Hans Christian Andersen gives nature a voice
Hans Christian Andersen had a rare ability to be able to be carried away, filled with enthusiasm, joy and wonder at nature indeed, at the whole world. And he was able to write and tell in such a way that his enthusiasm and wonder still rub off on anyone who listens or reads with him.
With three specific examples as the starting-point, teachers of natural science are encouraged to organize one or more courses with Andersen's fairytales as their point of departure.
By Ole Laursen, MA in Pedagogy, Teaching of Biology -
- Between truth and fairytale
Science is concerned with the objective uncovering of the eternal truth about the world. We weigh and measure ? examine and test. We advance hypotheses, which we test by means of experiments. We are skeptical towards things that cannot be weighed and measured. They are not useful to us - let's get rid of them. That is how many people think of natural science.
In the science-related subjects in school we try to pass on some of the objective knowledge that has been gathered and tested by natural science. We try to increase the children's (scientifically based) understanding of how the world works. We also show them how you do research and work with natural science, and how natural science is put to use in society. If this can be done by including the children's own experiments and observations: even better. That is how many people think of the teaching of natural science in school.
In this connection, a creator of fairytales, a dreamer, a romantic, is not very useful, no matter how good he was with the goose quill. We have no need for mermaids, sea serpents or dogs with eyes the size of the Round Tower in Copenhagen. Princes cannot be turned into swans, and suitcases cannot fly. Snails, rosebushes, hens and old oak trees cannot talk, and the world should be described precisely, neutrally and in concrete terms.
And yet with this article I intend to encourage the dedicated school teacher of a science-related subject to plan and carry out one or more courses that take Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales as their starting-point. Sometimes it can be both elevating and surprising to discover a whole new source of inspiration for teaching and seeing the world with fresh eyes. I myself have discovered that Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales open up new cracks and layers the more I read them ? also when I read them with "scientific" eyes. By means of three examples of known and less known fairytales, I will try to show how and why Hans Christian Andersen can be used in the teaching of science-bases subjects.
The spirit in nature
We primarily know Hans Christian Andersen as a unique writer of fairytales, a great storyteller and an eccentric person, who followed his dream of becoming famous and loved for his art with great enthusiasm. But Hans Christian Andersen was also a brilliant and committed ambassador of nature and of the wealth of life and insight that nature contains.
In all of Hans Christian Andersen's works, nature plays a significant part. Nature was a source of inspiration and a many-facetted scene for many of his fairytales, novels, plays, poems and other stories.
Nature also provided a colorful and sensuous back cloth for his own life: Just look at the many descriptions of nature in his travel books and diaries. Finally, nature in many ways contained the major values that Hans Christian Andersen used to weigh and measure contemporary society, people and art.
Hans Christian Andersen was influenced both by the fast progress and the major conquests of the 19th century, and by the Romantic belief that there is a divine mind behind the natural laws and nature's beauty and variety.
He was not alone in this. Hans Christian Andersen lived and breathed in an exciting circle of great Danish artists, philosophers and natural scientists at a time when religion, philosophy, art and science were not automatically at odds with each other.
It was opportune to discuss "The Spirit of Nature", which also became the title of a natural philosophical work by "the big Hans Christian", as Hans Christian Andersen called his long-standing friend, the famous Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted.
Ørsted was very committed to making natural science a part of the general education. In this connection he was very excited by the thought that "little Hans Christian" Andersen could help build a popular bridge between art and science by means of his fairytales.
These ideas are now more relevant than ever, as many people today advocate a scientific general education, opinions and qualifications, so that we can all help making qualified decisions about how to make use of science in society.
Many of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales can be read as contributions to the debate regarding nature and spirit. This goes for, among others, The Nightingale, The Dryad, The Bell, and The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream.
But this is not just an article about Hans Christian Andersen's personal view of nature. Neither is it a presentation of Hans Christian Andersen's place in certain historical literary periods.
It is, as mentioned earlier, an attempt to inspire and persuade teachers of science-related subjects to carry out one or more courses that take Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales as their starting-point. So we will not dwell on the Romantic view of nature, but simply dig into the first fairytale.
"The sunlight of science must permeate the artist, with a clear eye he must perceive the truth and the harmony in the small and the infinitely great; it must purify and enrich the mind and the imagination, show him new shapes that do more than bring the word to life.
Even the individual discoveries would provide such a new escape. What a fairytale world cannot be uncovered under the microscope, when we transfer our human world into it ?" (from the travel book Pictures of Sweden, 1844).
