What Latvian Children Like in H. C. Andersen's Fairy-Tales

Dear colleagues,

First I would like to thank the organizers of the 2nd International Conference on Hans Christian Andersen's creations for this opportunity to participate in such a prestigious gathering. I am not a scientist, I am a librarian, and I have a large practical experience in the field of sharing literature, particularly children's literature. For nearly 20 years I have been working as a head of children's library of a small Latvian town Bauska with 10,000 residents. Our library serves more than 1400 readers. They are children of both preschool and school age up to 16 years.

My report is based on experience and observations gathered during the years of practical everyday work. In this report my goal is not to generalize, but to answer a direct question - what Latvian children like in H. C. Andersen's fairy-tales?

Under the promotion of The Danish Culture Institute in Riga, headed by Rikke Helms, culture contacts between Latvia and Denmark go deeper and wider. This year Latvia had three significant events devoted to Danish children's literature.

At the end of last year the children of Latvia had an opportunity to get acquainted with the best part of Danish literature. The children's literature section of the Latvian National Library held a competition among children's libraries of schools, counties, cities and towns on the best party devoted to H. C. Andersen's fairy-tales. The direct narration of the tales had to be present at the party. 35 children's libraries participated in the competition. At the same time an opinion poll was carried out among children and teenagers to investigate what they love most of all in Andersen's fairy-tales. A perfect final of the competition was a conference of Danish children's literature held in Riga. It was also attended by a Danish writer, Lars Henrik Olsen, and Danish publishers. Exhibition of Danish children's books, held by Danish Literature Information Center, attracted much attention in Riga and three other Latvian cities. At the same time three books ("Eric - Son of Man" by Lars Henrik Olsen, "Gummi Tarzan" by Ole Lund Kirkegaard, and "Buster's World" by Bjarne Reuter) were issued in Latvia. Lars Henrik Olsen spent a week in Latvia meeting readers in Riga and other towns, also in Bauska. The writer and the children understood each other perfectly.

There is one more event in the cultural life of Latvia that I cannot leave unmentioned. Last year a wellknown Latvian poetess Mara Zalite wrote a libretto for a musical on Andersen's fairy-tale "The Wild Swans". The music was composed by the most popular Latvian composer Raimonds Pauls. The musical was staged in Latvia's largest Theater of Art. Public opinion polls show that "The Wild Swans" was the most popular theatershow during the recent season. The performance was attended by many thousand Latvian children and grownups. I have brought an audio cassette with the recording of the beautiful music and lyrics with me.

Why do we need Andersen and "The Wild Swans" in our rational time? Mara Zalite, the author of the libretto, says:

"The Wild Swans" has been my favorite fairy-tale from my childhood. I am happy to return to it again. Now I see that the brave devilkillers are not as much heroes as Elise, the sister of the 11 brothers. Why? Because they destroy evil outside themselves. Yet, this is just an illusion of victory Hate retreats only for love. And there is always somebody who can do it. Somebody is always sure to make it. Like Elise, turning sharp, stinging nettles into soft and tender shirts. So that we become humans again. I wish I could turn the nettles surrounding me into a gentle shirt for one of my brothers.

H. C. Andersen's fairy-tales and short stories were first translated to Latvian in the 1850's - during Andersen's lifetime. Jekabs Zvaigznite, the translator of the selection of Andersen's fairytales, country schoolteacher, gave strong arguments for his choice in the preface of the book. His aim in translating Andersen was to save Latvian children from the reading of hard religious texts. He expressed hope that children, when reading Andersen's fairy-tales, would not shed so many tears as when reading the Bible.

Danish literature, more than many others, is satiated with religious and ethical inferences and searchings for meaning of life. Andersen is permanently one of the most renowned Danish writers in Latvia.

Latvian children have rich imagination, based on our folklore and perception of nature. The Latvian has not lost the ability to believe that every being has its soul. A child is formed in the infinity of imagination, compassion and process of longing. It sometimes seems that Andersen's fairy-tales acquire additional magic and colors when translated into Latvian.

The hard economic situation in present-day Latvia impacts on most families who have children. Many people do not only face economic problems, but also suffer under the degradation of moral and ethical criteria in society. Children naturally search the way to forget the sad reality, living harmoniously in their imagination. Andersen has a lot of fairy-tales about everyday things. The results of the opinion poll, mentioned above, show that exactly these tales are the most popular among children. They frequently face similar situations, therefore they can feel for others' sufferings.

I should like to quote answers of children given during the poll.

"Although I am 12 already", writes a girl, "I cannot resist the temptation to read and reread the thick book of Andersen's fairy-tales. Each page is read ten times. These tales have a very rare feature - they never get boring. Reading them I forget myself and live in their world."

Laura, studying in the 7th year, prefers Andersen's fairytales to Latvian folk-tales. She gives arguments worth attention:

"The main characters of the Latvian folktales are almost always the three sons. Two of them are clever, the third is foolish. Normally the fool gets a princess, but the clever brothers are taught a lesson. If the beginning of a tale is: 'Once upon a time there lived a father with three sons', I already know the end. Andersen's fairytales never have such monotony, and the end can never be predicted. I love his characters being not only people and animals, but also things, insects, plants."

