Translator: Tiina Nunnally
Publisher: Penguin Classics (Penguin)
Pages: 437 (including Notes) + Introductions (Hardback)
Form: Short Story Anthology
‘Once Upon a time there was a prince. He wanted a princess, but she had to be a real princess…’
To celebrate the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth, a dazzling new translation of his fairy tales – from the best-loved stories to rarely encountered masterpieces – illustrated with the author’s own paper cutouts.
Another pretty, gilt edged hardback, I’m starting to notice a trend. This ‘anniversary edition’ was actually picked not so much for its looks but because, after minimal research, it seemed to be a well regarded translation.
Andersen’s fairy tales are so well known to us and so easy to grab hold of in any children’s section of any bookstore that it’s very easy to forget that the originals were written in Danish. Stories such as ‘The Ugly Duckling’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’ are so ingrained in our culture it is in fact possible to forget they were authored at all. We can perhaps legitimately claim collective ownership of the stories in the Brothers Grimm, handed down orally over generations, but most (though not all) of Anderson’s tales are of his own creation so I wanted to read them in as close to his own words as I could get – a direct, unabridged, translation. Reading the introduction and translators note I was very glad I made this choice – as I had suspected many of the original Victorian translations had been censored, improved, kiddified, or based off shoddy German translations rather than the original Danish. That’s not to say that other editions are ‘bad’ – the plots are still the same after all and those plots are much of what makes his stories classics – I merely wanted to explain my reasons for choosing this particular translation.
The stories themselves are a mixed bag, some I liked, some I disliked, some I couldn’t work out what to think of but only a very few did I feel totally unmoved by. This collection gathers together stories from Andersen’s career, from his very early works where he was often retelling existing folk stories, through the ‘middle period’ of his best known works ‘The Little Mermaid’, ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’, ‘The Ugly Duckling’, and right up to his later much bleaker, more adult stories such as‘The Ice Maiden’, ‘The Wood Nymph’.
Arranged, I believe, chronologically, it made for fascinating reading as much, if not more, for the picture it paints of the author and the evolution of his style and ideas, than for the individual stories themselves. The notes on each story at the back of the book and the introduction (which as always I read after the main text to avoid spoilers) really added to that aspect and I found myself appreciating even the stories I initially disliked far more after noting what Andersen was going through when he was writing them.
There are simply too many stories in this book for me to review them all but I will try and pick out ones that particularly struck me (for good or bad) as well as offering my thoughts on some of the better known ones.
After a slightly mediocre and quite weird (dogs with eyes the size of mill wheels?) Aladdin rip off, ‘The Tinderbox’, I started to get more into this book with the second story. ‘Little Claus and Big Claus’ I could tell almost immediately fit into the tradition of oral folklore with its amoral trickster protagonist and disturbing and violent incidents it was evidently a retelling of an older story. It’s more the sort of fairytale I would associate with the Grimms than with Anderson and possibly not one some parents would be quite as happy to tell to their children – both the title characters are pretty greedy, amoral, little shits and one of Little Claus’s tricks involves the corpse of his grandmother – but I liked it. It was an old fashioned fairy tale yet it had a definite stamp of authorship on it as well – my favourite part has to be the wonderfully ridiculous section where Andersen tries to disguise what must obviously have originally been an adulterous wife hiding her lover by passing the incident off as her husband having an irrational hatred of deacons, who his wife was having tea with before his arrival home. To an adult reader it’s completely transparent, and all the funnier for it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that as a child my only question would have been ‘what’s a deacon?’
Moving on my next highlight was not actually a story but the title of one, something that made me very glad I opted for a recent Danish-English translation rather than a classic one. ‘The Princess on the Pea’ – on, not and. It’s a silly little thing but that’s the point, it’s the difference between something rather wishy-washy romanticised – which I had always assumed Anderson to be – and something charmingly childlike and simplistic. The story is the one we all know of course and I have nothing new to say about it but the title made me smile and challenged my preconceived notions about Anderson’s fairy tales just as much as ‘Little Claus and Big Claus’ did. Unfortunately the next story was ‘Thumbelina’ and I’m not sure what it is about this story – maybe that terrible, terrible animated film – but I am never going to like it. It’s everything wishy-washy and girly that I always hated in the early Disney princesses too. She’s beautiful and all animals are charmed by her, great – now get some fucking agency and do something for yourself, don’t wait about for magical helpers or a man to get you out of every little situation and don’t just fall for the first good looking bloke you see. Thankfully the next story, the lesser known ‘The Traveling Companion’ was a lot better, a rags to riches, coming of age story seemingly drawing inspiration from an oral tradition whilst probably still being an original work. The only thing that did bother me, and it’s a big thing, was the characterisation of the princess – yes she was evil and vindictive, I’m cool with that, but her fate (and is it any spoiler to say the hero always wins his princess) disturbed me. Forced marriages aren’t cool, and this one was more obvious than a lot of fairytale ones.
