Life is a fairy tale

By K.M.Lockwood @lockwoodwriter

On this day in 1835, the first instalment of Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children was published. A mixture of traditional tales and original pieces, it began the most celebrated part of his life's work which went on until 1872.

Painting of Hans Christian Andersen in 1836, by Christian Albrecht Jensen 

At first, his approach didn't go down well. He retold folk stories simply with all their original cunning left in. In Big Claus and Little Claus, the rich farmer is outwitted by a poor one. He told fairy tales like the now-familiar  Princess and the Pea in plain language and straightforward sentences. The critics may have thought he should use more flowery language and moralising - but the public grew to love him and his work. By the time of his death in 1875, he was a Danish 'national treasure'.

 'Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with short steps.' - written about music for his own funeral.

His influence on the modern European and American tradition is enormous. Take The Princess and the Pea from this first instalment. That sumptuous bed with all its possibilities for art and language, the princess-in-disguise idea and the prominence given to sensitivity - all are essential. Whether you dislike any elements of sexism, over-reverence for royalty and wealth or the plain impossibility of it all - you can't deny the story's influence.

The Princess and the Pea illustrated by Alfred Walter Bayes PD

The Tinderbox is possibly less well-known - but the appearance of the three magical dogs with  increasingly large eyes is a picture that once imagined can not be forgotten. As in many folk stories, the poor soldier uses his wealth to gain a fine wife (a princess, of course) - and almost loses everything in the process. He cheats the hangman's noose by his cleverness. No remorse is shown for the witch whose head he cuts off - it's all terribly matter-of-fact. This bleakness led to Sally Gardner's extraordinary Tinder.

Illustrated by David Roberts

Rightly, the jolly 1952  Danny Kaye musical biopic begins 'This is not the story of his life, but a fairy tale about this great spinner of fairy tales. ' Hans Christian Andersen's real life was a lot more troubled yet he is remembered for so many beautiful, influential stories. Here are a few:

  • The Emperor's New Clothes - he added the child who calls out
  • The Little Match Girl - like his hero Dickens, he cared for the urban poor
  • The Little Mermaid - his own invention well before Disney
  • The Red Shoes - which led to an extraordinary ballet and film
  • Sandman - yes, Neil Gaiman owes Andersen a debt or two
  • The Snow Queen - allegedly influenced Frozen
  • The Steadfast Tin Soldier - said to reflect his own love for a ballerina
  • Thumbelina - his own invention - and an earworm
  • The Ugly Duckling - his own invention

It would be impossible in this article to trace every bit of his legacy in the arts - but here are a few ideas for you to add to that golden hoard if you wish.

From The Emperor's New Clothes, illustrated by William Heath Robinson PD


  1. In a grand scene, add an observant child brave enough to challenge conventions out loud.
  2. Terry Pratchett gave The Little Match Girl an alternative ending in Hogfather - which tale would you end differently?
  3. Andersen's Little Mermaid becomes a Daughter of the Air - create that sequel.
  4. Dance, vanity and violence are crucial to The Red Shoes. Combine them in a new way with the same central image.
  5. Toys and tiny creatures fascinated Andersen - could they play a role in your work?
  6. In The Snow Queen, it is brave Gerda who rescues her deluded friend Kai in seven stories. Could that quest structure help you?
  7. In both The Princess and the Pea and The Ugly Duckling characters are not what they first appear. Tribulation brings out their true selves. Will that work for one of your creations?

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