Humour is the salt

Paper-cut by Hans Christian Andersen

Fairy Tales and Stories
by Hans Christian Andersen,
translated with an introduction by Reginald Spink.
Illustrations by the author.
Everyman’s Library No 4, 1960.

“My aim was to be the writer for all ages; the naīve was only one element of the fairy tales, and humour was the salt in them.”
– Andersen.

Introduction, vii

Hans Christian Andersen wrote more than 150 fairytales and short stories, several of which are not only familiar but well-loved around the world. ‘The Little Mermaid,’ ‘The Ugly Duckling,’ ‘Thumbelina,’ ‘The Princess on the Pea,’ ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, ‘The Little Match Girl’ – the mere mention of the titles is often enough to evoke the entirety of each tale in our minds.

It’s sometimes easy to forget they’re not entirely traditional tales because they were penned and published by an eccentric Danish writer two centuries ago; and yet they’ve achieved traditional status partly because Andersen based many of them on the stories he’d heard growing up, or written highly individual variations on tales he’d read from The Arabian Nights and the collections by the Brothers Grimm.

Yet, apart from the often repeated stories, whether retold straight or adapted in various media, there are a host of his other whimsical, even melancholy, narratives which remain generally unknown or ignored, pieces which deserve seeking out to be enjoyed, or at least turned over in the mind. As a whole it’s a collection I personally have found worth keeping by the bed to dip into.

Paper-cut by Hans Christian Andersen

In this selection of around fifty tales a dozen or so of Andersen’s best-known pieces are of course represented, including for example ‘The Snow Queen’ which in length is virtually a novelette; but it’s some of the less familiar ones I want to focus on, especially those which don’t necessarily fit the patterns fairytales often follow.

As one might expect from its title ‘The Shadow’ (Skyggen) has deep psychological import. A scholar in a hot clime – Naples? North Africa? – discovers his shadow has left him in search of poetry, only in later years to visit him back in Denmark. Well fed and well clothed the shadow now assumes airs and graces, and marries a princess after turning against the unfortunate scholar. ‘The Snail and the Rose-Bush’ (Sneglen oh Rosenhækken) also has a personal element: in place of a self-satisfied shadow dismissing a poor scholar (who of course is Andersen) we have a rosebush – Andersen again – critiqued by a mollusc, apparently representing the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who’d criticised Andersen’s work.

But not all the lesser-known stories are as obviously inventively defensive as these. ‘The High Jumpers’ (Springfyrene) concerns a flea, a grasshopper and a skipjack (a click beetle or spring beetle) which have a jumping contest to see who will win the hand of a princess; extemporised by Andersen for a young audience, the tale ends with the losing grasshopper singing; “and it’s from there that we have taken the story, though it could easily be untrue, even were it to be printed.”

The piece called Storkene (‘The Storks’) concerns fledgling storks, teased by a cruel rhyme chanted by young boys, who can’t wait to get their own back when the time comes for the boys to have a younger brother or sister: live babies will only come to the families of the good boys. And then there’s ‘The Red Shoes’ (De rode Sko), a tale which famously became a ballet within the 1948 film also entitled The Red Shoes. Andersen’s story is meant as a reminder of the price that may be paid if one is distracted by overweening pride in one’s apparel and appearance when at devotions in church.

Paper-cut by Hans Christian Andersen

Despite the more than six decade gap since this was published as No 4 in Everyman’s Library, Reginald Spink’s translation remains very readable and his enthusiastic introduction is always informative. His end notes on each item are particularly enlightening: the original Danish titles and individual dates of publication are included, along with succinct details such as likely literary inspiration, folktale origin, and intended satire, and whether Andersen has included a pen portrait of himself as a character in the plot. For example, ‘The Tinder-Box’, though set in Europe, borrows elements from the Aladdin story, ‘The Little Mermaid’ is derived from Danish ballads and folklore, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ owes much to a medieval Spanish tale and to Cervantes, and ‘The Ugly Duckling’ is essentially autobiographical.

