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Anderson's Fairy Tales: Depressing Children for Decades

Christopher Peruzzi loves fairy tales. His first published short story, "The Undead Rose" was based on "Sleeping Beauty". He lives in NJ.

Fairies as drawn by the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fairies as drawn by the father of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What were they thinking?

I really don’t understand what motivates some adults to expose children to the clear psychosis of Hans Christian Anderson.

Once again, we have a situation where kids of today only know what they see through Disney and think that some of these fairy tales are just the best. Before I go off on this, you should know that as a writer, I think Anderson was a creative genius. It takes a true talent to plumb the depths of the human psyche and find the exact horrible scarring emotion that you will take with you to the grave.

Even Oscar Wilde tried his hand at fairy tales. Those are work of emotional mastery that will make even the hardest heart weep for the pointless sacrifice of a nightingale to the stupidity of young romance. Whereas Grimm’s Fairy Tales are just disturbing stories about cruel stepmothers, cannibalism, tales of the Devil, and anthropomorphic nightmares, Anderson brings heartache, death, and depression.

I see I’m going to have to prove this.

I have to overcome the distortions over time of The Little Mermaid, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, and The Little Match Girl. The first two stories were done by Disney in a feature film and Fantasia II. The Little Match Girl holds a special place in my mind as being one of the single most depressing fairy tales ever.

Okay, here we go.

The Little Mermaid

Things aren’t the fantastic musical party that Disney makes the story out to be.

While she is indeed the daughter of the Sea King, she’s the youngest of six. Each of the five older sisters gets to visit the surface when they turn fifteen and visit the surface world. When they come back home they all tell the youngest sister how fantastic the surface world is and she becomes enraptured with it. Merpeople have a much longer lifespan than human beings. Most merpeople live to be over three hundred years old (provided that they eat right, exercise, swim daily, and have a seafood diet). However, unlike human beings, when merpeople die they turn to sea foam instead of going to Heaven forever.

When the youngest daughter turns fifteen, she gets to go. However, before she gets the chance, she spots a prince from a distance and falls in love with him. This is now a relationship that will be doomed to failure. Nevertheless, during a terrible storm the prince falls into the ocean and nearly drowns – only be rescued by the mermaid. She delivers the unconscious prince to a temple and leaves him there WHERE HE’S FOUND BY A TEMPLE GIRL. He believes that the temple girl was the one who saved his life.

So in love is the Mermaid with the prince, she sees a sea witch who in exchange for her tongue and her intoxicating voice, she will get two legs that will dance better than anyone’s. On top of this, every step she takes feels like she’s being stabbed in the feet hard enough to make her bleed. She also wants a human soul, so that when she DIES SHE CAN GO TO HEAVEN. In order to do that she needs the prince to give her true love’s kiss.

Upon meeting the prince, he’s attracted to the mermaid despite her being mute. He also loves the way she dances DESPITE THE EXCRUTIATING PAIN SHE HAS TO ENDURE.

The prince’s father tells him that he must marry the princess of a neighboring kingdom. He tells the mermaid that he does not love the princess. He feels he could only love the woman who rescued him… THE TEMPLE GIRL. Well, it turns out that the temple girl is actually the princess.

So he marries her.

The mermaid despairs as she feels she can’t go back to the sea. Her sisters decide to help her by selling all OF THEIR HAIR to the sea witch for a knife. If the mermaid kills the prince, AND DRIPS THE BLOOD FROM THE KNIFE ONTO HER OWN LEGS she can have her mermaid body back and get her life back.

She can’t do it. She throws her body back into the ocean where she turns to foam. However, instead of becoming nothing, she becomes an air elemental because she loved with all her heart. And if she does good deed for 300 years, she can go to Heaven.


Sacrifice, suffering, heartache, and purgatory – kind of like being Catholic.

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The Steadfast Tin Soldier

A boy receives a set of tin soldiers for Christmas. Each of the soldiers was made perfectly except one which, since he was the last soldier and the toymaker as he was running out of tin could only make him with one leg. The soldier could stand as well as the others and the boy set the soldiers up across from a paper castle.

The one legged tin soldier could see the paper castle, but more than anything else he could see the paper maiden which was the prettiest thing in it. The maiden had her hands spread out as a ballet dancer and like a ballet dancer the maiden stood on one leg perfectly. From the soldier’s angle he could see that she seemed to be very much like him… standing on one leg. So beautiful and so much like the soldier, he thought she would make a wonderful wife for him, but he believed her to be too grand for him because she lived in a palace and he lived in a box.

When all the people had gone to bed, the toys would come to life and play on the floor. The soldiers would fight battles and the dancers would dance. The only two that would not move were the soldier and the maiden ballet dancer. But he would never look anywhere but at her.

At midnight, a goblin appeared and grew possessive of the maiden ballet dancer and told the soldier to take his eyes off of her. But the soldier kept watching his love.

This angered the goblin and the next morning, possibly by the magic of the goblin, the window where the soldiers were lined up against opened and the one legged soldier fell out of it. The boy and one of the maids tried to find the soldier even though he was close by. Later after a rainstorm, two other boys had found the soldiers and placed him on a paper boat which they sent down into the gutter. The gutter lead to the sewer as the brave soldier stayed vigilant against the waves.

