The fairytale of things as an opportunity for literary pedagogy

Anna Karlskov Skyggebjerg

The fairytale genre is one of the genres that schoolchildren traditionally become acquainted with at a rather early stage.

Actually, most children have gained a certain knowledge of the genre codes of the fairytale even before they begin school. When they meet literature in school, their knowledge of the genre becomes conscious, systematized and extended, and the students gradually become aware of different genre variants and subgenres.

The fairytale of things is a special fairytale genre with an inherent potential for literary pedagogy. This genre has some very specific characteristics that makes it exemplary when it comes to literary analysis in general, and the genre can serve to inspire written assignments at various levels.

This article contains a characterization of the fairytale of things as a genre, taking Hans Christian Andersen's texts as its point of departure.

In addition to this, the article will reflect upon some obvious ideas for teaching, on the basis of the experiences that have been gained from reading and writing fairytales of things with students at the School for Author's of Children's Literature at the Centre for Children's Literature at the Danish University of Education.
Hans Christian Andersen and the fairytale of things
Hans Christian Andersen wrote approximately sixteen fairytales of things. When we say approximately sixteen, it is because it is always debatable how individual texts are to be categorized. The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838) is the first and most well-known fairytale of things written by Andersen.

But other of these so-called fairytales of things are also quite familiar, for instance The Sweethearts (1843), The Darning Needle (1845), The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep (1845), The Shirt Collar (1847) and The Snowman (1861).

But texts such as The Old Street Lamp (1847), The Old House (1847), The Money Pig (1854), The Bottle Neck (1857), Pen and Inkstand (1859), The Silver Shilling (1861), The Tea Pot (1863), The Windmill (1865), The Rags (1868) and The Candles (1870) also belong to this genre.

Fairytales of things is a subgenre under the artistic fairytale. The difference between folktales and artistic fairytales and the various subcategories will not be further explained here, because we are focusing on the fairytale of things.

As a genre, the fairytale of things is characterized by an anthropomorphization, that is, a humanization, of toys, tools, articles for everyday use and the like. But a magic or vitalized artefact in itself is not enough.

The fairytale must tell the story of the things or a story from the things' perspective. Thus, stories like The Tinder Box (1835), The Red Shoes (1845) and The Gate Key (1872) are not fairytales of things. The title tools may be magical, but they only work as catalysts for the development of human beings.

The fairytales of things breathe life into everyday objects, but they do not always depict an everyday drama. On the contrary, the things or objects might participate in the staging of great life dramas and passions, as in, for instance, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, in which the longing and love of the tin soldier almost has superhuman dimensions.

But the object might just as well serve to satirize on less flattering human characteristics, as in, for instance, The Darning Needle, in which the needle is ridiculously puffed-up and sure of its own importance.

When life dramas and grand feelings are being staged in a mundane environment made up of seemingly insignificant objects, a contrast springs up between the figures and the themes that these figures help play out.

A contrast with a humorous effect. When the never redeemed illusory love of The Sweethearts is played out by a worn-out spinning top and an old, thoroughly wet and musty ball, it is comical, and it creates a distance between the position of the narrator and that which is narrated, which counteracts the inherent pathos of the subject.

The fairytale of things is a Hans Christian Andersen speciality. The writer found inspiration in the animal fable and also in the earlier stories that had living objects and toys in them. The Steadfast Tin Soldier sends its compliments to the German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who wrote The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816.

This work is about a live nutcracker who gathers some children's toys to fight against an army of mice led by the mouse king. When the clock strikes twelve, the toys come alive, and the two armies prepare for battle.

In The Steadfast Tin Soldier there is also a live nutcracker among the toys, and the twelve strikes of the clock is marked by a troll who springs from a box. With this loan of subject, Hans Christian Andersen has credited Hoffmann as a literary ideal.

An object and its personality
Hans Christian Andersen has made the most of the capacity of the fairytale of things by emphasizing the personality and the character traits that come with giving his figures the shape of a particular object.

