Contrastive Values in Hans Christian Andersen's Fantastic Stories
"'Yes, innocent she is indeed', said the
eldest brother, and he told them what had happened.
Whilst he spoke a wonderful fragrance spread around,
as of millions of roses. Every faggot in the pile had taken
root and shot out branches, and a great high hedge of red
roses had arisen."
(Hans Christian Andersen, "The Wild Swans")
Any contemporary discussion of Andersen's stories should take into account certain preliminaries that have to do with his creative treatment of the fairy tale pattern as consecrated by the folk tradition, as well as the modernity of this selfaware gesture that is so close to postmodern reinterpretations of traditional literary forms. Starting from the assumption that Andersen's creations are "conscious literary art", as W. H. Auden calls them,1 this paper intends to prove that he uses the fairy tale form not as a purpose in itself, but as a means of challenging reality and of practising social observation. He thus questions the settled clearcut oppositions that operate in traditional folk fairy tales (with inherently good and inherently bad characters), approaching values in a dialectical way, so that they are relativized according to the perceiving subject (as Kai in "The Snow Queen", whose view of things is distorted by the magic mirror grain in his eye) and the poles of the oppositions coexist and alchemically turn into each other.
We can detect an alchemy of values in Andersen's stories, which functions dialectically, implying both black and white magic, that is, most often, witchcraft versus love. The supreme value in Andersen, the only one which leads to epiphany, is love, which Ioan P. Coulianu points out as the only true source of magic, the source of "the True, the Good and the Beautiful".2 The duality of love (pure and impure) also implies the duality of magic (white and black). But it is only true love that can work alchemically, that can transform evil into good, that can, as Vasile Lovinescu puts it, turn ordinary metals into gold or can produce the "transmutation of sin into a fact of light",3 as it happens in "The Wild Swans", when the pile of death and shame turns into a rose bush - symbol of life and of love.
My use of the term "fantastic stories" for what is normally called Andersen's fairy tales - and it is extremely significant that he himself considered them so - is also in need of explanation. If we take into account Tzvetan Todorov's classification of the supernatural dimension into three progressive stages of differentiation from the real, in terms of its liability to be explained - the uncanny, the fantastic proper and the marvelous,4 it follows that the marvelous corresponds to the fairy tale, characterized by the absorption of the supernatural into the real dimension of the narrative, so that there is no disruption between the two. Andersen entitles his literary endeavours fairy tales and, indeed, he is faithful to the formal characteristics of the genre: he uses the well established initial and final formulae (even though they are sometimes modified, their place is seldom left empty, being occasionally filled in by fable or parable forms, with their demonstrative and didactic form), but also the typical fairy tale initiation quest and even - though with significant developments and modifications - the functions and character types as described by V. Propp in his analysis of the morphology of the (Russian) fairy tale.5 But the relationship with reality is much more complex than the one in traditional fairy tales, as we can see from the assumption of truth at the end of "The Princess and the Pea": "Now this is a true story",6 which points at the ambiguity of the very idea of truth: as validated by storytelling and by a more general, parabolic stage of reality.
In relation to that, we cannot help noticing that Andersen seldom assumes the legitimacy of fairy tale logic, motivation relying rather on realistic assumptions. A good example is the endings, which sometimes escape the festive mood of the fairy tale, whose action ends by freezing in an eternal wedding. On the contrary, here, when the magic stops, as in "The Flying Trunk", the festive ending is cancelled and we witness a clear separation between storytelling and real life, as the former has lost its capacity to inform the latter: "she is waiting for him still, but he wanders round the world telling stories, only they are no longer so merry as the one he told about the matches".7 This loss of joy is a sign of the transition from fairy tale to fantastic hesitation. Even when the ending is happy, the heroes have undergone a change that is more complex than the initiation of fairy tale heroes: at the end of "The Snow Queen", Kai and Gerda have become adults and, though they are still "children at heart'',8 they have learnt about the existence of evil in the world and, worse than that, about the evil that can exist within themselves, their own shadow, in Jungian terms.
