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Why Study Hans Christian Andersen?

Why study Hans Christian Andersen? - this is a question that has worried me in former years many times, and I shall be glad to hear afterwards your opinion about it. My own considerations - which you are going to hear now - are certainly not new and sensational. Many of you will have followed similar trends of thought. In that case my words may be called a repetition. But repetition of fundamental issues must be done now and then, and the problems be reconsidered. This is what I intend to do in this paper.

Once upon a time, many years ago, I met a literary historian, a specialist of Danish literature, later professor at the University of Copenhagen, and asked him: Why study Danish literature? - To my surprise he did not know what to answer. Maybe he did not understand me. At least he seemed irritated that I could ask such a question, in his opinion a silly one. But it is not silly. It is necessary. It must be asked and it must be answered. We must know why we are studying, our aim and our goal.

As this competent literary historian could not help me, I had to find out myself. Here are my own considerations.

The question can only be answered through a survey of the problems encountered in the study of H. C. Andersen. After that I will try in short to explain why we should try to solve them.

The first problem is his life, which was indeed strange: from poor common people to bourgeoisie and aristocracy and even Europe's royal courts, only through his stubborn will, his talents and - as he put it himself - by the aid of God. Considering that his own statements in his autobiographies are not always to be relied on, the truth about the events of his life should be established. Most of this work has been done by the late Dr. Topsøe-Jensen in his basic studies from 1940 and the following years, which should be read to show you how critical work has to be carried out. To this must be added a study of his surroundings and of his time as a whole. Here several questions might be taken into consideration. What did Copenhagen look like in the first half of the 19th century after the English bombardment in 1807? In the Festskrift 1955 the late director of Odense Museums, Svend Larsen, gave a description of the social conditions at Odense about the beginning of the century. A similar description should be given of Copenhagen: How were the social conditions of the population? How numerous was the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, the artisan's class and the proletariate, compared with what Andersen tells us in his fairy tales and his novels. We know the people who received him in their homes or became his friends, but which were the cultural interests common in Copenhagen in general? We would like, too, to have a survey of the evolution of The Royal Theatre, its artists and its repertoire.

And next: How was the Denmark of Andersen's time - the small towns, the countryside and its people? And the Europe he visited so many times - how was the political and social situation during the transitional period, when our modern technical civilization began invading the old society of princes and peasants? In his travel books he gives very few, if any, indications.

The second problem is a psychological one: his strange personality, which puzzled his contemporaries and still puzzles us. A thorny problem. A definitive explanation of his personality is hardly possible to give, confusing and contradictory as it was. We must try to clarify our knowledge, to make a survey of the obvious facts: the characteristics of his mind, his personal, intellectual and emotional qualities. And then - if you have the courage - to try to understand them as a personal or organic whole. Here theories and hypotheses and other guesses should be used with the utmost caution. It is a subjective and perhaps impossible task. In our super-psychological century one should expect that a personality like Andersen would be welcomed as a gift from heaven. Here is, for a psychologist, something to ponder over, indeed, and it is strange that - after Hjalmar Helweg's remarkable study in 1927 - so few have tried to describe this curious and unusual phenomenon. Unusual indeed. In Denmark we do not like the exceptional, we are accustomed to interpret geniuses as variations of a normal, average type. But the variations - for good and bad - are sometimes so great that one is tempted to regard the geniuses as belonging to a special category of the human race, independent of the normal. Can such a consideration lead to a new approach, a new understanding of Andersen's personality?

I would like to add the important question as to how the poet, with his extraordinary sensibility, experienced his surroundings, nature, people, and events.

The third issue: the poet at work. How did he create his poetry? - or how did his poetry come about? Where did he find his material? How did his inspiration function - the creative process? When writing fairy tales at least, he was an assiduous worker. How much was inspiration and how much was craftmanship? We have some information from himself, but more might be found. To this must be added the equally interesting question as to how his temperament found its expression in his works, above all in his fairy tales, and how he used experiences from his private life when composing the fairy tales. The latter study is fascinating, but it cannot - as some writers have thought - be used to comprehend the fairy tales as poetical entities, as works of art. It concerns details and is not sufficient to understand the poetic works in their wholeness and originality.

