Mud On the Road

we're about to go shopping in Salisbury...

All Change

Donald Rumsfeld & The Little Mermaid 

     Thanks to the publishers Taschen who sent me their lovely book to review, I gave myself an early Christmas present yesterday: I stopped. I switched off the pre-Christmas To Do list. I lay down in the middle of Sunday and I read The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Princess & The Pea, The Snow Queen, Thumbelina  and The Ugly Duckling. All fairy tales by Hans Christian
Josef Paleček © 1981 NordSüd Verlag AG, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland
Anderson, all gathered with several others such as The Little Match Girl, in Taschen's ravishingly illustrated new book, edited by Noel Daniel (see below).

     You'd think fairy tales in the afternoon should be read to a child, to a Small But Mighty Nephew or a Little Niece. And I will share the lovely book with them when they come to stay the night. I really will. If their fingers are not too sticky.
     But yesterday I read the book alone and the charm of the stories combined with the gorgeous pictures, reminded me of  the pleasures of a magical December weekend in Prague: Christmas markets, sleigh rides, live music in the Old Town Square; sparkling ice and pillowy white snow; cinnamon biscuits and mulled wine, hot and deliciously spicy.

     I thought I knew all the tales but I hadn't appreciated until  reading them in full, in the 1942 translation by Andersen devotee and collector Jean Hersholt, how very modern and chatty, how very direct was Andersen's writing style.
ed. Noel Daniel Hardcover, clothbound, £ 24.99

Not just for children 

A Christmas must-have for grown-ups 

     Until now I think I must only have read versions of Andersen's stories in other collections. The real thing is far more engaging and often amusing too. When, for example, in The Nightingale, the Chinese Emperor threatens to, 'Have the whole court punched in the stomach, directly after supper.' Or, in the more sinister Snow Queen when, 'The boy was terror-stricken. He tried to say his prayers but all he could remember was his multiplication tables.'  

     Unlike The Brothers Grimm who set out to collect the folklore tales orally passed on across  generations, Andersen invented the majority of his stories. The freshness of expression and the directness of his story-telling style make them oh-so very readable. But the reason they have inspired so many and varied artists and endured into the 21st century (The Little Mermaid was published in 1837) is because their vivid, often dark accounts of vulnerable heroes struggling with powerful external forces, resonate with all of us not just the very young.

     Folk lore and fairy tales traditionally cautioned children about the forbidden places ruled by mythical creatures and monsters and child-snatching bogeymen... But, in the days before school and television and electric lighting and modern medicine, fairy tales also gave children a looking glass in which they could glimpse enchanted and enchanting versions of the rapid and overwhelming changes taking place in their own bodies and worlds.
The Little Match Girl illustration by famous British artist Arthur Rackham, 1932.

     When your feet grow two sizes in a month, your teeth suddenly start dropping out, your hair changes colour almost overnight and your mother's belly swells to accommodate a giant baby she says she has hatched inside herself,  stories about witches eating children, princes turned into toads, talking wolves and miniature shoe-making elfin men, do not seem so outlandish.

     What is perplexing is that, having managed all this change when we are helpless, dependent children, we find it so hard to cope with as competent self-possessed adults. Let alone at the other end of life when your hair changes colour, you lose two inches in height and your teeth start falling out all over again. 

     The I-Don't-Give-a-Damn-I-Am-Immortal years of late teens and early twenties when flux and change and anything new and all things different are exhilarating and highly desirable, are short-lived. If you survive them, they give way all too quickly to decades of anxiety induced by even the smallest of upheavals and deviations in the norm. Let alone the truly Hydra-headed evils: moving house, changing jobs, relationship breakdown, cancer, bereavement.

     You know it's all changed when change itself becomes the problem; when 'adapt and survive' is a lot easier to say than do. Usually this is because change is not self-determined but imposed from outside by a boss, interest rates, ill-health, relationships, the weather. Or just the grindingly unstoppable processes of ageing.

     Change is the only constant. Change can come at you from any direction at any moment. You can be on your guard but you can never really be prepared and resistance is futile.

     It's like the  man said:

The Little Mermaid illustration by British artist Jennie Harbour, 1932. 'There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.' 

(Donald Rumsfeld, Former US Secretary of Defense).

