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Intentional and Non-Intentional Topicalities in Andersen's Tales
I am sure many of you will remember a tale entitled in Danish "Springfyrene" and in English (at least in R.P. Keigwin's translation) "The High Jumpers". The story begins: "The flea, the grasshopper and the skipjack once wanted to see which of them could jump the highest. So they invited the whole world and anyone else who liked, to come and watch the sport. They were three first-class jumpers; you could see that as they came into the room together."
Whereas everybody knows what a flea is, and what a grasshopper is, I am not sure everybody knows what a skipjack is (in Danish: en springgås ). Let me therefore explain: A skipjack is a toy made from the merrythought (or wishbone) of a goose or duck. With the aid of an elastic fastened to one end of a peg which is stuck into a lump of cobbler's wax under the wishbone, it can be made to jump into the air.
Now, back to the story.
The three high jumpers introduce themselves one by one. The flea, whose nature it is to associate with members of the human race, has of course gentle blood in his veins. The grasshopper wears his native green uniform and boasts of descending from a very old family in Egypt and of his talent for singing. The skipjack says nothing, which makes everybody conclude that he thinks the more.
Now, the king has promised as a reward to the one that jumps the highest his daughter, "for it seems so shabby that these gentlemen should have nothing to jump for".
When the competition begins, the flea jumps so high that no one can see him, and so they protest that he hasn't jumped at all - "and that was a mean trick", Andersen says.
The grasshopper only jumps half as high, but he jumps straight into the King's face - "and the King said it was disgusting".
The skipjack after some hesitation makes a little sidelong jump right into the Princess's lap as she sits on her low gold stool. Then the King declares: "The highest jump is to jump up to my daughter." So the skipjack wins the princess. The flea knows that he jumped the highest, but resigns himself: "The trouble is that in this world it's size that counts." The grasshopper sitting in a ditch agrees: "Yes, size is the thing" (in Danish: Krop skal der til! ).
In his famous essay on Andersen's Tales, published in the Danish weekly "Illustreret Tidende", in the summer of 1869, Georg Brandes gave his own private interpretation of this little tale, which he called "a short and pithy lesson on what life is like. The main characters are the flea, the grasshopper, and the skipjack, the king's daughter is the reward for the best jump. 'Please everybody notice,' says the Muse of the fairy tale, 'how important it is to jump cleverly. It's no good jumping so high that no one can see you. Then the riff-raff will say it amounts to your not having jumped at all. Just look at the greatest spirits, philosophers, poets and scholars. To the great mass of people it is as if they had not jumped, they receive no reward. Size is the thing. Krop skal der til! It is no good either making a high and perfect jump if by doing so you jump into the faces of those in power. Along that road you certainly don't get anywhere. No, follow the example of the skipjack. He is more or less apoplectic; to begin with it seems as if he cannot jump at all, and he certainly hasn't much kick left in him. All the same - with the instinct of stupidity, with the agility of laziness - he makes a little sideways jump into the princess's lap. Follow his example! He has got plenty of guts!"
"What a pearl of a fairy tale," Brandes says. "And what a gift to use animals psychologically!"
It is very doubtful indeed, whether Andersen would have accepted this interpretation of his little humourous tale, and Georg Brandes' amusing interpretation was obviously written with his tongue in his cheek. This is what Brandes would have liked Andersen to intend but he knew very well, of course, that Andersen was too scared to say any such thing explicitly.
Andersen, who was delighted with the praise Brandes had lavished on him in his essay, had probably read Brandes's interpretation of "The High Jumpers" with amusement at seeing how cleverly Brandes could use it for his own purposes.
I have quoted this as an example of unintentional topicality, i.e. probably unintentional as far as Andersen was concerned, but very intentional as far as Brandes was concerned. But I think it is perfectly legitimate to regard the tale as a satire directed against protectionism, as later scholars have done.
This is connected with the problem whether Andersen in some of his fairy tales and stories deliberately introduced a semi-political or social message, purposefully concealed behind the facade of innocent children's tales.
