For all their delicacy and brevity, folk tales and fairy tales are among the world’s most impermeable art forms. Worn smooth by centuries of telling and retelling in which everything inessential fades, what remains is among the least ephemeral, least self-indulgent, and least faddish of all great literature.
Among the writers of fairy tales, the achievement of Hans Christian Andersen is especially impressive because, unlike the Brothers Grimm, he didn’t, for the most part, retell old tales from the oral tradition. Many of his stories were wholly original; the shaping and polishing was not time’s, but his alone.
The result is stories so familiar to virtually everyone that it may seem they really don’t need to be (re)read at all, except to children at bedtime. “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “The Little Match Girl”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “Thumbelina” all have entered our collective consciousness, and our vernacular, to such an extent that reading them seems hardly more necessary than memorizing our own names.
But that’s only the case until you actually encounter them again. What a loose-limbed, witty, and even oddly post-modern writer Andersen was. Sometimes it seems everything he wrote was tongue in cheek, as in the opening lines of “The Nightingale”: “In China, as you may know, the Emperor is Chinese, and everyone there is also Chinese. This story took place many years ago, but that’s exactly why you should listen to it, before it’s forgotten.”
Or consider the opening lines of “The Flying Trunk”: “There was once a merchant so wealthy that he could pave an entire street and maybe a little alley as well with silver coins, but he didn’t. He had other ways to use his money. When he spent a penny, he received a dollar in return. That’s the kind of merchant he was. And then he died.” The “maybe a little alley as well” is priceless enough, but the entire paragraph, a novel in miniature, is only the entry point to the wonderful, woolly story that ensues.
These excerpts are from the new volume The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, edited with an introduction and notes by Maria Tatar, a professor of folklore at Harvard University. With Julie K. Allen, Tatar also produced new translations of Andersen’s familiar stories and some worthy neglected ones, all of them adorned with copious annotations.
Did I say copious? That word hardly describes the heft of the explanations, elucidations and divagations herein. The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen occupies 450 densely printed and over-sized pages, including the tales, not one of which isn’t worthwhile, and the illustrations, and acknowledgments, and introduction to the book, and introductions to each of the stories, and a brief biography of Andersen, and brief biographies of the illustrators (was this strictly necessary?), and quotes from famous authors who were fans of Andersen or merely referenced him somewhere in their writings, and bibliographies, and more. But add in the long-winded notes that crowd the pages’ margins, in many cases transforming a single page of text into the equivalent of two full pages, and the book feels more like an 800-pager.
If you’re the type of person who always rents the audio guide at Impressionist exhibitions, these commentaries will be interesting enough. And this book is, after all, an annotated volume, so objecting to the side-notes is, to some extent, like complaining about the pink on a pig.
But it sometimes seems that Tatar felt obligated to strew each margin with commentary whether it was needed or not — and one could argue that there are few forms of literature to begin with less amenable to annotation than the fairy tale. Andersen wrote, for example, that Thumbelina, among her other charms, “could sing too, and no one had ever heard a voice as soft and sweet as hers.” Tatar’s marginal note to this unambiguous observation? “Thumbelina is not only visually attractive but also possesses an enchanting voice.”
Thank you, Professor Obvious.
Elsewhere, Tatar helpfully points out that “(i)n losing her tongue, the little mermaid sacrifices her ability to communicate,” and alongside another tale, guides us to the painful understanding that when a house burns down, this occurrence “is seen as destructive rather than creative.”
Unless you’re as sensitive as the princess who was bruised by a pea under 40 layers of feather beds, you’re likely to find the charm and beauty of these stories a bit obscured by all this extra padding.
Worse, sometimes the extra layers are the result not of stating the obvious, but of skidding past it into the absurd. For example, Tatar makes a number of helpful-enough comments on “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, that classic tale of con-men who rely on vanity, group-think, and aesthetic intimidation to convince an entire town that non-existent clothes are unusually exquisite finery until a child’s simple insight unravels the illusion.
But then, as if not knowing quite where to stop, she says, “(a)s the story unfolds, the cloth is coaxed into being with each new description of its wondrous beauty and with each new pantomime in which it is woven, cut, sewn, worn, and carried. The swindlers can be read as artists who, in an ironic twist, create beauty visible only to those who are beyond materialism.”
Well, no. They can’t. And they don’t. That’s not what the story is about.
Finally, there are the redundancies in many of these marginal (in both the literal and figurative sense) notes, as when one states, “(t)he sound of music and the light of lanterns draw the little mermaid to the activity on board the ship. Like her sisters, she is attracted to the music of humans … (t)he songs and merriment on board inspire her wish to join the human throng.”
A few of these condescending observations wouldn’t have been any big deal. But sit down to read this volume in one, or two, or 12, sessions and the color and beauty of Andersen’s tales can begin to fade — it’s like watching a hummingbird harnessed to a brick.
It must be said that the reproduction of the color illustrations in this volume is a bit disappointing as well. Perhaps because of the porosity of the paper, they are all far fuzzier-looking than they should be (the black-and-white illustrations are fine), which is especially a shame considering that the original artwork was created by masters such as Kay Nielsen, W. Heath Robinson, Arthur Rackham, and the exquisite Edmund Dulac.
This is still a worthwhile volume. Tatar brings to light some largely forgotten stories by Andersen, as well as some under-appreciated ones, like his greatest achievement, “The Snow Queen,” a tale much too dark and chilling to be appreciated by children at all, though it should be read to them all the same. And the book itself, issues of reproduction aside, is beautifully designed.
Still, one can’t help but feel that the genius of Hans Christian Andersen, and of the illustrators who honored him, deserved something more — or rather, less — than this overwhelming volume.