And talking of stories that disturbed me, I found ‘The Red Shoes’ unpleasant on almost every level. After thinking about it I decided I enjoyed reading it, but it is a very unpleasant, and uncharacteristically barbaric and preachy little story. Predictably enough it is the preachiness, not the barbarity that prompted my annoyance on the first read through. A pair of evil shoes that causes the wearer never to stop dancing? Cool, that’s a pretty neat, nasty thing to inflict on a character – very reminiscent of the red hot shoes the evil queen from Snow White is forced to wear – so far I’m happy, but throw in an angel who refuses to help the poor girl wearing them because she is too vain (in this case meaning she continually wore red rather than black shoes to church) and I’ve lost you completely. This might have something to do with me being an atheist or something to do with me being pretty dang vain myself and liking shoes, but I found it distasteful. It’s in a tradition of ‘do this or something disproportionately bad will happen’ though and, had it been a fairy rather than a figure from a purportedly forgiving religion I doubt I would have raised many objections at all except to call the fairy a nasty piece of work.
Now onto the ‘big’ stories. First, ‘The Little Mermaid’. I’m pretty sure anyone old enough to be on the internet must know that the original has a very different ending to the Disney film so I’m not going to hide any spoilers away. I love the Disney film – which incidentally featured one of the first Disney princess I actually like but I also love the original right up until the very end that is anyway. No, I’m not talking about her dying, that’s a beautiful, tragic end. What I’m talking about is that ‘daughters of air’ wank Andersen tacks onto the end. I get what he’s trying to do, really I do – he’s trying to offer an alternative to the ‘non-human women can only gain souls through the love of a human man’ trope – and that’s pretty dang admirable – your soul should depend upon your own thoughts and deeds, not whether someone else fancies you. It’s just horribly executed in this incidence and robs the ending (for me at least) of its beautiful sadness and, if we get into it, seems to me to ignore the fact that the mermaid’s own actions had already illustrated she had just as much of a soul as any of the human characters already.
Of course in a collection of Andersen you can’t ignore ‘The Snow Queen’ but all I can really say of it is I’m fairly ambivalent towards it. The imagery is very pretty and there are some interesting ideas in there – I love the nature of the mirror for instance – but for whatever reason I just don’t ‘get’ it. I prefer Andersen’s slightly silly shorter stories such as ‘The Fir Tree’ and ‘The Sweethearts’ they aren’t big important stories of triumph over evil but very funny, self aware mockeries of human nature. In fact, with their anthropomorphic protagonists representing very human emotions and feelings (the Fir tree never realises what it’s got until too late, the ball is vain and superior etc) they almost seem to owe more to Aesop’s fables than fairy tales.
Highlight of this collection, though, was, for me, a lesser known work called ‘The Shadow’. Semi-autobiographical according to the notes it tells the story of a man who sends his shadow away, only for it to come back years later as a stronger person than he himself. This story marked the turning point of the collection between stories written for a child audience and stories for adults. It’s a dark, sinister story and there is no happy ending which, as I perhaps hinted at earlier, I absolutely loved. It didn’t force in an ending that didn’t fit with the tone and is a much much stronger story for that. In only a few pages Andersen made me feel real, genuine, dislike for the character of the shadow.
From here on we’re getting into much less known stories and I don’t want to spoil them – I’m already aware that I may have spoilt some of the ‘classics’ already so I will stop commenting on those that struck me and only repeat what I’ve said before. 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. I know I’ve used a fair bit of strong language in this review and been quite critical on occasion but that’s really a sign that I enjoyed them and that they are well worth a read. A definite four star from me, and I may even see if I can find some more of his work not included in this selection – decent translation or not!