"The Drop of Water"
"Of course you know what a magnifying glass is, a kind of round spectacle lens, which makes all things hundreds of times larger than they are. When you put it to your eye and look at a drop of water from the pond, you see more than a thousand strange creatures that you otherwise never see in the water, but they are there, and it is real. It almost looks like a plate full of shrimps jumping around one another, and they're so ravenous, they tear each other's arms and legs and edges and rims off, and yet they are happy and content, in their way." (from the opening of The Drop of Water, 1847).
It is an obvious idea to read the fairytale "The Drop of Water" from 1847 as an introduction to the microscope and the whole wonderful world that opens when the eye gets a little help from the lenses of a magnifying glass or a microscope.
Hans Christian Andersen was introduced to the microscope as early as 1830, when he visited landowner and botanist Niels Hofman Bang at the mansion Hofmansgave in Northern Funen. Niels Hofman Bang was a specialist in alga and infusoria, and Hans Christian Andersen was given the opportunity of looking over his shoulder into the ditch water in the microscope.
He was instantly fascinated by the swarm of life that was disclosed to him, and he praised the microscope and its opportunities, both in relation to science and as an inspiration for his own art.
Theme One: Microscopic animals
This course might focus on the invisible life in "ditch water", meaning water that has been still for a while with rotting vegetable matter. You might for instance start by reading the fairytale aloud for the children and then let them go on a microscopic safari in their own ditch water.
Of course you might also gather water samples from the bottom of the pond, the puddles or the ditches, but you can also make your own ditch water. Take a small container and put a handful of parts of plants into the water.
Let it stand in room temperature for a couple of weeks without the lid on. Use a pipette to take some of the muddy water from the bottom of the container and put a drop under the microscope.
Start by magnifying a little and go gradually closer. Now you can get as close as possible to slipper animalcules, flagellates, ciliates, amoebae etc. A lot of them are one-celled organisms, but they are very different.
Let the children make drawings of what they see and let them describe how the organisms move. Compare drawings and descriptions of life in the children's drops of water with the description of the ditch water in Andersen's story. Conclude by letting the children hear or read the fairytale once more. Why does Hans Christian Andersen compare life in a ditch with life in a big city? Are there other places in nature that can be compared with big cities?
Theme Two: Discoveries and Inventions
The Drop of Water can also serve as an introduction to a course about discoveries and inventions. I am of course referring to lenses and the development of objective tools such as magnifying glasses, binoculars and microscopes.
Discuss what other inventions have opened up new worlds to us in nature (e.g. the camera, the sextant and diving equipment). You might tell stories about some of the great discoverers and explorers.
By all means let the children go on an exciting voyage of discovery in a new world (with a microscope or a magnifying glass), and let them use their own words to describe what they find in their path.
"The Little Green Ones"
In the fairytale The Little Green Ones from 1868, Hans Christian Andersen describes a rose tree attacked by greenflies. A rather ordinary and simple problem, but Andersen uses the situation as the framework for a brilliant description of mankind's sometimes ambiguous interaction with nature.
In this way the fairytale about the little green ones becomes a very appropriate point of departure for a discussion about ethics and environment. The fairytale can also be seen as a different and unconventional depiction of the biology and conditions of the greenflies.
"We are the strangest regiment of earthly creatures. When it's warm, we give birth to live young ones; the weather is good then; we get engaged right away and celebrate our weddings. When it gets cold, we lay eggs; the little ones are cozy.
The wisest animal, the ant, we respect it very much, it studies us, evaluates us. It doesn't eat us right away, it takes our eggs, puts them into its own family's shared ant hill, bottom floor, puts us by knowledge and number, side by side, layer upon layer, so that every day a fresh one can jump out of the egg; then they stable us, squeeze our hind legs, milk us, so that we die; it is a great pleasantness! (From The Little Green Ones, 1868).
In the context of teaching it is an important point that Hans Christian Andersen lets the greenflies speak for themselves. The great-grandfather, who is three days old, tells about the life of the greenflies and about how they feel misunderstood and unfairly treated by mankind.
By this story, Hans Christian Andersen shows that he has studied their biology, even if he uses a different style and angle than the one you normally meet in natural science.
Of course, you might be of the opinion that talking plants and animals are simply a symptom of a simplified and banalized representation of the real conditions of nature. Today many people are critical of the "Disneyfication" of the world of children and the description of nature in popular Disney movies such as The Lion King, Brother Bear and Finding Nemo.
Hans Christian Andersen was confronted with the same criticism from his contemporaries. On Tuesday, October 29th, 1861, he met with a number of influential friends. The group happened to discuss poetic descriptions of nature. Andersen later wrote in his diary:
"We talked about Paludan Möller's latest book, that the poet ought to be truthful in his description, of nature, and then I said that in later years I had not sinned against nature. You haven't, said Tillisch and Ioe. You who let animals speak! "Yes, Your Excellency", I said, "That's very true, but then Your Excellency do not understand the language of animals, that's how they are bound to talk when they talk, as I let them talk!" (And this is one of the intelligentsia, the head of the theatre, who presents such a remark!)".
