The Life-Changing Magic of Actual Magic
By Gabriel Blanchard
Innocence, kindness, whimsy, and humor are more useful than we often think in grappling with a world full of death and darkness.
We publish a good deal about fairy tales here at the Journal, and many of our listed books and writers—the Grimms, The Thousand and One Nights, Shakespeare, and today’s subject, Andersen—consist largely or entirely in fantastical tales. People who value fairy tales tend to fall into two camps: the moralists, who praise the positive example set by fairy tales their ethical severity; and the hedonists, who often do not care about and sometimes hardly notice the ethical power moralists like to claim for these stories, but delight in them for their energy and imagination. The hedonists are, of course, the only serious readers: that is, they are the only ones treating the stories in question seriously, reading them first of all as stories, not as vile bodies on which to practice some other, irrelevant art. Still, even a rigorous hedonist like the present writer can indulge the moralists a little bit. Fairy tales do in fact often turn upon some moral lesson, since (like magic, to which it is closely allied in many ways) the moral law simultaneously is mysterious in its source and mandate, appears to be absent from the real world, and possesses an inexplicably compelling power.
By contrast, Hans Christian Andersen is easier to pin down. He was born in Denmark in 1805; his childhood was self-reportedly miserable and plagued by abusive authority figures. He remained rather lonely throughout his adult life, for a mixture of reasons. One tragicomic and in some ways typical episode was his visit to the Dickens family in 1857. Andersen and Dickens admired each other’s work, and Andersen proposed to come and stay with the family for two weeks. He proceeded to stay for five, exasperating his hosts with his eccentricities, not least among them a long bout of crying over a bad review—which he did on the Dickens’ front lawn. (Some people speculate today that Andersen may have been neurodivergent, or suffering from a disorder such as PTSD.)
He began to write stories and poems in his adolescence, achieving his first publication at the age of just seventeen. A number of characteristic themes unite his body of work. Death is one of these themes: a few, like The Nightingale, conclude with someone being granted a reprieve from death, while others, such as The Little Match Girl or The Angel, instead offer a sweet, peaceful picture of a soul being carried to heaven. Any fiction written for children today would be considered bizarre, if not downright creepy, for dwelling on death as much as Andersen does; but it is worth remembering how much more common it was back then to die young or of disease. Rare would have been the family without at least one sibling stillborn, or who died before adulthood. In that context, children’s stories about death feel a lot more natural, and might even serve the utilitarian purpose of helping children to begin coming to terms with their feelings about (to take a phrase from Judith Martin) “the mysterious outrage of death.”
Andersen’s father believed that their family was secretly of the Danish nobility; while this has since been proven false, it provides an interesting background to a few of his stories. For instance, he often lampoons his characters, especially aristocratic characters, for idiotic acts of hubris, and humbles them through his plots and dialogue. This is most famously exampled in The Emperor’s New Clothes, in which the eponymous emperor is deceived by a (literally) transparent lie, and, as a direct result of his egotistic horror of admitting his mistake, has to humiliate himself in front of an entire city.
Yet at the same time, Andersen was clearly not immune to the glamor of the nobility. Many of his stories suggest a yearning for elevation, of one kind or another. This is sometimes given a spiritual meaning, as in The Little Mermaid; but in other tales, like The Ugly Duckling, it seems to be a longing for appreciation and acceptance of a much more mundane kind. It would even be easy for a hostile reader to see it as a fantasy born of frustrated ambition, licking its wounds with the thought that “These others are only ducks, and do not understand my true nature as a swan.” Though in fairness it must also be said that, if Andersen did cherish such thoughts (which is more than we know), the nastiest thing he ever seems to have done about it was write a mildly self-pitying story that a lot of people find very uplifting!
Perhaps the most complex of his fairy tales is The Snow Queen. The child heroine of the tale, Gerda, must brave the pathless wastes of the icebound north in order to rescue her friend Kai, who has been kidnapped by the Snow Queen (who probably inspired C. S. Lewis’ White Witch). The plot is complicated and a little meandering; wise crones, magic flowers, talking animals, and more all come into it, and particularly, an evil mirror crafted by demonic trolls to show only the bad aspects of everything. This mirror was broken into millions of nigh-invisible shards, which sometimes fall into people’s eyes and make them begin to turn sour and cold, since they can only see the evil in things as long as the shard remains. One of them fell into Kai’s eye early in the story, and it is this which made him vulnerable to the Snow Queen in the first place. But, even more than her courage and her quick wits, it is Gerda’s compassion that enables her to break the enchantment upon Kai. Despite the cruel behavior he has displayed since receiving the shard, Gerda weeps for his plight, and one of her tears melts the shard of the mirror, bring the real Kai back. The Snow Queen has other important themes as well, but this one—the theme that, cynicism notwithstanding, simple goodness is actually stronger than cunning malice—is another of his favorites. It also has one trait that is rather rare among Andersen stories: a happy ending!
