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Hans Christian Andersen and the Literary Fantastic

Updated: Jun 30, 2021

Written by Jacob Bøggild, Professor at The Hans Christian Andersen Centre, the Department for the Study of Culture, University of Southern Denmark.

Hans Christian Andersen is, of course, primarily associated with the fairy tale genre. Most people are not aware that he also wrote novels, poems, dramas and travelogues – not even most people in his native country, Denmark. I will, however, not delve into Andersen’s endeavours in these genres. My scope will be much narrower. I will interest myself in the way Andersen engages with the genre or mode of the literary fantastic. Arguably, this is a neighbouring or adjacent genre or mode of the fairy tale genre. And the way Andersen engages with it is highly indicative of his acute awareness of matters pertaining to the question(s) of genre.

But why do I use the formulation of “the literary fantastic” and not simply “the fantastic”. I think it will be useful to clarify this as a starting point. The term “fantastic” can be applied in different ways in different contexts. Used in a broad sense, it might just connote what is supernatural, what transgresses the laws of nature which govern the world as we known and inhabit it. But according to the main theorist of the field, Tzvetan Todorov, the term connotes something more specific when it is applied in a literary context.

Todorov connects the specificity of the literary fantastic with hesitation. Hesitation is experienced by the reader of a fantastic literary text and is often also thematized in the same text. When hesitation is thematized one or several characters will hesitate in the same way as the reader. A question like “do I dream or am I awake” is thus integral to the literary fantastic. The hesitation experienced by a reader and most likely one or several characters is a doubt as to whether something can be rationally explained or not or whether something is real or imaginary.

Such a hesitation can only evolve within the bounds of a modern, rationalistic paradigm, where the immediate impulse will be to look for a rational explanation for what appears to be supernatural. The literary fantastic according to Todorov is therefore a post-enlightenment phenomenon. It belongs mainly to the nineteenth century, originating in the late eighteenth century and having outplayed its role when psychoanalysis makes it possible to speak openly about the taboos which are its secret themes – an idea of Todorov’s which will not concern us here.

What will concern us is the fact that a necessary condition for the literary fantastic according to Todorov is that a text participating in this genre or mode must begin in a realistic manner. Only on this condition can the apparently supernatural occur in a way which generates hesitation. 

This means that the literary fantastic is in a way directly opposed to the fairy tale genre. In fairy tales the supernatural is an accepted norm and it does not surprise or generate any kind of hesitation. Therefore, proper fairy tales do not begin in a setting or an environment which seems to be realistic. However, Todorov operates with three genres or modes where strange things happen: the uncanny, the fantastic and the marvellous. In the uncanny genre or mode, what is strange can be explained rationally. In the fantastic genre or mode, we do not know if such an explanation is possible, we hesitate. In the marvellous genre or mode, the normal laws of nature have been abandoned and the supernatural is an accepted norm. Fairy tales and various kinds of works within the genre of fantasy belong to the marvellous. Thus, the literary fantastic proper is situated between two adjacent or neighbouring genres or modes: the uncanny and the marvellous.

But why is the fantastic in this sense a strictly literary mode? The best answer might be to point to a late but very exemplary work which belongs to the literary fantastic: Henry James’ novelette The Turn of the Screw. The story is narrated by a governess who believes that two children in her custody are haunted and corrupted by the ghosts of their former governess and her lover, a servant. She overcomes her doubt and takes the ghost to be real, but the reader continues – or should continue – to hesitate: Are the ghosts real or does the governess hallucinate them? The end of the story does not provide a definite answer to this question. 

Several film adaptions have been made of the Turn of the Screw. But the doubt and hesitation which is central to the literary original is very difficult to render in the cinematic medium. Unless the director is extremely gifted, he or she will have to make a choice as to whether the ghosts are real or hallucinated. The same would go for a theatre adaption. Only the literary medium can maintain the doubt and hesitation in the way it is maintained in James’ novelette.

Having outlined what is meant by the notion of the literary fantastic, I will now turn to two tales by Hans Christian Andersen which engage with this genre or mode: “The Snow Queen” and “The Shadow”.

In “The Snow Queen” we are introduced to a seemingly realistic environment. We hear about two children, Kay and Gerda, and the grandmother of them, whom they like to spend time with. We hear about how the children play together in summer and winter. One day in winter, the snowflakes are swarming outside. “It is the white bees swarming”, the grandmother says.

Here, it is crucial to keep in mind that the fantastic, according to Todorov, arises from the literalization of figures of speech. To liken snowflakes to white bees is an old, idiomatic Danish figure of speech. 

Kay then demonstrates he is an acute boy even before he has been hit by a shard from the splintered mirror of the Devil. “Do they also have a Queen?”, he asks. This makes the grandmother improvise and she describes the queen of the white bees, the Snow Queen. Unwittingly, she thus creates a vivid image of this queen in Kay’s mind. Later on, Kay sees the Snow Queen through the window, but it is still unclear whether he actually sees her or whether she is something he imagines. There is still room for doubt. Only later still, when the Snow Queen abducts Kay, is the literalization total and irreversible.

