Hans Christian Andersen’s "Fairy Tales" for Adults

…and How To Fight Terrorism

by Norman Berdichevsky (Sept. 2007)

2005 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Denmark’s greatest writer, whose works have been translated into more languages than any author (second only to the Bible). The event was marked not only in Denmark but throughout Europe with many festivities, exhibitions, seminars, exhibits and tours of his home town of Odense and where he lived in Copenhagen for many years.

Most Americans have basic misconceptions about Andersen and his work based on having seen the romanticized film about his life starring Danny Kaye and use of the term “fairy tales”, usually considered appropriate only for children Almost all of his 156 short stories or “adventures” (a better meaning of the Danish word “eventyr” usually translated as “fairy tales”) can be appreciated on two levels – one for adults and one for children.

The subjects of many of these stories also come as a surprise for those who have always regarded him as a kindly old grandfather telling his fairy tales to adoring grandchildren, the theme of a sculpture in New York’s Central Park that portrays Andersen reading to children perched on his knee. The themes of his lesser known short tales include time travel, adultery, murder by decapitation, death, grim poverty and social inequality, child psychology, intense drama, split personality, husband-wife relations, snobbery, social climbing, Jewish identity, and a deep abiding love for his Danish homeland.

Your children may have enjoyed the colorful characters, wizards and creatures of the Harry Potter series or The Wizard of Oz but what have they learned of any value for later life? Most Andersen short stories have left a moral legacy about life, its struggles, human nature and the beautiful innocence of childhood. It is ironic that his work is much better known and appreciated to tens of millions of children in China or Russia who continue to love Andersen, than in America or Britain.

When Leningrad was under siege in World War II and the city surrounded and starving, the production of all consumer goods was reduced to the absolute minimum. People were eating sawdust and paper could not be spared to publish literature. The publication of only one book was allowed in 1942 – The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen as Social Critic

It strikes most contemporary Americans as amazing or unbelievable when told that after the Bible, Andersen’s most popular “fairy tales” are the most translated work in all of literature. Close to two-thirds of them have been translated into more than sixty languages (more than Shakespeare‘s most popular plays). The Andersen Museum in Odense, his birthplace, boasts a display of several Andersen short stories in more than 120 languages including Esperanto, Basque, Khmer, Estonian, Maltese, Korean, Albanian, Gaelic, Catalan, Icelandic, Yiddish, and Volapük. The Nightingale” in Chinese translation is a favorite Andersen tale read in Chinese elementary schools today.

Many of Andersen’s tales feature talking animals, inanimate objects and fantastic creatures with their distinctive personalities but they all teach us something about human nature and relations or the innocence of childhood. As a teacher of a course for “senior citizens” on Andersen’s “Fairy Tales” at Central Florida Community College last Spring, I was not surprised that the turnout was comprised almost entirely of women (85%). They all claimed that men would hardly be interested in “simple children’s stories” yet at the end of the last class, in summing up what they got out of the course, attitudes had changed profoundly. Several women spoke with tears in their eyes about how the stories had struck a powerful chord with them and even the men (who should properly be called “gentlemen”) spoke about how they had been totally surprised by the range of Andersen’s interests.

Most of his stories have indeed stood the test of time. Andersen, at the time of his death, ranked with Charles Dickens as the world’s most popular author and like Dickens, he stood clearly on the side of those at the bottom of society, the socially weak, dispossessed and persecuted. Many Andersen stories defended children, women (Story of a Mother), the disabled (The Steadfast Tin Soldier) the poor (She Was No Good, The Little Matchgirl), the humble (The Gardener and the Aristocrat), social outcasts and “climbers” who live by their wits (Little Claus and Big Claus, The Ice Maiden, The Tinderbox) and the Jews (The Jewish Girl, Only a Fiddler). He delighted in ridiculing the ostentatious, the wealthy, nobility (The Emperor’s New Clothes), snobs (There is A Difference, Kid’sTalk), bureaucracy and the press (Clumsy Hans) and church hierarchy and also expanded his themes to time travel (The Galoshes of Fortune) and psychological relations (The Shadow) and even husband-wife relations (Father’s Always Right).

Andersen was also faced with a dilemma by world events by the growing power and aggressive designs of German nationalism. He had to reconcile his Danish patriotism with his gratitude to wealthy patrons and publishing houses in Germany that had responded favorably to his work when he was still an unknown in Denmark. This was doubly difficult for he had been ridiculed and harshly criticized by Danes at home in positions of power and influence in the literary world who argued that his humble background and use of the common ordinary “spoken language” fell far short of what was expected from a great writer. Like Mark Twain, his characters spoke the language of the street and not of the academy. He had to overcome all this, as well as insulting personal remarks about himself as ugly, ungainly, uneducated, unmanly in appearance and overly sentimental.

