Hans Christian Andersen - a few words on his originality

by Tolovaj

Hans Christian Andersen is usually praised for his originality. Here are 10 not so original fairy tales written by him - including some very popular ones.

H. C. Andersen is valued as the best fairy tale writer of all times. Originality is definitely the major reason for such a title. But we'll see he often only rewrote already existing stories. So where is the secret of his success?

Andersen's fairy tales are still very popular even a century and a half after his death. There are several reasons for that. Andersen used simple everyday language which really never fell out of fashion.

He also included a lot of emotions, what was a novelty in the field of fairy tales, primarily considered as educational tales for children.

Humor is another of his trademarks. Sometimes it can be pretty dark and sarcastic, but still.

Writing on several layers (at least one for kids and at least one for adults who wrote them, as he explained) counts too.

Yet originality of the plots is clearly not on this list of H. C. Andersen's attributes. As will see, he often used stories written by others, old fables and tales with unknown authorship, or other material, just to have a solid backbone for his 'original' work.

This is especially true for his earlier fairy tales which himself described as much better than later work, the fairy tales which were written when he was already famous.

If you are ready to peek in the backstage of some of the finest Andersen's creations, let's start a list of 10 not so original fairy tales by H. C. Andersen:


1 The Tinder-Box

The Tinder-Box is the first published fairy tale by H. C. Andersen. It's a story about a soldier who is on the way home. He crosses paths with a witch who wants him to climb in the underground. His reward is anything he can find there, she wants just an old tinder-box which belonged to her grandmother. Of course, this object is more valuable than anything else he might get for himself and a soldier is smart enough to recognize her intentions.

Let's go to the essence - it's a plot copied from Aladdin's Magic Lamp. We have identical characters, identical starting point, even the same scene and the situation where the soldier (or Aladdin) wants to marry a princess (in both cases) but somehow loses the power of the magic tinder-box (lamp), although in slightly different sequences. Andersen was a big fan of Arabian Nights which he described as probably the most influential book in his life (apart from the Bible).


2 Big Claus and Little Claus

This is a less known story by Andersen, published as the second of his fairy tales. It's a story about a rich and stupid Claus who angers poor and smart Claus. Smart Claus tricks the stupid one to kill his horses, his own grandmother and finally drowns himself together with his wife. Smart Claus also earned good money by the way.

The very same story belongs to the collection of folktales from Norway. It's titled Big Peter and Little Peter. If take a few minutes to read both, you'll find the famous fairy tale writer borrowed all the tricks and subplots from the folktale, changing only less important details like names and occupations of characters.

But Andersen's story wasn't criticized for the lack of originality. It was just too brutal for the taste of the critics.


3 The Princess and the Pea

It's the third Andersen's fairy tale and still one of his most popular works. Yet the story about the girl who was so delicate, she couldn't sleep on the pea even after twenty mattresses were placed over, is far from being original. Andersen heard it when he was still a kid. It's actually a tale of Swedish origin (Princess Who Lay on Seven Peas). As we can see, he even kept the reason for distraction!


4 Thumbelina

Thumbelina is the fifth among his published fairy tales, if we are examining them in chronological order. (Don't worry, the fourth is not very original either, I just intend to use it for another article - about Andersen's fairy tales based on real people.) Thumbelina is, of course, a rewriting of popular English folktale Tom Thumb.

Just like Tom Thumb, it starts with a woman yearning for a kid, hoping to have one, even if it is not bigger than a thumb. But a kid in the size of a thumb is a kid in constant danger. While Tom Thumb obviously enjoys in danger and jumps from one adrenaline adventure to another, Thumbelina gets into trouble for reasons outside of her control. But the essence is the same - long list of incidents with non-stop surprising turnarounds. While the Tom Thumb becomes a member of King Arthur's court, Thumbelina marries with a prince and establishes her own royal court.


5 The Little Mermaid

I have already written a lot about Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, one of the most popular novellas of the 19th century. Andersen was a great fan of the story. He obviously recognized himself in the tragic story about the water spirit disappointed in love. There is a whole letter correspondence about his thoughts on Undine and ideas for Little Mermaid. While he managed to write one of the most beautiful fairy tales ever, he miserably failed at the ending.