I have previously dealt with this subject in an essay entitled "Hans Christian Andersen - the Cautious Rebel", first given as a lecture at the opening of the Hans Christian Andersen Center in Odense in 1988 and afterwards published in the pamphlet "Udsyn over H. C. Andersen".
I shall not repeat the arguments here, but point out that in Andersen's novels there is an obvious social motif; the contrast between poverty and wealth, between the boy from the lower classes who must fight his way to victory or defeat, and the child from the upper classes to whom everything is given, is a basic motif in many of the novels and the fairy tales.
The main characters in The Improvisatore , O.T. and Only a Fiddler are marked by their background of poverty. But in Andersen's fairy tales the form of the genre is covert and ambiguous, the intention is covered by the image, which is sufficient in itself but open to many different interpretations, which saves the author from being responsible to those the satire may be aimed at.
In some of Andersen's tales the satire is so general in its purpose that it hurts no one in particular. "The Emperor's New Clothes" is obviously directed against snobbery, and the message can be used - and misused - in manners which Andersen could not foresee. It has often been used to denigrate new artistic experiments and forms of art. When people do not understand non-figurative paintings or experimental poetry the easiest way to condemn it is to label it 'the Emperor's New Clothes'.
"It's Perfectly True!" is directed at gossip and stupid exaggeration, but we shall see later how in a special political situation this tale could take on a specific topical interpretation.
"She Was No Good" ("Hun duede ikke") has in it material for a social novel, but such a one could only be written in Denmark fifty years later.
"The Little Match Girl" was inspired by a drawing by a Danish
artist named Lundbye; there are two different illustrations for this tale,
representing two different interpretations. First Lundbye's drawing,
which preceded the story,
then the traditional Danish illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen,
and finally an illustration by a social artist, Anton Hansen, who made it topical in the 1930s, the period of vast unemployment.
In my essay on Andersen as a cautious rebel, I particularly drew attention to two tales, "Everything in its Right Place " and "The Gale Moves Signposts", both of which depict what looks like a social revolution. But in each case Andersen plays safe by introducing characters who remain in their lofty place as a reward for being good and honourable. So Andersen's aristocratic friends could feel that the satire was not directed against them.
I mentioned other tales in which the social element is important, stories such as "Something", "The Porter's Son", "The Gardener and the Squire" and "Stories Old Johanna Could Tell". In the latter story social conditions are the direct cause of human misery.
"What would have been Andersen's fate if he had told "The Drop of Water" or "Big Claus and Little Claus" in a different form and a different language from that of the fairy tale?" Harald Rue asks in one of his essays on Andersen's tales.
I shall now proceed to discuss how, during the German occupation of Denmark from the 9th of April 1940 till the 5th of May 1945 some of Andersen's tales acquired a topicality which Andersen could not possibly have foreseen. I shall mention two of the less known tales in particular which acquired an unexpected popularity and were read in many homes, in which they had previously been either completely unknown or forgotten.
The two tales I refer to are "The Small Green Ones" ("De smaa Grønne") and "Den onde Fyrste" ("The Evil Prince").
In 1940, Denmark had been invaded by an army of German soldiers in green uniforms. "The Small Green Ones" is a story of a rose tree which had until recently looked fresh and youthful but is now ailing, suffering from some strange disease. The rose tree suffers from an invasion of soldiers billeted on it, soldiers in green uniforms who eat it up. One of the green soldiers speaks to the narrator about himself and the billeting and explains that during the hot season they multiply, but in the winter he and his colleages lay eggs and keep them warm and store them, so that every day a fresh one can jump out of the egg.
The soldier continues to relate that their enemies, the ants, squeeze them and milk them till they die, and call them "my sweet little milking cow", which is what all sensible animals call them, except members of the human race, who are angry with the little green ones because they eat rose leaves, whereas the human beings themselves eat anything that is living or growing. "They call us by disgusting names", the soldier says, "so nasty that I cannot bear to repeat them as long as I am in uniform, and I am always in uniform."
