Brendan Monroe's Reviews > Fairy Tales

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen
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it was amazing
bookshelves: classics, danish, essential, favorites, international, loved

This is an absolutely fantastic collection of Hans Christian Andersen's best work. The translation, by Tiina Nunnally, is sublime and her notes on past translations of Andersen's stories makes it clear just how sublime it is. If you wanted to read a version closer to H.C. Andersen's original, you'd have to read these in Danish.

Jackie Wullschlager's introduction is easily one of the best I've read and an essential lens through which to better understand these tales. Short of reading Wullschlager's biography of Andersen, "Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller", I think you'd be hard pressed to read a more wonderful account of Andersen's life and stories than this 32-page introduction.

And what about the stories themselves? The stories are, of course, phenomenal. This is the first time I've read any of Andersen's stories since I was a child and, if possible, I enjoyed reading them even more as an adult. All the witticisms and references to Andersen's life that you don't pick up on as a child are to be savored as an adult.

Many of these stories I had never read or heard before, so I was also surprised and brought back to what it was like to be a child again - so enrapturing are these tales. There are a total of 30 to be found in this lovely collection, some utterly delightful, others surprisingly dark, and still others that perhaps pale in comparison to the rest. But one thing that is for sure is that these tales are rendered by Tiiny Nunnally to be enjoyed better than ever before in English.

1. The Tinderbox - 5 Stars

Yes, this is a 5-star story to be sure. More folk than fairy, this tale is in fact based on an older Danish folktale that Andersen transformed with his characteristic wit. It features an A+ decapitation and glorious references to sugar-pigs, cake-wives, and social status. It's stupendous.

2. Little Claus and Big Claus - 5 stars

So when I saw the title for some reason I thought that this was going to have something to do with Santa Claus until I realized that, oh yes, Claus is actually a name for ordinary people as well - specifically, Germanic men. But that aside, this is a hilarious story, also based on a Danish folktale, about an awfully clever little fellow who performs some delightful tricks.

3. The Princess on the Pea - 5 stars

This is a simple little story but I liked it all the same. One of Andersen's more famous, it has been at last been rendered into English with the correct title (previously this was widely known in English as "The Princess AND the Pea"). A princess who's able to feel a pea beneath 20 mattresses and 20 quilts?? Why, that's something special indeed! How the pea didn't get squashed is something I would have enjoyed learning.

4. Thumbelina - 5 stars

Another Andersen classic, "Thumbelina" is a delightful tale and at times a bit scary. Inspired by the folktale "Tom Thumb", this one concerns a little thumb-sized lady and her adventures out in the big wide world. You'll never look at moles the same way!

5. The Traveling Companion - 5 stars

This is the first story in the collection that I don't remember having heard before. And it is absolutely fabulous. Quite darker than the ones that preceded it as well. To call it the Danish "Rumplestiltskin" doesn't quite do it justice, and I actually think I liked it better than that famous Grimm Brothers' tale.

6. The Little Mermaid - 5 stars

The most famous of Andersen's stories and, in my opinion, the best. The Disney adaptation, which is almost more famous now than the original, is one of Disney's best films and it is still a terrible adaptation. This has it all, including an almost perfect ending. I saw "almost" because the last page of this feels tacked on.

The Little Mermaid throws herself from the ship into the sea, and her body dissolves into foam. That should have been the end But instead we get a bizarre bit about "daughters of the air" and an obvious plea to children to be good. That tarnishes what would have otherwise been a perfect tale. But, even tarnished, this is still the great writer's best.

7. The Emperor's New Clothes - 5 stars

After "The Little Mermaid", this is likely my favorite of Andersen's stories, and after "The Little Mermaid" it's also probably his most famous. You all know the story, no need for me to recap it here, but I was surprised to learn that the little boy's famous cry at the end of "But he doesn't have anything on!" was hastily added by Andersen after the story had already been sent off to the printer's. This is a satire as excellent and brilliant today, in the age of Trump, as ever.

8. The Steadfast Tin Soldier - 5 stars

Delightfully poetic. This is the first of Andersen's stories in this collection to feature inanimate objects brought to life. I'd never noticed how clearly Andersen influenced later films like "Toy Story" until I read this story about the quite appropriately named Steadfast Tin Soldier.

9. The Wild Swans - 5 stars

Another classic, albeit one I wasn't too familiar with. This one is also based on a classic European folktale, and it's got all the famous elements we see in other tales like Cinderella. Evil stepmother, a bit of magic, and the transformative power of love.

10. The Flying Trunk - 3 stars

This is a sort of story within a story, one involving matches and some dishware, and the other the titular trunk and a Turkish engagement. If only our rich merchant's son could have resisted the urge to set off those fireworks...

11. The Nightingale - 5 stars

Surprisingly sweet, this story of the Chinese Emperor and his obsession with the nightingale took a number of unexpected turns. Andersen was clearly in high spirits when he wrote this one.

12. The Sweethearts - 4 stars

This thought-provoking tale feels like something Andersen wrote after having become the most famous writer in Denmark (and one of the most famous in all Europe) and thinking back on when a woman he loved rejected him - and, lo and behold, it was! All I can say is, that ball deserved it.