Disney’s version of The Little Mermaid is well-known to have a different ending—though, depending on the reader’s perspective, not necessarily happier. Andersen sets forth a mythology of merfolk derived from Germanic, Old English, and Norse folklore. These societies often had tales of a vaguely-defined race of magical beings, which have descended to us as elves or fairies.* Part of the lore was that they did not have souls; the reason fairies and water sprites and so on were said to consent to become the wives of men, if only rarely, was that they hoped to gain immortal souls by wedding a mortal. The titular Little Mermaid (not named in the original) does fall in love with a human prince, and does accept a bargain with a sea-witch to exchange her voice for legs; not only has she already saved his life, Andersen relates that she dances for him because she sees how delighted he is by it, even though using her feet at all—let alone using them to dance—puts her in excruciating pain. But in this version, the prince remains oblivious to her affections and marries someone else. The Mermaid is thus doomed to die immediately, but fate steps in. As her body is dissolving into sea foam, the Mermaid feels herself rising into the air. The sprites there explain that because she strove wholeheartedly to gain a soul, even without the marriage she thought she needed, God will grant her one, after she spends three hundred years as a benevolent spirit among humans.
This shares a “purgatorial” motif with another of Andersen’s tales, The Girl Who Stepped on Bread**—and here, we come to a tale the present writer cannot resist relating almost in full. The protagonist, Inger, is not a heroic ingenue like Gerda or the Little Mermaid. She is the daughter of a poor family, who foster her out with a kindly rich one that can provide for her. Despite the generosity and uprightness of Inger’s foster parents, she becomes a vain, arrogant child, and the title of the story refers to her worst act of conceit. Her foster parents sent her to visit her original parents, dressing her in all new clothes and sending along a loaf of beautifully made fresh bread as an additional gift to the family; and little Inger, unable to bear the thought of her lovely new shoes being soiled in a muddy puddle she can find no way around, throws in the loaf of bread to use it as a stepping stone. She is then immediately sucked down into hell, where she is encased in a hideous statue covered in filth and vermin. Inger’s name becomes a byword—even her own mother and her foster mother, in their grief, admit that her fate was predictable. Some people jeer at her fate, others adopt a patina of sanctimonious pity, but all agree that she deserved it. In hell, Inger can hear everything everyone says, and hates them for it.
But then one day, a young girl is told the story—and bursts into tears. She is the first person ever to say, simply, “Poor Inger,” without adding a single word about how she deserved what she got. Inger’s heart is finally broken by the girl’s compassion, and she weeps tears of remorse, which cause the statue encasing her to crack open. Her soul ascends out of hell in the form of a little bird and returns to earth. There, humble and shy, the bird assiduously collects crumbs every winter, eating only just enough for herself and giving all the rest to other birds who could not scavenge as well; and when, at last, she had given away as many crumbs as equalled the weight of the loaf she had ruined, the girl who stepped on bread was taken to heaven.
*Dwarves, gnomes, and a few other beings are derived from or mixed up with this same tradition. The diagrammatic scheme presented to us by Tolkien is satisfying as a work of art in its own right, but its cleanly delineated categories are nothing like the poetic chaos of his source material!
**Some translators prefer The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf, though this rendering has none of the euphonious or rhythmical qualities of its alternative.
After a mixture of home and private schooling, Gabriel Blanchard studied Classics at the University of Maryland; he began working for CLT in 2019, where he is editor-at-large. He is an uncle to seven nephews and a freelance author of essays, poems, and prose fiction. He lives in Baltimore.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like these introductions to the ideas of the four loves, free will, and the virtue of prudence, or these essays from some of our top students on the original meaning behind the slogan carpe diem, the life and work of Jonathan Edwards, and the justice (or otherwise) of the prison system. And be sure to check out our seminar series led by scholars from across the country, Journey Through the Author Bank.
Published on 19th September, 2022. Page image of Rudolf Koivu‘s illustration of The Snow Queen.