Jack Zipes. Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller.

Jack Zipes. Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller. New York: Routledge, 2005. Pp. xvii + 171, bibliography, film bibliography, index.

Steve Stanzak
Indiana University

As the subtitle suggests, this work by distinguished fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes endeavors to dispel the romanticized image of Andersen in popular culture by offering a more accurate and nuanced examination of the Danish storyteller. Although published during the bicentennial commemoration event of Andersen’s birth (the book carries the event’s logo), Zipes nevertheless avoids celebrating Andersen. Instead, Zipes aims to reevaluate the life and works of the prolific storyteller so that he may be taken as a serious literary figure.

An incredibly egocentric individual with delusions of grandeur, Andersen was plagued by his lower-class upbringing and consistently revised his life history to align himself with the fairy tale heroes that made him famous. Later biographers and the media appropriated this fabricated image of a quaint and gentle Andersen who broke free from his class and successfully entered the aristocracy. In this probing socio-historical critique of Andersen and his works, Zipes wrestles with the persona the storyteller projected and the shadow of the ‘true’ Andersen that lies behind his works.

The first three chapters of Zipes’ study analyze recurring themes in Andersen’s fairy tales that reflect a number of conflicts inherent in Andersen’s psyche. These chapters reveal the depth of Andersen’s vanity and neuroticism, and Zipes demonstrates how Andersen sublimates his inner conflicts within his fairy tales. The last chapter looks at cinematic adaptations of Andersen’s fairy tales, reviewing nearly a century of films that alter Andersen’s legacy in significant ways. The book concludes with both a critical and a film bibliography, the latter referencing cinematic adaptations of certain Andersen fairy tales.

The first chapter, ‘In Pursuit of Fame,’ examines Andersen’s single-minded fixation upon becoming recognized by the Danish aristocracy through his literary achievements. Andersen’s vanity allowed him to believe he was chosen by God to become a great writer, and he consistently sought to be the center of attention. He traveled extensively throughout Europe performing his works and entertaining his hosts. Unsophisticated and naïve, Andersen demanded that people take notice of him. Although Andersen certainly achieved that goal, he was never able to break free from the reminder of his lower-class upbringing.

Andersen’s ambivalent feelings toward the upper class are explored in the second chapter, titled ‘The Discourse of the Dominated.’ Although Andersen admired the sensitivity and education of the aristocracy, he resented their dominance over him. Andersen believed in the correctness of a hierarchal social order, but one in which the dominating class was chosen because of their genius (and hence by God) rather than their lineage. This ‘genius’ class would naturally include Andersen himself. Zipes argues that Andersen’s success, especially in England and America, is due to the affirmation of the social hierarchy written into his fairy tales, while allowing for social mobility based on intelligence, talent, and submission not to nobility, but to God.

In his third chapter, ‘The Discourse of Rage and Revenge: Controlling Children,’ Zipes probes Andersen’s feelings of rage, directed both outward at the Danish upper class as well as inward at himself. Andersen uses children in his fairy tales as an outlet to express his contradictory attitudes toward society. Andersen’s children figures are simultaneously rebellious and compliant. They yearn, like Andersen, to be accepted within society while at the same time resentful towards it for curbing their desires. Andersen, however, represses the rebellious impulses both within himself and his children characters, punishing the ‘naughty’ children in his fairy tales with pain, mutilation, and death. Only through submission to God can children learn restraint and realize a happy ending.

Zipes reviews film adaptations of several Andersen fairy tales in his final chapter, ‘The Cinematic Appropriation of Andersen’s Heritage: Trivialization and Innovation.’ Acknowledging that these adaptations not only engage with themes raised in Andersen’s tales but also with the values of the cultures in which the films are created, Zipes discusses some of their critical dimensions. Many of the films appraised receive scathing criticism by Zipes. He contends that most of these films both commodify and trivialize Andersen’s tales so that they may be successfully marketed. Despite the prevalence of banal adaptations, Zipes discovers several innovative films that utilize Andersen’s fairy tales in order to provoke discourse. Zipes ends this chapter with a provocative discussion of ethics in art, tackling issues of representation and authenticity, concerns necessarily shared by Andersen and prevalent in his own fairy tales.

Among the community of fairy tale scholars, Jack Zipes has proven his worth many times over and his latest work on Andersen continues in the Zipesian tradition of insightful and stimulating scholarship. Although limited in scope, Zipes manages to broaden our understanding of Andersen by teasing meaning from both his literary works and the historical record to reveal a storyteller trapped between two worlds. In engaging with Andersen’s pathetic personality and complex psychological motivations, Zipes offers a more complete and correct image of the legendary Dane. As a result, scholars of Andersen, fairy tales, and art will find this book an invaluable resource.


1 Comment

  1. I have a copy in German of Andersen Maerchen, published by Berlag in Berlin, 1919. The wonderful illustrations of the book were done by Alfred Thor. Could you suggest to me a place where I could have this book appraised? I live in the Twin Cities and have attended workshops you gave the the MN Humanities over by Lake Phalen.

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