Tempting tales of love and fate
He was much influenced by the traditional Danish tales which he heard as a child in Odense, and some of his early stories, notably The Tinderbox, were retellings. But, even here, he made the story his own, reworking material from several different sources and establishing a new and idiosyncratic style of narrative - straightforward, conversational and devoid of the literary flourishes that were then in vogue.
But if they are not traditional folk tales, still less are they morality stories of the kind that were so popular in 19th-century nurseries. Indeed, early reviewers criticised Andersen's stories because they did not teach a clear moral lesson. For the most part they were intended simply to amuse, but they have an extra dimension that derives from Andersen's ability to transmute everyday experiences into universal truths. Stories like The Emperor's New Clothes and The Princess and the Pea tell us something about human nature and for this reason they have entered our language as a shorthand for a particular kind of behaviour.
They are much more than simple nursery tales. They are infused with a sense of melancholy, and there is no guarantee of a happy ending. The Steadfast Tin Soldier, despite his courage, ends up in the furnace and the Girl with the Red Shoes is doomed to dance herself to death.
Andersen's best work has an energy and a richness of texture which reflects his own complex personality. In story after story, he is writing about himself. He identifies with the Ugly Duckling, the isolated misfit who finally won acceptance, and with the Little Mermaid, who, like him, could live comfortably neither in one world nor the other. He is Kay, the hero of The Snow Queen, crippled by the splinter of ice that prevents him from loving freely and whole-heartedly, and he is the Little Match Girl, poor and lonely, standing on the outside and wanting to come in.
Like his fellow Scandinavian, Roald Dahl, he never forgot what it felt like to be powerless and a child. He is always on the side of the weak and the oppressed and quick to puncture pretension with a sly aside. Like Roald Dahl, too, he had an eye for the grotesque and was fascinated by darkness and death.
The best retellings bring out his essential ambivalence. Of the latest crop published to coincide with his bicentenary, the most successful is The Steadfast Tin Soldier, translated by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by PJ Lynch for the Andersen Press. Lewis perfectly captures Andersen's salty, laconic style while the illustrations, all shown from the point of view of the tin soldiers, have a surreal, almost nightmarish quality. The image of the black goblin, shown as a kind of fiendish Jack-in-the-Box towering over the little soldier, has all the sinister power of a horror movie.
A lavish new version of The Little Mermaid (Doubleday Children's Books) has been adapted from the original by Ian Beck. He bolts on a brand new happy ending which makes nonsense of Andersen's powerful fable of love and sacrifice. Anaemic illustrations in soft pastels and a flaccid style make this a disappointing offering.
Thumbelina, retold by Jane Falloon and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark for Chrysalis Books, appeals to children's love of the miniature. The illustrations are richly comical, the writing is direct and Thumbelina is presented as a spunky heroine and a good role model.
Finally, Orchard Books has produced Best Loved Stories from Hans Christian Andersen, a collection of tales retold by Andrew Matthews and illustrated by Alan Snow.
These are stripped down versions of the originals and none the worse for that. They rattle along at a great speed and the witty illustrations are a delight.