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#WheresHans: Where do Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales pop up in contemporary culture?

Find out where Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales and morals pop up in modern day culture.

To celebrate the start of the free online course Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, we’re having a look at where his famous tales and morals pop up in modern day culture.

An illustration of The Snow Queen by Elena Ringo
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen is the inspiration for Disney’s Frozen. Can you think of any more examples? Illustration by Elena Ringo.

Hans Christian Andersen’s 18th century Danish fairytales follow a unique narrative structure that can be found in every corner of Western culture today. From Ugly Betty to Mean Girls, the Kardashians to Frozen, Andersen’s influence can be seen everywhere.


Who was Hans Christian Andersen? And what’s so special about his stories?

Professor Johannes Nørregaard Frandsen, Head of The Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark, tells us more:

“Andersen is best known for his fairy tales and stories written between 1835 and 1872. His earlier stories were based on traditional folk tales, like Brothers Grimm, published some 20 years earlier. But the uniqueness in Andersen’s storytelling comes in the twists and turns he made to the traditional folk tale structure. He created his own universe by breaking the mould and inserting new content into the traditional models.”

What is the traditional folk tale structure?

Traditional folk tales often follow two story lines:

  • The actantial model: in which a “donor” gives an “object” to the story’s “protagonist” – for example, a king giving his daughter to a knight. But the protagonist is obstructed by an “opponent” and aided by a “helper”.
  • Home-away-home: in which the protagonist is forced to leave home to complete a quest, before returning triumphant or finding a newer, better home – for example, the youngest brother is kicked out by his parents, yet meets a beautiful princess.

But Andersen often put a twist on these plots, which take the reader by surprise. For example, the person who you thought was the “helper” suddenly becomes the “opponent”, or the “object” is not an object at all, but an abstract concept like salvation.


Where are Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales seen today?

A still from American TV series Empire
American TV series Empire has its roots in Clumsy Hans. Image by Fox.

We’ve looked at some of today’s most popular films, TV series and even reality TV shows, to see if we can recognise an Andersen fairy tale in it. Here are just a few of the ones we can think of:

Frozen = The Snow Queen

Right now, Disney is enjoying phenomenal success with its animated film Frozen. This tale of faith, hope and love is based on one of Andersen’s best-known fairy tales – The Snow Queen written in 1844.

Talent shows = The Ugly Duckling

Whether you watch The X Factor, American Idol or Australia’s Got Talent, you’re bound to see numerous examples of Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling, in which an unlikely protagonist from humble origins proves their worth and becomes a success.

Toy Story = The Brave Tin Soldier

Toy Story is an example of stories where “dead” objects play the leading parts like they do in Andersen’s tales such as The Brave Tin Soldier – the story of a one-legged tin soldier, who falls in love with a beautiful ballerina.

Empire = Clumsy Hans

Even box sets can be linked back to Andersen. The American TV series Empire, in which a sick father must choose which of his three sons will take over his record company, has its roots in Clumsy Hans – a tale of three sons vying for the heart of a princess.

Want to know more about Andersen? Join the free online course “Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales” and enter his entrancing world of fantasy and folklore.

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