Andersen, the narrator, continues: "And I, the human being, stood looking at the tree and the small green ones, whose name I won't mention. And I had brought soap water with me to wash them away with, blowing soap bubbles at them. And the soap bubble shone in striking colours and burst when it hit the door, and the door opened, and Mother Fairy Tale herself appeared, and it is up to her to reveal their true name. / 'Green flies,' she said, 'plant lice.' We ought to give everything its proper name, and even though usually we dare not do it, at least we should be able to do it in a fairy tale."
So, during the occupation of Denmark, Andersen's story about an invading army of parasites took on a meaning which the author could not possibly have foreseen.
Later on during the German occupation of Denmark the editor of a Danish daily paper wrote a leading article about the mortal danger to some Danish beech woods caused by the invasion of millions of caterpillars of the pale tussock moth (in Danish: 'bøgenonnelarven'), which ate all the beech leaves and destroyed the woods. The allegory was so obvious that even the Nazis understood it and demanded that the editor should be sacked, which he then duly was. It is quite possible that the editor may have been inspired by Andersen's horticultural thriller about parasites in green uniforms.
"The Evil Prince" with the subtitle "A Legend", is a story about a wicked, arrogant prince, whose one and only aim is to conquer every country in the world and strike terror by the bare mention of his name.
On he swept with fire and sword. His soldiers trampled down the corn in the fields; they set farmhouses on fire, so that the red flames licked the leaves from the trees and scorched the fruit as it hung from its charred blackened branches. Many a poor mother hid with her naked nursling behind the smoking wall; and the soldiers searched for her; and if they found her with her baby, then the devilish game began - no evil spirit could have acted more shamefully...
From the captured cities the Evil Prince carries away gold and endless treasures and builds magnificent palaces, churches and cloisters in his own country, so that people at home say, 'What a mighty Prince!'
He occupies one country after another and has his own statue put up everywhere, even before the holy altars, but the priests protest, saying that the Prince is indeed great, but God is greater.
Then the Prince wants to defeat God as well and has an airship built, pulled by hundreds of eagles, and in this way he flies up towards the sun. But God sends out one of his angels, and the evil Prince fires a thousand bullets at the angel, but they fall down like hail from his wings. A drop of blood drips from his white feathers, a drop as heavy as a hundredweight of lead which sends the ship crashing towards the earth. Then the evil Prince decides to thwart God. He has another, much more forceful ship built, manned with huge armies whose duty it is to blast their way into heaven. But as the airship is approaching its goal, God sends out an army of mosquitoes which the Prince cannot kill with his sword. He orders precious carpets to be wrapped round him to prevent the insects from stinging him. But one single mosquito finds its way into the Prince's ear and stings him there. The poison flies into his brain making him mad, and the soldiers now jeer at their mad Prince, who was bent on storming the gates of heaven and was defeated by one little mosquito.
Danes who read the story during the German occupation found it easy to identify the evil Prince with Adolf Hitler.
There is also another tale by Andersen in which the main character was identified with Hitler. It is the story entitled "The Most Incredible Thing" ("Det Utroligste"), which begins: "The person who could do the most incredible thing was to have the King's daughter and half the kingdom."
The winner is an artist who has constructed a most cunningly contrived clock in which at every full hour living figures appear, representing the twelve hours of the day. Everybody agrees that this is the most incredible thing, until a gaunt, lanky giant of a fellow appears and destroys the work of art with his axe. "To destroy such a work of art," said the judges, "that was indeed the most incredible thing." So the destroyer wins the princess. But just when the wedding is going to take place all the twelve figures representing the hours come out, and the last one, a night-watchman (in Danish: en vægter ) bashes the giant on his head with his halberd. "Lie there!" he says. "Measure for measure! Now we're avenged, and our young master too."
The story ends with the candles inside the church turning into great flowers of light and the organ beginning to play by itself. Everybody said that this was the most incredible thing they had ever known.
"Then please summon the right person!" said the princess. "He that made the work of art - let him be my lord and husband."
"And he stood in the church with all the people around him. They all
rejoiced and wished him well. There wasn't one who was jealous - and that was the most incredible thing of all."
