Tag Archives: Hans Christian Anderson

Know Thyself

Standard

The Ugly Duckling_NEW

We seem to be choosing stories about mothers and children lately and The Ugly Duckling is no exception.  However, my first thoughts on reading it again were not about mothers, but about belonging and not belonging.  Re-calling Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ phrase “the mistaken zygote,” I went back to my well-thumbed beloved copy of Women Who Run With the Wolves.

Let me digress a moment here and say this book ought to be every woman’s Bible.  If I were in charge (!) I would make sure every girl gets one as part of a coming-of-age package presented at the celebration of menarche. Of course I ended up re-reading the whole chapter, smiling and crying a bit to see the condition of being female so beautifully understood.  Buy it, steal it, borrow it and refuse to return it!  Get your hands on a copy and keep it close at hand.

Speaking of this story, written by Hans Christian Anderson and published in 1845, Clarissa says:

It is a psychological and spiritual root story.  A root story is one that contains a truth so fundamental to human development that without integration of this fact further progression is shaky, and one cannot entirely prosper psychologically until this point is reached.

That point is all about finding who you really are, accepting who you are, and also finding others like yourself who will affirm, confirm and value who you are. In Clarissa’s words:

The duckling of the story is symbolic of the wild nature, which, when pressed into circumstances of little nurture, instinctively strives to continue no matter what   …

The other important aspect of the story is that when an individual’s particular kind of soulfulness, which is both an instinctual and a spiritual identity, is surrounded by psychic acknowledgment and acceptance, that person feels life and power as never before.  Ascertaining one’s own psychic family brings a person vitality and belongingness.

I loved this story the very first time I read it.  Then, I got to see Danny Kaye play Hans Christian Anderson in the movies!  At age seven, I developed a mad crush on him, learned his songs by heart, and saw every movie of his my parents allowed. I still sing, “Quack! Get out!  Quack! Quack!  Get out!  Quack! Quack! Get out of town!” to myself some days.

My dad was in the army and we moved around so much I was always the new kid in town.  I never fit in at school and I felt like a stranger at home. Hans Christian Anderson could have written this story for me.  I identified completely with the ugly duckling; he sustained and encouraged me.  Having read it, I believed that one day I too could find people like me who would value me.  Looking back on my life, I am still amazed at the power of  stories, which I read as a little girl, to influence and nourish me.  In fact, I dedicated my first volume of poetry Be A Teller Of Tales to:

 Piglet & Pooh,

Ratty, Mole, Alice,

Humpty Dumpty, Br’er Rabbit,

Pinocchio, Mrs. Doasyouwouldbdoneby,

Mrs. Pigglewiggle, Charlotte, Uncle Wriggly,

Mary Poppins, Curdie, Cinderella, the North Wind, the Five Little Peppers, Heidi, Black Beauty and all

the other beloved creatures and characters

without whose leadership, companionship

and instruction I would know

nothing of storytelling

and much less

about life.

The Ugly Duckling gave me a sense of self-worth.  It inspired me to keep looking for my “pack” and gave me the courage to approach them whenever I did find another pack member.  I was very happy to return to the story after all theses years, read it again and find it as edifying and useful as ever.  I still feel heartstruck at the exile of the duckling, proving that old scars never completely fade away.  Perhaps that’s why the tones in this collage are so dark – not something I intended.  All Anderson’s stories are tinged with shadows, even those with happy endings.  I suppose it’s why I love them so. They never prevaricate or pretend. As a child, nothing was more frightening to me than lies. I could always trust Mr. Anderson to truthfully reflected the uneven mixture of pain, grief, joy and happiness I found life to be.

My collage shows the mother duck with both her own duckling and the strange creature she has inadvertently hatched.  The chickens and cat represent barnyard fowl, the ignorant nay-sayers of this world.  I included the cat because it foreshadows the danger the cygnet will meet on his quest.  The swan, is his true nature; the creature he will find at journey’s end.

Advertisements

The Princess and the Pea

Standard

Princess and Pea

This month we leave ancient myths and time-honored tales to devote ourselves to a modern composer of fairy tales.  It takes real art and a profound grasp of human nature to create the kind of story that rings true across differing cultures and thus becomes told and retold time and time again, fitting seamlessly into the repertoire of wonder tales read aloud in the evening before bedtime.

Hans Christian Anderson was such a fellow.  Bullied during an impoverished childhood he took refuge in books and made the land of enchantment his own at a very early age.  He was an awkward shy man with unfortunate features, given to romantic crushes on beautiful unobtainable people.  The suffering and depression thus engendered added that dark undertone to stories based on acute observation and understanding of the quirks of human behavior.  Though humor isn’t an overt feature of his stories it lurks in the character sketches of his secondary characters.  The mother duck that hatches a swan, silly Thumbelina and her toad, the poor soldier’s magic gadget which allows him to know what everyone in town is having for dinner all represent sly tongue-in-cheek sketches of human psychology and culture, keeping the stories just as fresh today as when he wrote them.

It is just this combination of bold plots, dark pathos and embedded humor that appealed to me and also thousands of other children around the world.  Certainly it is a mix that strongly mirrors the reality of many childhoods.  Though adults often choose to forget, children often find adult behavior ludicrous.  They quickly learn to hide their smiles and opinions, but revel in stories, which subtly mock their guardians.

“The Princess and the Pea” is one of our favorites.  It is very short- we’ll see how we get on as we go along.  Lot of other stories by H.C. Anderson are jumping up and down right off-stage impatiently waiting their turn!!

Meanwhile, today the story hit me as very African, in that African tales often deal with relationships between people involving their place in the family, tribe or society.  The Princess and the Pea is a mother-in-law story.  It has only three characters and two props – the mattress(es) and the pea.

African families tend to be large intimate extended associations with little privacy and an abundance of opinions in which the mother’s voice and views dominant in domestic affairs.  When a new wife enters the household she is frequently in competition with her husband’s mother for his attention.  Of course this happens in many cultures around the world, but in western countries, particularly the United States where women exercise power outside the home and families live in small private units, mother-in-law issues have greatly subsided.  However, Anderson was writing at an earlier time when living space was divided into two domains – the domestic and public.  Women ruled the domestic sphere and men the public. This story depicts a power struggle between the matriarch (queen) and the son’s fiancé.  Though the prince loves this woman, he will not save her from the trials imposed by his mother and closes his eyes to any conflict. The bride wins her place in the family because her innate character and backbone (depicted in reverse as sensitivity) let her prevail.

In my collage racism (hinted at in the different skin tones of mother, son and bride) is a metaphor for all the ways we humans rank and judge each other according to our differences.  In this story we sense no one would really be good enough for the queen’s son, because she doesn’t want to share him at all.  Thus she is looking for any and all reasons to discredit and discard his lover.

However, the young woman is accepted and she does become part of the family, so the different skin tones also show the beautiful melding and acceptance possible when we manage to set prejudice aside.

The earliest known bedding dates to 77,000 BCE and was discovered in Sibudu Cave, South Africa. Beds have always been a sign of wealth.  Until recently they were often listed in wills as significant pieces of property.  The number of mattresses available to the Queen implies prodigious wealth.  When the girl calls for more and more of them, she is attempting to demonstrate ability and poise in coping with that unfamiliar wealth.

Dried peas are still a very important food staple in Africa as they were for many centuries in Europe where they often served to ward off famine.  (“Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold, pease porridge in the pot nine days old.”) Perhaps this bride-to-be’s sensitivity to the pea portends a respect for food, survival and the necessity to provide and care for the general population of her new kingdom.