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A Fresh Path to the Grave – and Beyond

by Donna Farley

[Note: This essay was originally published in Epiphany journal, Spring, 1992.]

At opposite ends of a cemetery in Copenhagen lie buried the remains of two nineteenth-century writers: the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the talespinner Hans Christian Andersen. Kierkegaard's very first book blasted Andersen for the sentimentality of his writing. Perhaps Kierkegaard would be pleased at the lack of sentiment displayed at his own burial site today, for whenever it snows, his grave lies undisturbed under its freezing blanket. But to Andersen's resting place, a fresh path is kept dug for the feet of pilgrims who come there with thoughts full of ugly ducklings who become swans, steadfast tin soldiers, and mermaids in search of true love and a human soul.

If your children, like mine, have been subjected to endless video showings of the Disney version of The Little Mermaid at every birthday party in the neighborhood in the last two years, you may be wondering why you would want to read about Andersen in Christianity Today. Is there theology in this story?

There was once, but it's been cut. Censored, and not only by Disney, but also in numerous well-meaning revisions and bowdlerizations of Andersen's works by people who thought the "sad" ending inappropriate for children, and any motivation other than the desire for "true love" incomprehensible. In Andersen's original story, the little mermaid loves the prince, to be sure; but she also wonders, "Why did we [mermaids] not receive an immortal soul?... I would gladly give all the hundreds of years I have to live to be a human being only for one day, and to have a hope of partaking the heavenly kingdom."

And for this as much as for love of the prince she gives up her voice and her tail, taking instead the painfully delicate legs, and seeking not merely a kiss but the complete joining with the human prince in a Church wedding, which will cause her to receive a human soul. Alas, it is not to be, for he loves another; and then the little mermaid must die, unless she kills the prince with a magic knife given to her by her sisters. But she refuses, casting the knife away; and her reward for this selflessness is to be allowed to join the daughters of the air, the kindly nature beings who after three hundred years of bringing merciful coolness to the pestilent tropics, may receive the human soul they crave, becoming eligible for redemption.

In Andersen's stories, his faith is never far from the surface. He sums up his simple philosophy in his short autobiography, "The Story of My Life" in this mere fragment of a sentence: "...that there is a gracious God who makes all things work together for our good."

Andersen is no Lewis or Chesterton; the theology of his stories remains largely undeveloped, and he shared with that other great maker of fairy tales, George MacDonald, the heresy of universalism. His genius was more that of heart and language than of reason, the special luminosity of his tales sprung from his own matchless imaginative talent and the hard-won skills of his belated and laborious education.

Andersen's heterodox religious opinions did not, however, prevent his deeply respecting the worship of the Church. Visiting St. Peter's in Rome, he indignantly shushed two old ladies who were chattering during the Mass. The tone of wonder with which he describes Easter in Athens will warm the hearts of Orthodox Christians:

"Christ is risen!" Shouted everyone with jubilation... People fell on each others' necks, kissed and rejoiced: "Christ is risen!" sounded the tidings and it was not an ancient happening, no, it was as if it had taken place that night, in their land. It was as if the news of this had just at that moment reached their ears!

As this example shows, there is more to Andersen's body of work than such famous tales as The Emperor's New Clothes, The Nightingale, The Ugly Duckling and The Snow Queen. He began life as a would-be actor, and he wrote many plays, novels, poems and travelogues. And among his more obscure fictional works are tales notably less suited to children than even the unrevised versions of the well-known stories.

One of these is the witty parable-within-a-parable, The Pen and the Inkstand, in which a poet writes a parable called "The Master and the Instruments", saying, "How foolish it would be of the violin and the bow to boast of their achievements! And yet we men often commit this folly.... We are only the instruments which the Almighty uses; to Him alone be the honour!" And even as the poet in the story is writing down these thoughts, his pen and inkstand are arguing with one another over which of them is the real author of the work!

Another tale not likely to see wide circulation in these ecumenical times is The Jewish Girl. It is a story of the baptism of desire, of a Jewish girl prevented by the Law from converting to Christ; for she feels bound to keep the commandment to honour parents by obeying her dying mother's command that she never become a Christian. Yet the girl believes; and after a long and devout life, her heart is broken when she reads the Christian scriptures, and she knows that though she may not be admitted to the congregation here on earth, "...beyond this earth there is a higher union, even union in God!.... I know not how I came to learn the truth; but it is through Him, through Christ!"

