I adapted this collection of Andersen’s stories, with moral messages for the current generation of children, in mind (all but The Princess On The Pea – I’m not sure what that one’s meant to be saying to the children of today, but it was a fun classic, difficult to resist).
I left The Ugly Duckling unchanged and unabridged; and what a beacon of identity teaching it is – a relentless, drudging struggle for inclusion, of a vulnerable individual; and, in the end, a glorious revelation that he is, somehow, above all mediocrity, by the very virtue of his ostracized characteristics. Sure, children’s literature has moved on; and, in English, we are truly spoilt for choice, when it comes to the creative metaphors for taking pride in being different, owning your identity, accepting yourself and others, for who we are. I guess what marks out Andersen (and other authors of his age) is his plunge into the darkness, so uncharacteristic of other writing for small children. Yet, it is precisely that child’s opportunity for empathy that sends a clear message across.
The Emperor’s New Clothes – I really can’t think of a contemporary children’s story with such a sophisticated, layered message – ‘if you don’t tell the truth, your lie will be exposed’ – but that’s not all – ‘if you lie for the fear of the loss of status, you will lose it in a most undignified way’ – it’s politics for the beginners, something we stopped talking about between grown-ups, at the school gates, let alone disguising it in children’s stories. There’s more – ‘if you trust others’ convictions, more than your own, others will laugh at you’... ‘if you care about appearance above all else, you will appear ridiculous’... ‘if you let your ambitions get the better of you, you will be left with nothing’... ‘if your clothes are too expensive, you will be naked in the end’... ‘if you underestimate others, you will suffer at their hand’... It keeps on giving. I set it in today’s London; and it works unsurprisingly well.
The Little Match Girl is a story close to my heart. It’s one of those Andersen’s stories, whose age appropriateness really is questionable. I think I heard it too early. The disturbing death of the little girl in the end made me remember the feel of the story, but forget what happened in it. I archived it in my mind, somehow, as a ‘mysterious’ story, for a long time, though I had heard it and should have known it well. Still, I believe, strongly, that it made me much of who I am. It affected me deeply and uncompromisingly. The message of the story cannot be more relevant today than ever; and what an embarrassment that is to our civilisation and the structure of our societies we have arrived to, after so much invention, progress, discovery, productivity, abundance of resources and knowledge! Yes, we still have and watch children die in poverty, in suffering, in loneliness, cold and hunger. Did he know we would, always and forever, when he wrote it? Did he think this was our human nature or hope that his story would effect change in Denmark? However long sighted he may have been, the crux of this story’s ending is our Western move into ignorance – not only by what the story tells us about ourselves, but by our reluctance to expose our children to it. This story is barely told to children these days. We don’t want to upset them. We confuse the ‘loss of innocence’ with the ‘empathy’. I pandered to this, in my adaptation of The Little Match Girl. I don’t regret it. I hope I have created a more accessible ending for today’s children, while still allowing a scope for the image of the consequences of the alternative.
The other three stories I adapted are less known and have suffered a heavier tailoring from my hand and my imagination. I will write about them in my next blog.