Arctic Elements in the Writings of Hans Christian Andersen
Andersen was widely travelled, but he did not visit the Arctic regions and did not even know the northern parts of Norway and Sweden, Finnmark and Lapland, by personal experience. His writings, however, include many descriptions of winter and cold, ice and snow. I am not going to deal with such elements in stories with a European setting but will restrict myself to areas which geographically are part of the Arctic or the sub-Arctic areas.
None of Andersen's writings on the Arctic has become known in the same way as for instance "The Nightingale" which takes place in an imagined China. In contrast to the fictitious China Andersen tries to paint realistic pictures of Greenland. The Arctic is far from being a major theme, but it turns up in Andersen's writings from time to time for more than 40 years, i.e. during the period 1829-70. Mostly it is a matter of brief references, but in a few cases he has elaborated on the theme.
It was rather unusual for writers and artists at the time to travel so far north. Personally Andersen was not much for cold and ice either. In a letter to Henriette Hanck he wrote in April 1835, "I do not belong here in the Northern countries and regard it as one of my earthly accidents that I was born and brought up on the corner of Greenland and Novaja Sembla."1
Andersen was not much for sea voyages either. Greenland was not just around the corner. When in 1866 Andersen visited Portugal he went by boat from Lisboa to Bordeaux. The wind was blowing from north-west, and in his travel book he describes how he "looked in that direction over the mighty rolling waves and knew that the nearest land was the coast of Greenland".2 The nearest land to the north-west was indeed far away and it was hardly a comfort for Andersen to know that it was Greenland. Greenland had been in his mind earlier in the summer when he still had solid ground under his feet. In his diary of June 8, 1866, he describes a lovely evening in Setubal, "I see the lights gleaming from St. Ubes and beyond them the bay is shining and beyond it the white pyramids of salt, and beyond them the sea is stretching down to Brasil and up to Greenland. All that open water."3
Andersen mentioned Greenland for the last time in his diary of July 11, 1870. He had got a cold after having travelled in an open car from Helsingør to Hellebæk in North Zeeland, and he wrote to Mrs. Collin that Hellebæk "ought to be renamed the Fever Coast, the Roads of the Coffin-ships, the Corner of the Wind, the Profession of the Doctors, the Zeeland Greenland - now you can chose".4 These examples do not tell the whole truth about Andersen's attitude to winter and cold. It appears from several of his stories that he was not without a sense of the pleasures that winters might give.
The Arctic is included in Andersen's first major prose work Journey on Foot to Amager (1829), "Indeed, here is room for the thought to swarm around. Now it seemed to me that I walked on the Finnish Bay or was it the Arcadian Novaja Sembla, now that I walked through the desert of Kobi to pay a tea visit to Dalai Lama, or through Sahara to find the sources of the river Niger - Now I followed the holy caravan to Mekka, and now I stood among the Eskimos at Hudson Bay".5 The young man's thoughts are floating through the most barren regions of the world. The only geographical name with a descriptive adjective is "the Arcadian Novaja Sembla" which he imagines to be covered in ice and snow since it might have been the frozen Finnish Bay instead.
But why does he imagine to be among the Eskimos at Hudson Bay and not in Greenland? Considering that Greenland was part of the Danish realm one should have thought it a more obvious reference for a Danish writer, and that is perhaps just the reason why he has chosen these even more remote and unknown Arctic regions of North America. Even if Andersen probably had a very limited knowledge of Greenland, the name Greenland had a more familiar sound than Hudson Bay. The Royal Danish Greenland Trade Company had its harbour and it warehouses on the small island of Amager where the narrator was actually walking, and in 1827-28 Andersen had been a dinner guest once a week in the house of his old acquaintance, Jonathan Balling (1773-1829), the overseer of goods arriving from Greenland.6
Ten years before the publication of Andersen's Journey on Foot to Amager the so-called Franklin era had set in in Arctic Canada. Several expeditions went north to confirm the British government's territorial claims and to promote the geographical knowledge of the area. One of these expeditions under command of the English naval officer John Ross inspired Andersen to write the story, "At the Uttermost Part of the Sea". The expedition took place in the years 1829-33, Ross published his book on the expedition in 1835 and it appeared in a Danish translation in 1837.7 Andersen, however, did not read the book until he visited Glorup manor in 1851. He was moved by the description of the hardships suffered by the members of the expedition and noted in his diary of June 17, "Completed Ross's voyage of discovery in the Polar regions; when he together with his crew met ships again and he was saved, tears filled my eyes."8 However, "At the Uttermost Part of the Sea" was not written and published until three years later, in 1854.9
The title of the story is a quotation from the Old Testament, psalm 139, v. 9. The first scene is set in a snow hut where a young man is dreaming of the pastoral idyll of his homeland. His head is resting on the Bible given to him by his grandmother before he left home. He is often comforted by its words, "If I take the wings of the morning and fly to the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Thou art with me and Thy right hand shall uphold me" (psalm 139, v. 9-10). Andersen had already included these Bible-words in his novel O.T. (1836) as a comfort for the main character.10 They had made a strong impression on Andersen at an early age and are quoted twice in the essays from his school days.11
The story begins by telling that two big ships were sent towards the North Pole but no other geographical names are mentioned in the story. No doubt some readers thought that Greenland was in the author's mind. We learn that the snow huts are formed like beehives and that some of them only accomodate two or four men, whereas others are as big as burial mounds. The information about the Eskimos, the Inuit, is restricted to a few words. It is not even mentioned that they are Eskimos, they are only called natives ("indfødte"). Andersen has avoided detailed ethnographical information, and his description of their clothes is as simple as it can be, " crowds of natives came, strange to look in their hairy skin clothes".
