Hans Christian Andersen: An infectious genius

Hans Christian Andersen’s first collection of fairy-tales was published in England in 1846; their immediate success developed into a lasting popularity which has never faltered. Inevitably, many English writers were drawn to follow his striking example, consciously or subconsciously. At worst, they produced worthless imitations; at best, they transmuted his methods, form and technique into original and beautiful works of art. The most notable of these include Mrs. Gatty, Mrs. Ewing, Mary De Morgan, Oscar Wilde and Laurence Housman; while Charles Dickens and Hans Christian Andersen reveal parallel development in the use of imaginative symbolism in their writing.

Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tales could not have arrived in England, in the first translations from his immensely individual Danish, at a more propitious point in time: a few years before the middle of the nineteenth century. To see why, we need to take a glance further back into the past. The dark ages were the good old days for story-telling, man’s earliest form of entertainment. Wonderful stories (as Mary Howitt, Andersen’s first English translator, rendered his title) were naturally accepted before the advent of culture; and then, after it had reached a peak of sophistication in seventeenth century France, Charles Perrault caught the mood of the moment by presenting literary versions of his own nurse’s tales to the court ladies, who longed back to simple pleasures. But the Age of Enlightenment’s stern and rationalistic materialism banished the tales as frivolous and dangerous, and they were forced to carry on a demoted existence in chapbooks.

Fairy-tales were disapproved of by the English writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century who produced the first books specifically written for the improvement of the juvenile character. The evangelistic writers, Mrs. Sherwood, Mrs. Barbauld and Mrs. Trimmer, set the standard of moralistic tales and despised the imaginative world of fairy-tale. Trimmer stated that fairy-tales filled children’s heads “with confused notions of wonderful and supernatural events”, and Sherwood called them an improper medium of instruction.

As book-production increased, the market broadened, and some moral tales appeared which were well enough written; one or two early children’s novels came out which contained freshness and even joy, for instance, Catherine Sinclair’s Holiday House (1839), in which for the first time children were permitted to be naughty rather than sinful. On the whole, children were considered practically damned from birth for having been born in sin, from which state they had to be weaned by severe methods, entailing the dullest moral lessons and strictest regime. Imagination, the evangelists felt, was a quality more probably deriving from the Devil than a God-given faculty.

But then, happily, the giants of the Romantic movement joined battle against “Mrs. Barbauld’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense”, as Charles Lamb put it, cursing “the Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human”, and pleading that a child should be given “that beatiful interest in wild tales, which made the child a man”. Coleridge said that those tales had habituated his mind “to the Vast”, and Wordsworth considered they nourished the mind. Scott and Dickens both rallied to the defence in their turn.

Twenty years before Andersen’s tales came to England in 1846, the first translations of the Grimm Brothers’ collection of folk-tales was published in England, and became immediately popular. They have indeed retained their position, and collections of the most famous Grimm and Andersen tales are still rather incongruously published together. For there are great differences in tone and content. The Grimm Brothers were folk historians who wrote down the tales they collected from country people in as verbatim a form as possible. Hans Christian Andersen created his own literary tales in several ways: some were certainly based on old legends and tales from, for example, The Arabian Nights stories, or those of Boccaccio; some were snatches of natural science put into story-form; some were entirely his own inventions.

Though the early (like most of the later) translators made a sorry hash of Andersen’s terse, witty, colloquial Danish (which had so shocked the Copenhagen critics when the first tales appeared there), bowdlerising, moralising and extemporising with insouciance, there was still a radical difference between the Grimms and Andersen: Andersen combined with his personal intensity of vision a multifaceted dazzling world where every character, whether animal, vegetable or mineral, lived and expressed itself truly to its own milieu, in the real world, rather than the legendary one of folktale. In this imaginative diversity, this proliferation of worlds, humour was the salt (as Andersen himself put it) of the tales, sharpening the characterisation and adding piquancy to the plot and action; softening the moral impact which was certainly not neglected by a true writer of the nineteenth century, and avoiding, on the whole, too sweet a sentimentality. And beneath the humour in the tales glowed the spirituality and universality of wisdom.