In his English version of this tale, R. P. Keigwin added a footnote, which I quote verbatim: "This tale, first published in 1871, was thought to be an allegory of the Franco-German war; and, like "The Wicked Prince", its publication in Denmark was forbidden by the Nazis during the occupation of 1940-45, though nevertheless circulated by the Underground Movement."
Another tale, which also became popular during the occupation period was the one entitled "Holger Danske", about the legendary Danish hero who, from his cell in the basement of Kronborg Castle in Elsinore promises the Danes that in the hour of distress he will come to their rescue.
It is worth mentioning that one of the leading resistance groups concerned with sabotage called itself "Holger Danske".
During the period from the 9th of April 1940 till the 5th of May 1945, when Denmark was occupied by German troops, altogether nine selections of Andersen's tales were published legally, i.e. without being forbidden by either the official Danish censorship or by the Nazi authorities. I have consulted all of them in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. In the following I shall deal with them chronologically.
The first one contains one tale only, namely "The Most Incredible Thing", illustrated by Herluf Jensenius and with an introduction by Professor Paul V. Rubow. The illustrations are devoid of topicality, which is not surprising in view of the fact that a note explains that the printing of the book was completed by 26 July 1940, which means that the illustrations must have been made before Hitler's troops occupied Denmark. Rubow's introduction is also non-political, except for the concluding lines, which may well have been added at the last moment. Here Rubow says that Andersen's tale was caused by his profound anxiety for the future. I quote: "But The Most Incredible Thing concludes with the certainty of victory. The demons of Darkness must be vanquished! What we read here is the author's Holocaust Dream (in Danish: Ragnarok-Drøm ), a profound anxiety and doubt that is superseded by an even more profound faith."
The second one was published anonymously at the end of 1941 with the printed message "New Year's Greetings 1942", but with no information about the sender. It contained one tale only, "The Small Green Ones", printed in Gothic type. No introduction or preface, no information whatsoever. The front page demonstrates its total anonymity.
The third one was dated 1941-42 and contained one tale only, "The Little Match Girl", with a few harmless illustrations by someone called Henning Jørgensen. The name of a printing firm in Aalborg was given, nothing else.
In 1942, a selection of Andersen's tales was published with the title "Everything in its Right Place and Other Fairy Tales by H. C. Andersen".
Here you see the title page, where the illustration of course refers to the magic flute, which turns the social order upside down and creates a different and more just society. This, in my opinion, is the most interesting publication during the German occupation altogether, and I shall discuss it in more detail later on.
In 1943, a bookseller in Haderslev published a volume in mini-size
(4 x 5 cm), which can only be read with the help of a magnifying
glass. It contains four fairy tales, "The Drop of Water", "The Small
Green Ones", " The Wicked Prince" and "The Rags". The illustrations were
the traditional Danish ones.
The same year (1943) also saw the publication of "The Drop of Water", illustrated by the Danish poet and multi-genius Piet Hein. Surprisingly enough, his illustrations were completely devoid of topicality, though Piet Hein was famous for writing during the German Occupation some 'Grooks' with an obvious sting directed at the occupying power. "The Drop of Water" was published by a water purification firm in Aabyhøj and had no political significance whatsoever.
In 1944 a small volume was published with the title "The Will-o'-the-Wisps are in Town and Other Stories", illustrated by Anton Hansen. Apart from the title story it contained "The Wicked Prince", "The Buckwheat", "The Gale Moves Signposts" and "Auntie Toothache".
There were also in 1944 two different publications of "It's Perfectly True", one with illustrations by Helge Kühn Nielsen, of a rather traditional and harmless kind, the other with illustrations by Falke Bang, of a more subtle and sophisticated kind. Whereas the former took the story at face value, so to speak, illustrating with pictures of hens and owls and pigeons, the latter did not confine the message of the tale to an attack on silly gossiping, but made it into a warning against the more dangerous kind of gossiping that might put people's lives in danger. The illustrations could be interpreted - and were in fact interpreted - as a warning against passing on secret information to others.