The fourth point: an esthetic study of the composition of his fairy tales, a description of the universe in which the events take place, and an account of the relation between the human and the non-human element in the characters. Further a characterization of the folk tales (fairy tales and legends) and a study of how he used them. And next the position of Andersen's fairy tales in the European literary tradition (treated by Paul V. Rubow in his detailed study 1927). An important task is to state the difference between the world of common people and that of the literary upper-class. And most important of all: why is his way of telling his stories so fascinating? What is the secret of his narrative art?

The fifth point is the so-called interpretation. It is a useful and necessary study, that goes without saying. It is, however, important to realize what it implies.

What is interpretation?

To this there are, in my opinion, three answers:

  1. The interpreter should establish, if possible, the poet's intention with the work in question: Did he want to convey a general idea or a didactic thesis - or to give a picture of a landscape, of daily life, of a situation, pathetic or humorous, or only of some apparently insignificant events, maybe given in a certain atmosphere, but without any clearly defined intention?
  2. In certain cases, however, the poet's unconscious has been wiser than his reason, so that he has given more than he himself knew of. It is possible to state this "more"? It may be a difficult task.
  3. The third kind of interpretation is the most intricate and should be kept strictly apart from the two already mentioned. In our time some students have been inclined to find their own experiences or the ideas of their own time in the works of the past. Such an interpretation is a subjective one: what thoughts does this fairy tale - or what ever - call forth in my mind? - To state this is admissible, but it should be stressed, that it is a personal view that may tell more about the interpreter than about the work in question. Thus applying a marxist view to the fairy tales may easily turn out to be an attempt to use the fairy tales to illustrate or corroborate marxist doctrines.

The sixth point is somehow part of the preceding, but still independent. It is the question about the religious ideas and the general philosophy of life, to be found in the fairy tales. It is easy to state Andersen's religion. He was a sincere Christian, as protestant Christianity was understood in the rationalism of the 18th century. More complicated are the following questions: What are his ideas about human beings, about the universe and about life in general? They are not always clearly defined. They are so to speak implicit in his narrations and must be extricated through a close study. Maybe some of them will surprise the student.

The seventh question is the editorial work. The editor of course must choose which edition of the fairy tales he will use - the first, the original edition, or the later where Andersen has made certain corrections. But further it must be taken into consideration that the fairy tales were written one century and a half ago. Several words and phrases are now obsolete and many phenomena unknown to the young and youngest generation. What is a tinderbox? or a top or a skipjack or a rammer, at Andersen's time called a "jomfru"? What is meant by The European Necessity (in the story about the rammer)? The storks unhappily have almost disappeared from the Danish landscape - do our town-children know what kind of bird that is? - It must be explained through short commentaries. An actress once told me that when reading the fairy tales to an audience of children, she had to substitute modern words instead of the presumably unknown ones, or else the small ones would not understand the stories and soon lose interest in them.

The eighth question is that of Andersen's influence on Danish culture. How did his colloquial language (which moreover should be compared with the language of contemporary prose writers) influence the following generations of Danish writers? And next: how did the fairy tales influence Danish mentality? It is a well known fact, that the character of a nation may be determined by the nature of the country and by the nation's history. To this may be added the language, which gives its users a certain pattern of reasoning and feeling (in itself an interesting study) - and then: the national literature. In the case of Denmark its importance can hardly be exaggerated. Our sceptical attitude to life and people is due to Holberg - maybe it existed before him, but he has expressed it with an unforgettable exactness in his comedies. Everybody will recognize this attitude in Andersen's fairy tales. Considering how much these two great authors have been read in Denmark, the impact on Danish thought or mental habits is no wonder. To this we may add the sympathetic feeling, so often met with in the fairy tales, for every living creature, however small and seemingly insignificant. The right to live in one's own way and be respected, is one of the messages of Andersen. To follow this influence, so specifically Danish, is a fascinating study, not least to establish how many of the phrases and sentences from the fairy tales have passed into Danish language as proverbs (Sprichwörter, as the Germans say), giving our speech variation, atmosphere and perspective.

