22 Oct 2009

Hans Christian Andersen

We're reading Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales as our family read-aloud right now, and I'm not finding it a pleasant experience. In fact, all too often as we approach the end of a story, I find my stomach clenching into ever tightening knots as I come to realise what the outcome of yet another tale will be. Although there is significant humour in much of Andersen's work, the overriding emotion is a deep sadness. The little match girl dies, the little mermaid's prince marries another, little Ida's flowers die and are buried, and even after Karen endures the loss of her feet as punishment for her disobedience and pride and her covetousness for the red shoes - and despite the fact that she repents - she still dies from a broken heart after all. Even stories that end well wrench at our heartstrings on the way - I can barely read The Ugly Duckling without crying; likewise Thumbelina and The Wild Swans. No, Anderson's tales are not modern feel-good-happily-ever-after stories. Not at all.

Despite this we return day after day to our lovely old book with its green cover and beautiful colour plates to immerse ourselves in a book of miserable tales that were written more than 150 years ago. Why is this so? We return because Hans Christian Andersen's stories are amongst the greatest fairy tales ever written. They are as fresh and exciting today as they were to the children of Andersen's own generation. They have an inherent goodness about them - they talk of kindness, goodness, love and hope, but above all they speak about trust in an all faithful, all loving God. The stories are deeply Christian, and yet they never preach. They talk about what is bad in our fallen world, but they also show what is good, and they do it in a way that children understand and that children love. We might feel sad at the end of a story, but we never feel hopeless, and we never feel alone.

Imagine a childhood devoid of such wonderful tales as The Emperor's New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Snow Queen or The Little Mermaid. On second thoughts, don't. It doesn't bear thinking about.

If you don't think that your children - or in fact, you - can cope with the entire anthology of Andersen's works then at least read them some individual stories. Marcia Brown's version of The Steadfast Tin Soldier is terrific, and I am particularly fond of Virginia Lee Burton's The Emperor's New Clothes.

Reading Hans Christian Andersen aloud is an interesting experience. His works are full of comedy and comment aimed at adult readers rather than their children.
I seize on an idea for grown-ups,and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds.
Like me you may not find reading Hans Christian Andersen pleasant. You will be glad however, that you've done so. So will your children.

We read it in AO2.
The Real Princess

There was once a Prince who wished to marry a Princess; but then she must be a real Princess. He travelled all over the world in hopes of finding such a lady; but there was always something wrong. Princesses he found in plenty; but whether they were real Princesses it was impossible for him to decide, for now one thing, now another, seemed to him not quite right about the ladies. At last he returned to his palace quite cast down, because he wished so much to have a real Princess for his wife.

One evening a fearful tempest arose, it thundered and lightened, and the rain poured down from the sky in torrents: besides, it was as dark as pitch.

All at once there was heard a violent knocking at the door, and the old King, the Prince's father, went out himself to open it.

It was a Princess who was standing outside the door. What with the rain and the wind, she was in a sad condition; the water trickled down from her hair, and her clothes clung to her body. She said she was a real Princess.

"Ah! we shall soon see that!" thought the old Queen-mother; however, she said not a word of what she was going to do; but went quietly into the bedroom, took all the bed-clothes off the bed, and put three little peas on the bedstead. She then laid twenty mattresses one upon another over the three peas, and put twenty feather beds over the mattresses.

Upon this bed the Princess was to pass the night.

The next morning she was asked how she had slept. "Oh, very badly indeed!" she replied. "I have scarcely closed my eyes the whole night through. I do not know what was in my bed, but I had something hard under me, and am all over black and blue.It has hurt me so much!"

Now it was plain that the lady must be a real Princess, since she had been able to feel the three little peas through the twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds. None but a real Princess could have had such a delicate sense of feeling.

The Prince accordingly made her his wife; being now convinced that he had found a real Princess. The three peas were however put into the cabinet of curiosities, where they are still to be seen, provided they are not lost.

Was not this a lady of real delicacy?


  1. Fairy tales were never meant for children. I like them because they are strong meat & heady wine, but sweet & innocent, meek & mild they are not. At least you can never accuse them of being twaddle! ☺

  2. I quite like a take on 'The Princess and the Pea' that I saw on Sesame St once where the Princess declared that of course to be a real Princess she must deal with many problems and so she practised sleeping with many items - to toughen her up. It is hard to immagine not having any heritage of fairytales though.

  3. oh.. And the artwork is enough to feast on too. It's gorgeous.

  4. I was given a beautiful contemporary edition of some of the stories when I was hospitalized in 1st grade. The stories scared the you-know-what out of me!! I did, however, love the Tinderbox and the Ugly Duckling. My kids, perhaps because they were older when they had enough English to listen to these, did not find them that bad. It think these, and Lang's Red, Blue, etc, Fairy Tales are all good to enjoy. Just like Lamb's Tales From Shakespeare, they give a child such rich language and imaginative images that they do feed the soul.


I'd love you to leave me a message. Tell me what you like - and what you don't. Just remember that this is what we do in our family - it doesn't have to be what you do in yours...