These were the qualities which assured the success of Andersen’s stories all over the world, despite roughness of construction, occasional mawkishness and streaks of cruelty, that are more repellant to presentday readers than to the Victorians brought up on a blend of sentiment, harshness, and a certain amount of grotesquery in their reading.

Dr. E. L. Bredsdorff of Cambridge has made a detailed study of the work of eleven of these early translators, whose work was published during the three decades succeeding 1846[1]. It is a proof of the worth of the tales that they won such immediate and immense popularity in spite of the various kinds of maltreatment they received; few English people knew any Danish, and some translators surmounted the problem by working from the already-existing translations into German. Yet the tales were, and remain, deeply valued, to this day. Almost every week one or other of them, perhaps most frequently “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, is used metaphorically in modern English.

The study of influence presents pitfalls: discoveries of imitations of plot or actual scenes do not really offer much gain beyond the proving of plagiarism, which is anyway not justifiably always to be scorned as a shortcoming if the source material is rewelded into a new validity. What Shakespeare did with Holinshed, we may say that Andersen did with the Arabian Nights, Boccaccio and Danish folk-tales. It is, though, influence from ideas that we should rather elucidate, the ideas underlying the plot and theme and expressed through the idiosyncratic medium.

I maintain that Andersen’s imagination did more to invigorate the latent powers of nineteenth century English writers of literary fairytales than any other influence, given the favourable atmosphere in the mental climate at the time, and the liberation from moralistic bounds which had already been aided by Coleridge, Lamb and the other writers mentioned.

Hans Christian Andersen felt a natural affinity with England on his two vistits here in 1847 and 1857, when the flowering and then obnubilation of his relationship with Charles Dickens took place. There were marked similarities in the imagination of the two writers if we consider the element in Dickens’s writing that can be classified as fairy-tale, and in this respect they seem to have developed on parallel lines. Andersen acknowledged his debt to Dickens in novel-writing – there are passages in some of Andersen’s five novels that are unmistakably Dickensian. Dickens directly inspired Andersen’s story, “The Beetle”, and, indirectly, “The Dryad”. The final words of Andersen’s story, “The Fir Tree” (1845) are: “Past! Past! And that is the way of all stories!” Andersen used these words in a letter written after Dickens’s death in 1870, and had also used them in 1859 in the retrospective sketch, A Visit to Charles Dickens in the Summer of 1857, written in 1859. The Old Curiosity Shop, (1841) was published in Danish translation in 1841-43, and was one of Andersen’s favourites. The last words of that book run, “Such are the changes which a few years bring about, and so do things pass away, like a tale that is told!”

Dickens and Andersen both used animistic descriptions of the wind on various occasions. The character of the wind in Andersen’s story, “The Wind Tells the Story of Valdemar Daae and his Daughters” 1859 closely resembles the description of the wind in Dickens’s “The Chimes”, 1844, and also in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44). But, conversely, there is a very similar wind description in Andersen’s story, “The Garden of Paradise”, which was written in 1839. Dickens could not have known this when he was writing “The Chimes” in 1844, as Andersen’s tale was not published in English until 1846. Thus, though we can certainly find influence from Dickens on Andersen, and possibly influence from Andersen on Dickens, we can also prove parallel development.

Andersen describes his imaginative world by a diversity of devices; the variety of settings was achieved only by making use of various parts of the world, which included many different countries, the undersea world and the interior of the earth, but was enhanced by what may occur most immediately to be his particular device, personification of animals and inanimate objects. He did not, of course, institute this ancient device of fable and tale. But he combined it with his particular gift of colloquialising the characters’ utterances and so making them real and natural, not vehicles for maxims and morals. The moral in Andersen is always delicately suggested, often hidden, as his detractors were quick to notice. This characteristic provided English writers with much inspiration, as did several of his most successful themes, which were psychologically the most rich and satisfying, for instance, the mermaid theme, Andersen-type transformations, and magic shoes.

