Fairy Tales in Search of a Soul
I’ve been neglecting Hans Christian Andersen and I feel guilty about this. It’s partly because of all the noted fairy story tellers, he wrote mostly original work (rather than transcribing folk tales) and because of this, many of his stories labeled as “fairy tales” simply aren’t—at least from the perspective of popular assumptions about them. The popular term “fairy tale ending” presupposes a happy ending such as “lived happily ever after” and many authors and transcribers seem to assume that this is what both adult and child readers want. Andersen does provide this sort of ending, but his stories are more complex and the resolution not dependent on any of the magic that fairy stories depend on. The sense of magic we associate with fairy tales is not produced by transformations or spells, but often through the reader’s assumption of anthropomorphic qualities – and Andersen was a master of this process – thus allowing the reader to supply his own magic. His stories are not always from some distant past but rather draw from the edges of our imagination in the recent and present. Of all the fairy tale authors, he is among the most ironic. And he is nowhere more ironic than in his tragic tales of unrequited love.
One story in this mode is The Little Mermaid. What is striking about it is not the sense of wonder that magic imbues, but the sense of irony at the exchanges she must make to achieve her end. There is a mythic quality to the story of the sea princess more in accord with Greek tragedy than is comfortable for many modern fairy tales; and in The Little Mermaid, this sense of tragic irony is unrelenting.
The Little Mermaid begins as a coming of age story: The mermaid princess discovers the world above the waters and sees the prince who becomes her obsessive desire. In this (I suspect with intentional literary irony), we see a reversal of the siren’s role as temptress (Odysseus plugged the ears of his crew and had himself tied to a mast) as she rescues the Prince from drowning. Tragically, she discovers that her current nature makes her unsuitable to love a prince—as a mermaid, she has no soul. To satisfy her dreams she must become human, and by achieving the love of the human prince, gain an immortal soul and attain Christian Salvation (a common Andersen theme).
The Little Mermaid seeks the aid of a sea witch crone who gives her a potion to change her fish tail into legs. Again, mythic irony appears in the price paid in the form of continuous pain at each step the little mermaid takes, and in the loss of her voice – a tragic sense of loss for a siren for whom song defines identity. She retains the mermaid grace and beauty that so attracts the prince to love her as a sister, but not enough to distract him from his own obsession to find the girl who saved his life. There is a double irony now at play since her sacrifice allows her to be near the object of her desire but renders her unable to completely close the distance between them. At the same, the Prince is unable to see her for who she really is – his rescuer whom he seeks in love. But there is yet more mythic irony to follow.
The prince is betrothed to another princess as a result of family politics; when he finally sees his beautiful bride-to-be, he imagines her to be his rescuer and succumbs, almost as by enchantment, into a love for her. The little mermaid now has come to a classical dilemma. She has neither union with the prince nor can she she return to being a mermaid. She is doomed to spend the rest of her life in pain and will die without an immortal soul. Andersen does not let it be; he supplies a twist wherein the mermaid’s sisters, having cut off their beautiful hair in a sacrificial exchange for a knife their sister can use to kill the prince and end the sea witch’s spell. In the end, Christian morality wins and the mermaid, who cannot bring herself to murder the man she loves, kills herself by jumping into the sea and merging, as mermaids do, into the foam of the sea.
Andersen originally let the story end there, but his editors would not allow such a tragic ending in a children’s story. Anderson introduces air spirits; by becoming an air spirit, the little mermaid can serve as a guide for the proper behavior of children – and, if done well, earn a chance for an immortal soul. (I don’t know about you, but I prefer the irony of the tragic ending).
Another story of unrequited love, just as ironic but even sadder as a result, is The Brave Tin Soldier. Andersen makes us ascribe human qualities to an innocent object with no ability to act on its own. We meet a toy who is incomplete; there was not enough tin left to make a second leg, and because of his incompleteness seeks redemption in love for another toy that he imagines is also one legged – she is a paper dancer who lives in a paper castle that our protagonist has only glimpsed; thus he cannot see that she actually has two legs but one is raised out of sight in a dance gesture.
He cannot posses her, but he resolutely desires her as he embarks on an accidental quest into the world (he is knocked off the window), whereupon he meets real world adventures in a sewer (including immigration and tax extortion from a rat) until he is eventually swallowed by a fish. With yet another ironic twist, the fish is caught by the family who owned him as a toy, and he is returned to the nursery now within the reach of his beloved. But they are still only toys – unable to act and at the mercy of greater forces. One child, for no particular reason, tosses him into the fireplace and he begins to melt. Nature intervenes when the wind blows the paper dancer also into the fire, and they are finally joined in one place by mutual destruction, he as a lump in the form of a heart, she in the one part of her that would not burn, a rose.
One might look at these stories as a yearning for childhood sentimentality, but Andersen makes it clear that The Little Mermaid is a tragic myth and The Brave Tin Soldier is a classical allegory. He understood better than his editors our need for tragic irony to experience the genuine feeling of loss the storyteller attempts to convey. Irony heightens our compassion for and identity with the hero’s tragic dilemma, and through irony the loss is brought into sharp focus. We are more likely to see this quality in classical tragedy than in a book of children’s fairy tales.
And that is why I find Andersen so rewarding, and why he is so much more difficult a “fairy tale” writer to study than some others.