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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Previous Issues > Vol. 5 > Andersen’s Scissors: Cutting his own shape
Andersen’s Scissors: Cutting his own shape
Author: Moy McCrory
Moy McCrory explores the double-stranded creativity of Hans Christian Anderson, his writing and unique paper cuts.


Hans Christian Andersen worked in a variety of written forms beyond children’s stories  and also as a visual artist, sketching for his diaries, travel writing and journals. If he wrote in the anonymous tradition of fairy tales Andersen’s work for children is full of individual responses. “The Little Mermaid” while strong on folk motifs is also about personal yearning and we can read here the shift he made in his lifetime between social classes, as if from one element to another.

Although better known as a writer, an examination of some of his lesser known visual work, namely a surprising range of paper cut outs, shows recognisable figures and key images cut into this form which he used in performance as a storyteller. A study of these images which do not always figure in his writings, suggest that other meanings and disguises were adopted by the author. If in writing he chose to work in fabulation where a lack of reality allowed him to disguise himself inside the heart of a story, did the paper cut outs with their repeated motifs extend the possibilities for disguise and allow him to hide in plain sight.


Keywords: folk tale, fairy tale, tradition, Hans Christian Andersen, social behaviour, interpretations, storyteller, performance, folk-art, paper-cutting.


This article, which focuses on an interpretation and rereading of a well-known children’s tale by Hans Christian Andersen and his lesser known paper cut outs, developed initially out of a series of talks focusing on early narratives and fairy stories which I teach at university. If my students had not been as insightful as they were in raising questions, I may never have expanded this nor come to discover the author’s other art forms, namely the cut outs. These specific creative outputs began to fascinate me, and it was only after I had seen originals in the archives of the Danish National Library in Copenhagen in the summer of 2015 that I appreciated how delicate in execution these are. I was also fortunate to discover the work of Kjeld Heltoft, a painter and writer, whose undertaking to document the art work of Hans Christian Andersen, which includes pencil drawings, pen and ink work and collages, has brought together groups of paper cuttings which are held in private collections and not usually seen together.

There are eyewitness accounts of Andersen entertaining groups of eager children with improvised stories, all the while cutting at folded paper with a pair of scissors. In the National Museum of Denmark, there are a pair of Anderson’s scissors on display like a sacred relic.  However, their inclusion serves to show that these scissors, apart from their length (they are ten inches long), offer nothing more remarkable than a cutting blade, as we might expect. There is no measuring mark, nothing more technical about them than the fact that they are scissors, probably bought across a shop counter. Looking at them in these days of laser and machine cutting, it is hard to imagine that they could be put to use to create such fine pieces, which is testament to Andersen’s skill and ability.  

As the author reached the culmination of his tale, he would unfurl the cut paper to reveal a scene: characters, small birds, and a house, for example. Wagner Brust writes that he never used the cut outs to illustrate his stories, but that the resulting image appeared as a surprise. This may imply the cut outs were a party trick, but Brust suggests that the surprise was equally the author’s claiming this cutting as an antidote to his own boredom as he had endless requests for the same stories, though he also used such performances as a way of testing audience reaction when he was developing new stories for publication. However, there is no avoiding that many of his stories were so popular that he could not avoid telling them, and Wagner Brust’s suggestion is that paper cutting was something which the writer found diversionary (1994: 39). This relegates this work to something like an occupational habit, akin to doodling.

Party trick or doodle, these cut outs were low status forms. Do they make us rethink the man? When I began a work of comparison and interpretation of elements which also appeared in his stories, it was the cut outs which yielded clues to his writing, those moments when Andersen appears as a man struggling with his sense of self, in particular his position as a man who felt outside the social conventions of his day. If the unfurling was intended as a surprise for the delight of his audience, this was his role as a teller of tales, an entertainer. Yet in their nature as “doodles”, the same shapes show him relaxed, following an instinctive shaping and clipping, as he made things fit into his world, rather than his being made to fit inside the conventions of his time.

He excelled in what was at the time a parlour game considered the pursuit of ladies and most commonly used for Valentine cards and paper posies. Why choose to work in what was seen as a frivolous medium? Did he in fact have serious intentions with any of his pictorial work? The general consensus is that he viewed himself as a person of mixed talents who chose to focus on one form, writing, and to this end he applied all his other methods as resources. (He claimed for example that he learnt dialogue through his early forays into theatre and puppetry.)  However, the paper cuts outs reveal a spontaneous nature in contrast to his rewritten and re-edited manuscripts. He chose to work in a freer manner with this ephemeral work.

That such throw away pieces were ever saved in the first place is a wonder, yet many of these were preserved, and from being simple souvenirs the surviving cut outs have become a body of images. For Andersen, were they light relief as has been suggested? Or were they also an escape valve? In their unconscious method with a restricting set of possible shapes and cuts, do they show us something else about the artist?

They were never intended for posterity, and of all his artwork these are the most ephemeral, being easily damaged. Andersen knew that his written work would outlast him: he was famous and successful, as were his tales. Yet he continued to work in these transient materials, their cheapness and availability making them of no value apart from their appeal to sentiment. Neither would they be viewed as an art form until art appreciation could see artistic quality in less familiar forms and when the body of material evidence directing us towards Hans Christian Andersen is seen as having some relevance to his entire development. But Andersen continued to work in a form which remained outside artistic conventions in his lifetime (he did not, for example, develop these skills into the approved art of the silhouette portrait). Why? Was there something here which allowed him a freedom, so that he did not pursue the more traditional route of creating silhouettes which was common at the time? Heltoft locates Andersen’s practice in his past back with “the puppets in the shoe-maker’s living room” (1977: 103). This remains beyond the world of serious art consideration, taking him back into his own childhood.