The paragraph about good behavior by which the kids can help the unhappy mermaid at achieving her ultimate goal - the immortal soul - is written like pure blackmail. But let's not stray from the subject - Little Mermaid is essentially Undine for kids.

6 The Emperor's New Clothes

It's another signature fairy tale by this great storyteller.

It's a retelling of one of the stories in a less known collection titled Tales of Count Lucanor (sometimes subtitled Fifty Pleasant Stories of Patronio).


The particular story which inspired Andersen is 'Of that which happened to a King and three Impostors'. It's a story about three weavers who are actually tricksters.

The weavers visit a king and promise him to make a special cloth which could be seen only by legitimate sons of their supposed fathers. For illegitimate sons believed to be legitimate such cloth would be invisible. Of course, they were supplied with large quantities of silk, gold, silver, and other precious materials. And of course nobody ever saw their cloth but nobody also admitted it is invisible to him.

The king rode naked through the city until a negro who didn't care about his own origin announced the truth to the world.

As you can see, Andersen changed only a few details. The story in Emperor's New Clothes is the same.


7 Wild Swans

The Wild Swans (sometimes titled White Swans) is a retelling of old Norse tale Twelve Wild Ducks also known as the version by Brothers Grimm (Six Swans). In all versions, it's essentially a story about a king who marries a witch who hates his children from a previous marriage. She turns the boys into birds, but the girl is able to save them if she only remains silent and makes a shirt from nettles or similar material.

Despite getting into life-threatening danger she remains silent and completes the task just before she is executed. Andersen faithfully followed the plot, adding only some cosmetic details and a few religious elements.

Which species of birds are present in several of Andersen's fairy tales?
  Display results
While Brothers Grimm for instance, prefer doves and ravens, Andersen favors swans, storks and nightingales

8 What the Old Man Does is Always Right

Andersen actually admits it's not his story in the first paragraph of this humorous tale about a man who makes a series of really bad trades until he finishes his journey with a great reward from two Englishmen who were willing to pay for his amusing story.

Scandinavian storytelling tradition has several very similar folktales but to a wider audience, Hans in Luck by Brothers Grimm is probably the most well-known of all.


9 Little Match Girl

We are dealing again with one of the most beautiful and sad fairy tales. This story of a girl who spends the New Year's Eve alone, in coldness, dark, without shoes, comforting herself only by switching her matches is very similar to the Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Dickens published his story two years before Andersen and both writers personally knew each other. Andersen actually visited Dickens two times what had somehow tragicomic consequences but this is a material for another occasion.


Anyway, the idea of visions and ghost was the same, although we must admit endings of both stories differ by miles.


10 Red Shoes

Red Shoes is not among best-known fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, yet it deserves our intention despite being very similar to several Scandinavian folktales, like Old Nick and a girl, or maybe Twelve Dancing Princesses from Grimms' collection. It also uses the idea from Snow White where the evil queen dances in red hot shoes until she dies. Andersen 'saves' the protagonist in his story, but the girl loses her legs. The ending brings another strong religious note, one of the signature characteristics of Andersen's writings.

Conclusion - H. C. Anderen didn't build his career as a fairy tale writer on originality of plots, especially at his earlier works, which himself denoted as better than later ones. This is actually one of his advantages because the majority of popular fairy tales follow only a few pretty predictable formulas. Without losing time to reinvent the wheel he focused on adding his personal experience, humor, emotions, and beliefs which together with an already existing and proved plot formed a unique and pleasurable experience for his audience.

If you are willing to try, it's actually pretty easy to write your own fairy tale and earn some money by the way.