Andersen used the normal conventions of fairy-tale: royal personages (often comical, however, like the King in bedroom slippers in “The Swineherd”, or sick and failing, like the Emperor in “The Nightingale”: Andersen had a hard fight to make his ambitious way up the social ladder of nineteenth century Denmark and Germany, until he could proudly, if childishly, boast of being the friend of Grand Dukes and the house-guest of the Royal Family); the quest (Gerda seeking for Kay in “The Snow Queen”, Rudy in “The Ice Maiden”, and many more); magic transformations (“The Marsh King’s Daughter”, where the heroine is transformed from beautiful girl to ugly toad and back again, symbolically representing the light and dark sides of human nature); there are witches (the sea-witch in “The Little Mermaid”), fairies and trolls (“Elves’ Hill”), in limited numbers, however; tasks that must be undertaken to gain reward or result; apparitions of angels, spirits and Death, as favourite a subject in nineteenth century Denmark as in England.

The first of the five writers of fairy-tales to be considered here is Mrs. Gatty, who was a contemporary of Andersen, living from 1809-1873. Margaret Gatty was a gifted woman with an alert and scientific mind whose book on British seaweeds was for many decades the standard textbook on the subject. She edited a children’s periodical, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, which published a total of 29 of Andersen’s later tales, and also Lucky Peer in seven instalments. This was the first appearance of some of these stories in English translation; the translators included Augusta Plesner and Edward Bell, son of Mrs. Gatty’s publisher, George Bell.

Mrs. Gatty greatly admired Andersen, but felt, like others with her evangelistic turn of mind, that he did not drive his moral point deeply enough. She therefore set out to write stories that while emulating Andersen would rectify what she considered to be his shortcomings. These became her five little books of Parables from Nature[2], which were immensely popular in her day and for some time afterwards, though because of their narrower moralism and shallower wisdom they have not stood the test of time like Andersen’s work. However, they are delightful in their way, finely written, and with occasional touches of humour in the personification of creatures; and the detail of natural science they contain is still interesting to read.

Juliana Horatia Ewing (1841-1885) was the second daughter of the eight children of Dr. and Mrs. Gatty; she was educated at home, the vicarage at Ecclesfield, Yorkshire, where her father was vicar; naturally her mother introduced her children to Andersen’s fairy-tales as well as those of the Grimm Brothers, Bechstein and others, and from childhood Julie fell into the role of family story-teller. Her mother wrote to Hans Christian Andersen through her publishers, who sent her each new volume of translations of his Eventyr, so he could be said to have been almost a family friend, certainly a very real presence; his was the greatest influence on Juliana, the developing writer, and the one which came to enrich her work in a deep and subtle way.

The other two chief influences on Juliana Horatia Ewing were her mother, who encouraged her daughter to write, and recognised that she was a more imaginatively gifted artist than herself, and John Ruskin. Juliana Horatia Ewing’s other interest was art, and she made an intensive study of Ruskin’s “Elements of Drawing”, whose rules she sought to apply to the form and construction of her stories.

But the style of language she adopted was Andersenian: a crisp and natural manner, often spiced with humour, similar to Andersen’s terse colloquial language. Like him, she took infinite pains over her composition: “The much labour I spend on so few words”, she wrote of her stories to her husband, Alexander Ewing. She worked so hard that she was often reduced to exhaustion and her frequent complaints of lethargy reveal a similar lack of vitality to that sometimes experienced by Andersen.

Juliana Horatia Ewing wrote a preface to her book of Old-Fashioned Fairy-Tales (1876) in which she stated her views on the construction of fairy-tales, including the opinion that they should be written as if they were oral tradations taken down from the lips of a ‘story-teller’, “Brevity and epigram must ever be the soul of their wit, and they should be written as tales that are told”. We recall Andersen’s statement in his Notes: “I wanted the style to be such that the reader felt the presence of the story-teller; therefore the spoken language had to be used”.