     The hideous sea witch warns the poor little mermaid that, in order to be united with her human prince, she will have to leave her home and five sisters forever and exchange her beautiful tail for a pair of 'props' which will cut into her like knife blades with every step she takes. Having her tongue cut out and being struck mute is a further and unexpected blow. Especially when she realises, too late, she is now unable to articulate her love to her prince. But the harshest cut of all, is actually a known unknown, one she never dared contemplate - that the prince would not reciprocate her love, leaving her doomed to die by daybreak, all sacrifice in vain...
   At the nano level, in my infinitesimally small universe, we've recently had to contend with a deluge of small and sudden changes in various shades of known and unknown. The windows of our car (and the homes and businesses  of 30 others) were smashed by some zeros with a catapult on a crime spree; the magnificent tree across the road was cut down to a single stump; in a radical annual molt our chickens lost just about all their feathers, became unrecognisable overnight and nearly froze to death; George the white boxer broke out in hives so extreme he metamorphosed in two minutes flat from a smooth white boxer to a frizzle dog and stayed that way for six days.  

     As for the chapel across the road. When we went to sleep one night it was a warm ochre yellow. When we woke next morning a man up a ladder was painting it mushroom. Less Elephant's Breath more Death's Ghastly Rattle.
The Snow Queen illustration by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender (nationalities unknown), 1929.
     I try not to take these things personally. I even made the decorator a cup of tea. We'll get to like the chapel's wan wintry look, I expect. In time.

     Sex and drugs and rock n' roll can alleviate the stress of change but only temporarily.  As can red wine, small children, dogs, friendship and long walks. And love. Lots and lots of love.

     Sadly for Hans Christian Andersen the great loves of his personal life went unrequited. An admired singer in his youth he was, according to Noel Daniel, infatuated with the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind but his feelings were not returned.

     'I suffer with my characters,' Andersen wrote to a friend. Biographers and historians have  suggested that the heart wrenching tragedy of the Little Mermaid's sacrifice and unrequited  love is in part auto-biographical.

     And because he remained unmarried, the storyteller so beloved the world over and down the decades by children, never knew the fulfilments of fatherhood. But he did experience, in his own remarkable rags-to-riches lifetime, the positive, transformative, effects of change and many of stories are imbued with this sense of hope and possibility.

     The only child of a washer woman and a shoemaker, who heard his first tales from the women spinning yarn in the local asylum in Odense Andersen ended up fraternising with kings. 

     He was driven by an ambition to greatness. He even wrote 'I will be famous' in a diary. If his success did not come easily and his life was not without pain then he never seems to have become embittered and he retained his sense of the absurd as well as his sense of the tragic and his deep empathy for his little tender-hearted heroes means they are still with us today - the mermaid, little Gerda, Thumbelina and of course the ugly duckling, all striving to find love, recover a friendship, find a home or simply belong.


Illustrations from the book

The Steadfast Tin Soldier illustration by renowned Danish artist Kay Nielsen, 1924.
Copyright - Courtesy of Private Collection

The Little Mermaid illustration by beloved Czech artist Josef Paleček, 1981.
Copyright - Josef Paleček © 1981 NordSüd Verlag AG, CH-8005 Zurich, Switzerland

The Little Match Girl illustration by famous British artist Arthur Rackham, 1932.
Copyright - Courtesy of Private Collection

The Little Mermaid illustration by British artist Jennie Harbour, 1932.
Copyright - Courtesy of Private Collection

The Snow Queen illustration by Katharine Beverley and Elizabeth Ellender (nationalities unknown), 1929.
Copyright - © Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

The Ugly Duckling illustration by revered Dutch artist Theo van Hoyetma, 1893.
Copyright - Courtesy of Private Collection

Thumbelina illustration by British artist Eleanor Vere Boyle, 1872.
Copyright - Courtesy of The Hans Christian Andersen Museum, Solvang, California

Because the Woods Are Scary
Surrey Hills
But, I Am Not A Mote
I Love the M3
I Love the M3
Eggs, by Floyd
The Good Workman 
Poor, kind Mrs Harris
Working From Home
Tail of the swarm on the bird box
Day of the Bee,  Part I
Eaten Alive!
Rise and Shine!
Rise & Shine!
Nano world by 'Alturnative Proportions'
 I Shrunk the Universe

No comments: