Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

"Our Time Is the Time of the Fairy Tale": Hans Christian Andersen between Traditional Craft and Literary Modernism

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

"Our Time Is the Time of the Fairy Tale": Hans Christian Andersen between Traditional Craft and Literary Modernism

Article excerpt

The position held by Hans Christian Andersen in world literature is that of a children's author. In Scandinavia, and to some extent also in Germany, France, and Eastern Europe, there is an awareness that Andersen was much more than that: a poet, first of all, known to some extent as an author of novels, travelogues, and poems, but still unknown as the prolific writer of stage plays, which he was throughout his professional life.

In general, Andersen's fame is based on ten or twelve stories conceived of as fairy tales and, to his misfortune, often mixed up with stories by the Brothers Grimm. Fen or twelve stories, however, is an astonishing number, given the fact that Andersen was a citizen of a small country, and also considering the number of widely known texts by other so-called immortal poets.

The general view of Andersen as "only" a children's author, together with the exclusive labeling of his texts as "fairy tales," which they are and are not, has led to the common conclusion that he was and is in terms of "real" literature an outdated phenomenon of nineteenth-century Romanticism or Biedermeier. Already, the famous Danish critic Georg Brandes, in an article on Andersen as a fairy-tale writer (1869),1 besides offering all due admiration, labeled Andersen as a person of childish nature who wrote in a childish genre and belonged to a childish period in literature-namely, Romanticism. Unwilling as he was, Brandes recognized no trace of modernity in Andersen.

Let us therefore examine a few main issues concerning Andersen's position both in the history of literature and in the literary heritage of today. These issues might be:

To what extent is it justified to label Andersen as a children's author?

Are his so-called fairy tales really fairy tales or something else?

What was Andersen's position in the development of nineteenth-century literature?

What was his personal position in the context of his time?

First, let us consider the question of Andersen's being an author of children's literature. We have to face the fact that Andersen never really intended to make a literary career as a children's author. When he published his first small volumes of fairy tales in 1835, since 1829 he had already established his name in Danish literature as a prolific author of poems, stage plays, and opera librettos, not to mention his first travel book (from a travel in Germany), Shadow Pictures (1831). And his prose debut in 1829, the fantastic, E. T. A. Hoffmann-like Fodreise ("Travel on Foot"), was well received by the leading critic and dramatist of the day Johan Ludvig Heiberg, and therefore together with his numerous poems gave Andersen an immediate platform as an important name in young literature.

This, however, appeared to be a fragile position, since his huge number of publications in these first few years of his professional life soon called on harsh criticism. When Andersen set out on his educational travel between 1833 and 1834 through Germany, France, and Switzerland to Italy, it was his aim to reestablish his position in Danish literature through a lyrical drama - written partly in Paris, partly in Switzerland-Agnete og Havmanden ("Agnete and the Merman"), based on a folk song that had already inspired well-known poems by the antagonists Jens Baggesen and Adam Oehlenschläger. Instead, Agnete and the Merman turned out to be a complete failure and seemed to end his fortune as a poet.

Italy literally came to be a rebirth for Andersen, personally and as an author, even to the extent that he later noted 18 October, the day he first arrived in Rome (in 1833), as one of his birthdays, similar to his second "birthday," 6 September, the day of his first arrival in Copenhagen 1819. (His true birthday was 2 April 1805.)

During his stay in Italy he raised his head again, encouraged by the famous Danish sculptor Bertel Fhorvaldsen, and set out on a new path in his production, deciding to "rebuild his fallen house," as he expressed it,2 by entering the field of novel writing. …

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