BOOKS / The swan who turned into an ugly duckling: Christina Hardyment on the campaign for a great Dane, Hans Christian Andersen

ELIAS BREDSDORFF is a man with a mission. He wants wider adult recognition of the genius of Hans Christian Andersen, a writer whom Danes venerate as much as we venerate Shakespeare. Professor of Scandinavian Studies at Cambridge from 1960 to 1979, Bredsdorff is now 81, but his energy and his passion for Andersen is undiminished.

I caught up with him, just, in a cafe at Heathrow airport, when he was returning to Denmark after giving a Cambridge lecture. His classic biography of Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1975, is being reissued in paperback this month (Souvenir Press, pounds 15.99) and he is hoping that, given the new climate of interest in sophisticated fairy stories generated by such writers as Italo Calvino and Angela Carter, the most famous Ugly Duckling in the world will now receive his due honour as a swan.

'Outside Denmark, few people distinguish between Andersen and such collectors of folktales as the Grimm brothers,' he said, brandishing his plastic coffee-stirrer like a Viking broadsword. 'Most of the available versions of his stories are taken from antiquated translations, some themselves taken from German rather than the original Danish. But Andersen was a creative artist - if you kill his style, you kill him.' Stab went the stirrer, and snapped.

If a hazy memory of fairy stories rises in your mind at this point, but you are not quite sure whether Andersen, Perrault or Grimm wrote Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk or The Red Shoes you prove him right. In fact, it's easy to tell the difference. The Steadfast Tin Soldier, The Little Match Girl, The Emperor's New Clothes, The Nightingale, The Little Mermaid, The Red Shoes, and above all, The Snow Queen, are in a quite different, more complex genre from the simple crisis resolution of Cinderella, The Sleeping Beauty, Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel. Andersen's tales have ambivalent, even tragic endings, shadowing our childhood with the complexities of adult life to come.

Two discarded toys do duty for hero and heroine in The Top and The Ball, a story of unrequited love; the poultry yard is a telling metaphor for society in The Ugly Duckling. Andersen lived at a hinge time, when rural communities were being transformed by the machine age, when interdependence and obedience were giving way to the apotheosis of individualism.

Stories like The Old House and The Shadow (which is in Bredsdorff's view the most complex and important of all his tales) warn of the threat of materialism to the human soul. Wish, the tales tell us, but remember that every wish has its price. Andersen's most important legacy is his belief in the capacity of the human spirit for love: not the quid pro quo of the folk tales' happy ending, but disinterested love, often unrequited and unrewarded. He teaches us to accept sadness without losing hope.

Andersen originally made his mark as a poet, novelist and playwright after an astonishing progress - a fairy story in itself - from provincial poverty as the son of a visionary cobbler and an inebriate washer woman to international acclaim. A compulsive traveller, he was welcomed at the houses of Lamartine and Victor Hugo, Dumas and Dickens, Strindberg and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

But he was too eccentric a figure to be easily accepted by the conventional Danish literary world of his day. When The Tinderbox, the first of his tales, was published, a critic advised him not to write any others because although he personally 'had nothing against fairy tales for adults', he thought that children ought to be offered books with a higher moral purpose. 'No one will allege that a child's proper sense of dignity will be stimulated by reading of a princess who, in her sleep, rides off on a dog's back to a soldier who kisses her.'

Knowing where he came from, revealed in fascinating detail by Bredsdorff's biography, helps us to appreciate the complexity of the apparently simple stories that makes Andersen immortal, rather than merely famous. His contemporary Bjornsterne Bjornson summed it up nicely in 1861: 'Now that Andersen has, often unjustly, been hustled out of the domain of the novel, of the drama and of philosophic narrative, the result has been that these thwarted suckers have thrust their own way out through the rock at some other point, and that he now has - God help us - the novel, the drama and philosophy all turning up in the fairy tale] That it is no longer a fairy tale is obvious.'

Andersen himself knew exactly what he was doing. 'I look into myself, find the idea for older people - and tell it as if to the children, but remembering that father and mother are listening.' At the end of his life, when he heard that a statue to be put up in the famous King's Garden at Copenhagen in his honour was to have a young boy leaning against his knee, he was enraged. 'My aim is to be a writer for all ages . . . The naive element is only part of my fairy tales; adult humour is their salt. My written language is not childish, but based on popular speech.'

Using language in this way was at the time as revolutionary as the approach of James Joyce and Hemingway a century or so later, Bredsdorff emphasises. 'He did something quite unique - he discarded the whole convention of literary style. This may be why the many contemporary translations of his writing put the conventional style straight back in again - feeling they were improving things no doubt]'

Andersen has been translated into every language under the sun, but few translators have succeeded in conveying the conversational intimacy, the deadpan humour, the subtleties, the colloquial lilt, the needlesharp throwaway lines and the poetic rhythms that make his tales so much more than stories for children.

How true to the original is your own version of his stories? A good test is to see if they open 'Once upon a time', a cliche which Andersen rarely if ever used. He preferred to jump straight in with a question to the reader: 'Have you ever seen one of those really old-fashioned cupboards?' or the swinging start to the Tinderbox: 'A soldier was marching along the highway. One, two, one, two . . .' or the engagingly intimate, 'Now then, this is where we begin]' of The Snow Queen.

Over-literal versions leave the text peppered with exclamation marks, bland ones excise the sardonic asides, moralising ones change the endings. 'There are now some good translations, but they haven't penetrated enough. Publishers are much too prone to save on translation rights by using out-of-copyright versions. To be fair to them, few realise what they are missing.'

He himself favours Keigwin's Fifties versions and is less enthusiastic about the more recent complete version by Eric Haugaard, published in 1972. 'The editor called my review of it in the TLS 'The More than Complete Andersen', and I think that sums it up. Haugaard wrote in to say that his additions were necessary because English children wouldn't understand Andersen's use of irony.'

There is now a new threat to Andersen's work. Professor Wynne Jones of the University of East Anglia's excellent Department of Scandinavian Studies was commissioned to do a new translation of Andersen for an American publisher, but he is so appalled by the clumsy politically correct amendments insisted on by the copy-editors - no white arms for the mermaid, no references to Chinamen in The Emperor's New Clothes, no Egyptian friends for the stork in The Ugly Duckling - that he has asked for his name to be removed from the book.

In Bredsdorff's view, action is necessary at the highest level to prevent further bowdlerisation and distortion of texts that should be treated with the same respect that we give to the poems of Thomas Hardy, the novels of Jane Austen or plays of our own first lord of literature. Disney's version of The Little Mermaid is tantamount to ending Hamlet with a family reunion or Macbeth with a wedding. Bredsdorff stood up, a tall, fighting figure of a man. 'My next stop is the Danish Ministry of Culture.'

(Graphic omitted)

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