A similar simple description of their sledges, however, is not correct. Andersen writes that their sledges were "carpentered" ('tømrede') of pieces of ice. According to the description by Ross, "Their sledges were very simple; the sides were made of pieces of bones which were wrapped in and held together by a skin, and the cross pieces on top of them were made from the forelegs of an animal. Underneath was a coat of ice fastened to the skin which made them very light ('lette')."12 These Eskimos lived in an area where driftwood was very hard to get, and therefore they had to use other materials. Andersen only remembered the extraordinary thing that they used ice in the construction of their sledges. It is not clear from the Danish translation of Ross that the meaning was that the Eskimos rubbed the runners of skin with water in order to get a coat of ice that made the sledges run smoothly.
"At the Uttermost Part of the Sea" is based on an account of an English expedition with an English crew but it appears from the young sailor's dream that Andersen imagines his homeland to be Denmark, " the green hills and meadows of home, with its ruddy woods, lay spread around him in the quiet sunshine of a lovely autumn day. The nest of the stork was empty, but ripe fruit still hung on the wild apple-tree, although the leaves had fallen. The red hips gleamed on the hedges, and the starling ". We are led to this conclusion right from the beginning of the story where a big snow hut is compared to "en Kæmpehøi", a burial mound, a romantic Danish national symbol.
Whereas nothing suggests that Andersen looked upon Ross's book again before he wrote "At the Uttermost Part of the Sea" the similarity with the source is much more conspicuous in the two other stories where the Arctic elements are based on literary sources, the North Wind's account in "The Garden of Paradise"13 and the Moon's story "The Ninth Evening" in Picture Book without Pictures,14 both written in 1839.
Hans Brix once remarked that "for the story of the North Wind Andersen has simply made extracts from the Norwegian Keilhau's voyage to Spitzbergen".15 Topsøe-Jensen puts it this way, "It might interest some and amaze others to see how closely Andersen sticks to his source when he calls upon the North Wind to speak."16 Andersen has of course rewritten Keilhau's description. When Keilhau gives a detailed description of how a fulmar looks and how it flies, Andersen only lets the North Wind say, "it is a curious bird, it gives a flap with its wings and then keeps them outstretched without moving them and then it has speed enough". This is in fact the most characteristic thing to be said about a fulmar. Andersen's story includes the little humorous refinement that the wind is interrupted by his mother, "Don't make such a long story out of it!"
Andersen has also shortened Keilhau's description of walrusses considerably. Keilhau compares them with "a crowd of sleeping pigs of an enormous size" and includes an observation of a "walrus with feet-long tusks!", and he concludes by saying, "There was something especially disgusting about this group; when the naked, round masses of lard that seemed to be quite without outer limbs moved among each other, it was as if you saw a lump or a cluster of giant maggots." In "The Garden of Paradise" Andersen lets the North Wind say, "At the bottom rolled the walrosses over like living intestines or giant maggots with pigs' heads and feet-long tusks!"
