Random Bullets of Hans Christian Andersen, that is.
While collecting some materials at the Landesarchiv Schleswig, I’m staying at an absolutely lovely Ferienwohnung (pension). Its only fault is internet speed as slow-moving as the glaciers which formed the Kiel Fjord (out there in the Ostsee). As this is actually probably beneficial for my internet addiction, I’m out this evening, writing this particular blog entry on paper.
I just took a stroll along the Schlei, where the sight of sea foam gathering on the rocks made me think of Hans Christian Andersen, naturally. So here is a list of random thoughts I’m having inspired by the storyspinner, unsullied by searching for actual information on the web.
- Firstly, is that white stuff actually sea foam? Any ocean-studying people out there want to tell me what sea foam really is?
- The aristocratic family (the counts zu Rantzau in Breitenburg) whose papers I spent a fortune copying today  produced a son named Conrad. Conrad grew up, and, following that, became a semi-important figure in the struggle over the Schleswig-Holstein Question.  It’s hard to imagine it while walking around the sleepy town today, but this region was at least warmly contested between Denmark and Germany until a mere century and a half ago. Anyway, our Conrad served as a diplomat and minister during the border uncertainty and consequently acquired several Danish connections, including his membership in the Danish Order of the Elephant  and a friendship he cultivated with one Danish poet: Hans Christian Andersen. And you thought I’d completely lost the “point.”
- Speaking of noble houses, do you know the story about poor HCA’s unrequited infatuation with his friend Edvard Collin, his patron’s son? Apparently Andersen, who was desperately in love with this guy, begged to be allowed the familiarity of using the informal “you” grammatical form—only to get shot down by his social superior. This story came up recently during a conversation about the tricky social mechanics of the German equivalent (the occasions to “duzen” someone) with the delightful Hillary and Brooke. It is just not as simple as beginning grammar books would have you believe. (Though at least I haven’t suffered as much as HCA!)
- The pathetic tragedy of that story and other details of the real Andersen’s biography (e.g. overstaying his welcome at Charles Dickens’s house so long the novelist wrote in his diary about how much they were waiting for Andersen to leave) make me want to balance knowing these things with the also sad but endearing details of his funeral. I remember reading somewhere that there was a long parade of children at the affair, and it’s certainly true that HCA asked a composer to write music for the funeral to “keep time with little steps.”
- From the sad to the sweet to the silly: I probably heard that story about Collin in a course with Jack Zipes. In addition to publishing a study of Hans Christian Andersen in 2005, he’s one of the most influential scholars on the Grimms, folklore in general, and children’s literature, and, I’m lucky to say, one of my teachers. Jack’s work has been important to shaping my ideas about fairy tales since before we met.  On one point I disagree with him, however: the 1952 Danny Kaye/Frank Loesser musical Hans Christian Andersen. Jack has described it as (I’m paraphrasing here) a schlocky and ridiculous piece of fiction. I agree, it has almost nothing to do with the, shall we say, “historical” or “actual” Andersen, except: Stephen and I watched it on VHS repeatedly as kids, and I cannot abandon my affection for it. I mean just listen: “A swan? Me, a swan? Ah, go on!” … “What’s the difference if you’re very small?/When your heart is full of love, you’re nine feet tall!” … “Wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen, friendly old girl of a town…“ It’s enough to make me want to hop the border this instant.
- Coming round again to that sea foam, I want to close with a great photo my friend and former student Yueqin sent me. Here she is, in all her lovely, tragic poignancy—but not in Copenhagen Harbor! For the first time, the Little Mermaid left Denmark to journey to the Expo 2010 in Shanghai. Now you tell me, does that reincarnation as a celebrated world traveler redeem the story of her (literal) loss of self, or only underscore the cruelty of her sacrifice? I don’t know, I’m too busy listening to “The suit of clothes is altogether, but altogether, it’s altogether the most remarkable suit of clothes that I have ever seen…”