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Angela Tilby: Fairy tales still have power to thrill and shock

10 May 2024


A sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen

A sculpture of Hans Christian Andersen in Copenhagen

LOOKING forward to a visit to Copenhagen in February, I downloaded the Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen, which I had loved as a child: “The Tinderbox”, “The Ugly Duckling”, “The Snow Queen”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. I enjoyed the Disney versions, with their catchy little songs, almost as much as the books.

Yet, returning to the stories so many years later, I was appalled. Into my imagination came a hooded, wraith-like figure, a symbol of the horror below the surface of Andersen’s tales. I recalled how the steadfast tin soldier was burnt to fragments in spite of his devotion, and the ugly duckling suffered cruelty and exclusion before becoming a swan.

Andersen’s world is one in which the good are tested by torture, and innocence is easily betrayed. Hags, goblins, and witches constantly threaten, like the devil, in compline, who goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Yet, even in Andersen’s world, there were victories. I wept as Little Kay was delivered from the ice fragment in his heart by the tears of his beloved sister. Love can win.

As a child, I relished stories from the Old Testament and lapped them up without a qualm. I recognised the foolishness of Joseph’s dreams, his coat of many colours, and why his jealous brothers tried to kill him. I thrilled to Daniel in the lion’s den, Gideon and the fall of Jericho, the jealousy of Saul and his murderous assault on David. From my child’s point of view, the moral ambivalence made sense of the world that I knew. I simply accepted it, along with the admonitions from parents and teachers to behave in real life with kindness and honesty.

Andersen was a pious man, and yet, today, I suspect, many Christian parents might want to protect their offspring from his stories. These days, children are not exposed so often to the violence of the Old Testament. I know many adults who shudder at the “God of the Old Testament”, believing him, wrongly, to be quite different from the kindly Father of Jesus Christ.

Yet the person who speaks most often in the whole Bible about hellfire is the Jesus of St Matthew’s Gospel. The parables expose human greed, self-satisfaction, and hypocrisy. I sometimes wonder whether we have made Christianity too bland and obvious: a support for our supposedly liberal values rather than a constant questioning and undermining of them.

If so, perhaps we are missing something important, which children instinctively understand, even when their parents do not. Life is harsh. Humans are evil before they are good. Innocence overcomes hypocrisy. All this could shed light on Jesus’s teaching that, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, we must first become as little children.

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