Andersen has made a new comparison: the walrusses are compared to intestines, and to make the sight more sickening the walrusses are said to be moving like living intestines. Besides he has combined Keilhau's two comparisons: pigs and maggots and Keilhau's observation of the walrus with the two tusks into one picture: maggots with pigs' heads and tusks. Andersen probably saw the similarity between the two tusks of a walrus and the two teeth of a wild boar. It can hardly be more grotesque, and the Mother of the Winds pays her son the following compliment, "You are good at telling stories, my boy! It makes my mouth water to listen to you." With this remark Andersen has distanced himself further from his source. As it appears from the comparisons used by Keilhau, he, in contrast to the Mother of the Winds, found the walrusses disgusting.
Andersen remembered Keilhau's travel book many years later when he visited Christiania (= Oslo) in August 1871 and mentioned it in his speech of thanks at a celebration in his honour. "The impression he then received of Norway was such that he thought: I must see this country. But it had been so much easier to go to the warm sunny countries of the South, and - the viking likes to go southwards." (Extract of report of Andersen's speech in the Norwegian newspaper "Morgenbladet".)17 Behind Andersen's interest in the northern parts of Norway was his acquaintance with the writer Xavier Marmier (1809-92) who took part in the French "Recherche" expedition to Svalbard and Northern Norway in 1838. He also met the leader of the expedition Paul Gaimand (1790-1858) in Copenhagen in 1839.
Occasionally Andersen met people who were interested in Greenland and even people who had been to Greenland.18 Andersen probably also heard his benefactor Jonas Collin (1776-1861) talk of Greenland because Collin served as chairman of a Greenland commission established in 1835. Collin never visited Greenland, but according to his autobiography his work in this commission was a source of great pleasure to him.19
Among the members of the commission was the Director of the Royal Danish Greenland Trade Company, William August Graah (1793-1863). He had been chief of a small expedition (1829-31) which travelled from the West coast of Greenland to regions of South East Greenland so far unknown to Europeans. Andersen only mentions him once in his diaries and that was when he still went to school in Slagelse, on March 24, 1826. He characterizes the young naval lieutenant Graah as "very dry and uninteresting", but the negative adjectives should no doubt be seen in the light of the sentence which follows, "still he was a success among the young girls. We played in the evening and together we escorted Stine home".20
That Graah was a "dry and uninteresting" person was disproved a few years later when in 1831 he returned from his South East Greenland expedition and published an account of his experiences. Andersen does not seem to have read the book until 1839 when it inspired him to write one of the pictures in Picture Book without Pictures. The frame of the small book is the Moon that tells stories to a young man in his garret. "The Ninth Evening" it is about Greenland. Like the other stories the heading is only the number of the evening, but in a letter to Henriette Hanck (1807-46) of December 10, 1839, where Andersen tells about the contents of the book he is working on he mentions "A Greenlandic Summer Night".21
The story starts by the young man saying, "Again I got an idea for a sketch - listen to what the Moon said." But the story was in fact based on a description by Graah of his visit to a beautiful valley in South East Greenland and on other details in Graah's book. It is possible to divide "The Ninth Evening" into 16 parts and place them side by side with extracts from Graah's book. They correspond quite nicely, even if Andersen has shortened Graah's descriptions and explanations considerably. After all Andersen's book was intended to be a piece of fiction, not an account of a journey including ethnographical and other scientific information. When Graah for example mentions the names of six different plants, Andersen is satisfied with mentioning three.
Picture Book without Pictures includes 33 small sketches dealing with many different subjects related to many different countries. Not only do the pictures form a contrast to each other, but the individual pictures include contrasts. In "The Ninth Evening" Andersen's description of how masses of ice fall down accompanied by thunder and disintegrate into dust is followed by the sentence, "it was a Greenlandic, lovely summer night". People are enjoying themselves, they laugh, dance and sing, but only a hundred steps away lies a dying man surrounded by his family.
When reading the story in Picture Book without Pictures one assumes that the comparison included in the description of a drum dance is Andersen's own invention, "The chorus jumped around in a circle in their white furs, it looked like a bear's dance." But in fact he has elaborated on ideas included in Graah's descriptions of drum dances, "When you have seen a bear dance on two you can fairly well imagine this scene",22 and in a later paragraph, "The women pride themselves on performing this dance with grace just as much as our young ladies of being able to dance beautifully a cotillon or a bolero".23 That the Greenlandic women were dressed in white furs made of polar bears was Andersen's own idea, in real life they were dressed in seal skin.