That Andersen viewed himself as an outsider is found in his constant calling to attention in his diaries of the shift in his social position. He who was once the son of a shoe-maker now breakfasts with the royal family. His life seems to be part of his own fairy tale, a world where honest people might be rewarded according to their goodness.  Jack Zipes’ analysis of Andersen’s tales considers what he calls “the ambiguity of the dominated discourse” (1991: 84), so Andersen’s background and outsider view means he is an observer of social orders, remaining within his dominated class. If “he mystifies power and makes it appear divine” in his popular and perplexing story, “The Little Mermaid,” he focuses on the “torture and suffering which a member of the dominated class must undergo to establish ... nobility and virtues”.  The mermaid rises out of her element into the royal sphere only after she has been altered (Zipes 1991: 84). A lost soul indeed. It seems eminently reasonable in the light of his own background that Andersen should revert to a form regarded as a folk art, a craft, and a lesser, cruder tradition.

There is a Jewish tradition of cut paper designs being created for religious festivals (Heywood 2018). Initially these used to be cut with a shoemaker’s knife which suggests the peasant connections, and which would have provided Andersen with a link to his dead father, who was a cobbler, as well as to his own childhood experience of cutting out for his toy theatre.

The motifs are familiar – the little dancer, the pierrot (he frequently showed himself as such), the wise owl, the gnome. Some over-interpretation such as his doubling, and the shadow figures can easily be put to rest when one considers the nature of cut paper and the ease of folding to produce duplicate images as a reversal of each other.

However, did he find in this a useful form to suggest his other self with the ease of a direct technique? Was it in fact a fortuitous method which he employed for this shadow side of himself, or was it simply method?

One such illustration which works this doubling into its motif is “The Stealer of Hearts,” a sombre type of valentine indeed, with one of the hearts supporting a hanged man in a noose holding what appears to be a letter. In others, simple shapes are filled: a woman’s shape enclosed in a bottle suggests Bettleheim’s reading of Aladdin in which the infantile wish for omnipotence is revealed through the genie and the bottle (Bettleheim 1991).

However, Andersen’s paper cut out shows enclosure and the struggle to escape and is not related to any particular tale he wrote. The theme can be applied to the mermaid who struggles with her own identity and to Andersen himself. (A pencil drawing he made in 1830, “Self-portrait Confined in a Bottle,” shows him stretching and pushing against the bottle in an attempt to reach a female in the form of an angel.) (Wullschlager 2002: 101, Heltoft 2005: 46).

More fruitful was the work which Andersen would have known (now part of the National Museum) and which he seems to have replicated at times, creating various sun gods and female fertility figures which he could have seen on display at private collectors’ houses and during his travels. The National Museum in Copenhagen has an excellent collection today of early carved female forms (akin to the well known Willendorf Venus held in Vienna). However, his little mermaid was proving difficult to find.

Students taking this module are expected to familiarise themselves with early forms that characterise myths, legends, fables and fairy tales, to look at patterns in narratives and to read early versions of texts in order to consider developments.  Students explore the various contexts through which a story has passed, from what we can count as an origin (always debatable) and residual to its initial spoken form, through those various stages of reworking and transformation until it reaches us, as one of its many destinations, in a particular form which is by no means fixed, just as our interpretations shift and change.

Fairy stories, because of their literary and individual element of creative intention, have shown themselves to be the most fertile for continuous developments as opposed to myth and folk tales, where collective traditional expression and the ancient belief systems in myths, offer contemporary treatments of old stories rather than a continuous and current evolving form.

While Andersen’s work does not fit into the definition of “folk tale”, being literary, students on the module are tasked with making links to preceding forms. Such evolved fairy tales allow students to consider not only the contexts which inform an individual author (Perrault, The Brothers Grimm, Andersen, etc), but also to reach further back and see where motifs and ideas have occurred and continue to appear. They examine the archetypes which inform our creative thinking as well as challenge the interpretations and shifting values they discover. In this process they can read Andersen as part of a chain, just as Ovid proposes in his reworking of Greek myths for secular entertainment in The Metamorphoses (2000).

It is significant how Andersen most frequently uses the motifs we might expect to find in folk tales. Wullschlager comments that Andersen’s recollection of a hanging, which shows him full of horror at witnessing the event and the superstitions and behaviours which surrounded it, also serves to demonstrate “how close (he) was in his youth to the pre-industrial society which remained unchanged for centuries and then suddenly vanished…within his lifespan” (2000: 65). If his imagination had been formed by the stories which he heard, chiefly from his grandmother, he was not going to remain fixed in their repetition, just as he would not remain fixed in his social role.

A key and obvious difference is that while earlier forms of myths and legend inspire new work rather than mere retellings, the imprint of the original is always foregrounded in the literary development. Alice Oswald’s Memorial for example is dependent on naming and placing the warrior dead from the Iliad onto the page in a manner which lets the reader see those fallen warriors, named by Homer but edged out of the tale. Her reclaiming of these brings to our consciousness the glossed over characters and links us with battle-loss through our shared understanding of grief. The vividness of Oswald’s description makes the action immediate: “The first to die was Protesilaus, / A focused man…, / He died in mid-air / jumping to be the first ashore.” It is as if we are reading a war report, even to a description drawn from tabloid reportage which, safe after the sleep of centuries, does not turn witness into voyeurism:   


You can see the hole in the helmet just under the ridge,
Where the point of the blade passed through,
And stuck in his forehead.
(Oswald 2012)

Oswald inscribes her vocative memorial, giving the names in capitals like stone carving (to “invocate” as religious offering is suggested in the introduction) and couples this with our need to remember the fallen. In this manner we reach back to the original. Similarly, Walcott’s Omeros redirects the Odyssey towards the Caribbean to speak of exile and wandering as part of colonial and pan-African experience (Walcot 1990), while Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of The Odyssey sets the familiar into new scenes suggested by fragments in friezes, on urns and from the rubbish mounds of Oxyrhynchus (Mason 2011: vii).

