Yes, this post is about fairy tales. And more specifically, Hans Christian Andersen, outlandish as that might seem. I already told you I was a prodigious reader, and by the time I was twelve, I was checking out the adult section of the Hartford Public Library’s neighborhood branch. I don’t remember the first truly adult novel I ever read, but I do remember being shocked at how grim adult fiction seemed, after a steady diet of Beverley Cleary and Nancy Drew. It made me not want to grow up. But one day I was back in the Children’s Department, helping one of my younger siblings select a book, when I came across an august old volume, deep-blue binding with gilt letters: The Tales of Hans Christian Andersen. It was illustrated with breathtaking, intricate, turn-of-the-century illustration plates, and when I saw the plate of the Little Mermaid, her beautiful pale body and shimmering fish-scale tail afloat in a night sea, her bosom discreetly hidden with waterfalls of wavy auburn locks, I was hooked.
And if all you know of the Little Mermaid is the Disney movie or the staid statue in Copenhagen’s harbor: Forget about all that! The tale of the Little Mermaid, as laid out by Andersen, is a dark, moody romance not really fit for children, but perfect for the impressionable sensitive pre-adolescent girl who had already decided she might be a writer when she grew up. I drank in all the details, and the graceful language, beginning with the first line: “Far out at sea, the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflowers and as clear as the purest glass…” How is that for the vivid dream? Sometimes it’s not really about the plot or the characters, but the sheer beauty of words. (Here I am indebted to his various translators; although I can speak and read some Danish, I don’t understand enough to appreciate the lyricism contained within Andersen’s tales.)
Now Andersen wrote many other tales, some silly and inconsequential, but other haunting and moving, sticking persistently in the memory like a wad of ancient chewing gum. No one seems to capture the ache and yearn for love (or, in the case of The Little Match Girl, mere warmth) as well as he does, and I suppose biographers could give you reasons for this, from his own strange and often lonely life. He is very Danish, which I can say, being of Danish descent myself (My maiden name is Petersen). Don’t want to fall into stereotypes here, but (judging from my own family, and a summer spent in Denmark years ago, among various relatives) while, yes, Danes in general may not be nice to recent refugees and immigrants, they do have redeeming qualities: Like this strong artistic streak, a driving desire to re-order the world through painting, writing, storytelling, craftworks like lacemaking and wood carving and embroidery. They have this charming concept, hyggelig, a unique and passionate love of one’s home, and sharing that home with others in a convivial way. But there is also that strong, destructive melancholy, which edges dangerously close to clinical depression, a kind of underlying sadness that encompasses longing, anger and resignation all at once. None of this is peculiar to Danish people, but it does seem to take place to a heightened degree in Denmark.
This is no cute ‘Ariel’ story: Crushed by love, the Mermaid throws herself back into the sea in a suicidal leap, but within its healing foam becomes a Daughter of the Air, with a chance for immortality though good deeds. In the end, a morality tale but a captivating one; and one I have no doubt nudged me a little closer to the vocation I ultimately chose as an adult.