Look at this frontispiece which sums up the idea. The man on the
right whispers some secret information into another person's ear. It could
be revealing that So and So is member of the Resistance Movement, or
that So and So has been involved in a certain sabotage act. You must bear
in mind that during the war people in Denmark had developed a talent
for reading messages in a text between the lines, and also a talent for
interpreting the hidden message in a cryptic illustration. The illustration
inside the text could also be seen as a warning against speaking
openly about matters that ought to be secret. The family are only
gossiping among themselves, but someone is on her way to pass the story on
Now I would like to go back to the book entitled "Everything in its Right Place and Other Fairy Tales", which in my opinion is the most important of them all. It was published legally with a preface by Otto
Gelsted, a Danish poet, well known for his anti-fascist views, and an introduction by a well-known Andersen scholar, Mr. H. Stenstrup Holbeck, and with illustrations by a young Danish artist, Marlie Brande.
And here I must declare a personal interest and admit that I am biased. Otto Gelsted was a personal friend of mine, and Marlie Brande was my wife, and I myself was involved in the discussions preceding the publication of this volume, which took place at an early stage of the occupation, before the existence of an organized Resistance Movement. The idea was to smuggle a message through in such a way that neither the Danish censorship nor the German authorities would forbid publication of the volume.
Otto Gelsted's Preface stressed two elements in Andersen which were frequently overlooked, the social element and the patriotic element, both of which were exemplified in this volume, which contained two poems and thirteen tales by Andersen.
Det er en stor alvorlig Tid,
men fast til Gud staar al vor Lid,
vi stride jo den gode Strid
Vi vil vor Ret og ikke mer!
Vorherre vil det bedste sker,
thi frejdig fremad hver Mand ser,
Paa Marken ved det aabne Hav,
staar mangen gammel Kæmpegrav,
om Kraften i os Vink den gav
I Landets Vaaben altid stod
tre Løver, de betyde Mod,
ni Hjerter, det er ærligt Blod
Og som af Krøniken vi saa,
én Mand kan tolv Mænds Styrke faa,
ved Enighed vi den vil naa,
Forvisning(Under Krigen 1864)
Endnu er ej Danmark en Kæmpegrav
med styrtede Bautastene,
det er et Træ i det salte Hav
med friske og sunde Grene;
det tør ej fældes og kastes hen;
Gud kan ydmyge men løfter igen!
Om Kæmpefugle med voldsom Klo
end søge det Træ at flænge,
Vorherre vil dog, det i Kraft skal gro,
med Blomster og Frugter længe;
ej Danmark fældes og kastes hen,
Gud er vor Hjælper, vor frelsende Ven!
I Natten lyse nu Stjerneskud
af unge Hjerter, som briste.
Et lille Folk i Fortrøstning til Gud
og sin Ret holder ud til det sidste;
i Sammenhold, folkelig Tanke og Tro
Danmark skal sejre og blomstrende gro.
The two poems were "For Danmark", written in 1848, when Denmark was at war with Germany, and "Forvisning", written in 1864, when Germany had again launched an attack on Denmark. Both poems express Andersen's belief in the righteousness of the Danish cause.
The thirteen fairy tales selected for this volume are the following: "Little Claus and Big Claus" (a kind of social David and Goliath-story), "The Buckwheat" (a parable illustrating the saying that pride goes before a fall), "Holger the Dane" (which I have already discussed), "The Emperor's New Clothes" (which is directed against stupid snobbery), "The Drop of Water" (a satire on what mankind is like when seen behind the facade), "It's Perfectly True" (a satire directed against gossip), "The Swan's Nest" (in praise of Denmark), "Everything in its Right Place" (a fantasy about a social revolution), "The Evil Prince" (which I have already discussed), "Twelve by the Mailcoach" (a personification of the twelve months of the year), "The Gale Moves Signposts" (yet another fantasy about a social revolution), "The Bird of Folk Songs" (a homage to poetry that never dies), and finally "The Most Incredible Thing" (which I have also previously discussed).
