Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, week 1

Fairy tales are one of the roots of modern fantasy, and Hans Christian Andersen is one of the best known writers of fairy tales. With the start of a free online course by the Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark on Futurelearn, I have the ideal opportunity to learn more about this influential genre of storytelling and examine its impacts on the development of fantasy.

My prior experience of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales is limited. I have been aware of many of his tales throughout my life, both as bedtime stories and as Disney movie adaptations, but was unaware until recently just how many of them were in fact written by Andersen. I was surprised to learn that stories including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen (the inspiration for the hit Disney film Frozen) were all written by Andersen.

During this article series I will be commenting on the course content each week and analysing the stories examined in it. I will also seek to understand the influences these fairy tales have had on modern fantasy and examine modern adaptations including Disney movies and other film and television versions.

Week 1

The first week’s content sets up the context in which Andersen wrote his fairy tales. He lived in a period of dramatic technological advances and consequent social changes. After Andersen’s father, a soldier, died, Andersen faced a future in a factory. Instead he set off for Copenhagen and there managed to find patronage and an education that would have otherwise been barred to him, and later opportunities to travel around Europe. Besides fairy tales Andersen also wrote short stories, novels and poetry, and also drew and made paper cuts.

Just as Andersen himself managed to transcend social boundaries – having been born into the working class he gained a middle class education and ultimately became quite wealthy – so too do many of his protagonists. Characters who break the mould are a key theme in his fairy tales.

Andersen’s fairy tales draw upon folklore. Some of his stories are based on folk tales while those of original composition draw upon the traditional elements of folk tales, such as using settings which could be almost anywhere at a nondescript period in history, including magic, and choosing ordinary people for the main characters.

These stories also draw upon Andersen’s upbringing and the struggles he and his family faced living in poverty.

In this respect Andersen is very much typical of fantasy, drawing upon traditional stories as well as personal struggles. A century later, Tolkien did the same, using his research into Anglo Saxon history and culture in conjunction with his personal experiences of war to craft an epic tale.

Next week the course will look at a folk tale, The Blue Light, and one of Andersen’s earliest fairy tales, The Tinderbox. I will, I am sure, have plenty to say about these stories. I have already read the Tinderbox and made a few notes, but with the analysis and comparison that the course offers I am sure I will have even more to say.

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