Hans Christian Andersen is upset and feels wronged. We know from other remarks in his diary that he prepares himself well before including nature in his fairytales, and he has many scientists among his circle of acquaintances.
He is inspired by them and often discusses the scientific subject matter in the fairytales with "the experts". I think that Hans Christian Andersen's stories also provide a different and more realistic description of nature and the order of nature than the Disney movies do.
Instead of dissociating yourself from Hans Christian Andersen, and the Disney description of nature for that matter, you might include the fairytales in the teaching on natural science.
The stories in which plants and animals get a voice appeal more directly to children, and they will get a more emotional and personal commitment to things related to natural science. When teaching these subjects, we should not be afraid of getting in touch with fantasy and sacrifice youthful identification for the sake of truth.
The emotional approach to the understanding of nature is a passable and fruitful path when children are to construct their own understanding of the world around them.
This approach will often focus on the understanding of the connection between man and nature and the way in which we use and abuse nature. You only need time and space to look at the fairytales with scientific glasses in the company of committed adults.
The One: Insects
If you wish to work with insects in teaching, there is plenty of material. The insects make up the most numerous animal life form in the world, and no other group of animals is so varied. By starting with the fairytale about the greenflies we turn towards some of the more bashful and perhaps less popular insects.
Let the pupils read the fairytale and tell them about the biology of greenflies, using the fairytale as your starting-point. Go through the many descriptions of the biology of greenflies and their interaction with other animals and plants.
You might talk about the delicate and the yucky animals, and why human beings often like butterflies and ladybirds better than ants, flees and wasps. Collect greenflies and study them in real life. Let the children study the greenflies and keep them for instance in a vivarium in the classroom for a while, so that you can follow their development.
Conclude by letting the children write a small story from an insect's point of view. Like Hans Christian Andersen, the children will have to study the biology and conditions of the insect before they start writing.
Read the stories aloud for each other afterwards and let the children comment on the scientific background of the stories. It would be an obvious idea to cooperate with the teacher of their mother tongue and work with technical literature in relation to fictional literature. With fiction, facts and faction.
Theme Two: Vermin and utility animals
In the fairytale the human being chooses to blow soap bubbles with the soap water that should have been used to kill the greenflies. Mankind has hitherto been assigned a poor character by the greenfly in the fairytale:
"People! ? they look at us so stupidly, with hungry eyes if we eat a rose petal, while they themselves guzzle all that is alive, everything green and growing. They have given us the most contemptible name, the most hideous name, I won't mention it, yuk! It turns my stomach! I cannot say it, at least not when I'm in uniform, and I'm always in uniform ?"
" I was born on the leaf of the rose tree; I and the whole regiment live off the rose tree, but it lives again in us that are part of the highest creation. Human beings cannot stand us; they come and kill us with soap water; it is a foul drink! I think I smell it. It is awful to be washed when you're not born to be washed. Man! You who look at me with hard soap water eyes; think about our place in nature, our strange and wonderful ability to lay eggs and deliver young ones! We have been blessed to "fulfill and multiply"! We are born in roses, we die in roses, our whole life is poetry. Do not stamp upon us the name you find most loathsome and ugly, the name I won't say it, I won't mention it! Call us the milk cow of the ant, the regiment of the rose tree, the little green ones!"
(from The Little Green Ones, 1868).
The fairytale can be used for discussing man's relationship with animals. Let the children read the fairytale and take these questions as your starting-point:
When can you call an animal vermin and what is a utility animal?
Can some animals be both vermin and utility animals?
Is it fair that people kill animals?
Is it sometimes all right to use poison in the garden ? and in farming?
Should we treat insects differently than we for instance treat mammals?
In the fairytale, Hans Christian Andersen shows that he thinks about how we human beings treat nature. He also displays this care for tiny animals elsewhere. For instance, he writes in his diary in the spring of 1848:
"...saved an earthworm that was being held by a beetle."
Of course you can discuss his care for the beetle.
Theme Three: Names in Nature
In the fairytale we are presented with a series of names for the greenflies. They can be used in a cooperation between subjects during which you might work with scientific names, pet names and nicknames.
The scientific part of the theme might be about classification and the need to provide all living creates with special names so that you can see who "go together". You might tell the children about the Swedish scientist Carl Linné, who with his work "System Nature" from 1735 invented a systematic method of classifying all plants and animals.
Present the children with a number of animals and plants that they probably haven't seen before. Let them suggest what names they would give the animals and plants if they were free to choose.