All the Gatty family were wont to quote Andersen’s words from “The Marsh-King’s Daughter’’: “Fairy-tale never dies”, with all the spiritual depth that can be plumbed from that short dictum.

There is a fascinating example of deliberate imitation of Hans Christian Andersen by Juliana Horatia Ewing when she was very young. In Margaret Gatty’s book Aunt Judy’s Letters (1862) three short sketches by Juliana are included. They were written as a joke to show one of her brothers how it was possible to write in the Andersenian manner about ordinary domestic objects. “The Smut” and “The Crick” are brief parodies, the first tells of the councillor and the conceited smut who is wiped off his nose and taught the folly of too high aspiration. “The Crick” is a tragi-comedy of doomed love. Juliana achieved exact mimicry: the humorous pathos, the colloquial style and the Andersenian construction of the short sentences. “The Brothers” so closely resembles Andersen’s story, “Five Peas from the Same Pod” (1855) that it must have been a conscious or sub-conscious imitation.

As Juliana’s powers of writing increased, the influence of Andersen was diffused and deepened. In some of the early work there are resemblances in subject matter: “A Bit of Green” has echoes of “The Angel”, “Melchior’s Dream” is an allegorical story of Time and Death which seems to prefigure “Moving Day”; “Friedrich’s Ballad” is reminiscent of Andersen’s autobiography.

As her skill developed, it is in the beauty of her stories that we recognise Andersen’s spirit. Mrs. Overtheway’s Remembrances (1869) was written during the two years’ stay in Canada spent by the Ewings at the happy beginning of their married life. The small English heroine of this book is called Ida, reminding us instantly of Andersen’s “Den lille Ida”. Ida, like Gerda, goes on a search in the snow. The picture of the coming of spring and the anthropomorphical description of the water with onomatopoeic words is pure Andersen, and a comparison seals the influence. Ida has scrambled through a hedge: “It is like going into the world to seek one’s fortune”, she thought; “Thus Gerda went to look for little Kay . . .”

Another of the stories in this volume personifies a family of albatrosses, who closely resemble the stork families of Andersen.

Three other stories written at this period exhibit the same humour, perception and beauty. “Three Christmas Trees” is set in Canada, which is not unlike Denmark in climate, and this tale echoes “The Fir-Tree” in its melancholy; “An Idyll of the Wood” is a poetical story of a caged wild bird reminiscent of “The Daisy”. A particularly appealing story is “Christmas Crackers”. Into a quiet domestic theme Juliana Horatia Ewing weaves a story of human types of intense and mysterious beauty, in which a number of lives are pictured briefly yet with exquisite detail, partly through variations on a theme, partly through a delicate application of colours, and shot through with spiritual insight. The mysterious controlling figure of the tutor who supplies the magical element is very like Mother Elder.

Juliana Horatia Ewing also created some memorable animal portraits, particularly in “Father Hedgehog and his Family”, where even the hedgehog’s exclamations are correct for their milieu in true Andersenian manner. There is a tale about a sexton beetle, which is, however, more a natural history lesson in the style of Margaret Gatty than the Andersenian criticism of human behaviour that is behind his story of the Dung Beetle. But the cat in Mrs. Ewing’s “Toots and Boots” has some tart comment on human hypocrisy.

The Andersenian qualities in Juliana Horatia Ewing’s work show the beneficent influence of one creative mind on another, which in her best stories had been assimilated into the deepest level of her creativity, so that the work produced could not be said to be imitation, but rather her own propagation from the parent plant of fairy-tale writing.

