- Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller, and: The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation from the Danish
Known as the “Hans Christian Andersen year,” 2005 marked the two hundredth anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth, an event celebrated extensively in Denmark and around the world. A number of scholarly works on Andersen also appeared during the anniversary year, including the two reviewed here.
Jack Zipes is well known for his previous work on folktales and fairy tales, especially on the Brothers Grimm, and his name and reputation will no doubt attract readers to his Andersen book. Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller contains four thematic chapters; the first two are substantially revised and expanded versions of previously published articles. Zipes intends his effort to be “a modest but provocative contribution to the scholarship on Andersen with the hope that I may cause some eyebrows to be raised while revealing some new aspects of this pathetically great artist” (p. xvi). The book focuses on Andersen’s fairy tales; his other works, including dramas, novels, and travel books, are touched on briefly but generally are dismissed as being of lower artistic quality.
Chapter 1 offers a short biographical sketch and a concise overview of Andersen’s literary output, which provides the necessary background to Zipes’s discussion of Andersen’s writings. A variety of important biographical issues are treated here, ranging from Andersen’s desire to be known as a great writer (Digter) to his self-doubt and sexuality. The next chapter discusses the role of social class in Andersen’s life and works. Zipes notes that Andersen attempted to move from his lower-class origins and upbringing into the upper classes. Despite his best efforts, Andersen never fully assimilated into the upper classes, although he does seem to have eventually been accepted by them. This leads to the paradox that Zipes notes, that Andersen was “a man who hated to be dominated, though he loved the dominant class” (p. 49). Based on close readings of several of the fairy tales, including “The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep” and “Everything in Its Right Place,” Zipes further argues that Andersen’s fairy tales can be viewed as “literary exercises in the legitimation of a social order to which he subscribed” (p. 75).
Chapter 3, “The Discourse of Rage and Revenge: Controlling Children,” addresses a rather odd dichotomy in Andersen’s fairy tales: they are read by and to children, yet Andersen seems to have had a distant, limited, and sometimes troubled relationship with children. He had no children of his own, for example. In his works, this troubled relationship is often expressed in terms of control, as obedient children are rewarded and disobedient children are punished. Zipes again considers specific tales (including “The Snow Queen” and “Ib and Little Christina”) and offers new readings in these terms. He also briefly compares Andersen to J. M. Barrie, a comparison developed further in the next chapter, where Zipes looks at Andersen’s treatment by the film and television industry. Zipes is generally scornful of such efforts (especially the 1954 film Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye, and Disney’s The Little Mermaid). Zipes praises a few adaptations, describing a 1948 Czech version of “The Nightingale” as “highly imaginative” (p. 126). In this chapter, Zipes also returns to the comparison with Barrie, commenting on the 2004 film about him, Finding Neverland. The book concludes with [End Page 240] endnotes, two bibliographies (one for written works and one for films), and an index.
Although Zipes is justifiably well known for his work on fairy tales, this book does not entirely meet the high standard of his earlier work. His arguments are sometimes overly speculative; for instance, I am not completely convinced that there are racist implications in...