Such early literatures are ripe for our re-use. However, when it comes to the later work of fairy tales, Canton sees their themes being treated by contemporary artists “as frames or conventions to be scrambled and re-evaluated” (1989: 14), suggesting a more fluid relationship with the originals. Such later stories it seems are still developing, still being written, and we can be the originators of our own. But then Zipes reminds us that fairy tale is myth after all in that it uses significant and already known ideas and themes, “material” which is reworked “parasitically” in order to communicate it anew—“an ideological mode that appears non-ideological” (Zipes, J. 1988: 149, cited in Canton 1989: 13). This is a key point regarding how we can view the positions taken by societies in the past due to their remoteness and difference, while at the same time imagining that our own are somehow value free, or that dreadful phrase the “common-sense” view which can only be held by our contemporary society, the “historic provincialism” which Zipes warns against (1979, Sales 1978). That everything pre-exists, and we take our inspiration from this is simply to acknowledge influence and our position as social beings, and at the opposite end raise questions about the idea of “originality” in a postmodern reworking, as part of continuous social engagement (Eco 1986; Eagleton 1996, 2002).

Linking back to older forms which exist like shadows behind the foregrounded tales is something students on the module respond to, tracing earlier versions to chase an image, or a character, slippery as these may feel at times. Because we can still mostly start from tales told in childhood, along with the archetypes expressed in fairy tales, this literary form has become the bedrock many of our students build on, and because of the pliability of the stories, much repositioning has taken place. The way we read and study early narratives has shifted in response to structural analysis, chiefly the work of Vladimir Propp (translated into English in 1958) whose syntagmatic structuralism was the first to consider a specific set of codes for folk/fairytales which he expressed as “functions,” along with the work of other scholars including Levi-Strauss and Dundes. Yet it is fairy stories that have been given a thorough shaking up in the late 20th century, creatively as well as critically. Oscar Wilde claimed only the “unimaginative” have to invent – “the true artist makes use…of everything” (2016).

These un-invented stories have been critiqued socially (Zipes), psychologically (Bettelheim), and behaviourally, especially in the examination of gendered roles, particularly those assigned to women (Duffy 1987; Showalter 1982, 1987; Warner 1994; Cixous 2004; Butler 2006) to question how such absorption remains (in language as well as image (Spender 1987)). Now we can all enter Carter’s Bloody Chamber to discover known fairy tales viewed through a distinctly Carter-esque prism where the tropes of fairy and romance are subverted to show the blood and pain of experience. But such examples were at first hard-won (Carter 1979). Feminist considerations include key work by Marina Warner, whose reclamation of the earlier anonymous Mother Goose, or Old Wives as central storytellers, is developed to a repositioning of the role of the stepmother to assert the position of women in the family (Warner 1994), to Angela Carter’s full-throated rallying cries for women to be seen as heroes in their own lives. The passivity and obedience of many female characters has been questioned. Interpretations are challenged (Schanoes 2014).

The stories most familiar among students (in the U.K.) include the early Disney versions from 1937 to the 1950s and the U.K. Ladybird series of illustrated stories. That a view of these as a final version, at a point fixed in childhood, still endures is a distortion which denies that such stories have evolved and will continue to evolve. Even the Disney Corporation, when it tested the audience for full length animations with The Little Mermaid (1989), followed this up with Beauty and the Beast (1991) by offering a reworked female figure who was in charge of her own destiny. Belle turns down one suitor because she finds him dull and unschooled and is shown finally relating to another (the beast) on her own terms and over a shared love of books in which both must read and engage their imaginations (rather than watch created images, ironically).

In seeing work as part of this continuous development, it is hoped students might reflect on the forces current today as well as those during a work’s possible origin and see how these both inform and reveal the past and the present, as well as reveal the central role of imagination in human development.

Creatively students find the fairy story can truly fall away and exist beyond its shadow in a continuous development, even as it acknowledges its parentage of folktale and fable. Initially for entertainment, with instructional advice a later accretion (see Canton, “Perrault and the Lessons of Civilite” in Canton 1989: 19-29), the fairy tale as literary form was intended to stand apart from collective work and belief systems, even when these now written tales reveal older, more disturbing forms and elements which stubbornly remain.

Searching for meaning, interpretation and recognizing elements or discovering a reason for a behaviour inside a story is familiar to us all. Maria Tartar remarks that such meanings (she refers to “morals”) are not stable and can “vary dramatically with each reader” (Tartar 1992: xv) and I would suggest also with an individual’s rereading. The fluidity of their meanings is also something which causes these stories to belong to us in a way other forms seldom can. Ziolkowski talks about their “elasticity”, a perfect description for these tales, suggesting a pliability not just for writing development but also a central quality which incites interpretations and plural meanings.