This edition is further embellished by many of Andersen’s distinctive paper-cuts from the Hans Andersen Museum in Odense. But it’s the stories that are the stars: there’s an old-fashioned oral aspect to some of the pieces, as though a grand- or great-grandparent was addressing their young audience, but even in the more serious tales we can easily detect the salt in the humour that is a characteristic of Andersen’s narratives. And, in keeping with his intention to be “a writer for all ages,” much of the writing that I once thought cloyingly saccharine I now unexpectedly find catches my mood just right. Age, eh?

Nordic FINDS 2023:

A Danish title reviewed for Annabel’s Nordic FINDS 2023 meme, and an addition to my own Library of Brief Narratives

Library of Brief Narratives 2020+

28 thoughts on “Humour is the salt

    1. Everyman’s Library still publish Andersen’s stories in Reginald Spink’s translation, Annabel, but now just as Fairy Tales and with Heath Robinson’s illustrations, not Andersen’s idiosyncratic paper cuts.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Andersen’s stories have an emotional depth not often found in fairy tales. Every winter I read The Little Match Girl to my classes, and for these children, most of whom were very poor themselves, to hear a story about a little girl sent out by her parents to work even to her death…it was powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re right, Deb, certainly compared with the Grimms’ German tales which – though more authentically ‘of the folk’ – were progressively refashioned in successive editions of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, losing any idiosyncracies that may have existed when first told orally. But it’s heartening to know that Andersen still has the power to appeal to an audience that effectively ‘gets’ what he’s trying to say.


    1. Yes, there’s no end of online and pdf discussions on that criticism available if you search using Kierkegaard’s and Andersen’s names. Doubtless the most recent Everyman’s Library edition includes all these tales as it seems to have the same number of pages.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. As far as I can gather Søren Kierkegaard’s criticism was in his review of Andersen’s 1837 novel Kun en Spillemand (‘Only a Fiddler’), in which he suggested that Andersen “completely lacks any philosophy of life”; this and more apparently stung Andersen – who wanted very much to be well regarded as a novelist – quite badly, sufficient to almost fall out with a friend whom he saw reading a book by Kierkegaard. Dashing off the snail and rosebush fable seemed to put Hans back in good humour!

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating. I have 5 handsome volumes of the Andersen fairy tales in Spanish, I read a couple of them to the girls when we homeschooled. Your post reminds me that I should go back and revisit or read new.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Five volumes! I suppose you have all 150+ of his fairytales, fables and parables represented there, Silvia, and that must be really interesting. Maybe an incentive to return to them? 🙂


        1. They’re often known merely as fairytales, without any author attribution. It’s not very likely most fans of the Disney adaptation of ‘The Little Mermaid’ would know it as an Andersen tale, for example. But now, as an adult, you may well profit from reading them yourself in the knowledge that he intended them as not just for kids!


  3. Of all the fairy tales I read/were read to me as a kid, Anderson’s were my favorite. I’m glad to be reminded he was from Norway, as we’re planning a trip there this summer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, he’s Danish, Jeanne, but definitely from one of the Nordic countries! And his literary fairy tales certainly reflected his distinctive voice, however much they were indebted to oral folk narratives and fables.


      1. D’oh! I read that and did this weird thing I do in my head where I can’t keep Norway and Denmark straight. It’s like dyslexia with countries. I will have to straighten it out before we go!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for inspiring me to pull out my edition of HCA’s tales. My three favorite stories are “The Flying Trunk,” “The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf” and “What the Old Man Does is Always Right”. I rarely see the last one included in collections of his tales, which is strange, since it’s one of the few with a happy ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This collection has two of your favourites but not ‘The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf’. The last of the three, here titled ‘Father always Does What’s Right’, is here described as a traditional Danish tale seemingly from the “happy-go-lucky” island of Funen where Andersen was born.

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.