Gateway to the Classics: Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales and Wonder Stories by Louis Rhead
Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales and Wonder Stories by  Louis Rhead

Front Matter


N EVER has a beautiful talent needed an introduction less than Hans Christian Andersen from the sort of glibness which is asked to officiate in that way at lectures and public meetings and in the forefront of books. Every one knows who this gentle Dane was, and almost every one knows what he did. Every one especially knows what he did here in this book, so that the index is about all that is needed for the fathers and grandfathers and mothers and grandmothers. The mere names of the stories tell the stories to those old children who learned them by heart long ago. The Ugly Duckling, The Ice-Maiden, Soup Made out of a Sausage-stick, The Constant Tin Soldier, The Red Shoes, Thumbling, The Emperorís New Clothes, The Girl Who Trod on Bread: what more do we want than the names of the thirty-five other stories in the book? But if the young children insist upon having them told again as Andersen alone knew how to tell stories, why here they are, with pictures to them that repeat them with a like sweet fancifulness.

I suppose there never were stories with so little harm in them, so much good. Each of them has a moral, but so neatly tucked away that it does not stick out at the end as morals usually do, particularly in stories meant for children, but is mostly imparted with the sort of gay wisdom which a friendly grown-up uses with the children when they do not know whether he is funning or not. The great beauty of them is the homely tenderness which they are full of, the kind of hospitality which welcomes all sorts and conditions of children to the same intimacy. They are of a simplicity always so refined that there is no touch of coarseness in them; with their perfect naturalness they are of a delicate artistry which will take the young children unaware of its perfection, and will only steal into their consciousness perhaps when they are very old children. Some may never live to feel the art, but they will feel the naturalness at once.

How wholesome, how good, how true, how lovely! That is what I think, when I think of any of Andersenís stories, but perhaps I think it most when I read The Ugly Duckling, which is the allegory of his own life, finding its way to fame and honor through many kinds of difficulty and discouragement from others and from the consequences of his own defects and foibles. Nobody could have written those benignant fables, those loving parables, who had not suffered from impatience and misunderstanding such as Andersen exaggerates in his autobiography and travesties in that story; and his rise to good will above the snubs and hurts which he somewhat too plaintively records is as touching a thing as I know in literary history. His sole revenge takes in that sweet satire, and it is no great excess after owning himself an ugly duckling if he comes at last to see himself a swan. He was indeed a swan as compared with most ducklings that grow up to the ordinary proportions of ducks from their humble origin, but I do not care if in his own nature and evolution he did not always get beyond a goose. There are many ugly ducklings who do not get as far as being geese, and I mean what I say for high praise of our poet. Swans are magnificent birds, and as long as they keep in the water or the sky they are superbly graceful, with necks that curve beyond anything, but they are of no more use in the world than eagles; they have very bad tempers, and they bite abominably, and strike with their wings with force to break a manís bones, so that I would have ugly ducklings mostly stop short of becoming swans.

But here I am, trying to put a moral in the poetís mouth, not reflecting that a moral is the last thing he means in his fairy tales and wonder stories. They are of a witchery far beyond sermoning, in that quaint humor, that subtle suggestion, that fidelity to what we know of ourselves, of our small passions and vanities and follies as young children and our full-sized faults as old ones. You might go through them all with no more sense of instruction, if you pleased, than you would feel in walking out in a pleasant country, with here and there a friendly homestead, flocks grazing, and boys and girls playing. But perhaps such a scene, such a mild experience, makes one think as well as a direct appeal to oneís reason or conscience. The children, however, need not be afraid. I think I could safely assure the worst of them (and how much better the worst of them are than the best of us!) that they can get back to themselves from this book, for the present at least, with no more trouble of spirit, if they choose, than if they had been reading the Arabian Nights. Long afterward it may be that, when they have forgotten many Arabian Nights, something will come to them out of a dim memory of these fairy tales and wonder stories, and they will realize that our dear Hans Christian Andersen meant so and so for their soulsí good when he seemed to be merely amusing them. I hope so.

William Dean Howells

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