It seems fruitless to press these stories for one overarching meaning or seek any one interpretation that will pertain to all different versions of the story. (Ziolkowski 2009: 105)


It is good to remember this when considering interpretations. Bettelheim, for example, directs meanings for his particular ends (see The Uses of Enchantment, 1991). Taken as part of a continuous interpretation, his psychoanalytic approach expands our reading and knowledge. Less helpful are these ideas offered as fixed positions when they are ranged against lived experience. His reading of The Sleeping Beauty as a commentary on adolescence, for example, reveals a startling observation. For some months before the first menstruation and immediately after it, young girls, he notes, are “passive, seem sleepy and withdraw into themselves” (1991: 225). Where this was observed is never recorded, and it is at odds to my experience as a pupil at an all girls’ school with all the rites of passage repeated through each of my classmates. However, this idea is then used to show how the fairy story suggests the long sleep towards womanhood which the Sleeping Beauty must take.

If, on behalf of adolescents, he claims that periods of passivity and lethargy are characteristic of this stage, coupled with odd bursts of dangerous or reckless behaviour and frantic activity while attempting to prove oneself, most of us will concur that this provides a realistic image of us and/or of our children at adolescence. Few would argue with his idea that the Sleeping Beauty “emphasizes the long, quiet concentration on oneself that is also needed” at this stage(1991:225). I suppose the question is where is the sleeping prince? At which stage did he pass through this trial to be rudely awakened, in what has been called a non-consensual act of intimacy (Merritt 2017, Wright 2017)). Thankfully we can use our interpretative powers:

…what we regard as acceptable or even desirable within the context of a fictional world is not a morality that translates to real life. Even quite young children are capable of grasping this. (Merritt 2017)


And our interpretative reading lets us follow how Bettleheim makes women “guilty of seductive behaviour or sexual betrayal, even when the stories themselves are concerned with the rape and murder of women” (Tartar 1992: xxiii).

Bettelheim notes that the struggle to become oneself is described differently of girls than of boys in fairy tales and is the result of what he calls sexual stereotyping. Yet he considers the boy’s struggle is to go outward while the girl’s is to turn inward. Surely this is socialised and learned behaviour rather than biology. However, he does suggest that these aspects should be reunited (1991: 226), which allows for a more fluid approach towards the key tropes in this story, tropes which still cause problems today—the inert, unconscious female and the active, male agent of her awakening and change. (For a thorough critique of Bettelheim’s work, see Zipes, 2002: 179-205.)

“While philosophies, artistic styles and religious conventions have changed over the centuries, the fairy tales and their basic motifs have endured through the rise and fall of nations” (Meyer 1988: 11).

Meyer’s claim for the Grimm brothers’ “innate feeling for the wisdom” of such tales, could equally be extended to Hans Christian Andersen, who grew up amid such simple folk as the Grimms sought to interview. Indeed, rather than author, in his many performances Andersen set himself up as the speaker, or teller of these stories, borrowing from the earlier tradition of storytelling. In this way he seemed to blur the edges between himself as deliverer of stories and as creator of originals, imbued with older images and forms which he worked into his writing. However, in his scholarly study on Danish folktales, Tangherlini reminds us that Andersen’s work is not part of Danish folk tradition, being consciously literary works, and not the stuff of a collective unforced imagination (2013). While Andersen represents the individual, he nonetheless offers a fascinating view of how older forms occlude and inhabit the imagination, of things already known. In “The Little Mermaid” Andersen makes use of a creature from folklore. But his mermaid reveals a striking departure from this. His use of the familiar figure watching the land of men now appears as someone who wishes to belong elsewhere than their element. They are an outsider, at odds with a strange place. It became clear that possibly this work was showing that there were difficult areas in the author’s experience, which impacted on his own sense of belonging.  Un-belonging is a common enough theme experienced by most of us in some part, whether we are the offspring of immigrants, or do not fit easily into a social class or an ascribed role. Andersen, in many ways, was the epitome of an outsider, drawn to depict those who could not fit in, creatures swimming in a different element.

The sea has always held a fascination for us. The size and scope of a horizon which was as impossible as it was unreachable provoked early travellers’ tales. Those sailors of antiquity brought back wonderful tales and sightings which the earliest cartographers responded to by imagining those places beyond the horizon where wildness raged. Such maps show strange creatures rearing their heads from the sea (Olaus Magnuss’ Marine Map 1539: Nigg: 2013, The Mappa Mundi, c1285: Hereford Cathedral).

Who first spoke of sea creatures? Certainly sailors. Those who lived by the shore, told tales of things washed up, or sighted far out. The feminine was part of this oddness; a 14th–15th century Irish fragment “Drowned Giantesses” reveals huge female forms – not fishlike, but terrifying (Jackson 1971: 166), and the folklore of the British Isles is full of selkies, who put on female form, along with the regular sightings of land masses which vanish, Tir na n’Og and Hy Brasil. Voyaging has always offered discovery, and sea creatures were part of that experience (Thomson 2001, Freitag 2013).

The earliest sightings include Homer’s Sirens, and we find Pliny the Elder in classical antiquity whose nereids appear in his Natural History, scaly women with bodies like fish who rode on the backs of larger fish. (For a less scaly female form, see Nereid Monument in Room 17 at the British Museum.) Thetis in Greek mythology is a sea nymph, one of fifty daughters of the sea god, with such numbers they could move in a shoal. By the fifth century A.D. an anonymous Greek wrote about the “nature of the mermaid”, while later Rashi, a Talmudic scholar (1040-1105), names such creatures. Called “sereine” in old French, they are a link to Homer’s sirens. By the fifteenth century they are drifting onto shore in such numbers that Christopher Columbus spotted three on one day alone in 1493 (Cohen 2002).