All through this he thought of his dancer.

As he sailed into the sewer a rat wishing for the soldier to pay a toll called out to the soldier gnashing his teeth at him. The boat sailed onward. The soldier thought of his love.

Now the newspaper of the boat was starting to soak through and it began to sink. The boat went under a whirlpool where the soldier was swallowed by a fish.

By a miracle, the fish is not only caught but is bought by the house that he’d once lived in. The soldier was placed near where he was before he’d fallen out the window. While he did not look as smart as he’d been before he’d been swallowed by the fish, one of the boys who lived in the house THREW HIM INTO THE FIRE for no apparent reason.

The tin soldier began to melt in the fire. Then due to a gust of wind in the room, the paper dancer was thrown into the fire as well. They both burned in the fire together.

The next morning while the maid was cleaning the ashes she found a lump of tin there – in the shape of a heart.

Heartache and depression. But nothing is more depressing as…

...And what have we learned?


The Steadfast Soldier

The tin soldier


The Little Matchgirl

The little matchgirl


The Little Mermaid

The little mermaid


The Tinderbox

The soldier

Anger at superiors

The Princess and the Pea

The prince

None, really.

The Little Match Girl

Okay, I first heard this when I was ten. I still haven’t recovered.

From start to finish, this one is pure misery.

During a cold winter snowstorm on New Year’s Eve, a little shoeless girl was wandering the village. She’d lost her slippers, which were too big for her because they’d belonged to her mother WHO HAD DIED, WHILE SHE HAD TO DODGE TWO CARRIAGES THAT HAD ALMOST HIT HER.

By now her feet had turned red and blue from exposure. She was now cold and hungry. She wore an apron that was full of matches which she was trying to sell and that NO ONE WOULD BUY. She wanted to go home, but could not because she hadn’t sold any matches. And if she had returned home without money, HER FATHER WOULD BEAT HER. Her home was almost as cold as it was outside as there were huge holes in the walls anyway.

So she takes out one of the matches and decides that she would try to warm her fingers with the match. As she does so, she notices that the flame is burning strangely. It warms her hands and she can see that it seems to be like a large stove and she begins to stretch out for warmth when… the match goes out.

And she’s back in the cold.

She decided that she would light another match. This time the flame revealed a large banquet with a large roasted goose. She is by a large fire and as she goes to the goose… the match goes out.

And she’s back in the cold.

She lights another match. This time she around a large fire where there’s a Christmas tree with candles that go straight to the sky. And just as she’s getting warm… the match goes out.

And she’s back in the cold.

She lit another match. This time she sees her grandmother, who had passed away and was the only person who’d ever been kind to her. She speaks to her grandmother and asks, “Please take me with you.”

She knows that her grandmother will disappear when the match goes out. So she begins to light all of her matches so that she can be with her grandmother for as long as she can. And the more matches she lights, the more beautiful her grandmother becomes.

The next morning on New Year’s Day, they found the little match girl FROZEN TO DEATH.

Okay, is that the worst thing you’ve ever heard?

Anderson Fairytale Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. In the story "The Daisy", what creature did the daisy mourn?
    • A dog
    • A cat
    • A lark
    • A mouse
    • A worm
  2. In "The Princess and the Pea", how many mattresses did the prince's mother use to make the girl's bed?
    • 100 mattresses and 10 feather beds
    • 20 mattresses and 20 feather beds
    • 30 mattresses and 15 feather beds
    • 52 mattresses and 8 feather beds
    • 13 mattresses - one for each moon.
  3. In "The Emperor's New Clothes", the swindlers say that the clothes are enchanted and only the ____ can't see them.
    • "extremely stupid"
    • "poor in spirit"
    • "depressed"
    • "poor in style"
    • "evil people"
  4. Thumblelina came from ____.
    • the stork
    • the fairies
    • the frogs
    • a grain of barleycorn
    • wizards
  5. In "The Tinderbox", what does the soldier give the witch?
    • The tinderbox
    • A bag of gold
    • Dogs
    • A princess
    • Nothing

Answer Key

  1. A lark
  2. 20 mattresses and 20 feather beds
  3. "extremely stupid"
  4. a grain of barleycorn
  5. Nothing

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 1 correct answer: Don't feel too bad. The fact that you don't know these answers shows how much your parents loved you and wished to not scar you. Your therapy bills must be quite low.

If you got between 2 and 3 correct answers: You have been exposed. You may have seen the Danny Kaye movie of "Hans Christian Anderson" - and by that right, you've gotten more joy from that movie than the original fairy tales might have produced.

If you got 4 correct answers: There is a small bit of melancholy within your soul from seeds planted within your childhood. You grew up ugly and hoped that you were the misplaced swan egg in a batch of duck eggs. Seek help. You are not beyond hope.

