How Hans Christian Andersen Revolutionized Storytelling, Plus the Best Illustrations from 150 Years of His Beloved Fairy Talesby Maria Popova
“Andersen had the ability to articulate desires petty and profound and make them into transcendent tales.”
“When people talk listen completely,” Hemingway counseled in his advice on how to be a writer. More than a century earlier, a little boy in Denmark, born into poverty to a shoemaker father and an illiterate washerwoman mother, was spending his days listening to the old women in the local insane asylum as they spun their yarn and spun their tales to pass the time. This unusual hub of peasant storytelling in the oral tradition of folklore became his laboratory for listening, out of which he would later concoct his own stories — stories beloved the world over, which have raised generations of children into a whimsical world of imaginative play. Hans Christian Andersen thus used that singular talent of listening to lift himself out of poverty and into international celebrity, becoming one of history’s greatest storytellers and the patron saint of the fairy tale genre.
Two years after Taschen’s visual treasure celebrating The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, one of the best picturebooks of 2011, comes The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (public library) — a handsome fabric-bound tome culling twenty-three of Andersen’s most beloved fairy tales, including “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Princess and the Pea.” Accompanying the tales are some of history’s most beautiful illustrations of Andersen by artists of various nationalities, featuring such masters as Kay Nielsen, whose vintage illustrations of Scandinavian fairy tales are some of the most striking art you’ll ever see, Harry Clarke, whose drawings for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination remain timelessly haunting, and young Maurice Sendak in his formative years as an artist.
My favorite illustrations come from a duo of female artists, Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender, working together in the 1920s and 1930s — the sort of work that incorporates, even pioneers, elements of graphic design just as the discipline was being coined — the influence of which can even be seen in contemporary art such as Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations of Irish myths and legends:
Beyond the beautiful art, however, what made — and keeps — Andersen a singular force of storytelling is something else: Unlike the Grimms — literary scholars and linguists who, rather than traveling the countryside to gather first-hand oral folktales, relied on a handful of trusted sources — Andersen came of age as a peasant amidst a highly superstitious society, in a small town of 8,000 more akin to a medieval city than a European hub of culture, in which tales were used as both entertainment and moral education. Not only were his stories authentic culturally, they were also largely his own — also unlike the Grimms, who retold existing tales, historians estimate that only seven of Andersen’s 200 tales were borrowed.
From a young age, Hans felt a deep sense of loneliness and inadequacy, finding refuge in the asylum’s spinning room while his peers took to the playground. Luckily, his father, poor as he was, loved literature and owned a cupboard of books — rare luxury given both the family’s income and their cultural environment. Though he died when Hans was only eleven, he would read the little boy stories and plays constantly, providing him with a makeshift education at once uncommon and unlikely. Later, writing in his diary, Hans described reading as his “sole and most beloved pastime.” It was this confluence of reading and listening that made him the great storyteller he became. Editor Noel Daniel writes in the introduction:
Reading suited Andersen’s temperament and powers of imagination to a T. But Andersen was also a great listener — in the spinning room of the asylum, to his father’s story time, to the actors of the theater he adored. He listened acutely to the characters and voices around him, and it trained his ear. He developed an inner ear for the sights and sounds of whole imaginary worlds, like the haughty tone of the deluded sewing needle in “The Darning Needle,” or the emperor’s comical inner monologue of self-doubt in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” or the little silver bells in the palace that “tinkled so that no one could pass by without noticing them” in “The Nightingale.”
Most compelling of all his tales, however, is Andersen’s own rags-to-riches story: Poor commonfolk as he was by birth, he was relentlessly determined to be a success. Daniel writes:
‘I will become famous,’ Andersen wrote in his diary, underscoring that his professional drive to greatness was not the polite narcissism of the restrained and well educated. His drive to greatness ran deep in the troubled psychic waters of his soul. Rarly on, his patrons recognized a powerful self-confidence in Andersen. He possessed a gritty drive to perform, a marvelous soprano voice (before it cracked), a gift for telling stories, and, along with all of this, an irritating ego.