Taking the degree of realism as a criterion for classification, while at the same time asserting the intrusion, to a greater or lesser extent, of the supernatural dimension in all of them, we can roughly divide Andersen's tales into two categories: fairy tales proper and the "realistic" or rather parabolic stories,9 essentializing a truth that comes out of realistic observation. Under such circumstances, the positive and the negative poles of these oppositions are very difficult to determine. In the story that may be considered the most sharply realistic, "The Little Match Girl", sadness is overcome by epiphany, as the girl whose ending seems terrible to all who see her - dies happy because she knows she is going to her grandmother, the person whom she loved most. This slight touch of a fantastic that is rather of a psychological nature is very powerful precisely because the reader expects no miracle to work in a world of such bleakness and poverty. As Roger Caillois maintains, this is the condition for the fantastic to exist: "Le fantastique suppose la solidité du monde réel, mais pour mieux la ravager."10 Starting from this assertion - Caillois's synonymous description of Todorov's hesitation -, as well as from Todorov's opposition between the fantastic and the marvelous, relying on the fact that the latter contains the presumption of verisimilitude, while the former does not, Ilina Gregori concludes by asserting that the fantastic story is "a marvelous history told realistically".11 This implies that in those fantastic stories that are closer to the fairy tale pattern, the effects of the fantastic dimension seem to be even more powerful and aesthetically effective, as negotiated between the parallel mirrors of the real and the marvelous. Discussing the effects of merging the fantastic dimension with the fairy tale, the Romanian critic Zoe Dumitrescu Bus3ulenga comments, in her foreword to the Romanian version of Andersen's fairy tales,12 that Andersen comes close to Hoffmann in associating the fantastic with everyday life (placing the two of them, implicitly, within a marvelous frame). However, as Bus3ulenga maintains, while Hoffmann's fantastic is demonic, Andersen's has rather a cognitive function, providing a causality for the many events that take place in the universe of childhood.13
This cognitive function is performed by means of questioning, relativizing and even cancelling oppositions between values, which not only challenges the simplicity of the fairy tale pattern as such, enriching it, but also implicitly passes judgment on the social world of the time. But it is here that Andersen's stories prove to be a multiple work of art. The causality that Bus35ulenga mentions, and which does arise from fantastic hesitation, is not provided by the fantastic itself but rather by the conflict existing between the real and the marvelous that is not only the marvelous that comes to solve the real problems of children (which happens if we read Andersen's stories as mere tales for children), but the real that is called to motivate the marvelous. Thus, marvelous / realistic appears as the major opposition of values that conditions all the others, defining the dialectical nature of Andersen's world.
The main pairs of opposite values - good / evil, beautiful / ugly, true (real) / false (manmade), warm / cold - are characteristic of fairy tales in general. The difference comes when these values are analysed in their deep structure, being relativized according to their behaviour at the proper / figurative level, in essence as opposed to appearance. This is not like the fairy tale interplay between the false hero (who may actually be a villain) and the real hero, where the false hero plays the good part, with the audience knowing it all the time; it comes rather as a result of the evolution and change of characters by means of a magic that is most often informed by human feeling and that romantically places the individual's inner life against the world. These changes may affect the whole balance of the story, especially the ending, deceiving the expectations of the audience, sometimes even the expectation of an ending, whichever that may be: "The Flying Trunk", for instance, is clearly open-ended, since it leaves the reader in a narratorial "now" whose indeterminacy frustratingly nourishes the wish for something more to happen. By so demolishing the schema, Andersen attempts to do away with preconceived fictional patterns that do not stand the test of reality.
The good / evil opposition - the one that is right to come first in a discussion about values - is approached in a very complex way, starting from fairy tale character types, some of which are preserved as given. Thus, the evil stepmother in "The Wild Swans" persecutes the children, and she is also a witch as she casts a bad spell upon the children. The evil in pure form usually lies with the witches: however, not every witch is entirely bad and sometimes her charms, though of an evil nature, are regarded as instrumental for "good" characters to achieve their purposes. Thus, in "The Little Mermaid", it is the witch that gets the heroine what she wants, though she has to pay dearly (as the demonic character of the transformation suffered requires). There is also "a witch that was not a bad witch" in "The Snow Queen", she is even called differently, "the woman who knew how to make charms", although she tries to keep Gerda from fulfilling her mission, and in this sense is evil.
