Hans Christian Andersen and childhood
Andersen's poem The Dying Child (1825/27) is one of the first examples in world literature of a text told consistently from a child's point of view. In the 19th century children start to get their own voice in literature, for instance in Andersen and Lewis Carroll.
By Senior Lecturer Helene Høyrup -
The two-part approach to both child and adult affords the opportunity of staging a discussion about the differences and the continuity between those two chapters of life.
Little Ida's Flowers uses the point of view of a child, for instance by putting the adult citizen's limited view of life into perspective. The story about Ida represents a Romantic defence of children's ability to take reality into use by means of play and imagination.
She is helped by the student (the writer?), because, unlike "the boring Counsellor", who has no eye for paper collages, the carnival of flowers and the principal level of imagination of the fairytale, he understands that it is precisely "the silly imagination" that creates fullness, celebration and narrative.
Andersen's fairytales contain a considerable scope in their view of childhood.
In some stories, we meet an elder, almost didactic and puritan view of childhood, for instance in The Red Shoes, which is supposed to have been the writer Tove Jansson's pet hate (!), or The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf. But the vast majority of them rely on a Romantic perception of how the use of the child figure and often adds new layers.
In the theory of children's literature it has been claimed that the artistic fairytales of the 19th century often make thematic a "hybrid" or a dialogical relation between child and adult, and this is very much the case in Andersen where the meaning of childhood is not fixed.
For instance, many fairytales combine an "adult" experience with a childlike view of the world, and this was a new technique that differed from the previous and the contemporary didactic fiction. Some fairytales use the child's perspective as part of a psychological description of the layers of the human consciousness, for instance in The Snow Queen.
Writing for children enabled the writer to use an experimental narrative attitude that in many ways was innovative at the time, and which points forward to Modernism and our own time. The difference between a Romantic and a more modern attitude to childhood can be illustrated by comparing The Snow Queen (1844) with The Emperor's New Clothes (1837).
Note that the two fairytales have been written with only a few years' interval. The first fairytale of development communicates a Romantic view of the inherent qualities of the child, such as sensitivity and a sense of which values are the most important.
Gerda's love and loyalty tear Kay away from the one-sided cultivation of the intellect, and in the end the two main characters reach/come back to the ideal wholeness of childhood.
The plot makes a circle in which childhood is the centre of gravity and of rotation. Many Symbolist and Modern painters and writers (such as Picasso and Baudelaire) thought that children had a special ability to see the truth, and this interpretation of the child figure as a kind of position of cognition is anticipated in The Emperor's New Clothes.
Incidentally, in the first version of the fairytale, it was not a child who said that famous line that quickly spreads to the rest of the crowd: "But he's not wearing anything!" The fact that the point of view is a child's establishes a play between the civilized parroting of the adults and the boy's ability to "see through". This play is so concrete that it comes close to the art of abstraction. The child perspective adds an element to the text that is critical of consciousness.
Regardless of whether the child represents innocence or a perspective position of cognition, it is tied in with an experimental narrative attitude that questions the established structures of meaning. The child forms part of a game of meaning and is therefore not an unambiguous or a sharply defined figure, even though the fairytales are obviously addressed to children.
Other fairytales, such as "The Story of a Mother" or the less well-know Heartache, use the child and childhood to open up an emotional layer in the reading experience.
But sometimes children appear as conventional as the adults, for instance in Children's Prattle, The Fir Tree or The Flea and the Professor. Try reading the end of the latter fairytale, in which the children, their parents and the reader is very much taken in by the narrator.
Here the child also figures as the image of an audience, like at the end of The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. Moreover, Hans Christian Andersen often involves his own childhood in the stories. There are many parallels between his autobiographies and fairytales of development such as The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen and The Tinder Box.