Vivian Yanika-Agbaw

Outsiders in Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Maria Tatar (1999), a notable scholar of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales observes that Andersen’s stories have “engaged generations of children and adults alike with their melodramatic depictions of desire, loss, and self immolation” for centuries (p. 216).  These stories, she adds usually have characters who endure “silent suffering,” and who for the most part end up dying, tragically embracing a better life in the spiritual world (214).

Jack Zipes (1999) takes this idea further stating that Andersen’s fairy tales “were innovative narratives that explored the limits of assimilations in closed social order” (p. 82).  Consequently, several characters seek ways to belong to the dominant class, of which most often they rarely become an integral part of this group.  Rather, they find themselves observing and admiring those in power from the side lines as an inferior Other.  Power dynamics therefore becomes central in such tales defining the roles each character plays and how these roles inadvertently affect the quality of their overall experience. 

Lissa Paul (1998) also echoes this sentiment, noting that “without ever being explicit, fairy tales confirmed  . . . [t]he order of colonial authority” which had become a “natural order” with husbands and parents in domineering roles and wives and children in subservient roles (p. 24).  

The power patterns Paul describes in Reading Otherways are evident in Andersen’s fairy tales, though presented differently with the human characters maintaining domineering roles over the characters that seem different from them physically or otherwise. Two examples of such tales that remain popular today and continue to manifest vestiges of colonial tendencies are The Little Mermaid and The Brave Tin Soldier.  Having read these stories to my children when they were growing up, and purchased some of the artifacts and merchandise associated with the characters for their amusement, especially playthings connected with The Little Mermaid, it became clear to me that from seemingly “innocent” fairy tales a lot can be learned about a society and how people negotiate power relationships.

There is no question that in the fictional settings of both stories humans rule and consequently, have the power to ignore or dispose of the mermaid and the tin soldier at will, for these subordinate characters, although the protagonists in their different tales remain playthings to these humans who turn to them only for entertainment.    Andersen however explores these experiences in completely a different manner depicting how each character handles her/his fate as an inferior Other vis a vis the superior human beings they serve or who own them.  Thus while one character waits patiently for the prince to recognize her as the love of his life, the other actively struggles to find love among what he believes as one of his kind.

To complicate matters the mermaid and the tin soldier have also incurred some form of disability further highlighting their status as outsiders in the able body human world of which they are a part, or of which they seek to be an integral part.  My discussion therefore of how each character’s status as an outsider does impact her/his quality of life as depicted in these two fairy tales by Andersen will revolve around six of several questions that Lissa Paul (1998) uses to illuminate the colonial order evident in children’s books as it pertains to feminism:

  1. Whose story is this?
  2. Who is on top?
  3. Who acts? Who is acted upon?
  4. Who gets punished?
  5. Who speaks? Who is silenced?
  6. Who looks?  Who is observed?

I have decided to use this frame primarily because it makes visible the subtle ways power relationships work in stories many may deem as “innocent,” and I have decided to focus on the six questions in particular because I believe they are not only the most relevant to my analysis, but do serve as concrete items or aspects within the texts I could easily establish connections between the events happening in these fictional settings to events that occur in the real world.

In the introduction of her edited collection of Andersen’s tales, Lily Owens (2000) remarks that “[m]any of [Andersen’s] fairy tales and stories are moralistic; others are strongly Christian.  And yet he retained a mischievous sense that people’s ethical standards are not always the highest and that this can be treated with humor as well as moral exhortation . . . “ (p. xi).  Perhaps this is the best place to begin this discussion, especially in regards to The Little Mermaid – a story of a mermaid that sacrifices her family, body parts, voice, and eventually her life for a human prince who never returns her love.  As Paul (1998) observes about popular fairy tales, this story explores the typical gender power relationship with the female in a subservient role aspiring throughout to win the love and approval of the handsome prince.

Although the mermaid does get her wish to be part of the human world and be in the company of the prince, she remains “his little foundling” dancing “quite readily, to please him, though each time her foot touched the floor it seemed as if she trod on sharp knives” (p. 145).  Moreover, as her love for him grows he simply “loved her as he would love a little child . . . yet unless he married her, she could receive an immortal soul” (p. 145).

Applying Paul’s questions to this story indicates that although it is the mermaid’s story, she remains under throughout, is voiceless, is constantly acted upon as she observes the prince and his royal human crowd, and at the end of the tale is eventually punished.  It may be her story but the humans end up on top as they unconsciously shut her out of their active social circle – making room for her only as an entertainer and an object of pity since she is mute.  The interesting thing is that the prince is not depicted as callous, and for a moment one may be tempted to sympathize with him somewhat for being oblivious to her love, or ignorant about her affection for him, and simply blame the mermaid for trying so hard to prove her worth.  But on reading it more carefully, it becomes evident that though the prince’s actions seem innocent enough, he does not try to understand the young woman who seems so devoted to him.  He makes no effort to understand her body language and is basically content with the fact that she is a beautiful dancer who enjoys what she is doing.  This kind of oblivion or insensitivity may be interpreted as an indication of some kind of entitlement on his part, whereby as the male and able body, handsome Prince, he does not need to make an effort to understand the people who make life more comfortable for him, especially those like the mermaid with some form of disability.   This kind attitude becomes typical in defining the limits of his relationship with the mermaid.