This opposition is sometimes relativized in such a way that it goes beyond the common moral sense. In "The Tinder Box", the witch - who, being a witch, should belong to the paradigm of evil - grants the soldier an entire fortune under the condition that he should bring her the tinder box (which is, indeed, endowed with great magical powers). In exchange for that the soldier cuts off the witch's head, then he continues his way and ends happily, marrying a beautiful princess. The episode with the witch's murder passes almost unnoticed, but the reader does not miss Andersen's ironical intention to make the audience wonder: who is the evil one, the murdered or the murderer?
The valences of the good / evil opposition are increased with their internalization as coordinates of the identity quest characterizing the evolution of the heroes. As I mentioned above, in "The Snow Queen" this quest materializes in the evolution from childhood to maturity, which involves getting the awareness of evil in the world and within oneself. When becoming aware of the existence of the Other (which in a fairy tale is often perceived as difference in terms of natural versus supernatural), one also discovers the existence of the evil in one's own soul. As C. G. Jung maintains, "Heaven and Hell are destinies of the soul'',14 human soul being therefore the actual site of the good / evil opposition. It is also there that one encounters the essential archetype of the Other, or the shadow, which is the first stage of selfknowledge: "The encounter with oneself means first of all the encounter with one's own shadow".15
Thus, when it is not embodied in a witch or goblin figure, inner evil is developed along patterns of abstraction that correspond to a psychological fantastic, which is even frightening. "The Red Shoes" is a parable about vanity and temptations not devoid of a didactic meaning, connected precisely with the way in which a child's character should be rightfully moulded, as the angel, God's voice, casts the curse of endless dance upon Karen: "You shall dance from door to door, and wherever you find proud vain children, you must knock at the door so that they may see you and fear you."16 This story is maybe the most complete example of Andersen's religious approach to the good / evil opposition. The same didactic purpose is served in "The Little Mermaid", by also shrewdly obliging the implied reader - supposedly a child - with respect to the world of the tale: whenever they encounter good, respectively bad children, the daughters of the air have their time of probation before they reach eternal life shortened or lengthened by one day.
Salvation from the power of evil, which Karen obtains by God's grace, is also possible in terms of art - both being forms of love as the primum movens of magic and alchemy, defining, therefore, the alchemical power of love as the power to turn evil into good, to bring epiphany where there has been suffering. As Coulianu points out,17 it is only essentialized love, which has transcended the erotic level of the senses and has been purged of selfishness, that can work miracles and that can be assimilated with Christian love. With Andersen, this is visible not only in parables, but also in stories about self-sacrifice for the sake of one's fellow beings, such as "The Wild Swans" and "The Snow Queen", where true love is stronger than witchcraft and death.
Transferred into art, which is itself a form of love (Vasile Lovinescu points out the alchemical power of art and love joined together by virtue of their common origin from Dionysian rituals, the serpent Kundalini - of transcendent Eros - being similar to the serpent ascending at the sound of Orpheus's flute18 ), love can indeed defeat Death, as it happens in the allegorical encounter between the Nightingale and Death by the emperor's bed ("The Nightingale"). After driving Death away and saving the emperor, the nightingale - symbol of pure art and of white, regenerating magic - confesses that one of her roles is to open the eyes of the emperor - who is an archetype of power - to the necessity to differentiate good from evil, which, it seems, he has not been able to do so far: "I will sing about the good and the evil, which are kept hidden from you."19 It is significant that the nightingale does not want people to know about her helping the emperor, because she represents an esoterical kind of knowledge that is only for those who by now have grasped some of the measure of good and evil (like the emperor, who has been on the verge of death).
Powerful, pure love can thus transcend death, as in "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", where the soldier, having been destroyed by fire, is reduced to a tin heart that will never stop loving the paper dancer, or in the story of the snowman in love with the stove. Love that can defeat death is strongest in "The Little Mermaid", where we encounter both sides of love: the erotic one that cannot purge death into life and the mermaid is supposed to die on the prince's wedding night, and pure love that is capable of selfsacrifice and which manifests itself when the mermaid chooses to let the prince live at the cost of her own life, which is rewarded by her transcending death itself and by the promise of an immortal soul among the daughters of the air. This magic transmutation of Eros into air stands for epiphany, for the victory of good over evil.
