ARTICLES Did Hans Christian Andersen write for children?

From 1835 to 1843, Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales were "told for children", as it said on the cover. From the very beginning, Andersen was very conscious of the fact that he wrote for children. But later in his career it annoyed him that people did not realize that some of the fairytales were also or exclusively written for adults.

By Professor Torben Weinreich - Center for Children's Literature

The question is frequently asked whether Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairytales for children. Everybody knows that a majority of his 156 fairytales are published as children's literature and read all over the world - by and for children.

But everybody also knows that some of the fairytales have such a content and such a complexity that they can hardly have been conceived as or at least work as reading matter for children.

The truth is that a considerable number of the fairytales were written and published for children. The very first booklet from 1835 with four fairytales, The Tinder Box, Little Claus and Big Claus, The Princess on the Pea and Little Ida's Flowers, had the title Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairytales, Told for Children). And that is how Andersen named his collections of fairytales until 1843, when the reference to children disappeared. From 1852 he began to refer to them as "stories". In his autobiography Mit Livs Eventyr (The Fairytales of My Life) (1855) he says of this: "Stories, the name that I in our language consider to be the most appropriate for my fairytales in all their extent and nature."

Also in letters to friends Andersen emphasizes that the fairytales are written for children, and he even gives an account of the writing process. For instance, he writes to the famous Danish hymn writer B.S. Ingemann in February 1835:

"And then I have started on some "Fairytales Told for Children", and I think they are going to work out. I have rendered some of the fairytales that made me happy when I was a child, and which I don't think are well-known; I have written them in the manner that I would myself tell them to a child."

Already on New Year's Day 1835, Andersen has told his friend Henriette Hanck that he is working on some fairytales for children: "You see, I intend to win over the next generations!" And in March he writes to Henriette Wulff:

"Then I've written some fairytales for children about which Ørsted [the physicist H.C. Ørsted] says that The Improviser might make me famous, but the fairytales will make me immortal, they are the most perfect things I've written, but I don?t think so."
Andersen is very much aware that his fairytales will primarily be read aloud for children (he often did so himself, and with great pleasure), and that adults will be present in those situations. In a letter to Ingemann in 1843, he says that he is gradually "getting the hang of writing fairytales", and adds:

"Now I make stories out of my own breast, catch an idea for the old - and then tell the story to the young while keeping in mind that Father and Mother will often be listening as well, and them you have to give something for the thought!"

In modern literary theory people talk about the ambiguity of children's literature, but Andersen was already fully aware of this special condition for telling a story.

He also emphasized that the core of the language he uses in the fairytales is its oral quality, because this goes down well with children. "In the language you must hear the storyteller, the language therefore had to come near to the oral narrative; it was told for children, but the adults must also be able to listen to it" (1862).

This was precisely the style that he was criticized for by his contemporaries. One of the great Danish arbiters of taste, Christian Molbech, wrote in 1842:

"To want to tell fairytales to children or the common people in some peculiar way or other, or with an unnatural imitation of the natural, but also somewhat lengthy and not always very suitable and clear narrative style of the common people, or in a so-called childlike style and tone, is only to corrupt them in a tasteless or imprudent manner."

Andersen's  fairytales were translated into English early on. Towards the end of his life, several of his fairytales were published in English first, and then in Danish. But the English editions were often characterized by a sentimentalization and were also sometimes adapted with a view to what was suitable for children.

For instance, people did not think that children would understand Andersen's irony, and some of the fairytales were also considered to be too rough. The English-speaking part of the world created a picture of Andersen as more of a friend of children than someone who merely told stories for children.

This annoyed Andersen very much, and in his later years he took efforts to make it quite clear that he did not write his fairytales for children alone.

Perhaps this is why the question is often asked whether his fairytales are actually for children. But - as mentioned in the above - there is plenty of evidence that he wrote the fairytales for children, only not just for children, and in some cases perhaps just for adults.
A fact that further emphasizes that he usually thought of his audience as consisting of children is that he published several of his fairytales and poems in children's magazines, also after 1843. "The Bell", which many people consider to be addressed to adults, appears for the first time in the Danish Maanedsskrift for Børn (Monthly Magazine for Children) in 1845. The poem The Woman With the Eggs, which has since been almost a fixture in Danish school anthologies and textbooks, was first printed in Den danske Børneven (The Danish Children's Friend) in 1839.
Finally, it must be emphasized that many of the fairytales should be considered children's literature if only because they themselves presuppose a child as the reader (or as the one who is being read aloud to).

In a good many of the fairytales, we meet a narrator who addresses a child reader directly in a particular tone of voice that immediately turns the child into a confidante. Just look at the opening of What the Old Man Does is Always Right.

It was this direct address and oral quality that the great Danish critic Georg Brandes commended when he wrote:

"Replacing the conventional written language with the free spoken language, exchanging the rigid diction of the adult with one that the child uses and understands, that becomes the purpose of the writer in the very moment that he decides to tell fairytales to children."

With that, Brandes also wrote an answer to the above-mentioned critic Molbech.

Andersen wrote in many genres and for a large audience. The children were a part of it. He knew it, and he wanted it to be so.