His dilemma was heightened by the attack on Denmark launched by Prussia and Austria in 1864 that tore away the provinces of Schleswig and Holstein and then by Prussia’s assault on its Austrian ally two years later in 1866 (The Seven Weeks War) and followed by the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. The three examples of Prussian militarism and expansionism were painful for Andersen.

He had achieved his early most notable successes that established his reputation as a great writer in Germany and been wined and dined by the nobility of many of the small principalities and was always welcomed as an honored guest at the home of the Prince of Weimar. Andersen returned this love and respect with a deep admiration for high German culture and was shocked by the Prussian path under Bismarck to world power status and the unification of the small German states into a powerful and militaristic empire.

The Schleswig Wars

In the disastrous war of 1864 Andersen confided to his diary that his heart had been broken by the events and that he would turn his back on those Germans who had launched or supported this aggressive war of conquest against his beloved homeland. In a letter to his close friend, Edvard Collin, Andersen questioned whether the Danish language would still be spoken and his works read in their original language in a hundred years time, so fearful was he at the threat of Denmark’s total submergence by a united Germany. Many Danes with snobbish pretensions made an effort at using both German and French loan words in their speech and writing, a habit that Andersen satirized in his story “The Goblin and the Woman”.

The Danes had defended their historic territories before in 1848-51 and had been encouraged that either (or both) England and Sweden would not let the country’s territorial integrity be violated by a major European power bent on expansion. Neither lifted a finger. Only Schleswig was defended by the Danish armed forces as Denmark had already declared it had no interest in preserving the allegiance of Holstein, an area populated wholly by German speakers who had indicated their desire to become part of a larger German Confederation.

Andersen’s “The Most Incredible Thing” (Det Utroligste)

Andersen wrote this tale in 1872. It was his response to a question that would torment other authors and intellectuals in his lifetime and during the 20th century – how to deal with the problem of evil and imminent threats to our civilization.

The response has ranged from abject surrender to open confrontation. The first was personified by Stefan Zweig, the great Austrian Jewish author, who committed suicide in Brazil in 1942, after completing his memoirs, so aptly titled “The World of Yesterday”. Zweig believed that the humane cosmopolitan civilization he had known was doomed by the evil bestiality of Nazism and could not defeat it. It is perhaps fitting that he is not remembered today whereas a dozen German, Russian, American, British and Italian authors rose up to the challenge of both Fascism and Communism and fought them with every fiber of their being – Erich Maria Remarque (“All Quiet on the Western Front“), Thomas Mann (“An Appeal to Reason“, “Buddebrooks“, Joseph and His Brothers), Ignacio Silone (“Bread and Wine“), George Orwell (1984, “Homage to Catalonia”), Alexander Solzhenitsyn (“The Gulag Archipelago, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich“), Ernest Hemmingway (“For Whom the Bell Tolls”) and others.

Remarkably, the great Danish “fairy story teller” from oh so peaceful and tranquil Denmark belongs in the latter group. His story, “The Most Incredible Thing” turned out to be a prescient warning to future generations. It was taken up by the Danish Resistance Movement that had struggled during the early years of German occupation (1940-42) to rally support for active sabotage and an end to the government’s policy of appeasement.

Opposing appeasement, a Danish resistance movement took shape. Among those active was a group of scholars led by Professors Paul Rubow and Elias Bredsdorff who encouraged and helped publish new editions of “The Most Incredible Thing” with illustrations that were an open call to resist the occupation and vindicate Andersen’s belief that, in the face of pervasive, aggressive, violent evil, only eternal vigilance, armed preparedness and vigorous, unreserved military action rather than appeasement, pacifism or simply sticking one’s head in the sand are the only means to ensure the survival of civilization.

The Plot of The Most Incredible Thing

The story opens as many other Andersen tales with the search for a husband for the king’s daughter who will be rewarded with half the kingdom. The challenge for the many aspiring suitors is to perform the “most incredible thing” and they outdo one another with grotesque, absurd pranks from spitting on their own backs to eating themselves. A day is set aside for an exhibition of unbelievable things and the immediate winner in this competition is a great hall clock which has a series of moving figures that symbolize important features of our civilization and duly appear each hour

These features and their respective times are a follows:

Moses writing the first commandment to symbolize there is ONE true God at the hour of 1:00

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden at the stroke of 2:00.

The Three Wise Men bringing gifts to the manger at the birth of Jesus at the stroke of 3:00.

The Four seasons at the stroke of 4:00.