Coming back to the identity quest pattern, the mirror archetype is significant of the process of identity formation, as well as of the relative values of the world. As Jacques Lacan points out in The Mirror Stage,20 the child first gets the perception of his or her own identity when seeing his or her image in the mirror and recognizing it as such. Reflection and representation is essential along the identity quest, being visible in the various roles that the character plays and which, in Andersen's tales, do not necessarily remain the same from the beginning to the end, as in traditional fairy tales. Thus, in "The Snow Queen" - the story which is about identity formation par excellence - Kai is alternatively himself and his Other, the absorption of the latter by the former finally marking his coming to the grownup stage.
The mirror in fragments also faithfully reflects perturbations of the self, as well as a temporary primacy of evil over good. Temptation and perversion of self is symbolized in "The Snow Queen" by the wizard's distorting mirror, which, breaking into fragments, invades the whole world with small particles of evil that distort the perception of the world, affecting representations (the grains that get into the eyes of people make beautiful things look ugly) and feelings (the fragments that get into hearts turn them into lumps of ice). Indeed, if we apply Stephen Frosh's theory of identity crisis as narcissism, defined in terms of a mirror function that fragments the world, perceiving it as a series of selfobjects that reflect the subject's fears and desires,21 we establish a negotiation between inner and outer evil, the coherence of the self depending on the order in the world, and the other way round.
Thus, Gerda's journey in search of Kai is actually a quest for reunifying the fragments of the mirror and also for correcting the distorted perception of the world. Indeed, alchemical transmutation of ordinary metals into gold is a gesture of putting broken pieces together and of reinstoring good, since, as Vasile Lovinescu points out, evil is actually good in fragments, the incapacity of perceiving God as a whole.22 It is also a quest in the name of love, since the broken mirror - in its version as the Snow Queen's frozen lake broken into pieces of equal dimensions - also stands for coldness, for the lifelessness of the image as contrasted to the real being. The warm / cold opposition in the same tale (Gerda's warm tears that melt the lump of ice in Kai's heart) is thus also alchemically cancelled by love.
The mirror function also makes the connection between the external Other and the Other within one's own self, as it happens in "The Flying Trunk", where the merchant's son, being left penniless, but with a magic object that grants him a power he does not deserve, as he has proved irresponsible, gets to the country of the Turks, and he attempts to deceive them, but he only manages to cheat himself in the end, as all the power he has invested himself with is gone with the trunk.
On the other hand, the mirror makes the connection between the good / evil opposition and another one that goes hand in hand with it: beautiful / ugly. Going beyond mere fairy tale convention, according to which there is a one to one correspondence between beauty and good on the one hand and ugliness and evil on the other, Andersen emphasizes the ethical dimension, opting for a beauty of an inner nature, coming from the spirit. The relativity of beauty, which depends on the perceiving eye, is also invested with secondary meanings, of a critical or ironic nature. Thus, Thumbelina, one of the best known Andersenian characters, is considered extremely ugly by the lady cockchafers, who notice that she has only two legs and she looks "like a human being",23 which remark sounds very much like Swift's implicit criticism of mankind by varying the size of his characters or by opposing human beings to Yahoos, who are animals without reason. But she is beautiful by all human standards and, when time comes and she has gone through her period of initiation, her beauty is recognized and celebrated by the proper person.