Andersen, gazing out towards the open sea from Copenhagen, uses a mermaid, its legend and lore familiar to us, but the plaintive nature of his mermaid and the creature’s longing to be other than they are, rings a significant and personal note.

One of the students taking this narrative module set out in his report to consider how homosexual love had been written about from the Greeks onwards. The student was intrigued by the element of disguise necessitated by discrimination. It was this research which led him to reconsider Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and more specifically the act of defamiliarization. This, he claimed, allowed the author to change “into a whole other creature”.

In considering the technique the student felt that this story would not have been as effective told from a simple “human perspective”, concluding that Andersen “had to transform his pain into something otherworldly” (italics mine) (Ievolella 2014). Certainly the removal of the real in fairy stories enables an author to appear in disguise. Wullschlager notes the formal distance offered by the genre which allowed Andersen to achieve this (2002: 4). Did Andersen disguise and hide himself inside his stories for children? Clearly my student saw something else in this tale and recognized the author in the text disguised as a sea creature, an outsider. Through this, Ievollela was able to make a link between his own lived experience, growing up “a baby gay in Italy” to show how the story resonated with him personally.

A peril in much undergraduate work is of unsubstantiated claims made on the internet, so that claims that Andersen was gay, had a gay lover, etc. were difficult for students to ignore. Quotations taken from a blog for example mention “open love letters Andersen wrote to handsome young men” and claim these were “obviously an outlet for his sexual desire and his sensuous, romantic nature” (Gayblogspot cited 2014). Andersen was a fervent letter writer and had many correspondences, which the archive in Copenhagen stresses were between both men and women; however the letters to men are taken here as hard evidence. In following any resource with an agenda, students frequently find opinions stated as facts; e.g. a thread which claimed that the object of Andersen’s affection was not Louise Collin, whom he courted in 1832, but her brother Edvard. The evidence for this in the blog was via citations to Wullschlager’s study; however Wullschlager in the original takes a much broader view (2005: 46), which was not accounted for. For Andersen, always anxious about his social standing because of his poor background, the entire Collin Family represented an ideal family and a home which, according to Zipes, the author knew was unattainable “because of social differences” (1991: 77). As Andersen writes of characters disguised through fantasy, in “The Little Mermaid” we find someone who is as desperate to escape their background as was he, and now finds themselves “rootless in an alien, fast-changing world” (Wullschlager: 181).

Barry notes that “concealment and openness co-exist in the same person” and makes the point that sexual orientation alone will not make someone a “complete outsider” as they might still operate from a position of power, be it patriarchal, economic or educational (1995: 145).

However, it was this one student’s initial reading of the story which had allowed them to go with their gut feeling as a gay man that offered the most interesting perspective, as he felt similarly cut adrift from his own childhood. If Andersen was “confused and inexperienced” as Wullschlager notes, rather than “raw sexual hunger” she sees instead a “need for close companionship and understanding” (2002: 97), a confidante, the brother he never had. A place to belong. The student understood this.

Andersen’s early life is well documented, and he was an avid autobiographer. Born the child of a cobbler and a washerwoman, his grandfather used to carve puppets and put on shows. In the family history there is a detail about the grandfather having a mental breakdown. Then Andersen’s father is recorded to have asked for guidance concerning his “strange son” who was having a difficult time at school. Hans Christian, it seems, was not like other boys. Despite the poverty and lack of education in his background, there was a creative dynamic. When Andersen began to cut out and sew clothes for the puppets, his mother thought it a good thing, for he would be able to work as a tailor. There is an accommodation in their own working terms for his actions (Heltoft 2005: 17-22).

Somehow the boy resisted all efforts to turn him into a skilled workman and left for Copenhagen with the intent of becoming an actor. Anyone might view themselves as “outside” the expectations of their background, and Andersen placed himself beyond the life he was born into and entered into the life he dreamed himself into instead. He did not cut away his past; instead he cut his own way through this, first developing manual skills as he played. But all his adult life Andersen was aware of the social contradictions which he could not resolve. His productivity in part was the result of his need to keep proving that he had earned his place. If his stories often have a Christian element whereby someone earns their reward, this is also self-justification for his own route out of the humble life of a tradesman (Zipes 1991: 78-9).

But Ievolella’s reading of “The Little Mermaid” challenged and expanded how the story could be viewed. In it he saw something different from the initial obvious reading which focuses on the role of women where Andersen’s mermaid presents a clear route towards an essentially female, if not necessarily feminist, reinterpretation. In Andersen’s writing, a story about wish fulfilment can be taken to reveal a modern reading on body dysmorphia, on gendered roles and, at its simplest, how a woman might take on socially acceptable feminine behaviours and appearances. When the mermaid of the title pleads for legs and suffers pains with endurance to possess this physical quality, which is not natural to her, young women up and down the country could identify with her route to womanhood. It could simply be read as an acceptance of female (and now adult) biology with monthly cycles. It could be read as feminine acceptability and remodelling of the body into an accommodating norm – through dieting, through squeezing into restricting clothes. When the evil sea-witch tells the mermaid that each step she takes will burn and feel as if a thousand knives are driving into her foot, what young woman didn’t think of the difficulty of first walking in heels? Cinderella possibly got off easily with her impossible glass slippers.

