Maybe this week’s book blog is a bit of a cheat considering it’s not on books per se. But you can’t talk about great fiction in my world without talking about Hans Christian Andersen. It would be nothing short of a crime to skip him. Known not for huge volumes but his short story format, Hans Christian Andersen is the father of some of the best-known fairy tales in the world.
Born in Denmark in 1805, Andersen was a prolific writer who stood shoulder to shoulder with many of the other greats of his time. He wrote in a myriad of ways, creating plays, novels, and even writing travel-related material. However, it’s his fairy tales that put him on the map and where his genius is best on display.
The beauty of Andersen’s writing lies in his unrelentingly poetic description and imagery paired with his ability to write swiftly and deeply about those universal human experiences we all know so well, all in the confines of a short story. Where the Brothers Grimm chose the cautionary fairy tale route, Andersen’s storytelling is often marked less with terror and intrigue and more with melancholy and fierce love. His characters are often placed against insurmountable odds, and it’s in these moments that we determine if they’re love is enough to carry them through to the end.
So without further ado, here is my selection of Hans Christian Andersen’s best fairy tales.
If people are familiar with this story, they know it as the source material for Disney’s Frozen (I’m sorry if you now have the songs stuck in your head. It can’t be helped), but the original story is vastly different from the hugely popular movie.
The story follows a boy and girl, Kai and Gerda, who live next door to each other and grow up as playmates. But when a cold and mysterious snow queen finds Kai and whisks him away far to the north and her palace of ice, Gerda is the only one who can set out on the perilous journey to save her best friend.
The story is, as I said, very different from what you might expect coming from a Disney mindset, but don't let that keep you away. It in many ways reads as both a tribute to the wild beauty of northern Europe and the steadfast beauty of friendship and love. With each trial conquered, little Gerda becomes a less little girl and more a formidable and confident hero. She will stop at nothing to bring Kai home and the sweetness of her loyalty to her friend rings true in every moment of this story.
Under the Willow Tree
I know our dear Andersen is known for his sad stories, but this one is in a league of its own. Bear with me though, because amongst the sorrow in the pages is no small amount of beauty.
The story follows Knut, a young boy who grows up being best friends with the neighbor girl Johanna. As they grow up, Knut falls head over heels for Johanna and becomes determined to make himself worthy of her love in return. Dogged by the memory of a fairytale of unspoken love from their childhood, Knut becomes determined not to bear his love for his friend in silence and to tell the now grown and beautiful Johanna how he feels.
Full of stunning imagery and simple philosophical prose on secret and unrequited love, Under the Willow tree is a sweet and sorrowful take on the nature of young love and the expectations we place on it. While the story, like any good fairy tale, may leap to dramatic extremes, there is something in Knut’s circumstances for all to relate to. Andersen draws out that universal longing for connection in a beautiful way that makes this story a must-read.
The Little Mermaid
Andersen is known for so many amazing stories but none are quite so famous as The Little Mermaid. This is arguably the story that cemented him in western literature and, like The Snow Queen, has garnered all manner of modern retellings. The original story, however, differs greatly from the more optimistic tellings. True to form, Andersen’s Little Mermaid is filled with the gentle melancholy that is characteristic in so much of his work.
In the original telling, we meet our eponymous mermaid as she longs to discover the world above, something that is permitted to each sister on the birthday they come of age. As she watches each sister rise to the surface over the years, her longing only increases. By the time she herself is ready, she is obsessed with the world above. Her interest in the surface world is only intensified when she rescues a handsome prince from a shipwreck. However, the course our little mermaid is set on is slated for a much different ending than the one we more commonly know, and she ultimately learns that her actions may not have the reward she’s been so desperately hoping for.
There's a reason this story is the best known of all Andersen’s work. It's a stunning jewel that defines the genre of fairy tale. Of all his work, this story in particular is filled with so much vivid scenic description it's breathtaking. Andersen’s ways of describing the world around us is a reminder of the simple beauty to be found everywhere and makes the reader appreciate life through the eyes of the mermaid herself. Unwilling to leave his talent at that, Andersen also finds a way to instill such a relatable sense of longing that tugs at the heartstrings of any reader. The Little Mermaid is a stunning reminder of Andersen’s writing prowess and why his storytelling has stood the test of time.