Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen

UnknownHans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales are well known, even to those who’ve never heard his name. His stories have entered our cultural consciousness (who doesn’t know of “The Little Mermaid,” even if it’s only through Disney’s version) and verbal lexicon (“The Emperor’s New Clothes”) and are here to stay. Maria Tatar’s The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen offers a glimpse at the man behind the tales, the subtle nuances of his art and language and renders the stories all the more powerful.

Opening the book is an essay, “Denmark’s Perfect Wizard,” about Andersen, his works and some of his common themes, which serves as a good introduction before leaping into the stories themselves.

Tatar has divided the tales into two sections: one for children and one for adults, though the stories in both sections tend to be rather dark and contain complicated, challenging themes. Readers will probably be more familiar with the stories that have been placed in the section for children — “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Princess and the Pea,” “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Snow Queen,” “Thumbelina,” “The Little Mermaid.” The most familiar title in the adult section is “The Red Shoes,” the other titles (“The Shadow,” “The Psyche,” “Heartache”) being less well known to most readers.

The annotations are copious — enough so that it’s better to wait until the end of a story to read them — and thorough. Some provide cultural context, some literary and others discuss pertinent bits of Andersen’s life and works. For instance, readers find out that he had a definite resentment of the aristocracy, considering himself a looked-down-upon outsider — which gives a story like “The Ugly Duckling” a certain autobiographical nature. It also turns out that Andersen was fond of paper cutting, producing delicate, fanciful cutouts.

The notes highlight common themes among tales, such as shoes as a signifier of social status: as in “The Little Match Girl,” who pitifully lacked shoes or “The Red Shoes,” which lead a girl astray and even “The Little Mermaid,” who lacks feet altogether. Because there are so many notes, which occasionally disrupt the flow of text by taking up a full page, they may be better served as endnotes, but this is a minor quibble indeed.

The real gem of this collection, though, is the artwork. Interspersed among the text and notes are a multitude of color and black & white illustrations from Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, W. Heath Robinson and Margaret Tarrant, among others. Some illustrations are full page, while words wrap around others, making them an integral part of the text. The range of styles is broad, and each artist brings his (or her) own take to Andersen’s verbal imagery. Multiple artists are used for each story, and it’s interesting to see the different interpretations. Some pictures have been captioned, firmly grounding them to particular scenes; others fly solo, letting the reader fit them to the words. The slipcover is worth a mention here as well, with its embossed silver lettering, whimsical figures and elaborate frame anchored at the corners by further illustrations.

Closing out the book, the third section provides a biography of Andersen; mini-bios of the illustrators and quotes about Anderson and his collective oeuvre from such literary and artistic luminaries as Lafcadio Hearn, Herman Hesse, Louisa May Alcott, Vincent van Gogh and P. L. Travers. Tatar has also included a thorough bibliography of not just Andersen’s works, but also secondary sources.

This book just begs to be read to a child old enough to discuss some of the weightier topics brought up in the annotations. Andersen’s stories withstand the test of time, and the Annotated Hans Christian Andersen is a marvelous edition. A second volume (perhaps containing “What the Moon Saw”) would be much appreciated!

(W. W. Norton & Company, 2008)