A key feature of Andersen’s tale is the mermaid’s accession to silence as part of a deadly bargain. This is odd, contrasted to the sirens of mythology whose voices could lure people from the land and cause ships to be wrecked upon the rocks. Why inscribe silence to this creature? Far from being a harbinger of such disasters, Andersen’s mermaid brings the disaster upon herself. When she strikes her bargain in order to possess legs, she surrenders that part of herself which has been the stuff of lore, the magical voice, and with it the mermaids’ song arising from the sea.Marina Warner considers the sirens’ song, through the names given to them which connect them to speech as significant in a pre-literate culture and later “the era before writing was common practice”. She lists these: Aglaophonus (Lovely Voice), Ligeia (Shrill), Molpe (Music), Thelxepeia (Spellbinding Words); here she claims is “a taxonomy of oral rhetoric which must indeed have drawn the hero of the Odyssey” whom she calls “no slouch at wordsmithery” (Warner 1994: 399).

The sea-witch demands the mermaid’s tongue, but this is still not enough in Andersen’s story. Warner feels this “chilling message” shows that silence is not enough to be saved—instead “self-obliteration, dissolution is required.” The loss of a tongue savagely shown in Ovid’s Philomela and Procne as an act of mutilation is contrasted to this act in a fairy story, where, according to Warner, the first which brings about the metamorphosis of Philomela into a song bird (nightingale) who will not only delight but will surely trouble Tereas, the agent of this violence, whose lust caused him to remove her tongue at its root, shows that “out of dumbness may come…strength and sweetness”, but here, Warner directs us, the little mermaid “sacrifices her song to no avail” (1994: 398), and the story is all the more brutal on this account. There is some sort of a trade off, a tongue for legs – but we already know how this is going to end.

Sacrifice and punishment are also strong motifs in this story. Only through tribulation will the goal be reached, and without the sacrifice the mermaid must make, she can never appear as fully human. “Women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard” (Beard 2017: 8). This could also describe Andersen’s lost past.

This reading of this tale concerns behaviours and acceptance as they are applied to women is strong on the punitive nature of the tale as a symbol of feminine adaptability and difficulty fitting into a masculinist world. But Ievollelo thought otherwise. This story, the student felt, was about him and this self-knowledge offered an inspired male gaze from the LBGTQ margins where, from this vantage he began to question the position of Andersen. In particular were the issues of belonging, and about never being part of the “norm”, whatever a society may decide that is. And this consideration caused him to relate this aspect to Andersen as a man—as someone who was outside specific closed social roles. If the trope of female silence can be read as inscribed into this story, the student who recognized the difficulty of “coming out” wrote about his own sense of silence, as a gay man, who had been “living ‘underwater’ (in Catholic Italy) a place where (he) couldn’t breathe or speak,” and breaking silence with truths people are not prepared to accept, thereby expanding the functional reading of “speech” to a silencing of essential facts (of being) which cannot be voiced due to social pressure.

If this was to read Andersen as part of a lost LGBT history, ripe for reclamation and assert the author’s sexual anguish at the loss of Edvard Collin on marriage, it was the “hints on Andersen’s homosexuality...that (Kinsey and) many other scholars were able to read between the lines” (my italics). Although this is not attributable to the original (uncited), Ievolella makes a sensible and strong claim for reading shadows and to look “between the lines” which might let us consider those roles Andersen did not take (husband, father) through the consideration of one who also lives outside these.


Yes, Andersen was talking about ME as well. I felt represented for the first time in my life through a work of literature. I understood the subtext that was already speaking to me since I was a little child, when I too was feeling the discomfort of living ‘underwater’, a place where I couldn’t breathe or speak. It was a revelation to find out that my favourite fairy tale in the world, in a way, had been written for me as well. (Ievolella: 2014)


This interpretation of “otherness” supports the feminist version where to be female (like a Victorian woman in English society) is to be the “other,” but a critique of what is acceptable in masculinity opens up a wider reading which includes all outsiders. Is the student correct in his assertion that Andersen is a lost gay role model? This certainly raises questions which may never be successfully answered. Andersen’s orientation, which can only be speculated upon, does point to furthering his outsider position. In his work and his life, he shows that he was never part of any fixed position; as a successful author his poor origins remained like another self to show the distance he had come, and in his stories, there are clues suggesting he felt at odds with his own time.

In Denmark where he is a national figure he is viewed primarily as a poet. In fact, the writer we know as the creator of children’s stories, wrote in every genre and experimented with different ways of telling stories, through puppetry and drama, both theatrical methods. Yet, even as we think of him as a writer of entertainments with his fairy tales, one of these “The Philosopher’s Stone” (no relation to Harry Potter) shows the author creating a thought-provoking tale about faith, which, he posits, solves the puzzle of life and death. This is not a simple “entertainment”.

On the two kinds of tale encompassed by myth and fairy tale, Bettelheim notes that the myth is usually of a tragic nature as opposed to the fairy tale with its emphasis on “happy ever after”. Yet Hans Christian Andersen’s stories are frequently sad: “they do not convey the feeling of consolation characteristic of fairy tales” (Bettelheim 1991:37). We infer a general sadness which in “The Little Mermaid” swells until it is an inconsolable grief.

While we know that the earlier tales seldom were for entertainment only, Hans Christian Andersen came of age when the fairy story had stopped belonging to the realm of adults and the tradition of the story for children had been established. Writing these as diversions was seen to be somehow easier and of less literary worth, yet he stuck with them, fascinated by their range. This range offered him a place to hide as well as to reveal and, like Philip Pullman’s work today, the tales offer a complexity (and sometimes a cruelty) which are not always expected in stories for children.

