Hans Christian Andersen is quite arguably the best-known writer of fairy tales in the world, or at least that part of the world that derives from European traditions. In Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller, Jack Zipes argues that he is also the most misunderstood, an argument that at times is cogent, but just as often seems strained and in a large sense seems to me to miss the point.
Those stories that come to us under the broad heading of “folklore” — myths, fairy tales, folk tales, vernacular homilies, superstitions, urban legends — are collaborative efforts. It is, I think, a safe assumption that each story originated someplace, with a particular teller of tales, but they have been modified, rearranged, sometimes resketched in broad terms to fit the needs of the storyteller and his audience. The only ones who are particularly concerned with “authenticity” in this regard are the anthropologists who record them. For the storytellers, the tales are simply raw material.
The life of Hans Christian Andersen gives us a chance to see this process at work, although I’m afraid Jack Zipes’ version in Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller didn’t quite convince me. Zipes begins his study with a brief recap of Andersen’s early life, and does paint a believable portrait of a gifted writer, born into the lowest social stratum, whose life was a search for the recognition that he felt he deserved. It’s not a personality type that is all that uncommon: insecurity and egomania go hand in hand, although I think the grandiosity of expression in Zipes’ quotes from Andersen’s autobiographies and journals can be ascribed as much to nineteenth-century modes of expression as to any deep psychological motivations. Andersen’s life is not that unusual in the context of nineteenth-century romanticism, save perhaps in the degree of his social mobility. In regard to Zipes’ main point in this chapter, that Andersen never felt that he was recognized enough, or for the right things (he was a playwright, poet and novelist as well as a writer of fairy tales), offhand I can’t think of any artist anywhere who feels differently.
The second chapter, titled “The Discourse of the Dominated,” begins to seem a little strained, which carries through in the third chapter, “The Discourse of Rage and Revenge: Controlling Children.” Zipes’ main thesis seems to be that Andersen engaged in a somewhat sadomasochistic relationship with Danish society of the time. Indeed, he portrays him as something of a resentful sycophant. Again, given the context of the period, and allowing for the fact that Danish society was somewhat retrograde, it’s just as easy to ascribe this to a period of transition: before the rise of the romantics, artists were generally lumped together with craftsmen and artisans, paid on commission for works of a specified kind (and the specifications could be very detailed). That Andersen’s beginnings as a fabulist coincided with a time in which the bourgeois prejudice against literature of the fantastic was beginning to ebb is really, to me, an indication of why he was successful. By all accounts, his novels and poetry are competent, but not particularly brilliant, and sometimes really terrible. The fact that he catered to his audience, which Zipes takes as evidence of deep psychological conflict, is to me no more than any artist has done, unless he was rebellious enough, and good enough, to insist that his audience cater to him, and even then, no one starts off that way.
Zipes also makes a point of viewing Andersen’s fairy tales as a means of controlling children. In brief, he sees the moral tone and didactic nature of many of the tales as a means of enforcing a particular bourgeois, Protestant standard of behavior on young people (although he previously points out that Andersen wrote as much for adults as children, if not more). This is, again, fairly unremarkable: education, in its broader sense, is geared toward passing on the traditions and values of the dominant culture. It always has been, and always will be. The points of conflict arise, as in contemporary America, in the debate about just what those traditions and values are going to be. This is the kind of examination that is valueless without full appreciation of context. To view, for example, Andersen’s portrayal of the proper place for girls in the social construct through the lens of feminist critical theory is, I think, missing a beat — just what is the relevance of feminist theory to nineteenth-century Denmark? I think one has to establish that before hauling in the big guns.
The overarching irony is that Zipes, in the last chapter, “The Cinematic Appropriation of Andersen’s Heritage: Trivialization and Innovation,” condemns American filmmakers, and Disney, in particular, for doing just what Andersen did: using these stories as a means of reinforcing the mores of the mainstream in an entertaining way. He also evidences a bit of cultural snobbery, pushing the subtext that American mass-market films are bad, while European avant-garde films are good. I don’t think anyone can dispute the assertion that Disney waters everything down to the lowest common denominator, and sometimes below, but to make that a value judgment without reference to context is sidestepping the real issues. (Although, quite frankly, I will take a European avant-garde film over Disney any time, just because I enjoy them more. If I want an evening of mindless entertainment, I will go for a film in which everything blows up at the end.) This actually brings us back to the ideas I mentioned at the beginning of these comments: folklore is to storytellers a fund of raw material, and this applies to Andersen’s fairy tales no less than it does to the early Welsh sources for the Arthurian cycle. The storyteller may make good stories or poor stories, but that has little to do with the bare fact of using the source materials as a starting point. One wonders if Zipes would have the same attitude toward the twelfth- and thirteenth-century troubadours who converted Geoffrey of Monmouth’s dynastic history of Arthur into a series of courtly romances. Adaptation is part of the process of folklore, and the use of the process is quite separate from the quality of the result, which is something that Zipes ignores.
All told, I’m afraid this book was a disappointment. It didn’t really broaden my understanding of Andersen and his role in nineteenth-century literature to any significant degree, or add to my appreciation of just why his fairy tales have remained the force that they are in literature and film as a whole. Pity — I really would have enjoyed that, I think.