Something Is Rotten In The State Of Denmark



Hans Christian Andersen and the modern sceptic

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Denmark is a nice place. The capital is quirky, the standard of living is high, and the whole country is small enough that if you really do want to escape it, Germany and Sweden are never more than a quick car drive away.[1]
Plus, Hamlet’s castle is there.
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Yet it was also home to Hans Christian Andersen – and is subsequently responsible for a statue of near-legendary insipidness, which boasts the dubious honour of often featuring on lists of the world’s most
disappointing tourist attractions.
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Underwhelming. Undskyld.
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There’s a certain irony in the fact that the world-famous Little Mermaid suffers an eternal view of industrial towers on one shore, and flocks of tourists on the other. Deprived of the beauties of both ocean and land…! The original tale by Hans Christian Andersen is depressing, however, so
perhaps the statue taps into ‘the vibe’[2] more accurately than previously believed.
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Yet the tone of Andersen’s writing often goes beyond mere sadness. Indeed, there is something dark and twisted lying at the heart of many of his stories, and it’s not merely the remains of The Steadfast Tin Soldier and his girlfriend.
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Sour Grapes
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To swipe shamelessly from Grimm’s Fairy Tales (though I know the above is from Aesop’s Fables, don’t worry): can you recall the apple in the tale of Snow White?
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Stupid question – of course you can. So picture it now: ripe and red on the outside, yet rotten within.
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Ah, sweet childhood memories.
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Andersen’s fairytales aren’t entirely dissimilar to this apple. The collection I read was made up of twelve titles, and while some came as pleasant surprises, others were downright disturbing. One gets the impression – and it’s true – that Andersen did not have a happy or easy life.
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The collection kicks off with The Little Swineherd, which is quite possibly the reason behind why this book was second-hand. Essentially, a prince wants to marry a princess, and he tries to win her favour by offering her beautiful gifts. Yet the princess has superficial tastes: she wants only artificial gifts, as opposed to the nightingale and the rose presented to her by her suitor. The prince is understandably ticked off.
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What cannot be rationalised, however, is that the rest of the story is driven by his bruised ego and subsequent desire to shame the girl who rejected him. He puts on a disguise, manages to trick her into kissing him while her father is watching, and has her banished from her home as a result. He then reveals himself to be the spurned prince, says a few bitter parting words, and goes home to stew over the injustices of life and vent on online MRA forums (or so I assume).
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As a reader in the 21st century, this was very hard to swallow. Just because someone is shallow, doesn’t share your tastes, or even rejects you out of hand, it doesn’t mean that they deserve to be castigated. ‘Punishing the proud princess’ is a trope in fairytales, and I sincerely hope that it goes off and drowns in a mud hole along with the cases of wounded pride that spawned it.
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Regrettably, however, The Little Swineherd is not merely the moral runt of the story collection, but rather a textbook manifestation of the disturbing attitudes which pervade many of Andersen’s fairytales. Identifying such flaws is disappointing, for Andersen was a complex writer, and his imagination, at its best, truly flew very high.
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Yet Andersen’s lows were, without a doubt, exceedingly low. Barrel-bottom-scraping low. Post-climate-change-Netherlands low.
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The Tinder Box 
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Oh boy.
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Soldier meets witch. The witch actually seems like a decent sort – perhaps she is merely a ‘witch’ because she is ugly – for she sends him on a no-strings-attached errand to grab a hidden tinder box, and willingly gives him an abundance of gold coins in return. Seems generous, right? Wrong! The soldier wants the tinder box too, and when the witch refuses to tell him
what’s so special about it, he takes it by force and beheads her for good
measure.
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The soldier suffers no consequences for his actions. He moves to town and uses the tinder box (it’s essentially Aladdin’s magic lamp, but flammable) to grant his every wish – including that of having the local princess carried to him on the back of a giant dog while she sleeps. You read that correctly.