What is not often considered is how Andersen spent a lot of time travelling in Europe (it is estimated that he was travelling for ten years, if the periods of his sojourns are put together), and he wrote travel books (not guides) as well as maintaining lively correspondences. He kept diaries and almanacs, he drew sketches from observation. He was a man who observed the life around him and remained detached from it; he maintained a strange vein of not belonging.

Bettelheim’s didactic reading of “The Ugly Duckling” is startling: “To encourage a child to believe he is of a different breed, much as he may like the thought, can lead him in the opposite direction from what fairy tales suggest: that he must do something to achieve his superiority.” Bettelheim calls this story out instead as a practical lesson in inertia in which no deeds are required; “Things are simply fated,” he writes (Bettelheim 1991:105). While there are many notes which lead us to consider Andersen’s sense of being an outsider, the implication of “fate” causing us to be as we are strikes a current attitude with regards to orientation. A recently discovered tale of Andersen’s tells the story of a candle which cannot fit into the box (Flood 2012). It seems the author was always aware of his difference. Is the Little Mermaid an unconscious plea for acceptance and for tolerance? And the range of his work is even more varied than at first expected.

Andersen as a child produced cut paper patterns and figures for a toy theatre. He details one of these in the story of the steadfast tin soldier. Andersen chooses a less legitimate art form from his childhood, which like children’s stories is outside the main register of art. The famous man was playing.

The difficulty I had in locating any working of the mermaid, or mer-creatures, or even fish appeared to be solved by a children’s book, The Amazing Paper Cuttings of Hans Christian Andersen, where in the introduction it is claimed the same subjects recur and amongst these it names mermaids. Although this is the first time I found any reference to these sea creatures translating to his popular paper cut outs, none in fact are shown and none are listed (Wagner Brust 1994:14).

The Hans Christian Andersen Museum in Odense has the largest collection of surviving paper cuttings, and in its catalogue lists nothing of this type in its 113 images, which include a striking 3D paper cut of a rocking chair which has been folded so it can stand on its own rockers.


Source: Odense City Museums: Catalogue: 17298


It is difficult to imagine that Andersen never created the image of a mermaid in paper. In his lifetime it is reckoned that he created at least a thousand paper cut outs, possibly more. That any have survived is a miracle. They were intended for the children in the audience who would have regarded these offerings as wonderful toys to be played with. We can be grateful for the scrupulous parents who removed these things from eager hands to be preserved inside books, like dried flowers, memories of evenings listening to the author.

Why work in a form that ought to have left no traces? I suggest that this showed how Andersen reacted to his fame, and to his own sense of being forever on the margins of the lived life. He moved amongst the educated and the famous, was friendly with Dickens, was patronized by nobles, but was outside those circles. His education was gained at some pains to himself, years after the usual dates for these activities (he would not even pass nowadays as a “mature student”, since his completion of elementary school only took place when he was a young adult). He was always placed outside the normal bounds of the society he kept.

What might his paper figures reveal? A frequent image was the pierrot; he reworked this theme, a character he assigns himself, an entertainer, an acrobat, a fool.


Source: Odense City Museums.Catalogue:16851


Often there was a hidden meaning in the paper cuttings - in the same way, as we know it from the fairy tales: on the surface it could amuse, in the depth it would amaze. Some of the paper cuts are purely picture puzzle or rebus others are icons combined to represent a linguistic symbol.   (Odense museum sleeve notes to collection (2015))


Image 17294 shows a double image in which pierrots balance on swans—this is as close as he puts anyone to water.


Source: Odense City Museums.Catalogue:16875


In another (above) the same figures in the pattern are mirrored; now instead of simple doubling, multiple cuts offer the reflection which is more like the section in a kaleidoscope. This reveals eight figures (pierrots) balancing, the swans’ heads twisting inwards to form heart shapes, while the connecting frets of paper are of such fine execution it is hard to imagine these being cut by hand.

In another image devoid of human life, eight swans balance on the rim of a circular shape, a pond once flattened out. However, this is a functional work, intended for a bouquet of flowers, with 16 holes for stems. In this the stretched necks of the water fowl show how the tail of a fish, fluid and twisting as these necks arch, was a possible image, and an achievable one. But sea creatures do not occur in these surviving works.

An unfinished paper cut out (17284) shows Andersen’s working methods and the cruciform folding and quartering, and starting at the narrow point of the centre, the way we could imagine a paper doily, or a snowflake being cut, to spread to the edges. Can we read some of these unconscious doodlings as if it they are paper cut out Rorschach tests? In this work there is often too much narrative direction, too heavy an imprint of traditional technique, but we might still find something of the man in these creations. Is something revealed about his attitude towards men and women in amongst his ephemera?

I find his women are sedate. Image 17288 (“Two women by a palm tree with a ballerina on top of it,” the catalogue states baldly) shows two traditionally dressed females holding hands or reaching across to the other, whose silhouettes recall something from an earlier period, in floor-length gowns and with hair which seems to be fixed up into neat rolls. They are simple, sober, gentle creatures, reserved (as the everyday dress was) and shown with fondness, without distortion, while a fairy-like creature balances atop, ignored by the two below, to endow this scene with magic.

His woman with four sagging breasts owes everything to early figures and fertility symbols, and stands removed, part of a different cycle (16678) if his paper cuts are classified into groups, and here there are equal distortions of men as sun gods and monsters in what might be called his mythological group.  However, in his narrative pieces, ballerinas are everywhere. Male figures, if not clowns or strange heads, become pirates, dancers, carry swords, and balance on one leg. However, regular men are as scarce as his women, as this storytelling world is chiefly inhabited by angels, pirates, tightrope walkers, dancers, fools and acrobats. In the fairytale elements we find elves, gnomes and fairies, but no sea creatures sadly.

