Karen Blixen and Hans Christian Andersen

Bernhard Glienke

(summary for pages 420-33)

Traces of Hans Christian Andersen's reception by Karen Blixen are to be expected. Her work is marked by its complex and explicit intertextuality directed towards pre-realistic and anti-realistic world literature. Andersen, a romantic storyteller of Danish extraction and worldwide recognition, can be assumed to have aroused her interest. In an international context their relationship, if established, would not rank like any other but as an empirical confirmation of a coupling regularly suggested in treatments of Danish literature outside Denmark where these two tend to represent the highest constellation.

Indeed, as far as open, individual literary references (titles and names, allusions, quotations) of varying length and on different levels are concerned, Andersen occupies an important position in Blixen's work. Without providing figures, as they depend on the system of quantification chosen, I think I am right in putting him in fourth place, far behind Shakespeare and just behind Homer and Goethe, but ahead of people like Snorri Sturluson, Heine, and Kierkegaard. Contrary to any scholarly approach, she refers to him only where, in her interpretation, specific elements of his writing serve specific purposes in specific passages of hers. Thus light is shed in both directions. Further it is characteristic of her creativity that on the level of whole stories it is counterstories ("modhistorier") she likes to tell. In the following I shall restrict myself to the three most important "applications" of Andersen.

Blixen shows by far the greatest interest - evident in a quarter of all references - in "The Emperor's New Clothes". It is true that this tale has proved one of the most useful always and everywhere, especially as a political parable - in fact, this poetic commentary on absolutist government in its last, defensive decades was a rare and brave act by the author. But Blixen makes use of it for one of her existential concerns: the priority of imagination ("fantasiprincip" versus "realitetsprincip"), the aristocratic "Wille zur Maske", the will to wear a mask and to play a role as ways of accepting God's idea about every human being.

Many of Blixen's stories deal with the conflicts that this will or lack of will leads to; in this case it is The Deluge of Norderney, where two of the stories inserted oppose both each other and the fairy tale mentioned ("The Story of Timon of Athens" and "Calypso's Story"). The latter story is a female, perhaps even a feminist, version of Andersen's.

Another counterstory is to be found in the volume where one would look for it, in Vinter-Eventyr, her book of intertextuality on the level of work to work. Like "Heloïse", "Alkmene" and "Sorg-Agre", (only) its Danish title signals the Andersen connection: "De standhaftige Slaveejere" / "The Steadfast Tin Soldier". Here the uniquely detailed and grotesque description of a female body derives from Andersen's dancer. The fulfilment in an unfulfilled love relationship between non-equals is the common theme. But whereas Andersen praises the male servant, Blixen exemplifies the dialectics of the aristocratic code of interdependence.

While in Africa, Blixen longed for the past in the sense of her native Guldalder culture - to which Andersen belonged - as well as for a future of imaginative and fairy-tale literature in his spirit. In her poetological statements both within and outside her fiction he suited her as a mainstay when she attacked realism and its genre, the novel. For example she calls upon him in her only piece of literary criticism, the grim and witty essay on H. C. Branner's Rytteren of 1949; this much-debated novel about the contemporary middle class search for meaning is both made fun of and taken seriously as its own mythical deconstruction, expressed by comparison with Andersen's "The Travelling Companion" and other friends. His, she says, is the kind of fiction young Danish writers ought to imitate.

Finally looking beyond these two superstars, but sticking to the military metaphors suggested by the tin soldier, one might conclude that this application of Andersen is part of classic modernist ammunition against realistic normality, since Blixen is most at home in the symbolist school. It is a prominent battle in the long war of mythical, synthetic writing against mimetic, analytic concepts.