Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Proverbs, folk tales, and fairy tales provide a great source of the world’s accumulated wisdom and perennial philosophy. To read Andersen’s fairy tales is to rediscover the adventure of the human story, to experience the sweet taste of goodness, and to marvel at the miraculous nature of reality. In “The Travelling Companion” Anderson portrays good works as forgotten actions done for their own sake and left behind, yet these humble deeds to strangers in remote places performed in the darkness of the night or the silence of a church assume the nature of hidden buried seeds that have a fruitful, potent quality that produces an unforeseen abundance.

A good deed is a travelling companion, a powerful seed, a mysterious power that never really dies or remains unacknowledged even though the sower of these actions never thinks about them as deserving of recognition or rewards. As Andersen shows, the most momentous, surprising boons of good fortune can often be traced to these forgotten deeds of a pure heart. In the story poor John parts with his last $50 to prevent two vindictive rogues from violating the dead body of a man who never paid them his debt. In a lonely, obscure place John pays the debt  and performs his simple good deed for a dead man who cannot even say thank you—only to discover later that the dead man is no more dead than a buried seed or the remembered past.

To read Andersen is to revel in the magical enchantment of innocent play and to appreciate the precious memories of childhood—memories that always lead a person, no matter his age, back to the simple pleasures, the loving people, and the permanent things that make one fall in love with life all over again.  The Snow Queen portrays Kay and Gerda playing outdoors in the glorious days of summer, beholding the beauty of creation, and delighting in the companionship of their friendship—a glimpse into an unfallen world that the innocence of a child’s fun intimates. Childhood, of course, does not remain as the story demonstrates, but the happy memories of childhood enjoyed in the rose garden abide forever and always provide a road back to the true, the good, and the beautiful.

The world, however, shatters this pure vision. In the story a piece of glass from the broken fragments of the devil’s mirror penetrates the eye and heart of Kay, and he wanders from  the rose garden of summer to the frozen land of the Snow Queen where he loses his sense of wonder and love of fun and forgets the fond memory of Gerda and the pure joy of their summer days. The lingering memories of Gerda and the rose garden, however, have not disappeared. They rescue the hardened, cynical Kay from the land of ice. When Gerda finds him in the frozen world, she sheds tears of happiness, and sings their favorite song, Kay is touched, the ice in his heart melts, and the frozen world loses its spell. To be in touch with one’s childhood, to remember the happy days of play, to recall the delightful companions of pure fun always leads one to the heart of reality where love, joy, goodness, and beauty abound forever.

To read Andersen is to learn the distinction between the higher things and the lower things, between first things and second things, and between the excellent and the mediocre. In “The Goblin at the Provision-Dealer’s,” the goblin who lives for porridge cannot believe that a student would sacrifice his purchase of cheese in order to buy an old book of poetry—only to discover that from the book a mysterious splendor fills the room and a beautiful tree burgeoning with life grows out of the page. However, unlike the student who will sacrifice the cheese for the poetry, the goblin decides to be moderate and “level-headed” assuming he can enjoy the best of both worlds: “I’ll divide my time between them…. I can’t give up the provision dealer entirely, on account of the porridge!” Whether the goblin is prudent or foolhardy is the provocative question the story raises.

In “The Swineherder” a prince courting the emperor’s daughter declares his love with the rare gifts of a perfect rose and a wondrous nightingale—a rose that blooms once in five years whose fragrance “would make one forget all one’s sorrows and troubles” and a nightingale whose piecing voice expressed “all the beautiful memories in the world.” Yet the emperor’s daughter, who rejected the priceless gifts and the prince’s exquisite love, finds herself purchasing from a dirty swine herder an odd saucepan that reveals all the smells of the kitchens in town and a rattle that produces the commonplace music of barn dances. Whereas the rose and nightingale were free gifts, the pan and the rattle cost the princess one hundred kisses. Just imagine what the emperor thinks and how he reacts when he sees a crowd of maids hiding the princess while she secretly and embarrassingly buys odd junk with intimate kisses!

To read Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Old House” is to recall how God uses the foolish and the weak to confound the powerful and the worldly wise. Why is it that only the child dares to utter the simple truth that the king is naked whereas an entire court of weavers, king, ministers, and officials can only repeat “magnificent” when asked their opinion of the emperor’s “new” clothing? Why is it that an antiquated house that the neighbors condemn as a depreciation of their property introduces a small boy into the pageantry of an ancient past and into a refined culture that captures his imagination by its portraits of knights in armor and women in silk gowns and by its “arm-chairs with great high backs and carving all over them”? Why do the neighbors in their new homes show no interest in the glorious past and venerable wisdom the old man’s home captures when a child sees the old home as a world, a cornucopia to nourish the mind?

Andersen’s stories never fail to teach the world of difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be: giving in order to receive or giving without expecting to gain, living an authentic childhood with fond memories or missing the joy of a happy childhood, valuing the highest and the best or settling for the mediocre and the banal, making a god of the belly or seeking the things that are above, and inheriting the treasures of the old or worshipping the cult of the modern. These classics are, in Matthew Arnold’s words, “the best that has been thought and said” for both the young and the old.


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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