Once upon a time
On the anniversary of the death of one of the world's best known storytellers, we consider the humble fairy tale – and the power of a story well told.
Friday 4 August is the anniversary of the death of Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875). A prolific author, penning novels, poems, plays and travelogues, over 140 years since his death, his name remains unequivocally associated with fairy tales.
There is little doubt that Andersen was a master storyteller. Initially retelling traditional tales he had heard as a child, he went on to write over 150 of his own fairy tales and stories, including The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, and The Princess and the Pea. These now sit alongside traditional tales, such as those collected by the Brothers Grimm – Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, and many, many others – as part of a collective cultural consciousness that continues to be passed from generation to generation.
The stories told by Hans Christian Andersen are relatively new in the long history of fairy tales. Many have their origins in oral traditions dating back hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years – recent research suggests that Jack and the Beanstalk may have its roots in a story told some 5,000 years ago.* Usually containing elements of magic, transformation, fantasy and folkloric characters, variations of the same stories exist in countries and cultures throughout the world.
Although passed on today through books and film, once upon a time these stories would have been conveyed purely through the spoken word – quite literally, through storytelling. But no matter how they are told, the fact that so many fairy tales remain part of our common culture is testament to the power of sharing a good story.
Pictured above: Statue of the Little Mermaid, Copenhagen