Have you heard the story of the coin that is accidentally left behind in a foreign country? The shilling knows that it’s good, honest, and true, but in this new country it is yelled at and called false and counterfeit. It feels even worse when the people who discovered it in their pockets pass it to others in the dark, so in the light of the next day it is again called worthless. Now, imagine its pleasure when it’s finally returned to its own country, where it is hailed for its honest picture of the beloved king.
If you recognize that story, then you know “The Silver Shilling,” by Hans Christian Andersen. I found it charming, even if it’s not as famous as some of his other stories. His most notable tale is “The Little Mermaid,” but you might not recognize that tale in the original.
About twenty years ago I bought a copy of his collection The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, as translated into English by E. C. Haugaard. It’s a huge book: more than a thousand pages comprising 156 stories and tales. Way back then, I tried to read the book but I didn’t like his stories.
Sorry, but it’s the truth. To me, they were dark, and not in a Little-Red-Riding-Hood walking through the forest kind of way. It seemed to me that too many of his protagonists lived unhappy or unfulfilled lives. There was an enormous amount of unrequited love (read about the poor mermaid) and horrid pain and suffering with no or insufficient payoff (the mermaid again, for example). He also wrote what I can only describe as short histories or travelogues for Danish children, most of which in my opinion don’t translate well for a modern audience.
After I wrote here about the (lack of) familial relationship between the famous H. C. and me <See Me and Jose>, I decided to make another go at reading the collection. This time, I kept track of the ones that I liked. That turned out to be a few more than one in eight. I included at the bottom of this blog the list of the ones that resonated with me.
So, what appealed to me? Those of his stories that made a magical connection to my heart and soul. The despair and later delight of the misplaced shilling has at its core an important message: you know in your heart that you are valuable, so don’t listen to those who call you worthless. The message is delivered with a straightforward simplicity from the perspective of the coin itself.
Let me take a very different one, called “How the Storm Changed the Signs.” It tells of a great storm that passed through Copenhagen and moved signs from one storefront to another. A sign from a diner was dropped in front of a struggling theater. He wrote: “It was a strange playbill! ‘Horseradish Soup and Stuffed Cabbage.’ But that night the theater was full.” It is a playful story. It also gave Hans Christian another chance to poke his finger in the eyes of critics: the newspaper editor’s door was festooned with a sign for codfish, which he calls a Danish symbol for stupidity.
Then there is this delightful short piece: Grandfather puts on a romance play for his granddaughter “In the Children’s Room” when the rest of the family goes out to theater. His protagonists are Mr. Pipe Bowl, Miss Glove, Mr. Vest and Mr. Boot. In comparison to the real theater, Grandfather claims, “Our comedy was much better. It was shorter and inspired.” I agree.
You won’t find “The Little Mermaid” on my list. Parts of it are magical, but in the end, I found it unsatisfying. There were quite a number of other stories that I thought would make my list until I got to the last few paragraphs. The heroes and heroines lived lives of pain and suffering and then they died and everyone forgot them. That ending seemed to resonate with H. C., but it isn’t magical to me.
If you’ve read his tales, you may like different stories from his collection than I do. We should all enjoy delight where we find it. But if you’ve never read his original stories, or tried but had trouble making it through more than a few of them, I invite you to read these.
Tales that I liked, in order of their appearance in The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories by Hans Christian Andersen, as translated into English by E. C. Haugaard:
The Travelling Companion
The Ugly Duckling
The Snow Queen
The Little Match Girl
The Old Street Lamp
The Old Gravestone
Five Peas From the Same Pod
The Dung Beetle
“The Will-O’-the-Wisps Are in Town,” Said the Bog Witch
The Silver Shilling
In the Children’s Room
How the Storm Changed the Signs
Who Was the Happiest?