Image credits:

All used images are in public domain. Their authors are (in order of apperance of their 

Dalziel Brothers (George 1815-1902, Edward 1817-1905, Margaret 1819-1894, John 1822-1869, Thomas 1823-1906)
Alfred Walter Bayes (1832-1909)
William Heath Robinson (1872-1944)
Eleanor Vere Boyle (1825-1916)
Maria Louise Kirk (1860-1930)
John Reinhard Weguelin (1849-1927)
Alice Havers (1850-1890)
Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908)

Updated: 05/23/2019, Tolovaj
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

What are your thoughts on Andersen's work and originality in general?

Only logged-in users are allowed to comment. Login
Tolovaj on 10/19/2023

No, DerdriuMarriner, I don't think so. Names in fairy tales are almost always change to be more generic and address as wide audience as possible. Christianity and fairy tales were never good friends and in most cases just ignore each other. On the other hand, several authors / collectors / editors were didicated to their religion and tried to instill their owne values to the stories. Brothers Grimm and H. C. Andersen were good examples.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/18/2023

The second story, about Big Claus and Little Claus, makes me wonder about the name change from the original Big Peter and Little Peter.

Might the name choice have been somewhat insulting to Christmas celebrations about Santa Claus?

Tolovaj on 10/17/2023

He was a shoemaker but could not get a work because there was a limitation of only one shoemaker in certain place, so he was allowed to work only if the shoemaker with a licence was overwhelmed with work or sick. About being a illegitimate so of a king ... In my opinion it's just a myth, supported by Hans Christian's fantasy.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/17/2023

Your first tale, The tinder-box, catches my attention with it similarizing a tale in the Arabian Nights.

Internet sources describe Hans Christian Andersen as son of an illiterate washerwoman and of a man with at least a basic education. They also give as a possible birth illegitimate child of King Christian VIII.

Online sources list among his godparents a hospital porter, a journeyman carpenter, a royal hatter and a shoemaker. Might such a level of necessary skills suggest some similar trade wielded by his father?

Internet sources offered nothing as to what the washerwoman's husband did.

DerdriuMarriner on 09/15/2023

The third paragraph in your introduction considers that "He also included a lot of emotions, what was a novelty in the field of fairy tales, primarily considered as educational tales for children."

Would it seem that the emotions were used along with, or more than, educational tools to advance fairy-tale plots?

Tolovaj on 07/30/2019

Thanks, Mira, for your kind words. I hope my articles can help to more critical reading and a bit higher lever of writing / publishing. Sorry for my late responses, I am in the middle of something right now ... Enjoy!

Mira on 07/29/2019

Wow, you're good!:) I like how you connected the elements of the story and how enthralling that leaf and the associated story was! :):)

Tolovaj on 07/24/2019

Thank you, Mira, for your kind words. I have to note, these stories are not only written but they are all published, mostly on the national radio, but they found their way to CDs, magazines, books and picture books as well. Unfortunately I had almost zero success in English (lack of invested energy maybe). Here is one of more recent projects (and most popular ones): https://www.lahkonocnice.si/sodelovan...

I hope your projects in English panned out better:)

Mira on 07/23/2019

Thank you, Tolovaj! You certainly have more to recommend you for children's literature than I do -- and I'm still surprised you wrote hundreds of stories! Congrats, that's a wonderful achievement! And given how steeped you are in all these traditional stories, writing your own must have felt wonderful. Are any of your stories in English? :)

Tolovaj on 07/22/2019

First of all, sorry for my late response, Mira. I was on holidays. About your questions:
- if you feel you have anything to tell to the world, just do it, no matter the form (contemporary story, airy tale, novel, everything can work);
- I wrote my first two or three hundred stories for kids (only a few dozens qualify as fairy tales by definition) before I made any analysis, so don't bother with analysing, just do it (I never analysed any of my stories, there are literary billions of people who should do it before me);
- whatever you do, try to enjoy it, with thinking abut monetizing close second;).

You might also like

Charles Perrault: Biography - Just the Facts

You may wonder who was Charles Perrault, but you definitely heard for Cindere...

Oscar Wilde's Women

First thought about Oscar Wilde is probably not related to women. Yet several...

Disclosure: This page generates income for authors based on affiliate relationships with our partners, including Amazon, Google and others.
Loading ...