomotive.

I found the specificity of Andersen’s fairy tales delightful. I have enough geographical knowledge to recognize Danish place names thrown out in “The Wind Tells of Valdemar Daae and His Daughters.” An aging Andersen talked to girls at a brothel to research his story “The Wood Nymph” which is set in Paris during that city’s 1867 Exposition.

An amazing tidbit about Andersen’s tale “The Most Incredible Thing” – published in 1872, it became a symbolic story for the Danish Resistance in the 1940’s.

There is so much in these stories that would be wonderful to discuss. There is the way that Christianity operates like another kind of magic, and alongside the fantasy elements. There is the high-stakes element of Andersen’s tales; happy endings are definitely not a guarantee. Apparently “The Story of a Mother” had a different ending and then Andersen capriciously decided to change it.

There are also a number of stories that I haven’t mentioned at all that would be great to discuss in detail, but I don’t think this post should be much longer. My recommendation then is to read this collection for yourselves!

I had a hard time choosing a final excerpt, because some of the most beautiful passages are also quite sad, and I want to end on a happier note. So here is one from “The Nightingale,” which is a story about how an Emperor takes a nightingale from her natural home to sing in his court but then eventually replaces her with a mechanical nightingale which the court thinks sings better than the real one, until it breaks. The Emperor falls gravely ill and is left without comfort as Death starts stealing the Emperor’s treasures.

But Death kept on looking at the Emperor with his big, empty eye sockets, and it was so quiet, so horribly quiet.

At that moment, close to the window, the loveliest song was heard. It was the live little nightingale, who was sitting on a branch outside. She had heard about the Emperor’s distress, and that’s why she had come, to offer solace and hope. And as she sang . . . Death himself listened and said, “Keep singing, little nightingale! Keep singing!”

. . . And Death returned each treasure for a song, and the nightingale still kept singing. She sang of the silent churchyard where the white roses grow, where the fragrant elder tree stands, and where the fresh grass is watered by the tears of the bereaved. Then Death had such a longing for his own garden that he floated out like a cold white fog, out the window.

p. 141

Excerpts from other reviews:

Fyrefly’s Book Blog – “And yet, not only did the repetitive nature of the stories bore me, but the stories themselves didn’t hold my interest, meaning I could turn off the book mid-story and have absolutely no compulsion to go back to it.” [This is a review of the audio-book version]

Lulu’s Bookshelf – “They’re a mixed bag, and I much preferred the shorter stories to the longer ones, but I found something to appreciate in each and every one, even if it was only after reading what Andersen’s influences were.”

The Places You Will Go – “Savour this book. Read one story per day, to yourself or a child. Read it aloud to enjoy fully the sound and effect of the words that paint vivid pictures full of colour, shadows and light.”


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4 responses to “Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen

  1. aartichapati

    i’ve really enjoyed fairy tales and folk tales recently, so I loved this review! I have a collection of Irish folk tales collected by Yeats waiting to be read on my Kindle 🙂

  2. The moralizing aspect of this work is the only part that gives me pause, but it sounds like there are so many other positives to the work that it would be worth sussing it out anyway, and maybe skipping those bits at the end that he just couldn’t resist including.

  3. aarti – Ooh, those Irish folk tales sound like they could be good. I’ll look for your review.

    Buried in Print – Andersen works in moralizing strains into many of the stories, but it was rare that he ended the story with a moral instruction – “The Little Mermaid” happened to be one of those exceptions. So you wouldn’t have to skip the endings for most of the stories. There are moralizing strains, but the stories aren’t pedantic, in my opinion anyway. “The Red Shoes” probably comes the closest to being both preachy and disturbing.

  4. This is such an excellent review. I haven’t read Hands Christian Andersen as an adult (though I loved him as a child), and you made me think I’d now see his stories with entirely new eyes.

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