The five sense at the stroke of 5:00

A gambler symbolizing good fortune rolling dice that come up “double sixes” at the strike of 6:00

The seven days of the week at the stroke of 7:00.

A choir of monks singing the eight o’clock evensong at the stroke of 8:00.

The nine muses representing the arts at the stroke of 9:00.

The Ten commandments at the stroke of 10:00.

A group of dancing boys and girls who sing a rhyme “All the way to heaven, the clock struck eleven”.

A night watchman wearing a cap and carrying the “morning star”, a truncheon tipped with spikes who, at the stroke of the midnight hour, sings the song “Twas at the midnight hour – Our savior He was born.“

Everyone agreed that this was the most marvelous, charming and incredible thing. It represented all the values, beliefs and aspects of our civilization and life on earth we hold dear. The artist who made it is a sincere and generous young man who is kind and loves his parents. The crowd considers him a worthy candidate to marry the princess.

The day for the wedding arrives and everyone in town is celebrating when suddenly a “tall powerful bony fellow” strides forth and announces that “I am the man to do the most incredible thing” and he swings his powerful axe at the craftsman’s clock and leaves it in ruins. He boasts to the crowd “I did that. My work beat his— I have done the most incredible thing.“

The people and the judges of the competition as well as the king are astounded and terrified. In a certain sense, of course, the arrogant evil lout who has destroyed the most incredible thing ever produced inherits the mantle of “greatness” in a perverse way. This is the raw terror and contempt of civilization that characterized the Nazis of a generation ago and Al-Qaeda and the Islamist fanatics of today.

Their very contempt for what is most important and cherished by us instills a pervasive fear. No one can challenge him. The judges agree that he is entitled to the title of having done the most incredible thing by destroying what was the most incredible thing and the King must observe his own rule about marriage to the princess because “ a law is a law“. The judges declare that “to destroy such a work of art is the most incredible thing we’ve ever seen!”

Translated into today’s realities, this absurd respect for the “law” because a “law is a law,” even if it afford no protection to those who bound themselves by it, is the very same ultra-legalistic attitude of all those who insisted that the U.N. could not endorse the joint American and British action against Saddam Hussein following the unanimous votes of 16 U.N. resolutions including the final one before the invasion of Iraq that promised dire consequences but then did nothing except urge restraint and the adoption of another resolution because “A law is a law”.

The reaction of the lout in the story is exactly that of a Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-Tung, Kim-il-Sung, Mussolini, Ceausescu, Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein. In Andersen’s words….“From the way he strutted and swaggered about, you’d think that nothing could ever bowl him over”.

When all seems lost and the wedding ceremony is about to begin, the church doors are flung open and behold….all the works of art in the clock that had seemingly been destroyed, stride down the aisle and march up to the bride and groom. How have been reassembled? Because as Andersen writes….Dead men cannot walk the earth…That’s true but a work of art does not die. Its shape may be shattered but the spirit of art cannot be broken.”

The clock begins to strike the hours again and all the figures reappear at their customary time. At the stroke of twelve, the watchman appears. He confronts the lout and smites him on the forehead with his “morning star” truncheon, killing him on the spot.

The people are amazed and now remark that indeed they have lived to see “the most incredible thing”. The princess summons the craftsman who had made the clock proclaiming that he shall be her husband and lord. The assembled crowd is overjoyed and relieved and all blessed the hero who had come to the rescue and no one was even envious of him because they knew he had acted while they had been paralyzed by fear.

In the 1942 Danish publication of “The Most Incredible Thing”, the final picture portrays the watchman who strikes down the lout as a Jewish rabbi with hat and beard standing above the fallen semi-naked Aryan-looking “muscle man” who is pinned to the floor by the twin tables of the Ten Commandments inscribed with Hebrew letters and surrounded by a crowd of ordinary Danes in 1940s dress.

Andersen would undoubtedly have been pleased that his story about resistance to evil and the faith he had in the values of our civilization would inspire his countrymen in World war II at a time when opportunists and those who had favored a policy of appeasement for Denmark preached that resistance was hopeless. The moral of the story is just as true today.

Denmark currently has a small force of 420 soldiers in Iraq and about 500 in Afghanistan, a long time reversal of previous left-wing governments’ policy not to be identified with “the war on terror”. The infamous cartoon rage in the Islamic world against Danish interests and random threats to carry out acts of terrorism against Danes both military and civilian only increased initial public support for the forces. Although support among the general public has waned and been replaced with growing disillusion as the conflict drags on without any prospect of a resolution of some kind, the renewed interest in Andersen and his work prompted by the 200th anniversary of the author’s birth have caused a new evaluation of how relevant some of his “minor” stories are for our time. “The Most Incredible Thing” deserves to be a major story.

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