The same happens to the victimized character of the story "The Ugly Duckling", who has no place among the ducks because it looks so ugly, but ugliness turns into astonishing beauty when, having grown up, the duckling turns into a swan and joins its fellow swans. This story is about the relationship between essence and appearance, and the discovery of Otherness by the ducks is perceived as a magic metamorphosis of the ugly duckling that seems to undergo an alchemical release of beauty from the shell of ugliness. This is indeed an alchemical transformation, which is described by Vasile Lovinescu in terms of the bad impulses that are "a prison of divine brilliance, which has to be melted away in order to produce the unifications".24
The essence / appearance opposition is supplemented by the theme of human vanity which Andersen often punishes, e.g. in "The Emperor's New Clothes", where corruption is denounced as the factor which most perverts values. Flattery as performed by the courtiers (who are themselves said to be neither smart, nor fit for their jobs) creates a sort of false reality that feeds the emperor's pride. The spell - which, though the fruit of makebelieve, is just as powerful - is shattered by a child, the voice of innocence, who, without realizing the power of his words, tells the truth which the others pretend not to see: "The emperor is naked."25
The power of language to break a spell is connected to the capacity of the Logos to be either creative or destructive. When joining white magic, the Logos is creative of a reality, by storytelling (as in "The Flying Trunk") or by breaking false illusions (as in "The Emperor's New Clothes"). But when it comes to unbreak a spell, that is, to purge negative energy (which has itself been released by means of a linguistic incantation) into positive one, no word is to be spoken, or else language would have destructive effects. The motive of the silent beauty, in "The Little Mermaid" and in "The Wild Swans", effaced by the loud boasting of the negative characters that oppose it, or covered by the deceiving veil of appearance, suggests that truth is always discrete and unobtrusive. Facts, and not words - whose rhetoric is deceiving - must speak on its behalf.
Real beauty is therefore hard to perceive and, when visible, it is fragile, as suggested by the rich world of animated objects that we can find in Andersen's stories, and which allegorically express essentialized features of humankind. It is suggestive that these anthropomorphic objects, such as toys or bibelots, are endowed with positive features, as the animistic logic of childhood would attribute to them, while human characters are usually corrupted. Thus, anthropomorphic objects are capable of love beyond death to an extent that a human would hardly be capable of, as proved by the tin soldier's tin heart that survives fire, or the title characters in "The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep", who also "loved each other until they fell down and broke to pieces".26
Animism - a way of interpreting the world characteristic not only of childhood as an age, but also of the childhood of mankind, therefore having a strong claim to mythical truth - is, with Andersen, even more pervasive than that. Anthropomorphism is not a condition: in stories such as "The Darning Needle" or the tale within the tale in "The Flying Trunk", we have mere inanimate objects that think and feel like humans. The humanizing process is even stronger in that case, since, as W. H. Auden noticed, "Inanimate objects are not being treated anthropomorphically, as in Grimm, on the contrary, human beings have been transmuted into inanimate objects in order that they may be judged without prejudice, with the same objective vision that Swift tries for through changes of size."27 This process - a kind of inverted animism, in fact - is actually an allegorical schematization used for the sake of narrative demonstration.
Besides objects, we have a rich range of animals, some of whom speak, not necessarily in the prophetic manner of the flying horse in fairy tales, but, at any rate, having the same right to be listened to as human beings: the reindeer and the crow in "The Snow Queen", the diversified animal world in "Thumbelina", the nightingale. By this gesture, Andersen appears to challenge the superiority of the human biological species over the others, in a way that comes close to Swift's criticism of his age in Gulliver's Travels.
Andersen's concern with truth is also expressed in the real / false dichotomy, which actually derives from the essence / appearance one. He sharply challenges the myth of genuine nobility in the "real princess" figure whom all the princes are after. However, in "The Princess and the Pea", the heroine is proclaimed a real princess after passing the hilarious test that proves the fineness of her skin. This ironical treatment is equalled in strength by "The Swineherd", called by Naomi Lewis "a play on the theme of not recognizing quality",28 where the apparent shepherd is in fact a real prince, while the apparently real princess is denounced by her lighthearted behaviour to be quite different in essence from what she seems to be.
In the same way, the natural / manmade opposition proves the vanity of any human endeavour to rival God as a creator. In "The Nightingale", the very idea of beauty is questioned in relation to the poles of this opposition when the artificial nightingale is preferred to the real one (considered ugly) only because she is decorated with a lot of precious stones. But the courtiers who cast this vote have already been denounced as unreliable in the eyes of the reader when they have mistaken the cows' or the frogs' "song" for the song of the nightingale. The relativity of beauty is inherent in the story from the very beginning, being symbolized by the castle of china, itself a manmade thing, placed under the sign of temporariness and fragility.
In relation to the vanity theme, the rich / poor opposition goes beyond the mere proper level, reaching the figurative one in inverted terms, since richness of the mind presupposes material poverty and the other way round. The hero of "The Flying Trunk" thus becomes wiser after the loss of all his earthly goods, including the princess, as a result of his pride. The most significant aspect of his newlyacquired wisdom is the fact that he becomes a storyteller. In "Great Claus and Little Claus", the one who is materially poorer is richer in spirit and finally manages to outwit the proud rich Great Claus, so that he ends up possessing material riches as well.
