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Happily Ever After: Rethinking Andersen’s Fairy Tales in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar


Happily Ever After: Rethinking Andersen’s Fairy Tales in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales by Maria Tatar

Himanshu Kumar

Assistant Professor

Department of English

Hansraj College

University of Delhi, India



Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), an acclaimed Danish writer is renowned for his fascinating fairy tales that have captured the hearts of readers all over the world. His stories have gained adoration due to their captivating stories, memorable characters and profound messages. At first glance it may seem that Andersen's tales adhere to the formula of ‘happily ever after’. However upon examination one discovers a tapestry of emotions and complexities that disregard simplistic resolutions. His characters grapple with dilemmas, existential crises, and personal growth. As a skilled storyteller Andersen weaved narratives that defy the typical "happily ever after" archetype and are filled with realism and intricacy reflecting the complexities of emotions and the unpredictability of life. This paper explores how Andersen goes beyond fairy tale boundaries when it comes to depicting "happily ever after" providing readers with a deep and multi-layered perspective. It studies tales such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Little Match Girl’ in order to analyse how Andersen’s characters confront adversity and redefine happiness. His narratives delve into emotional depth exploring complex psychological aspects within his characters and encourage a deeper understanding of human emotions and desires that remain relevant even today.

 Keywords: Fairy tale, Archetype, Storytelling, Folklore, Self-exploration

Fairy tales constitute a unique form of literature that borrows elements from folklore to explore and critique the desires and needs of a growing bourgeois audience. While some fairy tales present robust social criticism and envision a better world, the majority tend to present a cheerful affirmation of the existing order. The term ‘fairy tale’ originates from the French phrase "contes de fées," but is “only a convenience since few stories we call by that name contain fairies, elves, leprechauns, or similar creatures” (Sale 23). These tales have survived for centuries because they tap into the very essence of life itself—its passions, anxieties, fears, desires, and love. Fairy tales do not attempt to explicate or demystify themselves; instead, they fearlessly embrace and weave together the complexities of human existence into seemingly simple narratives.

To Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), the fairy tale was an unrestricted playground without the constraints of genre norms. While admitting that some of his stories were influenced by the tales he heard as a youngster, he also maintained his own talent and imagination’s ability to create literary fairy tales. Instead of archetypal figures, we frequently encounter characters who are the author’s alter egos. Andersen was a keen observer of social issues, and as a Romantic, he pondered the human–nature relationship. According to Ursula K. Le Guin, Andersen is “one of the great realists of literature” owing to his “willingness to see and accept the consequences of an act or a failure to act” (61).

Maria Tatar (b.1945), the John L. Loeb Professor of Folklore & Mythology and Germanic Languages and Literature at Harvard University, is one of the foremost experts on fairy tales. She published The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales in 2002, a curated collection of twenty-six stories that were all illustrated, somewhat annotated, and few of them translated specifically for the publication. The 'familiar' is thoroughly dissected and discussed in Tatar’s annotations for each story. She skillfully leads readers through the stories, examining their cultural intricacies, historical roots, and psychological impacts.

Like Andersen’s personal life, his fairy tales are not always cheerful. Hence, he uses the phrase "happily ever after" sparingly. Andersen believed that enduring hardship(s) was a sign of spiritual greatness. Many of his stories end in a cemetery and include details of bodily humiliation – the tin soldier melts in the oven, the match girl freezes to death, the daisy wilts away, and the fir tree is hacked down and used as firewood. This paper examines two stories, namely ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Little Match Girl’, whose tragic conclusions raise the question of whether happy endings are required in children’s literature.

One of Andersen’s most well-known stories is ‘The Little Mermaid’ (1837). Its pathos has managed to strike a chord with many people. Rosellen Brown mulls over “Why ‘The Little Mermaid’ so fascinated me that I shuddered and read it again and again”, contemplating that “perhaps [she] was a simple child to believe the worst” (56). She did not, however, appreciate the "fake good cheer" that Andersen occasionally delivers and preferred the tragic endings instead. Perhaps this is the case because the story gives readers a chance to confront their anxieties and cleanse themselves of negative emotions and undesirable impulses.

‘The Little Mermaid’ is a clear illustration of how Andersen’s tales depart from 'standard' fairy tales. The mermaid’s self-effacing nature seems baffling, to say the least. So is the case with her resurrection from death and her unceasing efforts to obtain immortality. The tale is inspired by a literary folktale or ‘Kunstmärchen’ by the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué called Undine (1811). Interestingly, Andersen “reversed the roles and downplaying the motif of the Christian versus the pagan, created a beautiful and tragic story of impossible love.” (Zipes 60).

While comparing Andersen’s marine world with that of Walt Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid in The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, Maria Tatar notes that the latter’s underwater inhabitants didn't merely "sing and dance" (303). In the Disney version, Triton is a more powerful character who strives to rescue his daughter Ariel from the clutches of the crafty sea witch (Ursula).

Andersen continuously deals with transformations in form and identity. The mermaid is transmuted from a marine creature to a mermaid in human form and then to a "daughter of the air," unlike other fairy tale protagonists who metamorphose from human to animal form. However, unlike the eleven brothers of Elise in ‘The Wild Swans’, who were forced to become swans, or Lucius in The Golden Ass, who accidentally transformed into an ass, these alterations are motivated by the mermaid’s own wishes. The story’s conclusion indicates that the mermaid’s transformation, like that of the sea maidens and swan maidens of Scandinavian legend, is revocable but not without a price.