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If that weren’t bad enough, Andersen then follows up with this unsettling piece of 17th century romance:
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“She […] was so lovely that anyone could see at once she was a real princess. The soldier could not let well alone. Kiss her he must, for he was a true soldier.” (p.133)
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Great. First comes the classic trope of Beauty = ‘Real’ Princess, whatever that is. And then there’s the man credited with having about as little control over – and therefore, responsibility for – his actions as a hungry barracuda.
If that’s how true soldiers are, then I fear for the citizens they’re meant to
defend…
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The princess’s parents aren’t too thrilled upon eventually learning of the nightly abduction of their sleeping child. The soldier is arrested and sentenced to death – and had the story stopped here, it might have been almost passable. Instead, however, the ending sees the soldier use the tinder box to conjure up some giant dogs to save him from being hanged, and watch as the dogs murder the Judges, the Council, and both the King and Queen.
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The cherry on top? The soldier marries the princess, the two become the ruling monarchs, and the princess “really very much liked” (p.137) the arrangement.
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Spoiler: I’m not really smiling
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Perhaps Andersen failed to mention that she had a severe case of short-term memory loss. Maybe she was the victim of a lobotomy gone wrong, and subsequently suffered no grief over her parents’ sudden deaths, or
guilt over marrying their murderer. Either way, there can be little doubt that the kingdom dissolved into anarchy and Westeros-style population control in three days flat.
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The Flying Trunk
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An irresponsible merchant’s son squanders his father’s money, and then tricks a princess into marrying him by passing himself off as a Turkish god (though he ends up getting stranded somewhere and then going off on his own, while she is left waiting passively for him, forever). The couple’s meeting also includes an unsolicited kiss (bequeathed yet again to a sleeping girl, no less). Take a look at what the merchant’s son does upon hearing that the Princess is off-limits for the sake of her own safety, owing to a prophecy (which comes true, thanks to him) about having a doomed love life.
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“He […] sat on the trunk, flew on to the roof of the castle, and crept through the Princess’s window. She lay upon a sofa asleep, and was so pretty that the merchant’s son could not help kissing her. She awoke and was quite frightened, but he said that he was the god of the Turks who had come through the air to her […]” (p.66)
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The use of bold is my own; I felt the conjugation of the verb ‘to creep’ to be especially worth highlighting. As an aside, perhaps it’s time someone created a drinking game surrounding Andersen’s stories and lack of consent. We’d all get horribly drunk, and the fairytales would probably look a lot better through a haze of temporary illiteracy.
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The Little Mermaid
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On the plus side, this story is original, touching, and lyrical to the degree that one could pick a descriptive passage at random and surface with a gem in hand. In many ways, this is Andersen at his best: pure imagination, combined with heart-wrenching emotions and a sympathetic (though droopy) protagonist.
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The original story is also far more interesting than any Disney version, exploring questions surrounding souls, immortality, sacrifice, and hard choices. Furthermore, the mermaid’s death makes for a strong ending (or perhaps I’m just morbid). As for the heavy Christian undertones which might jar some audiences today – and the fact that the mermaid is ultimately rewarded for the selflessness with which she helped Prince Average – the story is arguably interesting enough to overcome its flaws and maintain its hold in posterity.
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That said, for all that the little mermaid is merely swimming in the tailfins of every classic infatuated teenager, she’s a pretty poor example of what a girl can be. “Moon after your man” seems to be the message here. It’s like Bella Swan all over again, only with better swimming ability..

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We’ve come so far.

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Thumbelina

Apparently Thumbelina in Danish is known as ‘Tommelise’ – how pretty! Indeed, like The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina is an imaginative and visual story whose imagery forms a nice ode to nature.
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Also like The Little Mermaid, however, Thumbelina’s titular heroine is so passive that it’s a wonder no-one mistook her for an inanimate object and locked her in a cutlery drawer. She may not give up her voice, but she does drift from arranged marriage to arranged marriage with very little protest, in spite of her misgivings. Granted, one of the story’s strengths is that it is arguably an allegory for arranged marriages, exploring the powerlessness of girls taken from their families against their will. Yet it was disappointing to see how little backbone Thumbelina possessed, especially in the face of guilt-tripping – I found myself hoping she’d snap, and perhaps kill Mrs Mouse in the library with a candlestick, Cluedo-style. Then again, maybe this is just another example of why I have yet to publish any children’s
fiction.
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Nevertheless, another issue with this tale is that it, too, reinforces the idea of beauty equalling goodness and value. The beautiful swallow is pure and generous, while the toads and the mole – all described as being ugly – fill the roles of unsuitable suitors. Even the fish are in on this appearance-based merit system: regarding Thumbelina, “they thought her so pretty that they were quite angry at the idea of her going to live with an ugly toad” (p.78).
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One wonders whether Thumbelina would have been saved from her various arranged marriages and abductions had she had crooked teeth, cankles, or warts on her nose. One also wonders how quickly she managed to forget her poor parents, and what pushed her to marry the pint-sized prince who proposed to her in a decision based purely on her looks. Alas, we shall never know.
The Princess and the Pea
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Ah, another prince in search of a ‘real Princess.’ Yet the princess in this tale is apparently the real deal, for she passes the test of being able to feel a pea through a mountain of mattresses.

Troublingly acute sensitivity is certainly a trait worth passing down the generations, and it’s comforting to know that the monarchy has such sure-fire methods of testing a girl’s suitably for occupying positions of power. Let’s just hope that Andersen was showing a sense of humour (I like to think he was), and poking fun at the heightened sensitivities sometimes claimed, in times past, to be a differentiating factor between the nobility and the great unwashed.

