Saturday, January 26, 2013

On "The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories" by Hans Christian Andersen **

There can be too many tales. That's how I felt by the time that I was about halfway through this more than one-thousand-page collection. More Andersen that I ever imagined reading before I picked up this book.

There are reasons that Andersen is famous. At his best, his tales have a magical quality. Most of those tales have become movies, animated ones, courtesy of Disney: "The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling." A few, surprisingly have not. I would love to see the one about the girl whose brothers are turned into swans every night turned into a movie. Fascinating tale.

But those tales seem to fall mostly near the first third of the collection. As I read the collection, other themes became apparent, other obsessions. Andersen was a devout Christian, and many of the tales are strange treatises on the glory of the Protestant God. They wouldn't necessarily be too bad if they weren't so didactic. But I guess that is normal for a tale meant for kids. (Still other earlier tales seemed oddly [im]moral: the opening one, for example, in which a jealous man ends up killing himself; only the man he is jealous of isn't exactly a moral citizen himself--he's a liar, whose lies lead to the killing.)

In a few of these Christian tales, the story takes an almost medieval turn, with complex plotlines in which Christianity seems almost an add-on to what would otherwise be a very violent and horrifying tale. I'm thinking specifically of a convoluted tale in which swans rescue a miniature girl from a bog. The girl grows into a regular girl, except that during the day she is a girl with a mean disposition, and during the night she is a frog with a kind disposition. Enter a missionary. The girl looks to kill him, the frog to save him. Somewhere in here, love enters and a death and resurrection and the rescue of the girl's real mother and then a return to Egypt. Etc. Etc.

There are a lot of talking animals and a lot of talking objects. Frogs and teapots and streetlamps each impart lessons. It got a bit tiring after a very short while to read such pieces.

Still other tales are very clearly commentaries on Danish society or politicians. They were interesting from that perspective, and some of the lessons hold up well for political discourse today. I have read that in fact many of the tales were in fact commentaries on politics, and were I more of a Scandinavian scholar, I'd have likely enjoyed my reading more, being able to ferret out such connections.

As it was, I enjoyed the occasional story--and at 156 in the book, there were many to enjoy. But also many, many more to simply wad through.

What did I learn about Denmark? It's a land that should be prouder of its history and traditions, perhaps? Certainly, Andersen believes so.

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