Tales he never told
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 July 2005)

Even when Hans Christian Andersen didn't say he was writing fairy tales, he wrote fairy tales. He presented his life as a struggle against brutal odds, which was true, and described his family as respectable, which was prodigiously untrue. His account of his background was as fictional as, say, The Little Mermaid, or The Emperor's New Clothes.

His fans should have caught on when he titled his autobiography The Fairy Tale of My Life, but they assumed he meant his rise from poverty to well-paid fame. Now, celebrating the 200th anniversary of his birth, a biography by Jens Andersen (no relation) appears in English, bringing the news that Andersen lied about his life to make himself acceptable in Danish society.

It may be upsetting to learn from Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life (Overlook Press) that he misrepresented himself. But he wasn't the only culture-hero of the nursery who turned out to be a faker. Scholarship around the Brothers Grimm, Andersen's German contemporaries, depicts them as perpetrators of a spectacular literary fraud.

Andersen (1805-1875) once wrote, "What a mystery I am to myself!" He only added to the mystery. When writing about himself, he never mentioned that his grandmother was a prostitute, his aunt ran a brothel, his mother was an alcoholic, and he was illegitimate. Nor did he note that his mother died in a poorhouse while Hans, then 28, lived nearby in comfort.

A couple of recent Danish biographers say he was secretly gay and his relationships with certain men were sexual affairs. Jens Andersen doesn't believe it. He says the correspondence shows that Hans was in love with several men and exchanged flirting letters with them, but he admired physical purity and told his diary that sex frightened him and sexual feelings filled him with shame. He may well have died a virgin. There were emotional relationships with women, including Jenny Lind, the famous soprano, but apparently they were (as people used to say) "Platonic." He was interested, at least, in female sexuality. In Paris he visited brothels where (it is said) the prostitutes were surprised to learn that he just wanted to chat.

The Brothers Grimm, Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859), were scholars who set out to erect a monument to prehistoric German culture. They were romantic nationalists who loved the idea that great literature was born in the dark German forests, improved and elaborated over many generations by talented but illiterate storytellers who would remain forever anonymous. As the Grimms told it, they simply recorded the oral tradition of German storytelling, writing down tales passed on by simple peasants.

But a distinguished American literary scholar, John M. Ellis, uncovered a basic fraudulence. One Fairy Story Too Many: The Brothers Grimm and Their Tales (University of Chicago Press), published in 1983, argues that the stories were collected from a few middle-class families, friends and neighbours of the Grimms, some of whom had read them in books. Peasants had little to do with it. Those tales have since been studied for generations as the spontaneous creations of the Volk, and given many Freudian interpretations, but they were no more traditional than Mickey Mouse.

In 1987, Maria M. Tatar wrote, in The Hard Facts of the Grimms' Fairy Tales (Princeton University Press), that if you examine seven editions, published over 40 years, you can see the Grimms steadily sanitizing what they had collected, making it more saleable to parents. They eliminated sex and incest wherever they could, though they seem to have intensified the violence.

But debunking won't severely damage the Grimm legend. As Ellis wrote more than two decades ago, documents proving the fraud of the Grimms were available for a couple of generations before he analyzed them. They were ignored by scholars because they didn't fit into a fairy tale of folklore research that scholars adored. The Ellis and Tatar books haven't much changed the status of the Grimms. They'll be celebrated again this year when Terry Gilliam brings out a film, The Brothers Grimm, with Matt Damon as Wilhelm. Two weeks ago UNESCO (what would we do without UNESCO?), as official arbiter of all culture, solemnly recognized their work, including Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, as part of the world's cultural heritage, adding the original version, Children's and Household Tales, to something UNESCO calls the Memory of the World register. We can also expect the sweet reputation of Hans Christian Andersen to survive factual study. Legend, in both cases, remains infinitely more satisfying than reality.

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