Sure, The Ugly Duckling is better known. Sure, The Little Mermaid became a multi-million—probably edging towards a billion now—franchise property. Sure, Thumbelina and The Six Swans show up in more fairy tale collections. And sure, The Emperor’s New Clothes is referenced far more frequently.
But when I was a child, the Hans Christian Andersen stories that most haunted me were the ones that featured storks.
I don’t know why Andersen loved storks so much. Perhaps, like me, he just liked watching them fly. Perhaps he just thought they were hilarious looking. Regardless, storks tend to appear in a number of his tales, and in two, the storks play center roles: “The Marsh King’s Daughter” and “The Storks.”
“The Storks” originally appeared in a small booklet containing three tales: “The Garden of Paradise,” “The Flying Trunk,” and “The Storks,” making this booklet—called, like many of Andersen’s other small booklets, Tales Told to the Children, probably the most obscure and least read of any of Andersen’s small booklets. This was almost certainly partly because all three of these stories are, how to put this, depressing.
“The Flying Trunk” tells a story about a merchant’s son who spends all of his money and then flies off in a magical trunk to Turkey. If only the rest of us could solve our financial problems that way. There, he meets a princess, impressing her so much with his magical trunk and storytelling ability that she agrees to introduce him to her parents—who, in a nice twist, seem equally impressed. In an even nicer twist, they agree to let him marry a princess, and may I just say, that I love tales like this, where the ability to tell a good story, and tell it well, rather than the typical dragon-slaying or climbing glass mountains or whatever, gets the protagonist the girl and a major fireworks celebration which accidentally burns the flying trunk so he can’t get back to the princess and just LEAVES HER WAITING FOR HIM ON A ROOF, without even sending a card or anything, you know, cancel what I just said. This story is depressing, especially since it ends with the guy continuing to tell fairy tales, but not very amusing ones, and nobody getting a happy ending here at all.
AND THAT’S THE CHEERFUL TALE IN THE COLLECTION.
The second tale, “The Garden of Paradise,” tells of a prince who becomes obsessed with Eden, and specifically, with the fact that humans were kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and thus, are doomed to be unhappy. He convinces himself that if he had been there, he would have resisted temptation, and thus, everyone would still be in Eden. His obsession eventually leads him to the cavern of the Winds, where the four winds live with their mother, who likes to put them in a sack when they are evil or disobey her. (Interestingly enough, we only see this happening to one wind, the South Wind, after he confesses to killing various people in Africa.) The East Wind agrees to take the prince to the Garden of Paradise, which is as wonderful and delightful as the prince expected it to be. The fairy there warns him that he will be tempted every night, but if—if—he can resist for one hundred years, he can remain in the garden forever. If he doesn’t, he will never see it again.
He fails on the very first evening.
You can see why Small Me liked the stories about storks much better.
That said, “The Storks” may be one of Andersen’s most depressing tales. Oh, it starts off cheerfully enough, with a family of four little storks, a mother stork, and a father stork who is quite concerned about his image, and wants to look grand and aristocratic, thus his choice to stand on one leg. Small Me could not really understand why standing on one leg would be particularly aristocratic or grand, but was inspired to try it. I can only say that the end result was not particularly aristocratic or birdlike, but let us move on.
Meanwhile, a small group of boys, less impressed with storks than Small Me, have gathered beneath the nest and started to sing Mean Songs About Storks, which terrify the small storks. Only one boy—Peter—refuses to join in. The mother distracts the small storks with stories about traveling south to Egypt and with flying lessons. The boys continue to tease the storks, with one particular small six year old refusing to give up. The small storks plan on revenge, and their mother gives them an idea: since storks bring babies to families, they will bring the good children, who did not tease the storks, new brothers or sisters. But that one six year old kid who was especially mean to the birds?
His family gets a dead baby.
I mean, I’m all for encouraging kindness towards and discouraging harassment of animals, including storks, so I’m in general agreement with Andersen’s main point here. And sure, I think we can maybe argue that if this six year old kid is this mean to storks, he might also be mean to any new sibling. And I suppose we can assume that he might have learned some of this cruelty towards animals from his parents, or that his parents haven’t found the time to teach him not to sing mean, terrifying songs to storks, or that his parents don’t care if he’s mean to storks, which all might—might—be signs of parenting problems.
Kid is six. Six.
And his parents weren’t the ones teasing the storks.
Not to mention the possible trauma on young readers of the tale. Many of Andersen’s young readers, after all, would have had at least one sibling die at an early age, or known about a stillborn birth. I can only hope that they were soon able to learn that babies don’t really come by stork.
