Haven’t we all gaped at the mystic world of the little mermaid, immersed ourselves in the enthralling tale of the emperor and his new clothes and allowed ourselves to be whisked away into the little universe of the ugly duckling? These fairy tales have sculpted our childhood by making our first acquaintance with the world out there, but there’s much more to them than meets the eye.
The perspicacious mind behind the creation of these timeless fairy tales was Hans Christian Andersen. Born to a downtrodden family exploited at the hands of abject poverty, Hans had an extremely arduous childhood. With a widowed mother working as a washerwoman, Hans had to fend for himself from an early age and struggled to get a basic education. This was when he wrote one of his first fairy tales, ‘The tallow candle’ which revolved around a candle which felt unappreciated and craved for some attention. Even the earliest works of Hans bear autobiographical hues in them, since he could see a reflection of his deepest anxieties and aspirations strewn in the tales he would weave. Even though there are numerous authors who have written to vent out and set their inner demons free, the way Hans sought solace was in a league of its own. He chose something as unsullied as fairy tales to express his darker side.
With the iconic tale of the ugly duckling, the story of a swan subjected to incessant chiding and incisive humiliation while being raised with a flock of ducks is trace, Hans is understood to be remembering in his own years of adolescence. The most intriguing and beguiling aspect of his manner of writing is that on the face of it, his stories are befitting to join a child’s world of wonders and flutter the wings of his imagination. However, a deeper inspection of his works would reveal the complexities entrenched in the social reality of existence. The narratives constructed by him are equipped to create a façade over darker undercurrent themes.
The little mermaid creates a yarn of an ironic tale of unrequited love which culminates in a painful tragedy. The story unravels to describe the moral dilemma of a mermaid who has fallen in love with a prince and is stuck in a quandary. She trades her voice for human form and owing to the lavishly sprinkled twists and turns in the narrative, finds herself with an unfulfilled desire for the prince’s love. It is unconventional to find fairy tales lacking the typical ‘happy ending’, but Hans, not being one to follow conventions, recognized the power of the little mermaid’s yearning and focussed the story on that subject. An even sadder story of unrequited love finds it’s mention in the tale of a one-legged tin soldier who falls in love with a beautiful ballerina caricature, and both the lovers unite as one as they melt into one pile of mass after being burnt in an accident. These stories appeal directly to the baser emotions of the reader.
His tales are also described as morbid since the protagonist don’t often fit the moulds constructed by the society and is seen as an oddity or an outsider, be it the ugly duckling, the little mermaid or the beautiful Thumbelina, who had to marry a blind mole because of family constraints.
The magic of Hans Christian Anderson lies in the way in which he would cleverly mask these dark and vicious themes under the covers of plain and manipulative storytelling. It is indeed a master story-teller who could retain his edge in spite of the plaintive expectations from a typical fairy tale.