Beloved writers are like lenient jailers—they let their creations sneak off the page and roam at large through our imagination. Most writers are lucky to grant such freedom to one character, a Sherlock Holmes or a Huck Finn; the greatest, like Dickens or Shakespeare, leave behind a whole family. But an even rarer achievement is to invent characters so inevitable, so primal that they seem never to have had an author at all. Surely no one person sitting at a desk created the Little Match Girl, Thumbelina, the Ugly Duckling?
Of course, all of these characters—along with such stories as “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Red Shoes”—were either invented or given their definitive form by Hans Christian Andersen. But Andersen is almost never thought of as a literary artist, like his contemporaries Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Flaubert. He is usually grouped instead with the Brothers Grimm, who did not invent their folk tales but recorded them; or else he is reduced to a cliché, a kindly uncle surrounded by tots, as in the classic movie with Danny Kaye.
But a new edition of Andersen’s most famous tales, translated by Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank, means to change all that. The Franks declare their intention to treat Andersen as he is treated in his native Denmark: as a sophisticated modern writer, to be read and studied as seriously as his fellow Copenhagener, and one-time reviewer, Søren Kierkegaard. They translate Andersen’s Danish into idiomatic contemporary English, capturing his deliberate colloquialism. More strikingly, they provide each of the 22 stories with footnotes, demonstrating their roots in Andersen’s own life. In many ways the book itself strains against their scholarship—it is a luxurious, oversized volume, featuring 19th-century illustrations, obviously meant to be read to children at bedtime. In this setting, the Franks’ introduction—which by Page 4 is analyzing Andersen’s masturbation habits—seems oddly adult.
Yet the tension between the adult and the childlike, the literary and the folk, drove Andersen’s stories from the beginning. His ambition was not to bring joy to children but to become a famous artist. “I covet honor and glory in the same way as the miser covets gold,” he admitted. While Andersen’s novels, plays, and travel-writing gained him a certain reputation in Denmark, it was not until 1835, when he published Tales Told for Children, that he achieved international celebrity. His first stories were retellings of folk tales heard in childhood. Soon, however, he put the form of the fairy tale at the service of an intensely personal and modern kind of fiction.
Part of that modernity has to do with style. In the famous opening of “The Snow Queen,” Andersen uses a broken narration that both imitates traditional storytelling and looks forward to stream of consciousness. “All right, let’s get started! When we’re at the end of the story, we’ll know more than we do now, because there was an evil troll, one of the worst—it was the devil.” There is an echo here of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, just as “Auntie Toothache”—framed as the journal of a student tormented by toothaches—anticipates the frantic unreliable narrator of Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. And a post-Freudian age has no trouble understanding Andersen’s sexually fraught, surreal metaphors, as in “The Red Shoes”:
She could think only about those shoes—even when the vicar put his hand on her head and talked about the holy baptism, about the covenant with God, and how she was about to become a grown-up Christian. The organ played solemnly, the children’s choir sounded beautiful, and the old cantor sang, but Karen could think of nothing but her red shoes. By afternoon everyone had told the old lady that Karen’s shoes were red. The old lady said that red shoes were altogether inappropriate and that Karen had done a horrible thing.
But Andersen’s spirit belongs to his age, not ours. At its best, that spirit is Romantic, devoted to the sanctity of individual imagination. Andersen’s Ugly Duckling who turns out to be a swan is, as the Franks note, a coded autobiography, drawing on his own transformation from gauche provincial to friend of kings. But it is still more a defense of the artistic imagination and a defiance of bourgeois conformity—a staple of Romantic literature. The Little Mermaid, redeemed by unselfish love, is a close cousin to Crime and Punishment’s Sonya and La Traviata’s Violetta. And “The Snow Queen,” Andersen’s attack on cold, calculating reason, echoes every 19th-century writer from Wordsworth to Tolstoy.
And when Andersen becomes cloying and condescending, he is no less representative of his time. Like Dickens—whom he once visited for five unhappy weeks—Andersen is prone to moralizing and sentimentality. Dickens’s Little Nell has become a byword for Victorian mawkishness,but the bathetic death-scene of Andersen’s Little Match Girl is just as bad (“There was no more cold, no hunger, no fear—they were with God”); and few mothers today will want their children to absorb the lesson of “Father’s Always Right.” (“Yes, indeed, it always pays when the wife realizes that Father is wisest and what he does is always right.”) But in his worst moments, as in his best, Andersen is much more complex and challenging than the Disney version we know today. Even when he was writing for children, he was talking to grown-ups.