Every Little Mermaid Halloween costume, every reference to “Ugly Duckling Syndrome,” and every use of “the Emperor’s New Clothes” as an idiom ultimately has its roots in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Though he died in 1875, Andersen’s contemporary mythology is alive and well.
Art book powerhouse Taschen pays homage to this legacy with a new book, The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which features 23 of his beloved stories. There are the big hits, like The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, and The Princess and the Pea, as well as lesser-known gems, like The Farmyard Cock and the Weather Cock (Andersen can even make a chicken coop dramatic) and Five Peas in a Pod (Andersen, apparently, had a thing for peas–they appear in five of these stories).
The book is filled with hundreds of beautiful illustrations by famous artists from the 1840s to the 1980s, including Maurice Sendak, Kay Nielsen, and the eccentric Tom Seidmann-Freud (Sigmund’s niece). There are also newly commissioned silhouettes depicting characters and scenes from the stories. Yellow and red ribbon bookmarks give it the feel of a spell book that might be lying around in one of Andersen’s fictional apothecaries.
Book editor Noel Daniel points out in her introduction that the Ugly Duckling story was an apt parable for Andersen’s own rags-to-riches life. He was born into poverty in 1805 to a shoemaker father and a washerwoman mother and vowed in his diary, “I will become famous.” He made his way out of the slums of Odense, Denmark, by writing stories inspired women who had been committed to the local lunatic asylum, where Andersen’s grandmother was a gardener. Andersen would sit in the spinning room as the women spun both yarn and stories, the latter of which were full of goblins, trolls, witches, and water spirits.
“Andersen’s characters are humanlike in their passions as well as their frailties, and often have a slightly kinked perspective, unable to see their real fate or position, as if Andersen was shining a light on the limitations of our own human subjectivity,” Daniel writes. “In this way, perhaps the real subject of his tales is the inescapable condition of subjectivity as the essence of human experience.”
These fairy tales aren’t necessarily for children. These are the original, uncensored versions, pre-Disney airbrushing. Sorry, kids, the Little Mermaid does not live happily ever after with Prince Charming–she hurls herself into the ocean and turns into sea foam, after the Evil Witch tells her she must kill the prince if she wants to live. (But don’t worry. She eventually becomes a Daughter of the Air.)
Those doses of darkness serve to make his stories all the more vital.
The Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen is available for $39.99 here.