The frame of the story, however, is not inspired by Graah's book but by Keilhau's travel account. The Moon's first words in "The Ninth Evening" of Picture Book without Pictures are, "I followed the polar bird ", and the Moon's last words, " the fulmar flies over it". Andersen had used this bird a short time before in "The Garden of Paradise" where the North Wind was accompanied by this big northern sea bird. In his essay on "The Snow Queen" Topsøe-Jensen comments that "since Andersen had the same excellent principle as the Finn-woman, that he 'never wasted anything', Keilhau's book was restored to favour when he wrote the Arctic parts of the 'The Snow Queen'".24 The title of Keilhau's book goes in translation, "Travel in East and West Finmarken and to Beeren-Eiland and Spitzbergen" (1831). Andersen had used Beeren-Eiland, Bjørnøya, in "The Garden of Paradise", and Finnmark and Spitzbergen, Svalbard, were now incorporated into "The Snow Queen".25 Instead of Keilhau's division of Northern Norway into an eastern and a western part Andersen made a division of Northern Scandinavia into a southern and a northern part, Lapland and Finnmark, because little Gerda came travelling from the South to meet the Snow Queen. According to the little robber girl's reindeer the Snow Queen had her castle "near the North Pole, on the island called Spitzbergen", but little Gerda does not have to undertake the long journey to Spitzbergen because the Snow Queen "stays in the country" during summertime, that is in Finnmark. The reindeer refers to the Snow Queen's summer residence as a summer tent and that would be in agreement with the way of living of the Sami people, but the residence turns out to be an ice-cold place formed of snowdrifts.
In connection with the description of the palace of the Snow Queen Andersen reused the expression "bears' ball" from Picture Book without Pictures. In "The Snow Queen" the reference is to real polar bears, but even here it is used as a symbol of life and warmth. It is said about the palace of the Snow Queen with its cold, glittering, large rooms, "There is no amusement here, not even as much as a small bears' ball where the storm might strike up a dance and the polar bears might walk on their hind legs."
Andersen mentions Greenland briefly a few other times. In "The Phoenix Bird" (1850)26 it is said that "the Phoenix Bird is not only the bird of Arabia alone, it flutters about in the glimmer of the northern lights on the icy plains of Lapland. It hops about among the yellow flowers of the brief summer of Greenland." The two northern countries are not only mentioned together as a contrast to Arabia, Lapland and Greenland also form a contrast to each other. The first one is visited during wintertime, the last during summertime when South Greenland lives up to its name. The brief reference to Greenland is again based on Andersen's readings of Graah.
Andersen also used Greenland as an example of a remote country where the inhabitants are subject to the same basic conditions as elsewhere in the world. "The Story of a Mother" (1848) includes a description of the hothouse of Death where "each tree and each flower had a name, each of them was a human life, human beings still alive. One in China, one in Greenland, in all parts of the world."
In his novel The Two Baronesses (1848) which appeared in the same year as "The Story of a Mother" Andersen once more made use of Greenland and China as symbols of countries far away in each their part of the world, "Coffee was brought in and the coffee was accompanied by other stories; they went from Føhr to Greenland, and then from Varde to China as it happens in a conversation ".27
Andersen collected part of the material for The Two Baronesses when in the summer of 1844 he visited the Danish Royal family during their stay on the island of Føhr. Andersen wrote in his diary of September 7 after the party had walked among the dunes, "The landscape itself with an cold air was quite Greenlandic, so mourning, the grass black-green, the houses so dark. - The cattle were grazing in a dark valley half overflown. - (When we sailed to this island the dunes on Sylt were lighted up by the sun, they looked quite like glaciers)".28 The comparison with Greenland - and this time it is not the green summer landscape of South Greenland he has in mind - was probably caused by the fact that a few days before he had received information about the whalers of Føhr who used to go to Greenland. The special fences on the island made from bones of whales bore witness to this activity, but Andersen or his informant had misunderstood which part of the whales they were made from, - he calls them "whalefish teeth" both in his diary and in The Two Baronesses.29
The novel also includes a bit of information about Greenlanders. The boy who had returned from his first journey to Greenland tells about his experiences. "The Greenlanders' mess described in detail was of special interest to Keike who was cleanliness herself, whereas the description of the floating pieces of ice which looked like churches and castles, whales that spurted water from the nose, and vehicles drawn by ten- sixteen dogs were the the best for Elisabeth".30 The brief information of the culture of the Greenlanders as seen through the eyes of a European includes one negative aspect and a more admirable one.