Yet this world cut out of paper expands the imagination, and those paper figures, strange etiolated men, gods and monsters and exotic Moorish houses with turrets and minarets might have given him a brief glimpse of something that was forever elusive.

Nowadays we consider the materials as part of a construction, and the archive stresses that this materials approach is a modern trend, but not out of line with what Andersen achieved. Does this image work afford us a window into Andersen’s imagination, unimpeded by the need to explain by the inclusion of some religious coda as justification or to place characters into struggles to prove their worth as in his stories?

Freed from the need to explicate the actions and rewards of his characters, in this art the simple, clear shapes begin to appear. He repeats these motifs until his skill is beyond question; these are known figures which his practiced hands create. They need no direction, but dance across the cut paper, illuminating, illustrating, entertaining, if and as necessary. But above all, they can simply “be” in a state of unquestioning existence, a state which the author never achieved for himself.

If in his writing Andersen played with different registers of voice and language, using formal classical style or a folk-like style or popular forms, here is the “dominated and the dominant” expressed linguistically (see Bisseret cited in Zipes 1991: 79), but  can we also see a return to an older tradition, of wordless formations which let Andersen return to his boyhood activities when he used to cut out paper figures and scenes for his toy theatre?  Heltoft, who locates his freedom of style as belonging to “his proletarian situation” (1977: 50), refers to him as “tongue-tied” and suggests that visual arts provided him with a form beyond language (like music) which can be shared cross borders (1977: 102).


The double meaning hidden in the paper cuts demonstrates the way of thinking of the fairy tale author. It reveals an utmost modern way of thinking, using the word not as a media to create meaning but as a material of meaning itself.  (Odense museum sleeve notes to collection 2015)


That this work both frees Andersen of his social dislocation as it returns him to past traditions, simultaneously offers a more modernist take on the work, which the tales alone do not possess, and which function in the opposite route to the work of Bruno Schulz, whose writings, experimental and modernist in their dislocation and dream imagery, are not equalled by his illustrations which reveal traditional caricatured forms of the period and which now appear dated (Schultz 2012, 1991). Andersen’s simpler work in this technically challenging method still appear fresh and intriguing, and the eye is led round the page, discovering and locating images.

I am not considering the vast range of his artworks here; however Heltoft takes the view in his summary of this that there was no aspect of production which Andersen would have considered “trivial” and finds links in his work to Cubism, Surrealism and Pop Art, claiming that we have only now gained a wider view to enable us to read “the many facets” of Andersen’s creativity (2005: 15).

When the student noted how “sentences from the little mermaid ...clicked into place as soon as (he) read them:” he quotes this as one which stood out for him: “She wished she was able to wander about with those whose world seemed to be so much larger than her own.”(1993:17)  He commented that “ really does seem like a smaller world when you are gay and have no ‘role’ models, or much representation in literature or cinema, and you live in a situation in which hardly anyone will...speak…about it” (Ievolella 2014/15).

Not speaking, Andersen’s silent shapes reveal an imaginary world, in which he can figure as a clown, a dancer, in a possible life beyond the time of his own living—not a quest for immortality, but a different quest, to exist and  feel that that was enough, and here among such creatures, the giants, the monsters and the small and the broken, the paper dancer who balances on one leg, the strange misshapen man, he could simply “be”, rather than live in a state of continuously evolving, through bettering himself, through keeping his position, through maintaining his patrons. This paper collection of beings on the margins of art, of literature and in Andersen’s Copenhagen, of lived experience, were reflected through the entertainments on offer at the Tivoli Gardens which Andersen knew well.

This entertainment complex, one of the first in the world, located in what is now central Copenhagen, was a place of magic where commedia del arte theatre was performed nightly with its stock figures such as Arlecchino and Columbine (the little dancer). As well as these, the white-faced clown or pierrot has been a regular character in this flip side Copenhagen, a place of dreaming and of night. In this place Oriental buildings stood next to a Chinese pagoda, and as everything lit up by fairy lights as darkness fell it became a “real” world, a fixed site of the imagination, something Andersen understood. Rather than the foreign and the strange, this offered his imagination a meeting place. Kristeva notes in Strangers to Ourselves how the Freudian idea of the uncanny is present inside us, we are fighting our unconscious—that “improper facet of our impossible ‘own and proper’” (1991: 191).

In his paper cut outs he worked with something tangible, an external reality which reflected his own imagination and a possible place of belonging, which he might bring into being for a brief flare of life. At these times he was able to hold in his hands a potential of what could exist and imagine being in a less defined world. Is it possible that the fluidity of his experience, his crossing between social classes, his essential peasant skills, his talents, his unfixed sexual orientation, were all the potentials of his “being”? The Ulster poet Derek Mahon, writing about the Troubles and the fixed positions people take, raised the question of “the possibility of that possible life” (Mahon in Andrews 1993: 17). Andersen’s possible life was cut and re-cut, concealed and open, given and held back, a dream turned into a paper cut out, a series of figures through which he allowed light to shine, projecting the possibility and the possible life.



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Moy McCrory has been identified critically as an Irish writer, principally of  short fictions. She was included in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (2002), and Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century (2001). A Hawthornden Fellow and a Senior Fellow of The Higher Education Academy, she is a senior lecturer at the University of Derby. Academic interests include; Narrative patterns and history with attention to Irish Studies including the second-generation diaspora and post-memory literature, mythologies and hagiographies.