13. The Ugly Duckling - 5 stars

Come on. You know you love this one. Another one with clear allusions to Andersen's life.

14. The Fir Tree - 4 stars

It's only once you've grown up that you realize that all that urgency to grow up was unwarranted. A reminder to slow down and savor life while you can.

15. The Snow Queen - 5 stars

This is one of Andersen's more beloved tales, and it features some beautiful moments and spectacular images. The first part, about the mirror, is haunting, and this more than any of Andersen's other tales seems to deal with the battle between good and evil. Reading it, I was reminded of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

16. The Red Shoes - 3 stars

Behave yourselves, children! Don't you wear red shoes when you ought to be wearing black ones or you'll be forced to dance dance dance!

17. The Shepherdess and the Chimney Sweep - 3 stars

Worth it just for the final line - "and (they) loved each other until they broke".

18. The Shadow - 5 stars

Woah! I was not expecting that! This reads much more like something Franz Kafka would have written than Hans Christian Andersen. Surprisingly dark and spookily strange. There's nothing else quite like it in Andersen's oeuvre.

19. The Old House - 4 stars

There's something surprisingly spooky about this store, reportedly much beloved by Charles Dickens. That poor tin soldier...

20. The Little Match Girl - 5 stars

Speaking of Charles Dickens, this gorgeous and heartwrenching story is H.C. Andersen at his most Dickensian. The image of the Little Match Girl, shuddering with cold while staring into the windows of those whose tables were laden with New Year's feasts is absolutely haunting. One of Andersen's best.

21. The Story of a Mother - 4 stars

Andersen's misery at his repressed bisexuality and societal isolation made for some incredible tales, not least this one. It all begs the question: whose stories are better? Happy Hans or Miserable Hans?

22. The Collar - 3 stars

So I've decided I'm not as big a fan of Andersen's stories that feature inanimate objects as primary characters as much as I am the others. This one I found rather ho-hum. Though it is amusingly self-deprecating.

23. The Bell - 3 stars

This one was pleasant enough, but failed to leave much of an impact.

24. The Marsh King's Daughter - 2 stars

I thought this one was much too long, featured too many religious overtones, and was ultimately quite unmemorable. Overshadowed by many, much better, stories.

25. The Wind Tells of Valdemar Daae and His Daughters - 2 stars

I don't think the wind told it best.

26. The Snowman - 4 stars

One can once again see evidence of Andersen's suppressed desires in the Snowman's desperately wanting to be with the Stove. Something that European society at the time would have certainly found most unnatural.

27. The Ice Maiden - 5 stars

This fantastic story, set in Switzerland, is one of the best in the collection. Two people, stranded on the island in the little lake, until the Ice Maiden calls the other away. An image both beautiful and haunting.

28. The Wood Nymph - 4 stars

Beautiful, uncorrupted nature versus the corrupt hustle and bustle of the city. Andersen as environmentalist, perhaps?

29. The Most Incredible Thing - 5 stars

On art and those who would seek to eradicate it. Used during WWII by the Danish Resistance. Without art, without culture, there is nothing.

30. Auntie Toothache - 4 stars

This was the last story Hans Christian Andersen ever wrote. Andersen suffered from toothaches his entire life (19th-century European dentistry not being what it is today), and here he has his protagonist, a poet, receives a visit from the titular Auntie Toothache, who promises pain unless the poet should give up writing - forever.

Humanity has to be grateful that Andersen himself never made such an agreement.
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Reading Progress

February 4, 2016 – Shelved
February 4, 2016 – Shelved as: to-read
August 12, 2018 – Started Reading
September 15, 2018 – Shelved as: classics
September 15, 2018 – Shelved as: danish
September 15, 2018 – Shelved as: essential
September 15, 2018 – Shelved as: favorites
September 15, 2018 – Shelved as: international
September 15, 2018 – Shelved as: loved
September 15, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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message 1: by Anni (new)

Anni Wow - great research!

Brendan Monroe Thanks Anni!

message 3: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN Thank you for taking the time and trouble to write this top-notch review.

Brendan Monroe Thank you for taking the time to read it, Allen! Much appreciated!

message 5: by ALLEN (new)

ALLEN You make a great case for the book, even among those of us who have some of these stories already in collections.

Brendan Monroe As I mentioned above, just the "Translator's Notes" in the beginning of this edition sheds some fascinating light on how many of these tales went completely mistranslated for years. It was quite interesting. Andersen really was a remarkable fellow, and getting some insight into his personal life made reading these stories this time that much more insightful. It is indeed a terrific edition!

message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian A very good review, with useful detail. Thank you very much.

I was not surprised to find that the Goodreads' link to the Kindle store is to an entirely different edition.

However, the main link to Amazon does go to the right page, so it is possible to order the hard copy from them without going through a tedious search of every Hans Christian Andersen translation and retelling out there. (I've made several attempts, just as an experiment.)

Brendan Monroe Good to know, Ian. I’ve even noticed that some of the reviews here of “this” edition, aren’t actually of this edition. Goodreads sometimes gets confused when there are multiple editions of something, as is the case here. This is definitely the translation you want though! Thanks very much for reading.

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