Zipes (1999) postulates that, “Throughout his life Andersen was obliged to act as a dominated subject within the dominant social circles despite his fame . . .” (p. 87).  This echoes the mermaid’s plight, for although famed for her dancing skill within the human royal kingdom, she is not necessarily part of the inner circle.  She remains an outsider constantly longing to be part of the world she has sacrificed so much only to be shut out by the object of her affection.  As Zipes (1999) concludes,
Andersen’s perspectives focus more on the torture and suffering that a member of the dominated class must undergo to establish her true nobility . . . voiceless and tortured, deprived physically and psychology . . . the mermaid serves a prince who never appreciates her worth” (p. 96).

Although Zipes (1999) equates the mermaid’s specie to a “dominated class,” I do not necessarily consider them as such.  Rather, I believe that the mermaid alone finds herself in a subordinate role only in the human world where her status as an Outsider positions her as such.  She is different in this new community where she seeks to be the spouse of their prince.  It is important however to remember that in the underwater world the mermaid is a princess with royal privileges and great powers that may somewhat be equated to the prince’s in his mortal world; and if she would only kill the prince, she would easily return to a home where many do not only cherish her for her talents but actually value her for who she is as a mermaid and a princess.  Therefore her world can be considered a parallel society with rules familiar to her that may seem unfamiliar to the prince.  However, because she crosses over to the human world she becomes a dominated person who is unable to communicate her desires or pain.  Moreover, like most Outsiders who seek acceptance desperately from the dominant culture whether it be race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, she becomes powerless and depends more on the talents she has to share within the community, and hopes this will be enough to convince the prince of her affection for him.

The second fairy tale, The Brave Tin Soldier also echoes sentiments of a certain kind of colonial order but with a different twist.   First of all, it is important to note that his disability is not his own doing as is the case with the mermaid; rather it is a manufacturing glitch, for “there was not enough of the melted tin to finish him, so they made him to stand firmly on one leg” (p. 12).   

Just like the mermaid he is surrounded by humans, the boys who owned him!  However, he did not seek to be there.  Thus to make the experience of being the only one-legged tin soldier among twenty-five in a box, he becomes enamored by the little dancer standing by the window whom he believes is one-legged as well and thus would be the perfect “wife” for him.  This attempt to link up with someone who shares his physical disability becomes a motivating factor that enables him to survive the abuse he suffers at the hands of the humans who own him or want to use him as a plaything they can dispose of easily.  Consequently, he blames his unfortunate adventure not on the humans but on the black goblin who had taunted him earlier in the story.  In so doing he refuses to acknowledge the superiority of the boys; instead he holds steadfast to his love of the little dancer in the hopes of having her reciprocate his love.   He is acted upon throughout the story by humans; initially by the birthday boy; next by the boys who put him on a paper boat and send him off in the flowing water, and eventually by the little boy who tosses him into the stove.  Because the boy “had no reason to do so,” the brave tin soldier rationalizes this cruelty as “the fault of the black goblin” (p. 14).

The tin soldier, although not on top, like the mermaid, takes his misfortunes in strides coming to terms with the fact that his Otherness is a factor in the overall quality of his experience.  In his world just like in the mermaid’s world, humans become the colonial masters that will power consciously or unconsciously over their subordinates who are not only different from them culturally but also physically.  In asserting this power the humans succeed in stifling each character’s dream of becoming the spouse of an object of her/his affection.  

The mermaid and the tin soldier as courageous as they are in their pursuit of love or in their belief in love that could exist remain at the margin of their fictional human societies suffering silently and observing the actions of the humans whose needs they are there to fulfill.  Both characters search for love to make their lives complete.  While one aspires to be absorbed into the human community through marriage, and is willing to trade her voice and body parts, the other simply wishes to be with a “wife” whom he mistakenly believes shares his disability.  In the end the mermaid must accept her lonely demise, whereas the tin soldier perishes in the fire with his love interest right next to him making his dream come true for that brief moment that they burn together.    In both situations the human characters, consistent with their colonial attitude remain clueless or nonchalant as to the fate of their “plaything,” perhaps with a quiet understanding that they can always replace the mermaid or the tin soldier with an equally good performer or a better constructed toy.

Vivian Yanika-Agbaw, USA

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, September 2008

The Brave Tin Soldier” In Lily Owens (ed.) The Completed Collection of Hans Christian     Andersen  (13-15)
The Little Mermaid” In Lily Owens (ed.)  The Completed Collection of Hans Christian     Andersen  (134-150)
Paul, Lissa  (1998).  Reading Otherways.  Thimble Press.
Tatar, Maria (1999).  The Classic Fairy Tales.  W. W. Norton:  New York.  First edition.
Zipes, Jack (1999).  Hans Christian Andersen and the Discourse of the Dominated.
In Zipes (ed.) When Dreams Come True Classical Fairy Tales and Their Traditions.  Routledge:  London (pp. 80-110).