The physical appearance of the object turns into mental characteristics. The durable tin soldier is precisely steadfast; the delicate porcelain dolls in The Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep are mentally fragile and vulnerable; the darning needle seems coarse against the dignified manner of the thin sewing needle; the misshapen savings box in The Money Pig is awkward and gawky, etc.

The personality that the writer has given his figures through the things is bound up with both appearance and psychology. Or, in other words, there is a certain correspondence between external and internal.

But sometimes there is a discrepancy between surface and substance, and where that is the case it is precisely the imbalance between external and internal that is the source of conflict in the story. That is for instance the case when the darning needle poses as a sewing needle instead of owning up to its identity as a darning needle.

Often, the characteristics of an object form a contrast to the personality of another thing, and this can also be the source of conflict. The two objects have different personalities, but as objects they must also be similar enough to work within the same universe or environment.

An example is The Sweethearts, in which we meet the spinning top and the ball, who represent two very different personalities. The earth-bound and easily satisfied top stands opposite the flighty and stuck-up ball. But in spite of this difference, they both work within the toy universe.

In the toy universe there are predetermined hierarchies or class differences that can sometimes be overcome. In The Sweethearts, the ball starts out by feeling far more genteel than the top, whereas the top is unhappily in love with the pretty ball.

The top's love becomes its motive power for many years, until he meets the decrepit ball on the heap of street sweepings. Much of the genius in the fairytale is in the spoken lines. Both in what is said and in the balance of the dialogue.

In the beginning, it is the top who pours out his elaborate love to the ball, but in the end it is the ball who makes languishing advances to the top.

The narrator exposes his characters through their lines, and he even adds insult to injury with his laconic comments: "and the top never talked about his old love again; it passes, when the sweetheart has been lying and oozing in the gutter for five years. Indeed, you won't even recognize her when you meet her in the trash." The narrator compares the washed out ball with an old apple, and you understand that the top's long-standing love was a conjuring trick!

Love and fidelity are treated with a caustic tone of voice in The Sweethearts, but in The Steadfast Tin Soldier love might be tragic, but it is far from ridiculous. As the main character of the fairytale, the tin soldier is described with sympathy.

In the opening characterization of him, his whole identity as a soldier is being laid out, and he is described as a type, but also as an individual. He is like the others, but still different, because he only has one leg.

That is the background of his special sensitivity, and something which is deeply tied in with his understanding of himself. That is why he also falls in love with someone whom he thinks has only one leg too, that is, the dancer.

But the correspondence or similarity between the two is only superficial. While he is modest and unobtrusive, she is conceited and shows off.

He yearns and yearns, but embraces his destiny with military bravery: To sail in a gutter, be swallowed by a fish and finally thrown into a fireplace. A great drama is played out in an enclosed, everyday setting, and that is precisely the effect of sticking to the perspective of the toy.

The narrator emphasizes this with his comments when the tin soldier rolls away in his provisional boat: "For him that would be just as dangerous as it would for us to sail down a large waterfall."

The destiny of the tin soldier is moving, and he possesses the qualities desired by the Romantics ? and probably by us as well. His yearning and his loyal love are expressed through his figure, but also through symbols like the heart, the fire, the water and the wind. The drama involves the very elements, and the longing of love is juxtaposed with the forces of nature.

Interpretation and meta-fiction
The fairytales of things illustrate why we should and invariably always find ourselves interpreting literary texts. It is obvious that The Steadfast Tin Soldier and The Sweethearts are not fairytales about toys, but are fairytales that use the live toys to tell of something else, that is, longing, infatuation, love, various characteristics and tragic destinies.

The fairytale of things is a manageable genre whose artistic effects are obvious, and whose humour is born from comic contrasts or satires on particular personalities.

Several of the fairytales of things have a meta-fiction perspective. The very fiction is thematized, for instance when a fairytale comments on its own creation. How does a story come into being, and what is the meaning of truth and falsehood in that story?

