Diary: Kathryn Davis on Who Wrote the Fairy Tales (Part One)
Nordic Paper Industry’s English-language edition of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen
“There was once a little boy who had taken cold by going out and getting his feet wet,” the tale begins. “No one could think how he had managed to do so, for the weather was quite dry … ” You didn’t have to be a genius to see that this was the way I’d come down with pleurisy at my best friend Peggy’s seventh birthday party, or to realize that the black gumdrop and toothpick poodle I’d been making was to blame. So it happened that I got to spend the whole next month in bed, my mother beside me, reading me one fairy tale after another. Every now and then she’d steal a glance in my direction to make sure I hadn’t stopped breathing.
Downstairs the sun may have been shining, my little sister playing her Mouse Guitar, my father whistling, the dachshund racing mindlessly from one end of the house to the other. Downstairs it may have been noisy and bright but upstairs in my bedroom it was hushed and dark. My mother had drawn the venetian blinds and plugged in the raveling black-and-white cord of the vaporizer, a queerly shaped enamel-coated relic of her own sickly childhood. Puffs of yellow steam came out of a hole in its top, musty and stale smelling, as if the steam itself were a thing of the past. “The little boy looked at the teapot and saw the lid raise itself gradually. Branches sprouted, even from the spout, in all directions, till they became larger and larger, and there appeared a large elder tree, covered with flowers white and fresh …”
Hans Christian Andersen goes on to describe an old man and woman on the eve of their golden wedding anniversary, sitting under an elder tree, reminiscing. Long ago when they were children, long before the man sailed away and the woman pined for the letters he sent “from the land where the coffee berries grew,” long before he came back to her and they had children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, they planted the twig that became a tree. “‘That is not a story,’” complains the little sick boy, reasonably enough, to which the Elder-Tree Mother replies, “‘Not exactly, but the story is coming now, and it is a true one. For out of the truth grow the most wonderful stories, just as my elder bush has sprung out of the teapot.’” Then she takes the boy on a journey through his own life, season after season, year after year, in the course of which he grows older and older—until he realizes that he is the old man celebrating his golden anniversary. “And the two old people sat in the red glow of the evening sunlight, and closed their eyes, and—and—the story was ended.” Meanwhile the Elder-Tree Mother (whose name is Memory) has remained a beautiful young girl. Where is she now? the boy wants to know. “She is in the teapot,” his mother tells him. “And there she may stay.”
How clearly Andersen expressed my dawning sense of what it meant to be mortal. One day, before I even suspected what was happening, I’d be very old, at death’s door (as those stuttering ands suggested), and I’d remember myself as a seven-year-old girl lying in a dark room in a maple bed, her mother (who’d have died years earlier) jumping up to begin dinner, leaving her alone with a vaporizer. Unless you were a goddess and immortal, youth was no proof against death. Though it was less Andersen’s view of mortality than his genius for conjuring a sense of time—of what constitutes the span of a human life—that I couldn’t get enough of, couldn’t remove my eyes from even for a second, like a spider crossing the ceiling right above your head.
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In those days I had two editions of Andersen, the forest-green 1945 Grosset & Dunlap with the disturbing Arthur Szyk illustrations, and the baby-blue 1946 Rainbow Classic, with Jean O’Neill’s insanely sweet-faced rendering of the Snow Queen. I thought that was the extent of my childhood collection until my friend Alexandra gave me a boxed edition for my birthday, causing Memory (still infuriatingly young) to leap all at once from her hiding place in the teapot.
Manufactured in 1950 by the Nordic Paper Industry of Jutland, Denmark, the set of twelve tiny volumes is housed in a slightly larger box with a picture on the cover of three incongruously American-looking children listening to a thin fellow in a frock coat read to them in front of a lopsided castle. The cover’s doors open to reveal a second pair of doors in a majestic mahogany cupboard, and behind that set of doors a recessed shelf containing “Little Ida’s Flowers,” “The Happy Family,” “The Wild Swans,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier” …
“He seemed a little different as he had been cast last of all. The tin was short so he had only one leg … On the table were many other playthings, and one that no eye could miss was a marvelous castle of cardboards … but prettiest of all was the little paper dancer who stood in the doorway with a dainty blue ribbon over her shoulders, set off by a brilliant spangle.” The Nordic Paper Industry’s translator wisely chooses to remain anonymous, unlike Mrs. E. V. Lucas and Mrs. H. B. Paull (translators of the Grosset & Dunlap edition), who offer instead: “There was not quite enough tin left,” and “a delightful paper castle.” And while the solecisms themselves don’t ring any bells, there’s no doubt in my mind that the memory summoned by the picture on the tiny book’s cover—a row of soldiers standing at attention, oblivious to the goblin who has popped from his home in the snuffbox to engineer the soldier’s tragic fate—is not only real but pristine, a memory I didn’t even know I’d forgotten.
I can smell Vicks and Lipton noodle soup, hear my father tiptoeing closer—is she awake? yes!—and then shyly handing me a package containing a similar set of books. Maybe even this precise set, banished to the cellar with the Mouse Guitar and then dispatched after my father’s stroke (along with the venetian blinds and the vaporizer) to the Christmas bazaar at St. Martin-in-the-Fields where it was bought by a maiden aunt for her niece who one day likewise grew too old and traded it for a copy of The Spoils of Poynton at the used-book shop where my friend Alexandra found it hidden under a pile of topo maps.
[Read Part Two of this post here!]
Kathryn Davis is the author of eight novels, most recently The Silk Road. This post is drawn from her latest book, Aurelia, Aurélia, which will appear next month and is available for preorder. An earlier version appeared in the anthology Mirror, Mirror on the Wall: Women Writers Explore Their Favorite Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, which includes contributions by Margaret Atwood, Ann Beattie, Deborah Eisenberg, Vivian Gornick, Lucy Grealy, bell hooks, Fanny Howe, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joyce Carol Oates, Connie Porter, Francine Prose, and Joy Williams.
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