Afterwards you can look at the actual names of the animals and plants and talk about why they have been given those names. You can also look at the names Hans Christian Andersen has given the greenflies in the fairytale and maybe research the origin of the funny and exciting names in nature.
In connection with the fairytale it is of course an obvious idea to discuss the difference between the children's own experiences with pet names and nicknames, respectively. One might say that the greenflies experience what it's like to be bullied.
"The Great Sea Serpent"
The fairytale The Great Sea Serpent was written in 1872. At that time, Andersen had already written enthusiastically, in letters, travel books and diaries, about some of the big technological conquests of the 19th century, for instance electromagnetism, streetlamps, the steam engine, balloons and trains. As early as in 1839, Hans Christian Andersen is shown a primitive telegraph by Professor Hans Christian Ørsted in Copenhagen. He writes:
"The magnetic current invisibly carries the word to where it's going! The human shrewdness and the powerful natural spirits work hand in hand!"
Like The Little Green Ones, The Great Sea Serpent is a fairytale told by nature's own inhabitants. In this story, animals and plants from the sea experience how people lower a large "sea serpent" onto the bottom of the sea where it stretches all the way from Europe to America. The sea serpent is really a telegraph cable that now connects the two continents.
Theme One: The Multiplicity of the Sea
The fairytale can be used as an alternative approach to discussing the multiplicity of life that exists in the sea, and mankind's interference with the complicated, yet fragile food chain of the sea.
You can see from the notes in Hans Christian Andersen's diaries that he, among other things, read the book The Vegetable and Animal Kingdom of the Sea, when he was preparing to write this fairytale.
Make a list of all the animals and plants that Andersen mentions in the fairytale, and discuss how his depictions fit in with the knowledge you can gather from biological encyclopedias. For instance, how does his use of the term "reptile" match the biological explanation of the word? Let the children talk about how the animals in the sea discuss human beings, and whether there is a difference in the way the various animals react to the telegraph cable.
"A couple of sea slugs were so frightened that they belched forth their stomachs, and yet they lived, because they could do that. Many lobsters and edible crabs went out of their good armor and had to leave their legs behind." (From The Great Sea Serpent, 1872).
Theme Two: Information and Communication Technology
You might say that Andersen with this fairytale comes close to foresee the development of worldwide networks of communication such as the Internet and satellite communication.
Read the fairytale as a different approach to teaching on information technology, and discuss with the children what Hans Christian Andersen might have in mind when he describes the telegraph cable as the "most wonderful of the wonders of the sea", yet also as a "soundless snake of knowledge of good and evil."
"It is born and bred, sprung out of Man's ingenuity and put down on the bottom of the sea, stretching from the lands of the East to the lands of the West, carrying messages fast as the ray of light from the sun to our Earth. It grows, grows in power and extent, grows year by year, through all seas, all around the world, beneath the storming oceans and the limpid waters, in which the skipper looks down, as if he were sailing through the transparent air, sees swarming cod ends, a whole fireworks of colour. At the deepest end stretches the snake, a blessed Midgard Serpent biting its own tail as it encircles the earth; fish and reptiles run their foreheads against it, they don't understand this thing from above: Mankind's thought-laden, in all languages proclaiming, and yet soundless serpent of knowledge of good and evil, the most wonderful of the wonders of the sea, the great sea serpent of our age." (From The Great Sea Serpent, 1872).
The three fairytales mentioned in the above have not been chosen because they are the best or because they are unique in their themes or their descriptions of nature and technology.
When I read Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales from a science teacher's point of view, I constantly come across new fairytales that can be used as a point of departure for good and fascinating teaching on natural science.
Just think about the relationship between the artificial nightingale and the bird from nature. The description of the life cycle of the tree, and the difference between nature and the room with the Christmas tree in The Fir Tree. The skylark's struggle to keep the beautiful flower alive in The Daisy. The description of how the seasons change in The Seasons. Not to mention The Old Oak Tree's Last Dream, The Little Mermaid, The Dryad, The Flax, Quack, The Buckwheat, What Happened to the Thistle, The Elder Tree Mother, The Bell, The Ugly Duckling, Five Peas from one Pod, The Snail and the Rosebush and many, many others.
Hans Christian Andersen had a rare ability to let himself be filled with enthusiasm, wonder and joy about nature ? indeed the whole world. And he was also able to write and tell so that his enthusiasm and wonder were passed on to anyone who felt like reading or listening in. He did this with an open and childlike mind, knowledge of natural science, humour and reflection.
I hope you have been inspired to go and explore Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales yourself and use them in your teaching. Andersen himself writes in the fairytale The Potatoes from 1872:
"What is good will probably get to be honoured sooner or later!"