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The Ugly Duckling

A duckling is born ugly and picked on for a couple of pages, only to mature into a beautiful swan. Might this just be the original “F*** all the haters, I’m fabulous” story? No wonder we all like it so much.
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Yet the story’s messages about beauty can actually be read as being rather distasteful. For starters, the ugly duckling only finds happiness upon transforming into a beautiful swan – and not only does he do nothing to
generate this change, with his nature remaining static throughout, but his
newfound friends also accept him purely on the basis of looks. Is this really a happy ending about which we should be cheering?
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Furthermore, there’s something problematic about the idea that “It doesn’t matter a bit about being born in a duckyard when one has lain in a swan’s egg” (p.63). The not-so-ugly duckling is ultimately better than all those nasty waddling fowls seemingly because his blood and his breed make him special – there’s no actual achievement of his own here.
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Overall, this appears to be a tale of wish-fulfilment – indeed, Andersen apparently considered it his autobiography (poor man). I imagine that it was written to convey a message of hope; to encourage outcasts to believe in their own worth, and to affirm their hidden beauty. Indeed, if read as a gay parable, for example, instead of a depiction of innate specialness, one can find real positivity here.
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Yet in spite of honourable intentions, Andersen’s supposedly uplifting story can also convey a rather different message when read more literally. Prepare to have your wings crushed: it’s basically “God help you if you’re ugly.”
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Cool. Thanks.
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Fortunately, the most common reading of The Ugly Duckling is more laudable: it explores the themes of bullying and belonging, and sends the message that the outcast will find a place where he is safe and welcome. Perhaps beauty is merely a matter of perception; perhaps the swan-not-duckling doesn’t even change physically, but is simply viewed differently at the end of the tale when finally seen by a pair of eyes not seeking a duck!
I certainly hope so – otherwise this is just another ode to beauty, and the idea that good looks equal good hearts. Cross your webs.
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And they all lived haplessly ever after
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Believe it or not, the remaining stories aren’t at all problematic by modern standards. The Candles involves finding joy in small blessings, and includes the excellent line “The stars twinkled over all the houses, as brightly on the poor as on the rich: there was no difference” (p.145). Then there’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier: though the tale is basically a series of misfortunes set against a backdrop of pining after a girl (or rather, the image of a girl – not
dissimilar to Andersen’s own experiences), it’s genuinely sad, as opposed to
being lamentably dated.
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The Nightingale, meanwhile, tells a touching story of an Emperor forced to see the error of his ways, and to appreciate the true value of a loyal and compassionate songbird. Bonus points for evocative description, such as:
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“And Death gave away all these treasures for a song and the nightingale kept on singing. It sang of the silent churchyard where the white roses grow, where the elderberry tree scents the air and where the fresh grass is wet with mourners’ tears. Then Death felt a
longing for his garden and swept out of the window like a cold white mist.”
(p.30)

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The Snow Queen is also highly enjoyable, for as well as boasting clever world-building and a great story, it even includes several proactive female characters (I’m still recovering from the shock). Indeed, unlike nearly every other tale in this collection, it actually reads as being ahead of its time – you can read it with a blood alcohol level of zero and not regret the decision.
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If I had to pick a favourite story from the lot, however, it would have to be The Emperor’s New Clothes. Not only does it support the theory that Andersen may well have also been mocking the nobility in The Princess and the Pea, but it’s also a brilliant play on some of mankind’s greatest foibles: vanity, pride, insecurity, crowd mentality. The adult in power walks naked and pompous through the city, and the voice of truth and reason is given ultimately to the audience – children – embodied in the kid who calls out from the crowd.
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And really, what’s not to love about that?
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Tak?
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The world has retained an interest in the writing of Hans Christian Andersen, and it’s easy to see why, what with confused mermaids, icy kingdoms, and idiotic monarchs populating his legacy. Indeed, he’s about as
synonymous with Denmark as Lego, even though he too can induce sensations of stabbing pain if stumbled upon by accident.
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Granted, there’s a strain of misogyny in his work which has caused it to age badly, and it’s good to approach the stories’ messages – whether written intentionally or otherwise – with a pinch of salt. Beauty is often depicted as the greatest virtue; female protagonists in particular tend to react rather than act; and the punishment, abandonment, or abduction of girls is a pretty strong theme. Indeed, girls in Andersen’s world appear to exist
primarily to marry, follow, wait for, or die for/with a man.
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One can’t help but wonder whether this is some form of wish-fulfilment on the author’s part – it’s rather disquieting at times, and downright appalling at others. Still, there’s no need to censor such writing, or to dismiss all the stories’ attributes out of hand on the basis of a few rotten eggs. Andersen’s writing is representative of the time period in which he lived, as well as the life which he led, and that shouldn’t automatically render his work irrelevant through the lens of modern values. Indeed, exploring his more disquieting fairytales can galvanise us to write better; and his troubling messages, encourage us to reflect more on the stories we consume.
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As for his other work, he has left a rich body[bag] of stories behind him, and Europe’s storytelling culture is far better off for it. So, in the end: thank you, Mr. Andersen. The mermaid statue doesn’t do you justice.
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All page numbers refer to the following edition (complete and unabridged):
Andersen, H. C., 1968. Andersen’s Fairy Tales (安徒生童話). Translated from Danish. Taipei: Bookman Books.
[1]
Australian perspective, granted.
[2]
Another footnote referencing Australia – or, more specifically, our debating prowess.