"And she started as she pronounced the sacred name, and there came upon her a baptism as of flames of fire..." And the Jewish girl in the story dies, but the people cannot bury her inside the churchyard wall with the Christians. "...But God's sun, that shines upon the graves of the Christians, throws its beams also upon the grave of the Jewish girl.... and she who sleeps beneath is included in the call to the resurrection, in the name of Him who spake to His disciples..."

Death, and repentance by those teetering on its brink, are recurring themes with Andersen. His natural use of the subject of mortality he has in common with all writers who lived in times less fastidious than our own; but while many of his tales, such as The Red Shoes, are strong stuff indeed, Andersen never descends to the sort of morbidity or horror that obsessed his equally imaginative contemporary, Edgar Allen Poe.

The Red Shoes, in fact, is one of the most clearly Biblical of his works. Reminiscent of Andersen himself in the pride he took in a new pair of boots when he was confirmed, the heroine of the story is so vain about her new red shoes that the shoes magically (demonically?) compel her to dance, so that she cannot eat or sleep, nor enter the church again. Only when, at her begging, the town executioner chops off her feet is she freed. If thy foot offend thee...

Surprisingly, Andersen does not end the story here. The young heroine of the story, maimed though she is, has not yet learned humility. "Now I have suffered and striven enough!" she thinks. "I think that I am just as good as many of those who sit in the church and carry their heads high." But when she attempts to enter the church on her new wooden feet, there she sees the red shoes dancing along before her! A real and deep repentance follows, and when she has so humbled herself that she thinks herself unworthy to come to church, the church miraculously comes to her. In characteristic Andersen style, the story ends in a grace-transfigured death, and "Her soul flew on the sunbeams to heaven; and there was nobody there who asked after the red shoes!"

Andersen (in one of those strange turns that lets us know what a sense of humour God has) was born on a bed his impoverished parents had constructed of wood formerly used as scaffolding for the coffin of a count as it lay in state. Andersen knew instinctively how birth and death are intertwined; and rather like the cemetery caretakers who shovel a fresh path to his resting place with every snowfall, he finds his way through story after story to the grave – and beyond.

For Andersen, death is only the beginning of a new and better life, perhaps best exemplified in The Little Match Girl. A poor child, perishing in the snow, lights her matches one by one and sees in their light visions of holiday feasts and Christmas trees, and finally her dead grandmother, who takes her to heaven.

In the morning the people of the town find her frozen to death, and like any modern skeptic reading such a tale, "no-one imagined what a beautiful thing she had seen, and in what glory she had gone in with her grandmother to the New Year's-day."

Andersen has been accused of solving the problem of suffering with pie-in-the-sky, but nothing could be farther from the testimony of his own life. He himself was the Ugly Duckling who started life in a poor home, jeered at and rejected for his physical ungainliness, his daydreaming, and his fiery enthusiasm for the development of his own talent, which last many mistook for vanity.

Andersen endured these slings and arrows with a curious combination of wounded dismay and matter-of-fact acceptance. When his mother asked what he expected to do in the big city of Copenhagen at age fourteen, he replied, "I am going to become famous. First you suffer terribly, and then you become famous."

And when he had done what he said he would do, becoming the swan-like man of literature, feted by royalty and read and loved by all, he wrote in his autobiography,

I have here told my own tale – have spoken of my joys and sorrows, have expressed my thankfulness at every encouragement and sign of good will, as I think I might express it, to the Giver of all good. Is this vanity? I think not, for my feeling has been one of humility; my thought was thankfulness to God.... A star of fortune shines above me. Thousands have deserved it more than I; often I cannot understand why this good should have been vouchsafed to me among so many thousands. But if the star should set, even while I am penning these lines, be it so; still I can say it has shone, and I have received a rich portion. Even here what is best will happen. To God and my fellow creatures, my thanks, my love!

And there is no doubt that the path dug to his grave says also to God and to Hans Andersen, from his fellow creatures, "Our thanks, our love!"

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[A Fresh Path to the Grave – And Beyond] [Strangers on the Border Between Two Strange Lands] [Christian Symbolism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer] [The Theologian's Spreadsheet] [Christian SF?]