A possible further approach to Andersen's stories could focus on how all these pairs of contrastive values are perceived from a postmodern perspective, judging by the fact that postmodern reinterpretations of traditional literary forms do not disregard fairy tale (Angela Carter being one outstanding example). As shown above, we can read Andersen's tales as approaches to Danish life in the historical period he lived in, historical truth - in a sense that gives primacy to detail and fictionalizes it, inviting neohistorical interpretations - being part of his concern. His creative use of the fantastic dimension merged with the fairy tale as a form of aesthetically approaching the world and of practising artistic multiple offer, by addressing his creations to audiences of different ages, makes it possible to approach him from a postmodern perspective, since, as Brian McHale maintains, it is a characteristic of postmodern fiction to appropriate the epistemological dominant (or Todorov's hesitation), manifesting even a tendency to enter the marvelous rather than the fantastic proper.29
Andersen's language - never disregarding his own conclusion that it is silence that most faithfully tells the truth - relies on discrete suggestion, being endowed with nuances which make room for various alternative meanings to coexist. His technique combines fairy tale patterns and formulae with personal comments and slight alterations of the established fairy tale canons, and it is precisely by means of these deviations that he makes them his own. Metafictional comments - where the narrative voice betrays itself - often occur in the end, replacing final formulae and significantly drawing the reader's attention that the story is not a mere fairy tale and that there is an attitude at work, which is supposed to inform the audience's beliefs - and maybe they should also stand here instead of any other possible concluding remarks:"There's a fine story for you!" ("The Princess and the Pea")30
"And there it stayed, lying on the ground - and there's where we are going to leave it now." ("The Darning Needle")31
"It's over, it's over - as this is how it happens with every tale." ("The Fir Tree")32
5. V. Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968. Propp points out 31 functions and 7 character types or roles: villain, donor/provider, hero (seeker or victim), dispatcher, helper, princess (+ father), false hero. back
30. The Flying Trunk and Other Stories from Andersen, ed. cit. In Andersen's Fairy Tales, the ending of this tale (whose title is translated as "The Real Princess") is: "Now this is a true story" (p. 61). back
Primary SourcesHans Christian Andersen, Andersen's Fairy Tales, Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 1994.
Hans Christian Andersen, The Flying Trunk and Other Stories from Andersen, London: Andersen Press, 1986. (Introduction by Naomi Lewis.)
Hans Christian Andersen, Cra_iasa Za_pezii (The Snow Queen), Romanian version by Al. Philippide and I. Cassian, Bucures7ti: Ed. Ion Creanga_, 1974.
Critical and Theoretical ReferencesAuden, W. H., "Grimm and Andersen", in his Forewords and Afterwords, selected by Edward Mendelson, New York: Random House, 1973.
Coulianu, Ioan P., Eros and Magic in the Renaissance, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Dumitrescu Bus7ulenga, Zoe, "Cuv$int înainte" ("Foreword") to the volume Cra_iasa Za_pezii (The Snow Queen), Romanian version by Al. Philippide and I. Cassian, Bucures7ti: Ed. Ion Creanga_, 1974.
Frosh, Stephen, Identity Crisis. Modernity, Psychoanalysis and the Self, New York: Routledge, 1991.
Gregori, Ilina, Povestirea Fantastica_ (The Fantastic Story), Bucures7ti: Ed. Du Style, 1996.
Jung, C. G., În lumea arhetipurilor (In the World of Archetypes), Bucures7ti: Ed. Jurnalul Literar, 1994.
Lacan, Jacques, "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience", in Jacques Lacan, Ecrits, New York/London: W. W. Horton & Co., 1977.
Lovinescu, Vasile, Jurnal Alchimic (Alchemical Diary), Ias7i: Institutul European, 1994.
McHale, Brian, Postmodernist Fiction. London: Routledge, 1987.
Propp, V., The Morphology of the Folktale, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1968.
Todorov, Tzvetan, Introduction à la littérature fantastique, Paris: Seuil, 1970.