Those are some of the questions that the fairytales themselves seem to ask, for instance in The Shirt Collar, in which the collar ends up being transformed into the very paper the story is written on:

"And so it was, all the rags became white paper, but the collar became this very sheet of white paper that we see before us, on which the story is printed, and that was because it bragged so terribly afterwards about what had never been."

Another example is Pen and Inkstand, which tells the story of two tools arguing about who is the real genius. This fairytale asks, among other things: What is art and where does art come from?

Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales of things naturally invite textual analyses that take genre, character descriptions and artistic effects as their point of departure.

But the fairytales of things also present an opportunity to make the student work with creative writing and to let them make up their own fairytales of things that take place in everyday settings: Knives and forks arguing in the cutlery drawer, cups and plates in the dishwasher, the shoes on the shelves in a shoe store, the clothes in the wardrobe, the different candy in the bag, the meat in the cold counter, the trash in the dustbin etc etc.

What do these things experience and what are their personalities? How do the objects relate to each other emotionally, and how is the hierarchy of the chosen environment? The aim of such exercises is not for the students to try and compete with Hans Christian Andersen, but to make them come closer to a genre and challenge their own imagination and language.

Modern fairytales of things
In the course on fairytales of things completed by eight students at the School for Authors of the Centre for Children's Literature at the Danish University of Education, the progression has been reading and analyzing fairytales of things, and then crystallizing the typical traits of the genre.

The students have then worked together on creating a series of environments in which their own fairytales of things could take place. It should be mentioned that one hour of group work resulted in over one hundred ideas for environments with objects that might be in conflict with each other.

Several of the fairytales of things by the student of the School for Authors of Children's Literature play on hierarchies and class differences in the world of objects.

In Chilli and the Butter by Grethe Wiermann Borregaard, we meet the exotic chilli who is given a hard time as a strange element in the parish pump environment of the refrigerator.

The message of the fairytale seems to be that the chilli's strength is constituted by its distinctive identity. It turns out that the chilli hangs on to its personality, while the spineless butter disappears without leaving any lasting memories.

The Paradise
by Lilja Scherfig also treats the theme of being different. At the same time, needing and longing for recognition is an important element in the emotional life of the objects. Being well-balanced or being able to exist without the recognition of others seems to be the hardest thing to do for the objects in the students' fairytales of things.

Working with shaping a fairytale of things calls for a minute attention to language. One of the ambitions of the students at the School for Authors of Children's Literature has been to find suitable lines for the various objects.

Some of the students have consciously tried to work with clichés, that is, fixed phrases. The meta-fictive perspective that we find in Hans Christian Andersen reappears in Ten Letters by Tina Schmidt.

The main objects are a sheet of writing paper and an envelope, and the meaning of writing is colossal, especially for the writing paper. The ten letters of the title are not just any letters, but a composition of characters that for the paper constitute the very meaning of life. The fairytale's theme of writing seems to suggest that it is letters, or writing, that gives life meaning. Moreover, this fairytale also contains a true romance between the two main objects.

The new fairytales of things from the course at the School for Authors show that the inspiration from Hans Christian Andersen works on many levels. At the same time the texts illustrate that the compulsory assignment - writing within a particular and very well-defined genre by no means inhibits the students' creativity - rather the reverse.

The same result was reached by the schools that Centre for Children's Literature cooperated with in connection with three literary-pedagogical development projects on Hans Christian Andersen's works.

The students need concrete directions if they are to write fiction. Developing a recognition of genres through textual analyses of Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales of things gives them a point of departure.

And their imagination is put to use in a goal-directed manner when they help each other develop environments with objects that, for instance, form the parts of a hierarchy or have an emotional relation to each other.

The students can then continue to work with the objects and their personalities, either in groups or individually. The important thing is that they can always get coaching and response, and that the response refers to the codes of the genre.

Naturally, it should not be illegal to break away from the conventions of the genre, but such a break should be the result of a conscious choice. Our experience has shown that the students write modern, well-functioning fairytales of things with a more or less obvious Hans Christian Andersen intertextuality. And the students often manage to enter into a dialogue with Hans Christian Andersen in a way that surprises.