Each of these thirteen tales carried a message from Andersen to his compatriots in Denmark's hour of distress, and the message was understood by those who read the book. The reason why "The Small Green Ones " was not included, was that it did not carry any real message from Andersen to the Danes during the war. It was a coincidence that the title gave it a topicality which the author had never intended.
One thing was common to Marlie Brande's illustrations, namely that they depicted a contemporary Danish landscape and contemporary Danish persons.
There are altogether 27 illustrations by Marlie Brande in the book, some of them full page illustrations, others are vignettes.
I have copied from the book twelve illustrations:
The first one is from "Big Claus and Little Claus", showing Little Claus taking revenge for all the evil deeds Big Claus did to him, by putting him into the sack in order to drown him.
This is a vignette for "The Buckwheat", demonstrating in human terms that pride goes before a fall. Also a useful lesson during the Occupation.
Again a vignette for "The Emperor's New Clothes", showing how the vain and foolish emperor is taken for a ride by the two swindlers.
And here mankind's internal quarrels and fight as seen through the magic magnifying glass in "The Drop of Water".
This is an illustration for "It's Perfectly True". Here the scene is not set in Andersen's time, but in a village in Denmark in the 1940s, with the country postman on his bicycle and the villagers busy spreading rumours.
In Andersen's fairy tale entitled "Everything in its Right Place" the magic flute blows two rich farmers, who in our time had grown too big for their own cornfield, into the ditch, as seen in this illustration, where they are landed in the mud.
And now this timeless illustration for "The Evil Prince". To depict the main character in a way that suggested a likeness to Hitler would have resulted in immediate confiscation and prohibition of the volume, but this picture could suggest the ravage and harrying of the German troops in Poland or Russia or anywhere else in Europe.
And the final vignette for the same fairy tale makes the moral of it quite clear. Instead of the mosquito it is here a representative of the ordinary people who trips up the representative of power. A useful message for the Resistance Movement.
"Twelve by the Mail Coach" transforms the twelve months of the year into human beings. Here they are all seated in modern dresses in a contemporary bus. All ordinary people, as one could meet them any day.
The illustration for "The Gale Moves Signposts" also places the story in a contemporary town, bringing havoc to its inhabitants.
And then finally two illustrations for "The Most Incredible Thing". First, the brainless destroyer of art and poetry, seen against a background of twentieth century on-lookers, entirely different from Herluf Jensenius's medieval giant-killer (cf. p. 19, above).
And then, his deserved downfall thanks to the power of the works of art. The destroyer is finally struck down by the night watchman with his fur cap and his spiked mace. But in this illustration the night watchman has no spiked mace and looks more like a Jewish Rabbi than a traditional Danish Vægter. The on-lookers are still ordinary twentieth century Danes.
In his book about Danish Andersen-illustrations 1935-75, Erik Dal also discussed this volume and, especially, Marlie Brande's illustrations. He writes about the volume: "In it and in each of the chosen texts you could read between the lines that which could not be said openly." He calls it 'en beredskabsantologi', which I can best translate as an anthology of emergency, and writes: "The book could not be reviewed or displayed openly on the booksellers' counters". The important thing for Erik Dal was that it introduced a thirty year-old illustrator, Marlie Brande, who was then already good, and became later on great. He pointed out that motifs of the illustrations were taken from everyday life of 1940. "Satire and pathos are clearly present, but are held down by the realistic tone, and the entire matter could, if you like, be called un-Andersenian", but Erik Dal perfers to say with Goethe: "Das liegt auch daran!" Erik Dal concludes: "The specific background of the edition must be said to legitimize the attitude, but would not have sufficed for a deeper interpretation of Andersen. All the same, Marlie Brande showed much of her true face in the book."
Let me conclude by saying that during the occupation there were also some stencilled or printed selections of Andersen's tales, circulated secretly, and usually contaning "The Small Green Ones" and "The Evil Prince". I have seen one or two during the war, but none of them are in the possession of either The Royal Library or Frihedsmuseet. They have probably been worn to shreds while circulating during the war.
I think Andersen would have been pleased to know that some of his works became a useful tool against the oppressors at a time when Denmark was not master in her own house.