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This content is taken from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre's online course, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 13 seconds In order to grasp how Andersen is using the European fairy tale tradition as a means of thinking and reflecting it is necessary to be aware of a couple of structural features of this tradition, structures which are specific to what we refer to as the folk tale. I will now outline them for you. The first such structure can be represented by means of what is called the actantial model. The protagonist - or hero - of the folk tale is the key element of this model. The upper axis represents the fact that a donor gives an object to a receiver - the latter being the protagonist. This is often the king which gives his daughter, the princess, to the protagonist.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds The lower axis represents the fact that the protagonist has to overcome various obstacles in his quest for the object and that he will have to face and conquer an antagonist and will receive assistance from a helper as a part of this process. The model might appear static, but it thus represents a dynamic sequence of actions which the traditional folk tale follows - and it is this structure that Andersen is inspired by at the same time as he manipulates it. In The Tinder-Box, for example, one of Andersen’s very early fairy tales, this structure is already manipulated. The witch is really more of a helper than an antagonist - but the protagonist, the soldier, kills her anyway.

Skip to 1 minute and 45 seconds The little Memaid, another early fairy tale, does not fit into the actantial model at all. The Sea Witch is a kind of amalgam of an antagonist and a helper, there is no donor and the little mermaid receives no object in the model’s sense - she receives the possibility of a kind of salvation. However, Disney’s modern version of the Little Mermaid fits the model perfectly. This is remarkable. The other structure one has to be aware of is in fact not specific to the folk tale alone. It can also be found in the so-called Bildungsroman - which is the kind of novel like Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre or Wilhelm Meister’s apprenticeship. The structure is called home-away-home.

Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds In the folk tale the protagonist often starts out from home. It might be the youngest of a set of brothers who is kicked out because his parents cannot sustain all of them and believe him to be the dispensable one. The protagonist will then endeavor upon the kind of quest represented by the actantial model. While doing so he is away from home, out in the wide world. When he has completed the quest and receives the princess he will establish a new home with her. So Home-away-home. In the folk tale the structure does not represent development in a psychological sense, which it might do in the Bildungsroman.

Skip to 3 minutes and 14 seconds It stresses that one must be able to take leave of the home of one’s childhood in order to establish a new and different home for oneself as a sexually mature individual. Folk tales also stress that good-heartedness combined with resourcefulness will be rewarded. Only the one with a noble heart and the sufficient amount of resourcefulness will complete the quest and be able to establish a new home. In Andersen’s fairy tales this structure can very often be found, but - with a few exceptions - the homecomings in the end are always of a different nature than the traditional folk tale ones.

Skip to 3 minutes and 56 seconds They can be more abstract or unusual in other ways and often this means that the ending is very open and does not imply any kind of moral like the one you can find in a fable. The steadfast tin soldier, for example, returns to the same home - where he is immediately destroyed. And the shepardess and the chimney sweep also return to the same home - because the shepardess thinks that the wide world is a far too frightening place. We hope you will enjoy the course and take pleasure in using these models as a means to thinking about the uniqueness of Andersen’s fairy tales and the degree of universality of the ethical questions and dilemmas we have identified.

Skip to 4 minutes and 42 seconds The six fairy tales we have chosen

Skip to 4 minutes and 43 seconds are: The Travel Companion, The Tinderbox, The little Mermaid, The Story of a Mother, The Snow Queen and The red Shoes.

Analysis models

In this video, Professor Jacob Bøggild from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre will tell you about the basic structures and elements of the folk tale.

He will show you the two models that we will be using as our basic analysis tools in this course. He will also invite you to think about the way Hans Christian Andersen uses and often manipulates the folk tale genre.

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This video is from the free online course:

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen Centre