ARTICLES The fairytales as reading matter

Why have Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales of all fairytales become such a widespread and durable success as children's literature? What qualities characterize them? You can point out many, but perhaps the most important one is that Andersen exceeds the limits laid down for earlier and contemporary children's literature.

By Helene Høyrup -

Why did Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales of all fairytales become such a widespread and durable success as children's literature?

The reasons are many, but perhaps the most important one is that Andersen exceeds the limits laid down for earlier and contemporary children's literature, which was written for children as part of a pedagogical process.

In Rousseau's Emile, the adult is a kind of teacher who guides the child through a well-organized world of experiences, whereas Andersen's stories combine an adult and a childlike view of the world. The two levels create a fluctuation - they interfere - and the adult version does by no means have a monopoly of the truth!

Andersen's artistic fairytales somehow cross the usual boundaries between genres. They are meant to be both read aloud and read alone, and they exist in a kind of borderland between the oral narrative, the drama and the contemplative silent reading that became more and more prevalent in the 19th century.

The oral style allows the reader to address children more directly (see for instance the introduction to The Daisy). It gives rise to an interactive play between the reader and the listener, and this play is mimed by the adult who reads the fairytale aloud.

The narrator also intervenes far more in the cultural agendas - by being, for instance, commentating or ironic - than the narrator of the Rousseau or Rousseau-inspired 'organized' fiction that seeks to evade the influence of the surrounding culture.

One example is the many critical images of the stagnant life in the bourgeois living-room where the mental element has become private rather than directed towards the outside world.

The narrator says of the shepherdess and the chimney-sweep that "- they had both been put where they stood, and as they were now put they had become engaged, they were suited for each other ?" While the advance towards the oral narrative allows the narrator to interfere and address the audience directly, Andersen's fairytales are, however, still fiction that can be used for silent reading. They contain plots and positions that a reader can identify with.

As a child, Hans Christian Andersen loved to play with a toy theatre. As an adult he was still fascinated by theatre, and he wrote several vaudevilles and ballad operas. When you read the fairytales, it seems odd that he never managed to become a successful dramatist.

The fairytales are almost a kind of theatre with room for improvisations. The narrative stile is often extremely lively and dramatic. Edvard Collin wrote of Andersen's way of reciting the fairytales:

"He never said: The children entered the wagon, and then they left, but: Then they got on the wagon, goodbye Father, goodbye Mother! The whip cracked, crack, smack, whoosh, and away they went, hey-ho!"

All the characters who had lines also had individualized voices. The many perspectives that are broken make the text dialogical and vibrant, rather than monological.

Moreover, the dramatic element encourages a style in which the narrator changes between an external and an internal angle. The external is a kind of saga style where, for instance, "adult" themes also can be briefly introduced - as in Little Claus and Big Claus where we are told about the well-founded jealousy of the peasant:
"He was such a good man, but he had the strange disease that he could not bear to see a parish clerk; if a parish clerk came before his eyes, he became downright furious."

Or in The Tinder Box, where false friends are described thus: " - none of his friends came to see him because there were so many stairs to walk." The internal viewpoint, on the other hand, gives you the opportunity to enter into the spirit of the fiction. You can identify with and get emotionally involved in the progress of the story. The combination of the internal and the external angle affords an opportunity for sympathy, catharsis and distance.

What more specific qualities of experiences does the reading encourage? Well, one might say that the fairytales touch up an extremely rich, many-facetted and deep emotional gamut.

Many of the fairytales are about longing and grief. The Ugly Duckling is good for crying! A fairytale like The Little Mermaid appeals to a considerable emotional elasticity and depth, while other stories have an almost physical quality of action. "A soldier came marching along the highway; one, two! One, two! He had his knapsack on his back and his sword at his side, for he had been to the war, and now he was going home." All in one sentence!

The fairytales build in a rich vocabulary for language and humanity. See for instance how "Little Ida's Flowers" is both a text about carnival and about mental growth.

The language is a chapter by itself as it is the media that carries it all. Andersen's narrative style enabled him to reach a wide reading audience of children and adults. The fairytales pay attention to popular reading needs while simultaneously aspiring to be art for both children and everybody else.