Prolific Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is one of the most beloved children’s writers to have ever lived. Known for his fantastical fairy tales that feature ducklings, mermaids, emperors and queens, his stories also commonly explore universal themes such as poverty, charity and inequality.
Though primarily marketed at children, Andersen’s stories commonly feature characters who present lessons of kindness and resilience for an older audience. Indeed, tales such as The Snow Queen (1844) and The Little Match Girl (1845) feature characters who experience cruelty and suffer deeply, while The Ugly Duckling (1843) is thought to offer a rare insight into Andersen’s own difficult experiences as a child.
Celebrated in his lifetime, Andersen’s 156 stories across 9 volumes have been translated into more than 125 languages and continue to inspire ballets, plays and films.
Here’s a breakdown of 10 of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales.
The Princess and the Pea
First published alongside three other fairy tales, The Princess and the Pea follows a young woman whose royal ancestry is established by testing whether she can feel a single pea under a large pile of mattresses. Ultimately, the princess goes on to marry a prince who had long searched for a suitable wife.
It is likely that Andersen heard the story, which is possibly a folk tale originating from Sweden, as a child. Along with the other tales published in 1935, The Princess and the Pea was not well received by critics, who saw the story as too casual and chatty in its style, and not morally clear enough.
Thumbelina is about a tiny girl and her adventures amongst toads, cockchafers and moles, who all try and pursue her hand in marriage. Eventually, she falls in love with a flower-fairy prince who is the same size as her. Though Thumbelina is primarily Anderson’s creation, he was inspired by tales of miniature people such as the character Tom Thumb.
Like The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina was not well received by critics because of its informal style and lack of clear moral narrative. It nonetheless became a popular tale, with the first English translation dating from 1846.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
One of Andersen’s most famous tales, The Emperor’s New Clothes is known for its wit and powerful message about challenging authority. It follows an arrogant emperor who is convinced by conmen weavers that he should wear a magical new ‘invisible’ material, reserved solely for the elite. Ultimately, it takes the courage of a young boy to point out that the emperor is in the nude, and is exposing himself to his subjects.
Andersen’s tale is likely inspired by a story from the popular Spanish 12th-century book Tales of Count Lucanor, as well as the classic Aesop’s Fables. The story has been translated into over 100 languages, and has given rise to the phrase ‘the Emperor has no clothes.’
The Little Mermaid
Perhaps Andersen’s most renowned work, The Little Mermaid follows the journey of a mermaid who falls under the spell of a human prince, so becomes willing to give up her life in the sea to gain a human soul on land. It has been adapted many times for theatre, ballet, opera and film: however, most adaptations have a happier ending than Andersen’s original tale, which involves the mermaid planning on killing the prince with a dagger.
Nonetheless, the popular tale is commonly referenced in popular culture. In 1909, the Danish government commissioned a bronze statue of the Little Mermaid be built in the capital city of Copenhagen. It attracts thousands of visitors a year, and has become an unofficial symbol of the Danish capital in the time since.
The Steadfast Tin Soldier
This fairy tale follows a tin soldier’s love for a paper ballerina. The tin soldier only has one leg, while the ballerina is posed standing on pointe on one leg, which helps attract them to one another. The pair melt together while dancing close to the fireplace, and all that is left behind is a shiny spangle and a lump of tin in the shape of a heart.
The touching story about the soldier and ballerina being unwavering in their love was the first of Andersen’s to not be based upon a folk tale or literary model, and has since been adapted for both ballet and animated film.
Possibly inspired by a trip Andersen took to a Danish pleasure garden in Tivoli, The Nightingale follows an emperor of China who becomes obsessed with the sound of the nightingale. However, after he receives a mechanical trinket that imitates a nightingale, he turns his attention away from the real nightingale, and nearly dies as a result.
Andersen’s story is commonly interpreted as a reminder to appreciate the simple pleasures of nature, rather than modern technology alone. It is thought that Andersen might have also been inspired by John Keats’ poem Ode to a Nightingale, or by Jenny Lind, a Swedish opera singer who he admired greatly.
The Ugly Duckling
Published to great critical acclaim, The Ugly Duckling is perhaps Andersen’s most personal tale. He was reportedly inspired to write the tale when relaxing on the Danish island of Zealand, and also later told a critic that the story is a symbolic representation of his own early years, since he was teased for his appearance as a child, but later went on to become a refined and successful author.
The story of The Ugly Duckling has been adapted numerous times, with derivates such as the stage show Honk! also proving popular.
The Snow Queen
This story centres on the struggle between good and evil through the characters of Gerda and her friend Kay. After being struck by shards of a magic mirror, Kay sees everything through the lens of negativity and hatred. After Kay is later captured by the evil Snow Queen, Gerda travels to her fortress to save her friend before he dies.
One of his longest and most complex plots, the story is split up into seven chapters and has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.
The Red Shoes
Perhaps the strangest of Andersen’s fairy tales, The Red Shoes follows a poor young woman called Karen who is seduced by the beauty of a pair red shoes, and wears them in inappropriate places such as church. She is cursed to dance in the shoes against her own will, and eventually has to have her feet cut off to try and escape the curse. At the end of the story, she dies, possibly as a form of redemption.
The story has been extensively analysed because of its questionable moral message, with some claiming that it unfairly villainises its central character for enjoying something materialistic, while others have suggested that it contains a Christian message about loving God above all else.
The Little Match Girl
One of the shortest Andersen’s stories, this story follows a little girl on New Year’s Eve who tries to sell matches, in vain, before succumbing to the cold and dying. While dying from the cold, she experiences visions of joy and kindness, and her grandmother eventually carries her to heaven, where it is implied that she is at last at peace.
The story is both one of the saddest and most visceral of Andersen’s works, since it highlights the misery and plight of the impoverished. Furthermore, unlike works such as A Christmas Carol, published just two years earlier by fellow author Charles Dickens, Andersen’s story offers no redemptive arc.