Monday, September 26, 2011
golden age masters
Longer ago than I prefer to remember my parents acquired all 51 volumes of the original Harvard Classics, works of literature that were considered by the then president of the university to be essential reading for an educated person circa 1909. In the late '50's I was far too young to be fascinated by Aristotle, Dante, Hobbes, Shakespeare, or Voltaire, to name but a few, but Volume 17 was a different story. In it were all of the original stories of Aesop, The Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen which I got to read before stories like Snow White or Beauty and The Beast were Disneyfied.
It's quite likely nobody reads them anymore but even after all this time I still remember Andersen as one of my favorite writers of children's literature. Unlike Aesop and the Grimm's collected fairy tales he actually wrote the stories published under his name. Many of them are just a little too ironic to be labeled as classic fairy tales with the pre-supposed happy endings the term implies. His stories are more complex and the resolutions don't depend on the type of magic fairy stories usually rely on. Rather than spells and transformations Andersen allows readers to draw magic from the edges of our own imaginations.
Among my favorites is the Little Mermaid, a coming of age story about a mermaid princess who discovers the world above the waters and becomes obsessed by a human prince she saves from drowning. Tragically, she discovers that her current form makes her unsuitable to love a prince and, worse still, that she has no soul. To satisfy her dreams she must become human but only by winning the love of the prince will she gain an immortal soul. (The 'Christian' in Andersen's name was not without meaning.)
A sea witch crone gives her a potion that will change her fish tail into legs but irony dictates her every step is at the cost of continuous pain. The potion has also made her mute - a tragic loss for a siren whose ability to sing defines her identity. Her grace and beauty attracts the prince to love her as a sister, but not enough to recognize her as the girl who saved his life. Now she experiences a double irony since her sacrifice allows her to be close to him but unable to close the gap between them.
Meanwhile, family politics arrange for the prince to be betrothed to another princess, a girl so beautiful that when he meets her he becomes convinced it was she who rescued him. The little mermaid now has come to a dilemma. She has neither union with the prince nor can she she return to being a mermaid. Doomed to spend the rest of her life in pain, she will eventually die without an immortal soul. Andersen doesn't let it happen by supplying a twist wherein the mermaid’s sisters sacrificed their beautiful hair in exchange for a knife she can use to kill the prince and end the sea witch’s spell. In the end, Christian morality wins and the mermaid, who can't bring herself to murder the man she loves, kills herself by jumping into the sea and merging, as mermaids do, into its foam.
In the original story Andersen let it end there, but his editors wouldn't allow such a tragic conclusion to a story meant for children. He introduced air spirits. By becoming one, the little mermaid can serve as a guide for the proper behaviour of children and if she does her job well, will be able to earn an immortal soul. I don't know about you but I prefer the irony of the original ending.
Edmund Dulac, my favorite of the Golden Age illustrators, created some very beautiful paintings for this classic story. I hope you've enjoyed seeing them as much as I always do. Now I'm going back to re-read The Snow Queen which I once thought of illustrating myself just to see if I could.