John Foster


Speaking Time and Room No.: 2006-9-21 16:00-18:00 Room I

Speaker: John Elwall Foster (Australia)

Harry Potter, Hans Andersen

and the Significance of Folk and Fairy Tales

Last year, 2005, was marked by two important events in children’s literature. The first, and obviously the more important, was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, an event which was celebrated by both children and adults around the world for it can be said that, without Hans Andersen, children’s literature today would be very different – and probably nowhere near as good as it is.

The second, this one celebrated by children and booksellers around the world, was the publication of Harry Potter and the Halfblood Prince, the 6th of Rowling’s 7-volume sequence. The Potter magic, it can safely be said, lives on, and I can’t wait for the hysteria which will accompany the final volume: in particular, does Harry die? This Potter magic depends on magic, of course – and on wizards, spells, flying broomsticks and all the other accoutrements of the fairy story. Of course, that Harry Potter has similarities to a very different type of traditional literature was demonstrated in an interesting article entitled ‘Harry Potter and the Mahabharatha’ in a recent edition of Bookbird.

So, the link between these two events is obvious: both Andersen and Rowling have incorporated elements of traditional literature, both folk and fairy tales – in their work. After all, Andersen himself borrowed witches, talking animals, elves and the like from earlier material. In fact, traditional motifs abound in the work of both writers: the quest, transformation, the personification of objects, magic numbers – Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron make 3, the most magical number of all – and the use of magic itself, of course.

Think, too, of other recent bestsellers for young readers: the Artemis Fowl books; Christopher Paolini’s Eragon and Eldest; the works of Terry Pratchett – the list goes on. Obviously, traditional elements are found in all these works because authors and publishers think they sell and, of course, they do.

Our question, though, is: why? And why – apart from the Danes - did anybody care about Hans Andersen’s 200th birthday? Our task, in these few brief minutes, is to answer this question.

Where do we begin? At the beginning, thousands of years ago, with the oral tradition, in which storytellers told us of our origins as human beings, our relationships with Nature, the heroes of our tribe, how to improve ourselves morally and – for the fun of it, about silly people doing silly things. So began what we call today myths, legends, fables and folk tales.

Later, there were stories of princes and princesses, of wicked witches and evil stepmothers, and, of course, of clever children defeating all those who threatened them. These folk and fairy tales were collected and written down by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, and were followed by ‘literary fairy tales’, short stories written in fairy tale form by, amongst others, Hans Christian Andersen.

Obviously, for these sorts of stories to have lasted, in one form or another for millennia, means that they have ingredients which somehow connect with the human psyche. Myths were originally intended to be believed; legends to add to our appreciation of our lives; fables to improve us – and folk and fairy tales to tell us about ourselves, with or without the addition of magic.

According to the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, traditional material is valuable in assisting a child’s personality development because, although they DON’T describe the world as it is or what to do, they DO tell us that, if we try hard enough, we MAY succeed – it isn’t guaranteed that we will, but if we don’t try, we certainly won’t succeed. Harry Potter and Gerda in ‘The Snow Queen’ overcome their problems because they are brave and persevere – but there was always a chance that they would fail.

The author JRR Tolkien discusses the way in which fairy-stories touch our world. He regards the four elements – fantasy, recovery, escape and consolation – and the way they are presented to the reader as having as powerful an effect as any other form of literary art – and that this is true of the best examples of modern stories, too – which, of course, we have here. Patricia Wrightson, herself an Andersen medal winner, regards folklore as being both unavoidable and completely natural.

Even so, there have to be strong reasons for young readers of today to WANT to read traditionally-based material. In this threatening and often dangerous post 9/11 world – the world of Iraq, Lebanon, Sudan - it seems to me that there are two factors which keep Harry and Hans involving readers.

The first is ESCAPISM. We read in order to escape into a new world, perhaps a fantastic world in which magic operates and animals talk, or perhaps a possible world differentiated from ours by time or place with interesting characters doing interesting things. This does not mean, however, that we necessarily want to escape into a world in which fluffy bunnies just frolic in flowery meadows: after all, it is CONFLICT which keeps us reading. So, there are degrees of escapism. I need not dwell on the conflict-type escapism to be found in the works of Andersen and Rowling: we escape to the land of the Snow Queen or Hogwarts in order to find there emotion-filled excitement, not peace and harmony.

My second factor is THE REAL WORLD AND ITS CONFLICTS PRESENTED IN AN ACCEPTABLE MANNER. Neither Andersen nor Rowling shirked their responsibility in showing young people that the world is not necessarily a nice place. There will always be those who are pretentious, cruel or even downright wicked – and both authors show these people at work. Fortunately, in most fictional cases, these characters are punished and, again, that is the case here, even if it is not necessarily true in real life. We do have death and disappointment in characters ranging from the Little Mermaid to Dumbledore, and we have yet to see the ultimate defeat of Voldemort. The good characters succeed, of course, through their strength of mind and will – and, so often, with the help of their friends.

In these works, too, we move outside the limited world of family and peer relationships and look at some of life’s big topics. In Andersen, we see how rulers are unfit to rule (‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’), and how the mechanical world does not measure up to the natural (‘The Nightingale’), while in Rowling we learn about the importance of education and the nature of power relationships. These works may be for children, but this does not mean that they lack depth or meaning.

The secret of the success of Andersen and Rowling springs mainly from the quality of their writing, but they are helped out by not only the inclusion of traditional elements and motifs, as I’ve mentioned, but also a number of other literary elements with which those traditional aspects are combined. These include:

• Unusual and involving characters – the talking fir tree, the witch in ‘The Snow Queen’, Hagrid the giant, Dobby the house elf;

• Fast-paced plots – readers want to read on despite Andersen’s sentimentality and Rowling’s lack of good editing;

• Worthwhile themes – love, friendship, Good versus Evil, the battle of the outsider for acceptance;

• Exotic settings – from Lapland to the mysterious forest around Hogwarts: these places are easy to visualise, with or without special effects.

Despite all these common elements linking the works of Andersen and Rowling, there is one final link to mention – the similarities between Hans and Harry. We know that Andersen put himself in many of his stories, and we can see how Harry shares his characteristics: Harry shares the resourcefulness and quick-wittedness of the soldier in ‘The Tinderbox’; the same is true of the courage of Gerda in ‘The Snow Queen’, the outsider status of the little mermaid and the faithfulness of the steadfast tin soldier. Most of all, Harry combines the humility and special quality of the ugly duckling, the most autobiographical of Andersen’s characters and stories.

With these links, it comes as no surprise that the works of Andersen and Rowling have shared their success, too, for both combine the traditional with an excellent literary style. Long may both Harry and Hans live – and be read by those who want to share the two worlds, those of tradition and the creative imagination.