Part of Andersen’s genius lay in his ability to somehow perceive, while growing up in the poorest corner of Odense, that high society was mobile enough that if he cracked it, he would go far. He armored himself with steely ambition, an electric imagination, and not an ounce of stage fright. . . .
Modern psychology could easily reverse-engineer the two things that made Andersen live up to his aspiration: On the one hand, the creative power of “positive constructive daydreaming” as he escaped into the spinning room and learned to listen, and his unrelenting grit on the other. Even so, to break into high society, he still had to endure the humiliating ghost of his socioeconomic caste and to cultivate that vital capacity for courage in the face of rejection. Daniel explains:
Royal patronage dependent on good breeding and connections was way out of Andersen’s league, and his path to success was fraught with deprivation and repeated rejection. But incredibly, he persisted. Ultimately, he was noticed by the director of the Royal Theater, Jonas Collin, who helped secure a royal stipend for the teenager. What followed was a painful five-year period of being schooled with eleven-year-olds when Andersen was seventeen at the insistence of his sponsors. They had demanded that he either get a proper education before advancing as a writer, or go home and learn a trade. The latter had been the fate of his father and was absolutely out of the question for Andersen.
And yet despite the humiliation, Andersen found in the experience just enough positive reinforcement to plow forward. Thanks to Denmark’s monarchic rule, the country — unlike its European peers, intensely focused on politic and economic development — was in the midst of a Golden Age of creative culture and the arts, so with Collin’s help, Andersen was able to secure an artist’s allowance, which gave him some freedom to hone his writing. But even when he did eventually break into the upper ranks of society through his tireless efforts — in his lifetime, he would become Denmark’s most renowned author and would frequently keep the company of kings — Andersen remained weighed down by his uneasy sense of insufficiency, the same feeling of un-belonging that drove him to the spinning room while his friends played outside. Daniel puts it beautifully, if heartbreakingly:
Andersen was forever dancing between self-assuredness and feelings of inferiority and emotional vulnerability. He never escaped feeling unequal to the royals, celebrities, and dignitaries he socialized with as his fame grew, writing in his diary, “I had and still have a feeling as though I were a poor peasant lad over whom a royal mantle is thrown.”
So when he wrote in The Ugly Duckling that “being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg,” Andersen was making an oblique, melancholy comment about his own journey. Perhaps it was out of this feeling, coupled with his ability to “listen completely” and remain in touch with his own childlike openness to the experience of the world, that he invented a whole new sensibility of children’s storytelling, which Daniel so aptly terms “children’s stories for children’s sake” — a radical shift from the tradition of morality tales that preceded Andersen, and far removed from the Grimms’ academic interest in language and imagery. Instead, Andersen crafted tales that were both dreamy and warmly relatable to children, building worlds at once emotionally complex and driven by an intuitive logic. Daniel captures the uniqueness of Andersen’s microcosm:
Contemporary readers might find it hard to imagine just how different Andersen’s tales were from those before him. They were beautifully paced and passionate, at times sorrowful and full of pathos, and at other times wickedly funny. Simply put, they were a pleasure to read, and they spoke directly to children’s sensibilities rather than condescending to them.
While his introspection and sensitivity were imperfectly calibrated to the demands of his own life, Andersen had the ability to articulate desires petty and profound and make them into transcendent tales.
Andersen is even credited with exploring the unconscious long before Freud’s seminal studies and presaging the sensibilities of twentieth-century Surrealism. Though Daniel doesn’t draw the connection, it’s easy to see even the seedlings of New Journalism in Andersen’s focus on the subjective, which Daniel does note:
Andersen imbues a simple inkstand, a toy soldier, a bird, a pea, a spinning top with their own drives, blind spots, desires, arrogances, and courage. Andersen’s characters are humanlike in their passions as well as their frailties, and often have a slightly kinked perspective, unable to see their real fate or position, as if Andersen was shining a light on the limitations of our own human subjectivity. In this way, perhaps the real subject of his tales is the inescapable condition of subjectivity as the essence of human experience.
The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen is absolutely exquisite, both as a typical Taschen masterwork of visual craftsmanship and as a timeless cultural treasure of storytelling by and meta-storytelling about one of history’s greatest creative heroes.