Why Hans Christian Andersen, WHY?
Updated: Oct 6
I used to have a bunch of illustrated story books as a child. Each had a single story, often a fairy tale or children's story and since I didn't have a library membership, I read the same books over and over. But not all of them. Two stories in particular I avoided. The Little Match Girl and The Steadfast Tin Soldier.
Have you read them? If yes, you have my sympathies. If not, you have my warning - don't.
Oh, the language is simple enough. The stories are linear, like children's stories often are and neither has any particularly difficult moral at the end. No such thing.
No, I avoided those stories, because they. Are. Fucking. Dark.
Take The Steadfast Tin Soldier. It's a story about a one-legged toy soldier made out of tin, who stands on the mantlepiece (I assume, it was a while ago) of a little boy's room. Everyday, from this vantage position, he sees a paper ballerina who is standing across the room, on top of a desk or whatever. The soldier falls in love with the ballerina. Why? Because she too stands on one leg, poised on her toe-tips gracefully. I suppose that's enough reason to fall in love if you are a toy in a fictional story. So, fall in love he does. There is no mention if the ballerina too loves him, because why bother. But I digress.
Anyway, the story basically expresses the toy soldier's longing for the ballerina, his devotion, his admiration and deep love for someone he can never meet, let alone have. Then, one gusty day, the paper ballerina is blown away by a strong breeze. Straight into the fireplace under the mantlepiece, where she burns to a crisp. I KNOW. And as if that's not enough, the tin soldier, the ONE-LEGGED TIN SOLDIER WHOM YOU ARE FEELING SORRY FOR BY NOW, jumps off the mantlepiece and into the fire. To be with her, or failing that - which is obviously the point - to end his life, which he cannot imagine without her.
This, may I point out in case you missed it, is a fucking children's story.
And just when you think you have finished your quota for senseless tragedy, enter The Little Match Girl. A story about a little girl, selling matchboxes on a cold New Year's Eve. It is snowing. The little match girl is poor and hence deeply deficient in the sweater department. She is also hungry. And cold. The only way she can afford to buy food is if she sells all her matchboxes. Spoiler alert, she doesn't. So. Cold, starving girl begging passersby to buy her matchboxes, as they ignore her and hurry away to their New Year parties (#EatTheRich)
We then hear great descriptions of New Year feasts that the little match girl sees through the windows of the great houses she passes. The turkey and the meats, their smells wafting over to her and making her hungrier. The warmth of the fires she sees blazing as she shivers in the snow outside. The night gets colder. There is nobody on the streets anymore. The little match girl finds a corner to shelter her from the worst of the icy winds, then begins lighting up her matches for warmth. By this point, you want to go back in time and hand Hans Christian Andersen a gun with which to shoot you in the head. You can see how this story will end. The little match girl dies. But not before seeing the spirit of her dead grandmother who has come to take her to heaven, which she reassures the girl is warm.
I'm not even going to delve into the Little Mermaid and how she exchanges her voice for legs, that hurt like a motherfucker while dancing, and then dies of heartbreak when the prince she did all this for, marries the sea-witch. Yes, Disney changed the ending, folks, look it up, it's a horrible, horrible story.
Plato, that loveable Greek scamp who thought women were inferior and dangerous, had written about the 5-Act structure of a play, while novelists and screenwriters still follow. Exposition or introduction, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action and Catastrophe or if it's a comedy, Denouement. Clearly, these stories by Andersen all end in Catastrophe, literally and figuratively. But they do not provide - to me as a child, or an adult - the catharsis that Plato also said was the purpose of great drama. A tragedy that makes you cry purges you of your sorrow. A comedy that makes you laugh releases your happy hormones. Where is the goddamned catharsis here, I'd like very much to know.
Now, Hans Christian Andersen was a manic depressive. Perhaps these stories are ones he poured his sorrow into. I sympathise, of course, since I am an author and also, not an asshole. But I would like very much to know what genius decided that these stories of his in particular were appropriate, nay, essential reading FOR CHILDREN. And then, I'd like to lead that person into a quiet, lonely spot in the woods, for a few words. And a giant thwack across the head. Because this kind of unhinged rage is precisely what is sparked in you, if you are subject to The Little Match Girl as a child.