Ismail Serageldin


Celebrating the Legacy of Hans Christian Andersen

 13/01/2005 | Hans Christian Andersen Bi-centennial Celebration by HRH Prince Joachim of Denmark, Alexandria, Egypt

Your Royal Highness,
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for the honor you do me. I am delighted to join you in advancing the cause of spreading the joy and happiness that Hans Christian Andersen has brought to the world’s children of all ages.
Much has been said today about Andersen’s life and his output, especially his children’s tales. But some of Andersen’s other work also deserves our attention.   Andersen left a body of works that includes novels and tales, (including his first success, the fantastic tale entitled  “A Walk from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of the Island of Amager in the Years 1828 and 1829). He also wrote plays (such “The Mulatto” in which he described the evils of slavery).   A great traveler, he also left important travel books, and his surviving correspondence is enormous. 
As a novelist Andersen made his breakthrough with “The Improvisor” (1835). Although he used Italy as the setting, the story was autobiographical and depicted a poor boy's integration into society.   An Ugly Duckling theme of self-discovery in which Andersen returned in several of his works. The book gained international success, and, during his life, it remained the most widely read of all his works
But it is for his collections of children’s stories that he will be eternally remembered. It is for that body of work that the whole world joins Denmark in celebrating his bi-centennial in 2005. Thee tales were translated widely in Andersen’s own lifetime and were very popular.   Indeed Andersen's tales were translated throughout Europe, with four editions appearing in the UK in 1846 alone. His works influenced among others Charles Dickens (“A Christmas Carol”,  and “The Cricket on the Hearth.” ), Willam Thackeray and Oscar Wilde (“The Nightingale and the Rose,”).   Others, such as P.O. Enquist, wrote about Andersen (in the play “Rainsnakes”). And yet, even then, the Andersen stories did not convey their full power. According to Andersen’s distinguished biographer, Elias Bredsdorff, author of “Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work” (1975), the tales had been bowdlerized and sweetened by Victorian British translators.
For Andersen’s genius lay in the multi-layered complexity with which he could craft his children’s tales. Deceptively simple in their outward appearance, the tales still hold a grip on our imaginations as adults. We re-read them with pleasure, because they repay our rereading with added insights, and possibly a greater appreciation of literary technique -- I say this with some reservation since I have not read the original Danish versions.   Yet, the good translations still appear imbued with these qualities, and hence one can only conclude that Andersen was even better in his original Danish.
Anderson was able to wrap profound truths in the imagery of tales and parables.   The images do not disguise the truths that he seeks to convey, they enhance their acceptability. This reminds me of a few lines of French verse by a Sicilian francophone poet speaking of the need to use images to present a simple truth, which is too difficult for people to confront without the images:
Au fond de chaque chose un poisson nage,
Poisson, de peur que tu ne sortes nu
Je t’ai jeté mon manteau d’images
In the hands of a master such as Andersen, Children’s stories take on a new meaning. Their deceptive simplicity require enormous skill to hold both child and adult in their grasp, and to withstand the ravages of time. To write such stories is a great challenge for the greatest of writers.
Indeed, Isaac Bashevis singer, when accepting his Nobel prize for literature in 1978, responded to the question as to why he wanted to write for children. In one of the most memorable of the Nobel lectures, he said that there were at least 500 reasons to write for children, but that for purposes of time he would only list the top ten:
“Number (1) children read books not reviews. They don’t give a hoot about the critics. Number (2) Children don’t read to find their identity. Number (3) they don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation. Number (4) They have no use for psychology. Number (5) They detest sociology. Number (6) They don’t try to understand Kafka or Finnegan’s Wake. Number (7) They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff. Number (8) They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides, or footnotes. Number (9)   When a book is boring, they yawn openly without any shame or fear of authority. Number (10) They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish illusions.”
Your Royal Highness
Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen
The honor you bestow upon me today is a great one. I am deeply moved to be an ambassador for so wonderful a cause and to join in celebrating so distinguished a man as Hans Christian Andersen. He gave us a lasting gift: his writing. Through that, he holds up a mirror in which we can find our innermost souls; he opens windows through which we see the world in a new light. He never ceases to delight and to enrich. What more could anyone ask for as a lasting gift?
Thank you.

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