The ninth point concerns the translations of the fairy tales and the reception they have had by critics abroad. The translations into English have been thoroughly dealt with by professor Elias Bredsdorff, but what about the other countries? The criticism in Denmark we know rather well, but what did the German reviewers say? - and the French? and so on. Here is much to be done. Such studies may show whether or not our poet was justified in his enthusiasm for the reception of his works outside his native country. It might also reveal something about the thinking and feeling of those foreign nations.

So far I have almost exclusively talked about the poet and his fairy tales. It has become a long catalogue of problems for research. It is, however, not complete, to be sure. I suppose you will be able to extend it further. Still we should not forget the tenth point: his enormous production in addition to the fairy tales, above all his novels. What are their advantages and weaknesses? How are they, compared to contemporary novels and those of an earlier and of a later time? And a final question: Andersen was a mediocre dramatist, an average lyrical poet, a good novelist and a brillant travel writer. But why did he attain perfection only in the fairy tales?

And now, at long last - after a long detour - my answer to our main question: Why all these studies?

The answer has to some extent been implied in the presentation of the problems of the study. But it seems to me that on certain points a closer analysis will be useful.

The first impulse to the study comes from our wonder, our curiosity, the passion for discovering, inborn in so many of us and emerging without any reasonable cause - and then of course, a love of H. C. Andersen and the wish to acquire a closer knowledge of himself and his works. This reason for studying is very human, but not sufficient. The fundamental aim is to know more in order to understand more.

First Andersen himself, that is, the first three of our problems. Everybody likes novels, to hear about men and women and events. Andersen's life is a fascinating romantic novel; our task is to bring this life-novel down to truth. We should live with him in his own true surroundings, which is only possible through studies.

The same consideration holds good for the study of his personality. We shall know him in order to understand him. We study strange personalities in order to broaden our knowledge of human nature and of the possibilities of the human soul - and even to get a healthy shock when stating the difference between the imaginative, creative minds and all the rest of us, the unimaginative routineers.

Concerning the use of esthetic studies and the interpretation (our problem nos. 4, 5 and even 6) little needs to be said: through a study of genre, composition, symbols, and phrases we want to open up the poetic world of the fairy tales, to procure the keys to their rich philosophy of life, to wring their secrets from them.

To conclude, I must add two reflections: Much of what I have said is truisms, as I suggested at the beginning of my article. But to Danes, the poet's fellow-countrymen, the studies are a question of life and death. They contribute to keep up our country's literary tradition. They make us familiar with our poets as human beings and as artists, and through rereading and rethinking their works keep them present in our minds and make them understandable to people of our time. Familiarity with our poets is part of our national self-knowledge and, moreover, contribute to our understanding of human life in general. Their works are such an essential part of Danish national culture that we cannot lose our interest in them without losing our spiritual backbone. The studies are an enterprise for the nation.

This leads me to my second and final consideration: The study is a work, not only for a limited circle of specialists, but for many others. The result of our studies should - in a popular form - be brought out to the general public, whether Danish or foreign, all those readers who have not the time to study but like to know and to understand. The Danish theologian Hal Koch, in the years after the last war an arduous worker in the general education of grown-ups, once said that something must be done for "ordinary sensible people". There are many of them, and they must have food for their souls. Through our studies we can clear the way for them to understand H. C. Andersen. We are servants of the general public. This service is the ultimate aim of our studies.


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Bibliographic information about the text:

Grønbech, Bo: "Why Study Hans Christian Andersen?", pp. 131-37 i Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen & Viggo Hjørnager Pedersen (red.): Andersen og Verden. Indlæg fra den første internationale H. C. Andersen-konference, 25.-31. august 1991. Udgivet af H. C. Andersen-Centret, Odense Universitet. Odense Universitetsforlag, Odense 1993.

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