The other tale with several storks, “The Marsh King’s Daughter,” was published much later, in 1858, in New Fairy Tales and Stories—Second Collection, along with two other tales, “The Races” (sometimes translated into English as “The Racers”) and “The Bell, or Nature’s Music” (sometimes translated as (“The Bell-Deep”). By this time, Andersen had enjoyed considerable success as a writer, lauded throughout Europe, and had been able to travel to various countries and interact with aristocrats and other writers, including Charles Dickens, but had completely failed to succeed at any of his attempts at romantic love, with men or women. He had also developed an increased cynicism about life and aristocrats, reflected in all three tales. “The Racers” is a cynical look at prizes, literary and others, allegedly told through the voices of various animals and a rosebush. “The Bell” is a rather weak attempt to assure readers that heaven can be reached by many roads, coupled with a rather strong observation that most people are ignoring those roads anyway. Both tales often get omitted from translations and collections.
“The Marsh King’s Daughter,” while rarely appearing in general fairy tale collections, is usually included in Andersen translations and collections, and thus has become slightly better known. It starts by explaining that storks, much like Andersen, are great storytellers, tailoring their tales for the age of their audience, and that these stories get better and better as they are retold and retold by generation after generation, in one of the strongest defenses of the oral tradition that I can remember seeing in a literary fairy tale. Andersen himself frequently credited his own stories to that oral tradition, and many (not all) of his stories can be traced directly back to folkloric tradition, but it’s still quite something to see this within the story itself.
In this particular case, the tale the storks relate involves storks, specifically, a pair of storks living in the time of the Vikings, near marshes where, if caught, people sink deep down into the waters and into the land of the Marsh King. The storks are extremely excited to hear that a swan princess from Egypt—that is, a princess who can cover herself with a cloak of swan feathers, and fly—has made her way north to the marsh. Alas, after reaching the marsh, which could restore her health and youth, and allow her to find flowers that can restore her father’s health, she removes her cloak—which is promptly stolen by the two swan maidens who travelled with her. The father stork watches as the princess slowly sinks deep into the water and the mud, to the land of the Marsh King. The mother stork worries that the excitement of hearing the story might harm the eggs she is guarding.
Time passes. The father comes across a small child resting in a flower on the marsh—presumably the child of the swan princess and the Marsh King. Since he is a stork, he thinks the best thing he can do is to take the child to a nearby Viking home, and leave the girl with a woman there who has longed for a child, and does just that. The mother stork thinks it’s about time for the whole family to travel down to Egypt for warmth. The storks do so.
During the day, the child is a beautiful girl with a terrible temper; at night, a frog with a sweet, kindly disposition. The new mother determines that her husband will never see the child at night, and both of them grow to love the child—the father thinks the girl’s spirit bodes well for her future. Down in Egypt, things are less happy: her companions have lied to the king and the court about what happened to the swan princess, something that infuriates the father stork—although he listens to his wife, and does not interfere. Yet.
This is one of Andersen’s longest tales, one frequently interrupted by musings on life and Christianity and side stories about ostriches—which also turn out to be musings about faith and Christianity. Its initial pagan setting turns out to be a setup for a tale of redemption and hope—and one that allows a final twist ending of sorts, for the storytelling, the child, and the readers (I, for one, wasn’t exactly expecting the Ichabod Crane-like twist). Indeed, on this reading, I realized that I’d forgotten just how religious the second part of the story is—to the point where a Christian priest is a major character, and Christian redemption a strong part of the tale. And I’d certainly forgotten that a strong thread of the story involves the girl—Helga—needing to give up her terrible temper, the same temper that her foster father thought would let the girl become a heroine. The same temper that gave her the skills to fight and defend herself and use her own hair to create a bow. The temper that is part of her nature, as the Marsh King’s daughter.
I think I liked it because for all of the heavy religious trappings, this is not a story of a princess rescued by a prince, but rather, of a girl caught between two personalities, who has to do her own rescuing—and rescue her mother. Oh, the priest tries to defend her against some robbers at one point (he fails) and her own defense against those robbers is not exactly an active one. And she gets some help from the storks. But for the most part, after beginning as a story of a mother sinking helplessly into a marsh, betrayed by swan maidens, this is a story of a girl who rescues herself and finds her own way to paradise.
Beyond this, I think I mostly liked it because of all of the commentary and chatter from the storks, particularly the mamma-stork, who keeps pretending that she’s not really interested in what’s going on, and believing that her husband should pay less attention to beautiful, emotionally traumatized swan maidens, and more attention to his own family. I like the story a little less these days, but I can still admire the artistry and skill Andersen used to interweave their dialogue into the rest of the tale.
For any number of reasons, none of these stories have ever ranked among Andersen’s best known or most popular, but if you are interested in how Andersen could merge fairy tale and Christianity in something a little less judgemental and horrifying than, say, “The Red Shoes,” or if you just like storks, they might well be worth your time.
Mari Ness currently lives rather close to a certain large replica of Hogwarts, which allows her to sample butterbeer on occasion. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Daily Science Fiction, Nightmare, Shimmer and assorted other publications — including Tor.com. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, was released in 2017 by Papaveria Press. You can follow her on Twitter at mari_ness.