In a few stories Andersen refers to the presence of Europeans in Greenland. In the story of "Holger Danske" (1845)31 where the old grandfather talks about remarkable Danish men and women he mentions, "Greenland's wretched huts, where Hans Egede stood full of love in words and action". Hans Egede (1686-1758) was the first missionary to Greenland; he was born in Norway and the one who initiated the Danish-Norwegian colonisation of Greenland in 1721. In the much later story "Godfather's Picture Book" (1868)32 Andersen returns to the mission in Greenland with the same pious attitude, "There came a breeze from the coast of Greenland, a scent as if it came from the country of Bethlehem; it reported about the light of the gospel by Hans Egede and his wife."
Finally Greenland is mentioned in the story "What One Can Invent" (1869),33 partly based on "The Potatoes" written in 1855, but not published until 1953.34 A young man would like to become a poet, "but he could not invent". An old woman lends him her glasses and her ear trumpet. He first learns the history of the potatoes, and then the woman tells him to look at the sloes. "We too", said the sloes, "have near relatives in the home of the potatoes but higher to the north than where they grew. Norsemen arrived from Norway, they steered westwards through mist and storms to an unknown country, where, behind ice and snow, they found herbs and greenery, bushes with blue-black berries: sloes, they froze to ripe grapes, so do we. And the country got its name 'Vinland' O: Greenland O: Sloeland." It does not seem to make sense. Vinland in North America and Greenland are not identical.
However, many years before Andersen had used a similar identification in The Two Baronesses which makes this way of reasoning understandable. A young man returns to Føhr with one of the whalers of the island, "He has made the voyage to Greenland", said Madam Levisen; "yes one might say the voyage to America, it makes no difference; Greenland is connected with America, so my old man says, and when Greenland was discovered by the Norwegians, then it is really us up here in the North who have discovered America, and not this Columbus: but let him only have the honour now I have my sweet boy!"35 At Andersen's time it was not yet realized that Greenland was an island.
The fact that Andersen like many other writers made research in connection with his writings and that it is possible to trace these sources in detail does not reduce his qualities as a creative writer. Andersen's use of Arctic elements and primarily his description of a Greenlandic summer night in Picture Book without Pictures is worth noticing not only because the author was Andersen, but also because it is one of the very first Danish literary texts where the scene is laid in Greenland. Two years later in 1842 Andersen's friend B.S. Ingemann made a step further by writing the first novel taking place in Greenland.36
7. The translation was made by a Danish missionary, Knud Kjer, who had met Ross at Sisimiut/Holsteinsborg in Greenland when the expedition travelled north. (It was also Knud Kjer who made the first translation of Andersen into Greenlandic. The poem "The Dying Child" was published in Greenlandic in the Danish newspaper Kjøbenhavns-Posten in October 1829.) (Editorial note: An interesting reference to Captain Ross's expedition may be found in Emil Aarestrup's poem "Nordexpeditionen", 1838.) back
12. Ross, John, Capitain Sir John Ross's anden Opdagelsesreise til de nordlige Polaregne og Ophold i Boothia felix Aarene 1829-1833. Oversat fra Engelsk af Knud Kjer. Kjøbenhavn, 1837. Pp. 175-76. back
15. Brix, Hans, H. C. Andersen og hans Eventyr. København, 1970. P. 117. (Title of B. M. Keilhau's travelogue: Reise i Øst- og Vest-Finmarken samt til Beeren-Eiland og Spitsbergen, i Aarene 1827 og 1828. Kristiania, 1831.) back
18. Brief meetings with Danes who had connection with Greenland included a visit on July 8, 1859, to Christen Christensen Østergaard (1804-83), a former missionary to Greenland. After his return to Denmark Østergaard had become a minister in Husby. Andersen describes the lovely vicarage with its garden filled with roses and concludes: "The reverend Østergaard who lives here has come down from Greenland, that means that it is twice as much a Paradise for him" (Dagbøger, IV, p. 333). In December 8, 1863, Andersen met a man in a bus in Copenhagen, whom he knew from Paris. He calls him "Railway Schram". The man referred to was Joh. Chr. Gustav Schram (Skram), director of the Zeeland railways. Andersen mentions that Skram has been to Greenland (Dagbøger, V, p. 440), but it is no doubt a mistake because of the noise in the bus. Skram had talked about his son, Johannes W. K. Skram (1831-) who was a missionary to Greenland. Andersen's diaries include furthermore two references to a colony manager Eduard C. Boye (1830-83) and his wife Emilie F., born Künitzer (1835-1916) whom he met at dinner parties in Copenhagen on December 7, 1865 (Dagbøger, VI, p. 340) and on March 15, 1870 (Dagbøger, VIII, p. 344). back