The story emphasises having a voice and the capacity to exhibit its artistry. The mermaid’s voice is what makes her so enticing to everyone. The little mermaid loses her ability to talk and sing, just like Philomela (in Ovid's Metamorphoses), whose tongue was amputated by Tereus. She realises the shortcomings of the deal she had with the sea witch only after she observes the Prince enjoying the slave girls’ songs because "she knew that she herself could sing far more beautifully"(323). And she ends up losing the Prince to her opponent in love because she is unable to communicate.

The sea witch inhabits a world of degradation, devastation, and death. In an effort to obtain external salvation, the mermaid seeks the assistance of ‘corruption personified’, but is unsuccessful. She can only be rewarded with the chance to achieve immortality when she gives up the black art. The sea witch appears to be more of a 'technician' carrying out the strict laws of the universe. The mermaid experiences pain only when she strives to overcome her nature.

Despite the criticism of being self-effacing, the little mermaid is more daring and inquisitive than most fairy tale heroines. In spite of being the youngest, "she swam more closer to the shore than any of the others dared" (324). Notwithstanding the excruciating discomfort in her legs, she also voluntarily donned a page’s uniform to go on a horse ride and climb to the top of the high mountains to take in the beautiful scenery.

The tale's resolution was given a disciplinary twist by Andersen. The conclusion implies that children’s behaviour is being continuously watched by an unseen entity and that the actions of the former determine the fate of the latter. Even though this lesson isn't as terrifying as the tortures the little mermaid endures (as Tatar claims), it is adequate to keep the kids on their toes all the time.

A fine children’s book appears to have several important requirements, one of which is the protagonist’s success. However, in Andersen's ‘The Little Match Girl’, which honours the suffering of a match vendor who freezes to death on New Year's Eve, this is not the case. A cruel father and a merciless society are responsible for the girl’s plight. She does not even get refuge in the lap of  Mother Nature. We get chills just thinking about the poor girl out there in the cold. She is finally rescued through supernatural intervention. The story is still one of the most enduring childhood memories and weighs heavily on our collective imagination.

Over the past century, ‘The Little Match Girl’ has undergone numerous adaptations and revisions, most notably in a 1944 version that spares the primary character’s life and ensures that she lives ‘happily ever after’. Andersen wrote the original during a decade of social turbulence and political turmoil and would have been extremely upset had he survived to read the revised version. This is the case because eliminating the death scene from the story is equivalent to removing the spirit from the body. J.C. Oates persuades us to observe the original match girls despite replacing the little match girl with a strong and successful lady in his story entitled ‘You, Little Match Girls’. He says, “maybe our lives are no more than a match girl’s flaring matches; we live so long as they burn, and then they are gone” (233).

The descriptor 'little' before a girl’s name usually foreshadows her doom. Like the little mermaid, little Eva (in Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin), and little Nell (in Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop), the little match girl is foreordained to embrace death as a child. She is not even half as fortunate as the match girl in Wilde's ‘The Happy Prince’, who benefits from the Prince's munificence.

The story ‘The Little Match Girl’ begins with a penurious little girl “wearing nothing on her head and walking in bare feet” (279). Andersen, whose father was a cobbler, frequently places the protagonist’s misery in their feet. The match girl standing outside in the cold cuts a pitiful figure and makes us feel bad for her. She is nonetheless in a better shape than individuals who gloat over their footwear and end up in serious problems, such as Inge and Karen in ‘The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf’ and ‘The Red Shoes’ respectively.

Andersen frequently presents a diorama of pain and anguish to us. He uses intricate descriptions of suffering to depict beauty in this story. For example, the match girl “crouched down and huddled in the cold, with her legs tucked under her. But she just got colder and colder” (280). Andersen, who had experienced poverty and adversity in life, always felt compassion for the poor and the needy. The little shivering girl who lights matchstick after matchstick in a desperate attempt to keep herself alive mirrors the life of Andersen’s mother, who used to sell goods in the cold as a child.

The innocent girl is turned cold by the Angel of Death at the end of the tale. Her demise is beautiful because she has managed to rise above the material world. Her destitution can be viewed as a prerequisite for movement into a higher realm with "no cold, no hunger, no pain" (233). Like Karen, God showers her with mercy and ensures that her spirit soars to her heavenly Father.

Thus, life unfolds in Andersen’s tales the way it does in reality rather than as a fantasy. They enable us to perceive the truth of suffering that others try to conceal. Andersen experienced and captured this suffering, and as a result, he created works of remarkable creativity and beauty that are both fulfilling in their anguish and troubling in the issues they unmask. His perception of reality sits at the centre of his fancy’s most exquisite web.

 Works Cited

Brown, Rosellen. “It is You the Fable is about”. Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore their Favourite Fairy Tales. Ed. Kate Barnheimer. New York: Anchor Books, 1998. Print.

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Child and the Shadow”. The Language of the Night: Essays on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Ed. Susan Wood. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1979. 59-71. Print.

Oates, Joyce C. “You Little Match Girl”. Black Heart, Ivory Bones. Ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. New York: Avon Books, 2000. Print.

Sale, Roger. “Fairy Tales”. Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E.B. White. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978. 23-48. Print.

Tatar, Maria, ed. The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales . New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 2002. Print.

Zipes, Jack. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Oxford: OUP, 2006. Print.