Mary De Morgan (1850-1907) was the sister of William De Morgan, a member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood who became renowned as the potter who made beautiful tiles. Like Laurence Housman and Andersen, Mary remained single; she was devoted to her brother William, as Laurence was devoted to his sister Clemence, and was a beloved aunt to her many nephews, nieces and young friends, who included the young Morrises, Burne-Joneses and Rudyard Kipling and his sister, and for whom she wrote her fairy-tales. They comprise three charming volumes, On a Pincushion (1877), The Necklace of Princess Fiorimonde (1880) and The Windfairies (1900). Mary De Morgan’s work is original and individualistic. It is in the sharpness of humorous comment, the personification and variety of talking plants and creatures, the transformations, quests, and vivid descriptions which reveal a deep love of nature, that Andersen’s influence is felt in her work. There is moral purpose in many of Mary’s stories, a serious desire to teach runs through most of them, but always subordinated to the variety and beauty of the imaginative writing; the quest of most of these characters is for truth as much as for personal fulfilment. When they find truth, often within themselves, after long searching, these characters find happiness, unlike many of Andersen’s and most of Oscar Wilde’s.

The fairy-tales of Oscar Wilde provide an example of direct imitation which developed into a fruitful absorption of influence. A few mentions of Andersen in the writings of Oscar’s mother, Lady Wilde, show in what high esteem she held “the Dane”, as he was called in England in his lifetime; and in a letter Wilde expressed his admiration for Andersen as an artist[3]; it is interesting that when Wilde started writing his two volumes of nine fairy-tales which form the one book usually published, The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891), it was Andersen that he emulated and not the Irish folk-tales his mother had collected and published. In the first and title tale, “The Happy Prince”, there is indeed a case of direct influence, not surprising in Wilde, the unabashed plagiarist. There is a character and a line straight out of Andersen’s story, “The Little Match Girl”, the match-seller herself, whose father will beat her if she goes home without any money. Also in this story are the personified characters of the Swallow, who is in love with a Reed (echoing “Thumbelina”), the Prince’s lead heart which survives the fire like the Steadfast Tin Soldier, and some Andersenian-type comical town councillors and a teacher, who act as commentators. This is the most imitative story in Wilde’s collection. Those that follow become more original in plot yet more Andersenian in depth. “The Selfish Giant” has a frozen heart that needs to be melted by love, like Kay’s in “The Snow Oueen”. “The Remarkable Rocket” resembles “The Darning Needle”, ending his life in a ditch as full of vanity as before he was exploded.

“The Nightingale and the Rose” is a story of self-sacrificial love which echoes Andersen’s “The Nightingale”, though it also takes elements from Persian poetry. The most profound of Wilde’s tales is the last story in the collection, “The Fisherman and his Soul”; it contains echoes and elements reflecting the breadth of Wilde’s reading, from Herodotus, Mandeville, and Marco Polo, German romances of witchcraft, and Irish folk-tales. But the loudest echoes here are from two stories by Andersen, “The Shadow”, and “The Little Mermaid”. “The Shadow” is one of Andersen’s deepest, and darkest, stories, and is concerned with soul-bartering, a subject which always fascinated Wilde, and which he dealt with at greater length in The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“The Little Mermaid’’ is echoed by Wilde in the mermaid, whose love, and whose habitat, the sea, represent the purity and freedom of the life of the subconscious, opposed to the evil that inhabits the dry land and the soul without love. Wilde’s description of the undersea palace and its surroundings closely follows that of Andersen. As in the first story, so in the last we find direct influence, but in a far deeper allegorical work.

Wilde at heart was perhaps less pessimistic than Andersen, and he gives a positive, if sad, ending to this story, when he finally unites after death the body of the mermaid, the mind and heart of the fisherman, and his redeemed soul, which in its travels learned evil, but later repented. Andersen’s mermaid was never united with her beloved prince, and she sacrifices her life for love of him, and embarks on three hundred years of purgatory, while he lives on with his princess.

The writing of literary fairy-tales is, among other things, an exercise in the search for identity, and the coming-to-terms of the writer with his own problems. This is very clear in many of Andersen’s tales, as when he recounts his succes in “The Ugly Duckling”, or laments, as is more frequent, his solitude in “The Little Mermaid”, or exorcises his guilt, feelings in “The Red Shoes”. Several writers particularly influenced by Andersen were personalities with problems, like Oscar Wilde.

