In week two of the course, we are now looking at two stories, one written by the brothers Grimm, The Blue Light, and one by Andersen, The Tinderbox. Both are based upon the same traditional folk tale, and the examination of these two stories in parallel is a means for introducing two fairy tale frameworks: the actantial model and the home-away-home model.
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.
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.
We’re 10 weeks into the new year and I am soaring ahead with my reading goal. By now I need to have read 5 books to be on track; last night I finished book number 11.
The list so far
In my last update I mentioned I’d read (or had started reading):
- Cadfael: Monk’s Hood, by Ellis Peters (Edith Parteger)
- Cadfael: St Peter’s Fair, by Ellis Peters (Edith Parteger)
- Key Under Blue Pot and Please Milk the Goat, by Marie Sever
- Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
- Cadfael: The Leper of St Giles, by Ellis Peters (Edith Parteger)
Since then I’ve been on a bit of a Pauline M Ross binge – four of the six books I’ve read have been by her.
6. The Fire Mages’ Daughter by Pauline M Ross
I reviewed this book here. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed it a lot. Enough, at least, that I bought and subsequently read the three remaining books in Ross’ back catalogue.
7. Cadfael: The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters (Edith Parteger)
I do like this series. For a murder mystery writer, Parteger seems to have had a fairly positive view of humanity. These are comfortable books, with nothing particularly distressing or emotionally challenging, and they all end up neatly concluded to the benefit of the characters who are nice or moral, and the detriment of those who are evil.
8. The Mages of Bennamore by Pauline M Ross
I didn’t end up reviewing this one but again I enjoyed it. Not quite as good as The Fire Mages’ Daughter, I think, but another charming story full of magic and romance. I’m really enjoying seeing glimpses of this world.
9. The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah
After the softer books I’d been reading, this one really bored straight into my heart, via my tear ducts. I reviewed it here, but if you’ve not read the review, well let the fact that I reviewed a non-fantasy book on my fantasy blog clue you in.
10. The Plains of Kallanash by Pauline M Ross
Ross described this one as her “ugly duckling book” in her blog post Launch report: book 5, ‘The Fire Mages’ Daughter’. I found it full of intrigue and well-paced. It provided a fresh look at another aspect of her rich world – a new country, a new type of society. It might have struggled because the first chapter throws the reader into the deep end of that new type of society a bit – there’s a lot to process – but once the story picks up it’s a true adventure.
11. The Magic Mines of Asharim by Pauline M Ross
After everything I’d already read from her, I couldn’t wait to get my teeth stuck into the last available book from Ross. Once more, this book sheds a light on a different part of the world, though this time we get to see several different societies, neighbours to one another, with their cautious truces and different cultures. Once again this is packed with intrigue, adventure and love. I particularly liked the protagonist, who felt like a real figure – shaped by her upbringing, capable of changing her views and feelings, with anxieties to overcome and complex relationships with the other characters in the story.
A little over a week ago I went into Much Wenlock and there visited Wenlock Books, a lovely little independant bookshop full of little treasures. Aside from some great old map postcards (including one of medieval Shrewsbury I’ll use as a bookmark next time I read a Cadfael book, to save me always flicking back to the map at the start) I picked up The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift – another book in my “locals” list – and a great little hardback collection, Best Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. It’s got a cloth cover and a ribbon page marker and really thin paper for the pages and gold edging. An absolutely beautiful book.
So I’m going to make a start on Hans Christian Andersen next. I’ve been meaning to get to this. Fairy tales have been an inspiration for fantasy for decades, one of the roots of fantasy, so it’s about time I really delved into one of the definitive writers of the genre.
I’m also hoping to get back to the Aubrey-Maturin books by Patrick O’Brian again soon, it’s been a while since I read the last one. I caught the movie approximation of the series (I wouldn’t stretch to call it an adaptation) on TV not long ago – Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World – which, now I’ve read both Master and Commander (book 1) and The Far Side of the World (book 10) I can safely say is not much like either of them, except in a few individual little scenes and lines.