Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Andersen, Hans Christian

(1805-1875) Danish writer, father of the modern Fairytale. Whereas the Grimm Brothers, Charles Perrault and to some extent Madame d'Aulnoy had drawn heavily upon the oral tradition, HCA based only 12 of his 156 known fairy stories on Folktales.

HCA came from a poor family, and the early death of his father meant he had to find work, which set back his education. In later years he pursued his love for the Theatre, and it was here that his flights of fancy began. His first novel, Improvisatoren (1835; trans Mary Howitt as The Improvisatore, or Life in Italy 1845 UK), was an autobiographical exploration of a poor boy's integration into society. HCA was ever determined to overcome his impoverished roots, and he returned to the theme often in his stories, as in "The Ugly Duckling" (1845), a universally understood Fable of self-discovery (see Ugly Duckling).

HCA's first fairytale was "The Spectre" (1829), later rewritten as "The Travelling Companion" (1836). It was soon after completing this story that he began to realize the potential of this new form. His first four stories were published as Eventyr, fortalte for Børn ["Fairytales, Told for Children"] (coll 1835 chap), and they were immediately popular. Thereafter, on an almost annual basis, Andersen issued a booklet of stories, each bearing the same title. The first three were assembled as Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (omni 1837), and the same happened with the next three (omni 1842). By 1845 he wanted to emphasize that his stories were accessible on more than one level, and should not be restricted to children, so he titled his new collection Nye Eventyr ["New Fairytales"] (coll 1845), and that title remained with each successive volume. He achieved his desire for the wider acceptance of his stories in Denmark, but in English-speaking countries – where a torrent of translations (often bad) began to appear from 1846 – the prevailing Victorian attitude to folktales and fairytales placed them firmly in the children's domain. This rejection of his views annoyed HCA, who claimed he was a "poet for all ages". From 1852 he titled his regular collections Eventyr og Historier to distinguish between fairytales (eventyr) and stories (historier); though his historier were more philosophical and tended toward Allegory, the supernatural often pervaded both.

Most of HCA's fairytales are more appreciable as Wonder Tales, as they open the imagination to aspects of life beyond the normal human experience. Some of the allegories have become bywords for the human condition – such as "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837), about human vanity and snobbery, and "The Little Mermaid" (1837), a symbol of Sacrifice. Some are deeply philosophical, like "On the Last Day" (1852) and "The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream" (1857), both parables of death. HCA frequently used Dreams to transcend the humdrum – though sometimes this might mean death, as in "The Rose Elf" (1842) and (best-known of all) "The Little Match Girl" (1848). While humour pervades many of the stories, the later ones tend to be sombre to the extent they can be classed as Dark Fantasy. He was not afraid to frighten, as in his last story, "Auntie Toothache" (1872), in which the pain of a toothache takes on physical form: the devastating Madame Toothache.

Almost every fantasy theme and Plot Device appears in HCA's stories, which are often archetypes of the genre. Among stories of his that stand in their own right as fantasies are "The Nightingale" (1845) – portraying the power of beauty over death – "The Snow Queen" (1846) – with its transformation of the world into Wrongness – "The Elf Hill" (1847) – one of his few stories to be set entirely in a Secondary World of Faerie – "The Ice Maiden" (1861) – exploring humankind's relationship with Fate – and two stories which can scarcely at all be regarded as Children's Fantasy: "The Story of a Mother" (1848), wherein a recently bereaved mother meets the personification of Death as a gardener tending plants that are humankind, and "The Shadow" (1847), an early Jekyll-and-Hyde study of a man haunted by his old Shadow.

Throughout HCA's fiction there is a message of hope over adversity: there is beauty and goodness in the world if one is prepared to look, even if it means self-sacrifice. This view has given rise to an oversentimental perception of HCA's fiction, when in fact he used a mixture of humour and pathos to re-focus, through the imagery of fantasy, his audience's minds on reality.

HCA's stories were translated throughout Europe, with four editions appearing in the UK in 1846 alone, starting with Wonderful Stories for Children (coll 1846) ed Mary Howitt (1799-1888). One of his annual booklets was published first in English – HCA was on a tour of the UK at the time – as A Christmas Greeting to My English Friends (coll 1847). His work influenced, among many others, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Oscar Wilde, and was the final impetus that inspired an upsurge in children's fairytales in Victorian England. His influence continues to this day, many of his stories serving as models for Revisionist Fantasies. His effect on the fantasy genre has been immeasurable. HCA was the world's first great fantasy storyteller. [MA]

other works: Over 400 different selections and editions of HCA's stories have appeared in the English language alone. The first complete edition outside Denmark of all his writings was Hans Andersen Library (1869-1887 20 vols UK). Among the many beautifully illustrated editions are Danish Fairy Tales and Legends (coll 1897 UK, rev from Danish Fairy Legends and Tales trans Caroline Peachey 1846 UK) illustrated by W Heath Robinson, Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (coll 1910 US) illustrated by Frank C Papé, Stories from Hans Andersen (coll 1911 UK) illustrated by Edmund Dulac, Fairy Tales (coll 1913 UK) illustrated by Mabel Lucie Attwell (1879-1964) and Fairy Tales (coll 1932 UK) illustrated by Arthur Rackham. Translations of interest include Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales (coll 1930 UK) by M R James, which is a selection, and the complete Fairy Tales and Stories (coll 1974 UK) by Erik Haugaard (1923-2009).

further reading: HCA's autobiography is Mit Livs Eventyr (1855; trans Horace E Scudder and updated by HCA as The Story of My Life 1871 US), although this is generally regarded as somewhat sanitized. Worthwhile biographies are Hans Christian Andersen by Svend Larsen (1953 Denmark but in English trans Mabel Dyrup) and Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work 1805-75 by Elias Bredsdorff (1975 UK).

Hans Christian Andersen


This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.