Sue Arnold: Happy birthday to the greatest Dane of all

There is more magic in Hans Christian Andersen than in the entire Harry Potter canon
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The Independent Online

They've spent millions on a new Andersen anniversary theme park just outside Copenhagen to which visitors from all over the globe are flocking in droves, snapping up Little Mermaid pencil cases, ugly duckling mugs and Thumbelina T-shirts by the truckload. If my kids were smaller, I'd take them to it like a shot. I love Hans Christian Andersen stories - only the girls, though. I've yet to find a boy who likes fairy stories. When my youngest was still at the age when he liked doing things with his mother (by which I mean under five), I suggested taking him to Denmark to visit a college friend who had just written a film score for the original Dracula movie starring Bela Lugosi. We'd go to Legoland in the afternoon, I said, and then I'd go on to the Dracula premiere. My son said he didn't want to see Legoland; he'd much rather see Dracula.

A Danish academic interviewed for the radio programme said that, as a tourist attraction, Hans Andersen was still a sellout, but no one really read him any more except out loud to kids who were about to fall asleep.

You're going to tell me, I suppose, that Harry Potter is the modern equivalent of Hans Christian Andersen and, if it's true, then that makes me almost as depressed as the latest news about the Siberian permafrost melting and the gulf stream packing up in the next 50 years, which will make places like Islay as accessible as their equivalents off the coast of Nova Scotia for all but a couple of months of the year.

When, in the fullness of time, I'm asked to read bedtime stories to my grandchildren, I shall certainly read them Hans Christian Andersen and pinch them hard if they look as though they are falling asleep. The trick, apparently - I learned this from a Rudolf Steiner teacher - is not to read to them as such, but to tell them the stories from memory with your eyes fixed on their eyes. I'm a great believer in the Rudolf Steiner approach. If there had been a Steiner school in London, I would certainly have sent my children to it instead of the slightly weird experimental academy that offered Sanskrit and meditation or the state primary they variously attended.

My Austrian godson went to a Steiner school in Salzburg, where, for the first three years of his educational career, he learned first to knit and make wooden carvings, then to draw and dance, then play a musical instrument and, only when he was seven, to start reading. In between the knitting, carving and dancing, the children were told stories, not just any old stories, but specifically fairy stories by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm and a wonderful Irish writer called Padraic Colum, author of The King of Ireland's Son, which is packed with more magic and mystery than the entire Harry Potter canon.

It's the simple direct way that they are told that has made those old fashioned fairy stories into all-time classics. What small child could fail to be mesmerised by a tale that begins: "Into the garden of the Grand Duke where a thousand roses bloomed in winter and a nightingale sang every evening on a bough outside the princess's window, there came a little ragged boy..."

Mine, alas, the boys at any rate. They preferred stories about rude kids putting snot into their teacher's tea or sailing off to fantasy islands to become king of the wild things. Of course I like Maurice Sendak whose wild beasts look uncannily like John Prescott in drag and even Rudolf Steiner would have approved of his rhythmic repetition and originality. But for me a story without a wicked witch, a handsome prince with a hawk on his wrist and a hound at his heels and a beautiful princess, preferably locked up in a tower surrounded by thorns, isn't worth the paper it's written on.

Sailing towards Islay past the Isle of Jura where Orwell wrote 1984 I thought of the Selkies who are as much a feature of Scottish myth and legend as leprechauns in Ireland or genies in Arabia. Selkies are half human and half seal, the most famous legend being about a farmer who captures a Selkie and marries her only to discover ... I won't spoil it for you. Get hold of a copy; it's even better than the Great Dane.