Answers of the younger - 8 to 9 year-old - respondents of the poll seem the most interesting. Some of them:

1) "I love that what never happens, it happens in fairytales."
2) "Andersen's fairytales have rich words."
3) "I love that things and objects talk, that all the nonliving talks."
4) "He [Andersen] fancies it all so nice, so beautiful as things never are in the world. I also like his fairy-tales telling it gently."
5) "My favorite fairy-tale is 'The Princess on the Pea'. Because the Queen put a pea under twenty featherbeds, but the Princess felt the pea. Then the Prince married her."
6) "When I read a tale, my mood improves. I like the writer estimating all the good and evil persons."
7) "Most of all I like the poor marrying a princess in the fairy-tales."
8) "He writes such kindhearted fairy-tales, when the poor gives all his money to bury another poor."
9) "Easy to read, easy to tell, often funny. Funny fairy-tales are the best."

Latvian children feel close to Andersen's Christian faith. Unfortunately, right this is the weak point of the Latvian translations of Andersen's fairy-tales. During the Soviet rule fairytales were also ruthlessly censored. Yet, children feel Andersen's piety in subtexts. Some expressions to prove it form respondents' answers: "I like charity and prayers", "I like that evil is punished. Yet, let it be under God's authority". One of the respondents dislikes Disney's animation film "The Little Mermaid", he says that the pictures are nice in the film, but one cannot make out, what is love in the film. Therefore the boy prefers reading Andersen's fairy-tale.

Latvian children possess a deep perception of selfsacrifice. Many of them have named "The Wild Swans" as their favorite fairy-tale. It is specially interesting in the aspect that this fairy-tale was favorite to a large part of Latvian grownups in their childhood, too.

Many respondents express satisfaction over sadness in the tales. Sadness is perceived directly and naturally. The children say: "I love crying with the sad tales."

After the opinion poll several conclusions were drawn:

  1. Approximately half of the readers prefer fairy-tales depicting everyday life.
  2. Many children prefer magic fairy-tales in which nonliving beings acquire liveliness, and magic changes happen. Absolute favorites in this part are "Little Ida's Flowers", "Tommelise", "Elf of the Rose Bush", etc.
  3. Irrespective of age, many respondents prefer the fairy-tales that show the basic principles of Christian faith - "The Wild Swans", "The Little Match Girl", "The Angel".

The most-preferred tales among Latvian children are "Tommelise" and "The Wild Swans".

Research shows that children do not only like reading Andersen's fairy-tales, but also love listening to them. Promoting the narration method, Latvian children's libraries acquired new experience. Younger readers specially preferred the performances in which the narrator was dressed in a corresponding costume. Teenagers concentrate more on the narrator's timbre and intonation. Each library participating in the competition held an exhibition of children's drawings inspired by Andersen's fairy-tales. Children willingly took part in the exhibitions. They wished to share their impressions of the tales.

Andersen does not use many poetic expressions in his fairy-tales, yet, the impression is very picturesque. Obviously, children perceive the meaning intuitively, because most children show new interpretation of characters in their drawings, helping to understand the meaning of the tale. Drawings are expressive and very much alive, the factor of presence prevails in them.

Latvian mentality is similar to Danish mentality, as well as the way of thinking. Touching, how the younger readers who are not familiar with geography and map, say: Denmark is somewhere close to here.The similarities give grounds for the stable popularity of Andersen's fairy-tales among Latvian readers of different age. During childhood the choice is more defined by grownups, because Andersen's fairy-tales are good literature. The answers of respondents and succession of reading traditions through generations show that Latvian children mostly depend on the experience of grownups. The main reason for this fact is the undefined children's cultural policies in Latvia, opposite to Denmark. In our reestablished state many children are socially unprotected, their personal development is restricted by the geographical position of their dwelling place. Therefore grownups' responsibility for children's souls and minds is twice as large. We have to help them in joining perception of nature and selfcommunion of soul. We have to harmonize physical rules with the soul's life. Andersen's fairy-tales could be the ones to eliminate the rift between the visible and the invisible world, being so easy in children's language and their intellectual world.

Contemplating Andersen's creative work, I would like to mention another outstanding Danish writer. J. Anker Larsen in his novel Martha and Maria (1925) says:

"The one feeling God in everything, sees Providence in every man. And eternal light through him reaches every person he meets." Each Andersen story or fairy-tale gives evidence on such striving for ethical ideals. This is the backbone of man's life, the basis of which has to be formed in childhood. Andersen is being the backbone of Latvian children's childhood already for the second century. The Russian writer Konstantin Paustovsky has written an unforgettable essay "Master of Fairy-Tales", recalling his childhood:

I was only seven when I got acquainted with Hans Christian Andersen. It was the night of December 31, 1899, some hours before the beginning of the 20th century. The cheerful Danish master of fairy tales met me on the threshold of the new century He took a snowwhite, scented handkerchief out of his pocket, shook it, and a big, white rose fell down. My room filled with silver light from a rose and a strange gentle sound. The event with Andersen was the one that oldfashioned writers call "vigil dream". Only I probably saw it asleep.

Dear colleagues, in fact we are also some hours before the beginning of the new century. My utmost wish is to help our children see the "silver light of a rose" and feel its scent. It's much harder in our technical epoch and pragmatic society than a hundred years ago.


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Mortukāne, A., Skandināvu literatūra XIX - XX. gs. mijā. Rīga: Liesma, 1991.
Paustovskis, K., Vienatnē ar rudeni. Portreti, atceres, tēlojumi. Rīga: Liesma, 1969.
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Bibliographic information about the text:

Tormane, Baiba: "What Latvian Children Like in H. C. Andersen's Fairy-Tales" , In: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen and Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (ed.): Hans Christian Andersen. A Poet in Time. Papers from the Second International Hans Christian Andersen Conference 29 July to 2 August 1996. The Hans Christian Andersen Center, Odense University, Odense University Press. 576 pages, Odense, Denmark 1999.