Laurence Housman (1865-1959), brother of the poet A. E. Housman, an ebullient and successful writer, wrote four books of beautiful allegorical fairy-tales at the turn of the century, between 1894-1904, and two more thirty years later[4]. Many of these stories reveal a spiritual struggle, a longing for the freedom to gain some unattainable love.

An early critic noticed the resemblance to Andersen’s work in Housman’s, saying that some of it was as good as Andersen at his best: the greatest master of his art. Andersenianism is present in Housman in various forms: most attractively in the delicacy of humour apparent at moments in many of the stories, particularly in the speeches of the personified creatures. In “The Moonstroke”, Jackdaw and Janedaw rear a family; the littlest young jackdaw becomes moonstruck and his wish to sing like a nightingale is granted; when his mother hears him she says, “Don’t make that noise! It’s not decent!” Housman criticises human foibles in true gentle Andersenian manner, and protests against hypocrisy by this means in a number of stories. His work contains even less moralism than Andersen’s, though the upholding of the virtues of the good, the true and the beautiful, so beloved of Andersen, are apparent all through it; as is his sympathy for the unfortunate.

Two Andersenian images are used recurrently by Housman: trees and shoes. Rootedness in human beings, signifying spiritual bondage, was a theme much dwelt on by Housman, who wrote a tale called “The Rooted Lover”, about a lover transformed into a flower. In one of the late collections there is a story called “The Happy Forest”, which is a variation on the Garden of Eden story, and tells of trees which are able to move. It is reminiscent of Andersen’s “The Last Dream of the Old Oak Tree”, where the tree dreams back through its life and imagines it is striving so hard to rise to heaven that it tears its roots from the earth and rises together with all the myriad insects and creatures it has sheltered in its lifetime.

All these stories are allegories on the growth of individual spirituality. There is a vain tree, “The Parlous Tree”, closely related to Andersen’s “The Fir Tree”, both of whom die in vanity. One of Housman’s most profound stories is “The Shadow-Weavers”; though there are echoes here of the Greek Fates, the Parcae, in the shadow-weavers, who sit weaving dwellings out of human shadows, there is similarity with Andersen’s “The Shadow”, representing the dark side of human nature of which man is ashamed: the Jungian anima.

Magic shoes are used by Housman in much the same way as Andersen in that they have an animation of their own and can make the dead stand up and dance. But they are used for beneficent purposes in several stories and not to inflict cruel punishment as in “The Red Shoes”. Housman, an attractive and robust character, did not seek to punish normal feeling as Andersen sadly felt constrained to do.

In his “Bemærkninger til Eventyr og Historier II”, written in 1874, Hans Christian Andersen said that he had tried his hand at every radius in the circle of the fairy-tale[5]. The work of the five English writers discussed here may be said to have extended some of those radii and so enlarged the enchanted circle Andersen had drawn.



  1. ^ v. E. L. Bredsdorff, Hans Christian Andersen og England, (Copenhagen, 1954), Ch. 16, pp 489-522.
  2. ^ Published in 1855, 1857, 1861, 1864 and 1871.
  3. ^ “It may be said that so great an artist as Hans Andersen wrote stories for the purpose of pleasing children. This . . . would be an error. Hans Andersen wrote to please himself, to realize his own sense of beauty, as he deliberately cultivated that simplicity of style and method which is a result of a subtle and self-conscious art”. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, ed. Stuart Mason, (London, 1967), pp. 368-369.
  4. ^ A Farm in Fairyland (1894), The House of Joy (1895), The Field of Clover (1898), The Blue Moon (1904), Turn-Again Tales (1930) and What-O-clock Tales (1932).
  5. ^ Hans Christian Andersens Eventyr, ed. Brix & Jensen, (Copenhagen 1918— 20), V, p. 402.