Gerda then decides to go looking for Kay out in the wide world. It is pure accident that she does this sailing down a river in a boat. This part of her journey stops at the abode of a woman who can do magic, a witch of a kind – albeit a pretty benign one. If not before, we now realize that the wide world Gerda has entered is a fairy tale realm. This fairy tale realm is also inhabited by the literalized Snow Queen. 

What is noteworthy is that Andersen uses the fantastic as a kind of passage to this fairy tale realm. He creates a seemingly realistic environment and then introduces the supernatural, the Snow Queen, by means of a gradual literalization of a figure of speech. One can conclude that he has read and decoded the fantastic literature of the romantic era and that this decoding enables him to make the modes of the literary fantastic and the folk/fairy tale interact in a masterful manner.

“The Shadow” is the story of the learned man whose shadow emancipates itself and the comes back and gradually takes control over him – and finally orders him to be arrested and executed. However, this story also starts out in a seemingly realistic way. The learned man is from the north, probably a country in Scandinavia, but has travelled to a warmer country in (supposedly) southern Europe, either to find inspiration or just some peace and quiet. He is a philosopher of a kind, writing books about the good, the true and the beautiful. 

Because of the heat during the day he can only peep out in the evening when the temperature drops. He then enjoys sitting on his balcony. He is curious about the house opposite of his balcony because he thinks he saw a beautiful woman there one night. And he has also heard some music from in there which has fascinated him. The beautiful woman he saw when waking from a dream. In fact, it is perfectly ambiguous whether the learned man actually saw a woman or whether he was still dreaming. The reader can only hesitate as regards this.

This, however, means that Andersen has deliberately misplaced this moment of hesitation in the story. If this woman were a figure in a dream or not is not a question which is related to the primary fantastic element in the story: the emancipated shadow. Interestingly, there is no doubt or hesitation connected to this fantastic element.

When the shadow emancipates itself, the learned man is sitting on his balcony opposite the house where he might have spotted the beautiful woman. His shadow can be seen on the wall of this house and – of course – it mimics every move the learned man makes. 

(This is a very important aspect of Andersen’s fairy tales and stories. Animals, plants and material things which are anthropomorphized will always behave in perfect accordance with their propensities and characteristics. Thus, the supernatural anthropomorphizations in Andersen will always be ‘naturalized’ to a maximum degree which can result in effects which are funny or uncanny – or both simultaneously.)

Well, the learned man is sitting on his balcony opposite the house he is curious about. In jest, he tells his shadow to go inside the house and have a look around. He then rises, turns and goes into his room and the curtain slips back behind him. This is the moment when the shadow is emancipated from him. And this is perfectly ‘natural’, since the shadow can no longer be cast when the curtain has slipped back and the source of light cut off. 

But it is just as important that what initiated this emancipation was the jesting remark of the learned man. This is also an instance where a verbal act or utterance is literalized.

In this story, however, the introduction of the fantastic is not a passage to a fairy tale realm like in “The Snow Queen”. Instead, we remain in the fantastic mode. But we do so in a peculiar way, because when the learned man is paid a visit by his former shadow, he is not at all as shocked and horrified as he should be. At first, he is very surprised, but then he accepts the return of his former shadow as something which – even if it is very strange – might indeed occur. No doubt or hesitation remains. 

This is in fact how Tororov characterizes what he terms the modern or the generalized fantastic. In this mode of the fantastic, the element of doubt and hesitation has vanished. The setting or environment of a story in this mode is absurd and the characters – as well as the reader(s) – simply have to adapt to this absurd setting or environment. Todorov only provides one example of this modern or generalized fantastic: Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis”.

In “The Metamorphosis” Gregor Samsa and his family have to adapt to the absurd situation that the former has turned into a huge beetle or cockroach – just like the learned man has to adapt to the absurd situation of being paid a visit by his former shadow.

It thus appears that Andersen has created an instance of the modern or generalized fantastic which predates Todorov’s only example – Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” – with almost seven decades. And it also seems like Andersen is somehow aware of this, since he deliberately misplaces the moment of hesitation which could have rendered “The Shadow” a fantastic tale of the more ‘classical’ kind if it had been properly placed.

Much more could be said about Andersen’s employment of the modes of the literary fantastic and the folk/fairy tale and I intend to do so when able to expand on the subject. For now, this will have to serve as an indication of how acutely aware Andersen is of matters pertaining to the question(s) of genre.

/Jacob Bøggild.

The blog entry is an outline of the paper "Hans Christian Andersen and the Literary Fantastic" which should have been presented at the now postponed conference Utopia & Dystopia at SDU in May 2020.


Photo Credit: "The Snow Queen" by Elena Ringo.

Blog entries follow the blog guidelines which can be found above. Blog entries are expression of the author’s opinion and have been reviewed and edited by the blog editor.

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1 Comment

Rikke Schubart
Rikke Schubart
May 01, 2020

Dear Jacob, thank you for this blog on Todorov and H.C. Andersen and the two tales. Great to be reminded of how theories of the fantastic are anchored to our beliefs in magic and science as two distinct way of thinking. Also, do you know of Roas and his book on the fantastic? He too uses Todorov's definition.

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