Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, trans. by Tiina Nunnally (thoughts)
Nunnally is one of my favourite Scandinavian translators, so when I discovered she’d worked on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, I knew I wanted to read them. I decided to request this at the same time as Heidi’s Alp by Christina Hardyment, imagining the two would complement each other nicely, and it was definitely nice to have Andersen’s tales nearby to reference while reading the Hardyment. While I’m sure I read at least his most famous ones when I was a child, I hadn’t revisited his actual writing for years and years.
And how did I get on with it? Well, Andersen had that magic. He was able to write the kinds of stories that sink into your bones, and his writing, especially in Nunnally’s excellent translation, struck a wonderful tone. As an artist, Andersen couldn’t help but impress me, and these truly do feel like fairy tales for adults. I especially loved the stories that featured winter: Andersen’s descriptive powers seem to be at their best calling to mind the cold climates of his native land. But that’s probably my own bias showing: I prefer winter and snow and ice to summer and heat and humidity. Of course, “The Shadow” is the story that sent the most shivers down my spine, despite its lack of wintry imagery. Truly, deliciously creepy.
I must say that found many of his larger themes, ones that showed up over and over in his stories, disturbing. Many of his plots are gruesome, and somehow it’s a different form of gruesomeness compared to traditional fairy tales. It seems far easier to find the moral in an Andersen story than in something you’d find in the Brothers Grimm, where things seem far more arbitrary, particularly in the earliest versions. And the stories seemed particularly focused on punishing their female characters. To be fair, most of them punish all of their characters, and I can’t be more precise about it, simply that by the end of the collection I felt uneasy whenever a girl or woman appeared in a story. Perhaps it’s that they didn’t usually have the same strength of characters as the male ones? With the exception of the girls in “The Snow Queen” of course!
Having included that caveat, I have to admit I returned my library copy quite reluctantly. These are the kinds of stories I’d like to revisit, and I’m terribly tempted to buy a copy for myself (particularly since this translation comes in a Penguin clothbound edition!). I’m now quite curious about Andersen’s life, which is unusual for me (normally, my view on learning more about author’s private lives ranges from indifference to outright avoidance). Luckily, Jackie Wullschlager, who wrote the preface to this edition, has done a biography, and I adored her biography of Chagall, so I’m sure I’ll be in good hands.
If you’re interested in Andersen, I thoroughly recommend this edition: between Nunnally’s translations, Wullschlager’s preface, and the inclusion of Andersen’s own paper cut out art, the only shame is that it’s limited to thirty of his tales instead of them all. As for me, I reserve judgement on Andersen until I’ve come to know him better. He is the kind of author that invites rereading, and I’m the kind of reader who’s happy to oblige.