If you got 5 correct answers: Oh you poor, poor, thing. Someone in your family is a sadist and spent quality time reading these stories to you. The world is a great place where a soldier can come home from a war and find love and happiness with his wife and children - despite being maimed. Mermaids don't exist... and if they did, they'd have souls. Get a doctor to prescribe Xanax to you... the world is not that cruel.

Final Words

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. WHAT THE HELL WERE THESE PEOPLE THINKING?!!

Okay, I understand creative license. That’s fine. Some people, like Edith Wharton, got off on writing things to make other people miserable. It’s art. You create a piece that stimulates a specific reaction. It does not necessarily have to be a good feeling.

But then past generations decide that they are going to read these stories to their kids.

Here’s a true story. While I had decided to do this article earlier in the day, I needed to get a real reference on the story. So I had a very old hard cover edition of Anderson’s Fairy Tales that my mother had given me. The book was very old. You could smell the age on the pages. Inside the book, I found what must have been a very old piece of paper that had to have been written by one of my grandparents to my mother. In very tiny writing was a summary of The Little Match Girl explaining that it was about a girl her age.


What a horror! It’s like saying to a small child, this is a horrible tale of a girl that froze to death… and it could be you next. I shudder to think what kind of scarring it did to my mother who then raised me scarred.

And you wonder why I write like this?

I don’t understand the older generation. I don’t understand the wanton cruelty that masquerades itself as a “harmless” bedtime story. Is this what you’d do to your kids? Read them a nice story about over exposure, cruelty, and death? Or better yet, the story of unrequited love, torture, and then attempted murder?

What were they thinking?

© 2012 Christopher Peruzzi


Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on July 09, 2013:

KrisL - Anderson makes kids overthink things more than they should. I really think that it is beyond a child's grasp to think, "I'm seven - Could I freeze to death if my parents told me to sell matches?" It's a shock when the protagonists die leaving a tin heart shaped lump in their place. How do kids deal with that?

Grimms' Fairy Tales, on the otherhand, are just disturbing. I wrote a short story (which still has yet to be published) involving the original version of Sleeping Beauty and a zombie outbreak - and still I think the original version is more horrific. If you'd like to read my original article on Grimms' Fairy Tales, here's the link:

KrisL from S. Florida on October 09, 2012:

I never cared for the sad Anderson stories as a child (although I read some unexpurgated Grimm and liked it more than was probably healthy!), but the sad is that authors are still doing this things like this, though for somewhat older children and in a somewhat different way.

I think Anderson wanted to raise consciousness about child abuse adn child labor in his match girl story.

Last year, browsing idly through the teenage section in Barnes and Noble I found a truly horrifying novel about a young South Asian girl sold into the sex trade, raped, and tortured in horrible ways. It has a happy ending, but for me it was far too explicit, and far too depressing (3 times worse than Hunger Games, and marketed as a true-to-life story) for a young teenager to read.

Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on September 26, 2012:

To be fair, he was a genius.

Writers write 1) what they know and 2) who they are. It's a terrible process when you plumb the depths of your own psyche and find the pain and misery that make you... you.

Hans Christian Anderson was not a good looking man and he certainly knew the pain of loving from afar. That was who he was. At the same time, a more mature reader would look at these story and find a new emotional stimulus that wasn't necessarily happiness. The Little Mermaid and The Steadfast Tin Soldier were stories of love lost and opportunity lost. Whereas The Little Match Girl was a story of complete misery and the suffering of an innocent little girl whose death was mercifully cut short of a more hellish existence - if you want to look at it that way.

My old world Irish grandparents must have looked at this and saw it as a method of illustrating to my mother "if you think you have it bad, take a look at how bad this fictional character had it." This is what perpetuates some parents in giving their kids the "it's a cold, cruel world" speech.

In one sense, they need to know that. In another, it's not a lesson that should be given to a small child.

Dominique L from Oregon on September 26, 2012:

Wondeful Hub, as usual, sir!

I understand what you mean, how somethings change with time but our old sayings don't always reflect that. Up until 100 years ago, for a 10 year old to say "if I die before I wake" was covering your bases because they could have. Now it just scares kids unnecessarily.

I actually think, part of the appeal of, like, the Grimm stuff is that kids have an attraction to the gross, scary stuff. It's just that gross and scary took on a different meaning then.

But, yeah, the Anderson stuff. He had some mental problems, didn't he? It seems like he was writing "fairy tales" but really just writing stories for himself and how bad he felt.

In that case, I think the Disney movies can be valuable. The same way that the medieval church was all nasty and hell and brimstone and changed into the modern church of Jesus forgiving and being a nice guy, these fairy tales are transforming too. We don't need them as morality tales anymore, they just need to be pretty things with songs to stimulate kid's imagination.

Christopher Peruzzi (author) from Freehold, NJ on September 26, 2012:

My wife and I were just talking about that last night.

"What do you mean die?!! I'm 10!"

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on September 25, 2012:

Chris...You are so right about the horror of those original "bedtime" fairy tales. Then, once the child was scared half out of his or her mind from the story, it was time to say bedtime prayers:

"...If I should die before I wake...." THAT ought to make a small child sleep securely!

It's amazing anyone grew up well-adjusted.

Great hub...Jaye

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