The Little Mermaid – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 1 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  1 point
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

Oh Hans, you poor disturbed dear!

Okay, so before Disney got hold of it, this was a story of a girl who martyred herself for love, basically. Hans Anderson had a bit of a thing for tragic tales of unrequited love redeemed by religion, probably because he was a nutjob who stalked a singer for years believing her to be like his one true soul mate. (Seriously, if you have a lot of hours of your life you’d like to lose, read his autobiography. It’s long as hell, but the insight it gives you into Anderson’s weird brain and interesting social issues is pretty fascinating.)

Anderson did pen my all time favourite fairy tale, and there is no doubt there was some genius there, but this one kind of makes my skin crawl, and the older and wiser I get, the more that becomes true.

There are no named characters in the whole story, so it can’t pass the Bechdel, though it would be hard-pressed to do that anyway. If the mermaid’s sisters had names and if the dialogue about what they saw above the water was written as actual dialogue, it might have, but that’s a lot of ifs.

From a feminist point of view, this story fails in every way. The mermaid quite literally gives up her voice for a man who not only doesn’t love her but essentially treats her like a pet. She sleeps on a velvet cushion before his door. A velvet cushion. Before his door. Like a mother-fucking dog. And this is portrayed as some sort of enormous favour. (I mean, look, I know, fairy tales, and also, nature of the times and all that, but bloody hell.)

She is in constant pain from the fact that every step feels like knives stabbing into her feet, but she smiles sweetly and dances like an angel and no one has any bloody idea.

Then when he marries someone else (because she like, never learned to write, or figure out any kind of real communication so she could oh say for example TELL HIM SHE LOVED HIM), she sacrifices her life for his and is rewarded with the opportunity to spend hundreds of years in service doing “good things” in order to “earn” a soul.

I just…. UGH. No. Gross.

Go read The Snow Queen instead. At least Gerda has some frikkin’ attitude.



The Emperor’s New Clothes – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 3 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point

This is obviously one of those classic stories “everyone” knows. It’s been retold and illustrated a million times and the version we got out from the library was different to the one linked above. Nevertheless, you all know the gist. Emperor is taken in by charlatan bullshitters pretending to be tailors who convince him and everyone else that their silk is so fine that it somehow manages to only be seen by worthy people.

Everyone is too afraid to admit they can’t see the not actually there at all fabric, for fear that they are the only ones who can’t, and so go along with the charade until a young child finally tells the truth.

The moral, like most of Anderson’s, is about as subtle as a battleaxe across the skull. If you don’t tell the truth for fear of looking like a dumbass, there’s a good chance it’ll come out and make you look like a dumbass. Also, innocence of childhood and all that jazz.

It seems a somewhat appropriate story at the moment – not believing the hype is a pretty important trait to have in this modern world. It fails on almost all our metrics though – every speaking character is a man, the illustrations in the version we had definitely only showed white people.

I do think that this story gives us a very useful analogy though, and it’s a great thing for kids to learn – the often con artists succeed by sheer audacity and the fact that no one has the gumption to call them out for fear of looking stupid. And that often asking the question anyway leads to greater wisdom, rather than just muddling along pretending.

Anderson’s particular brand of morality bugs me a little, just because he is so very unsubtle about it, but at least in this case I mostly agree with what he’s saying.   

Worth reading. But then, you probably have. 🙂

The Magic Fishbone – Charles Dickens

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point

This is a very bizarre tale, ladies and gentlefolk. It does, actually, weirdly, pass the Bechdel, in that GrandMarina and Princess Alicia have a couple of conversations that have nothing to do with men. Go Dickens!

There’s no diversity, but that’s hardly surprising.

The story is… odd. To say the least. But at its heart is a very cool little moral, which is to say that it’s all well and good resorting to magic and wishes, but it’s really best to just solve your problems by yourself first if you can. Princess Alicia is given a magic fishbone that will grant her one wish. But she saves it, solving various dilemmas with smarts and kindness until she is really sure she has a problem that cannot be solved.

Because of her diligence and hard work, Grandmarina (who is, essentially, a fairy godmother) rewards her the way any princess wants to be rewarded – marriage to a prince. (So close, Dickens, and then you fail to stick the landing.) Also, there’s a thing where a dog gets choked on the fishbone at the end which seem very strange and gratuitous.

The story is pretty cool though – there is a clear undercurrent of humour, which I appreciate, where it’s pretty obvious that this is a fairy tale made out of normal working (Dickensian) people. It’s kind of amusingly handled.

C said he liked it, but honestly it took us several attempts to get through it, and I don’t think he really followed the story or understand what was happening. The language is, well, Dickens, so it’s a bit dense. I found it fairly entertaining though, and I’m not usually a fan of Dickens.

So it’s a bit of a mixed bag. May be interesting as a novelty, but probably not going to be a winner with your average child reader.

The Ugly Duckling – Hans Christian Anderson

POINTS: 2 out of 10.

Bechdel: 0 points
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 0 points

I have such a strange complicated relationship with HCA. It is very difficult to separate my attitudes and knowledge about him from his work. This is another thing I could write about at great length, but I’ll try keep it brief.

So let’s start with the easy things. There is no Bechdel pass in this book, in part because none of the characters have names, but also because really, every conversation is about the duckling himself, more or less. There is also no real diversity to talk of. This is definitely a very European story.

So let’s talk about the story. We all know it right? Duckling doesn’t fit with his family, is obviously different, goes through many trials and tribulations, even almost dies of cold and abandonment, and then ultimately discovers his true place, and his true beauty.

It’s not a terrible lesson, and I certainly think it’s a useful moral tale for children, both for kids who feel different themselves, and for kids who don’t, because it is a great lesson in empathy.

But it is a VERY moral tale. And this is a theme with Anderson. He was very fond of his moral tales, and this one in particular is extremely autobiographical – he absolutely saw himself as this underappreciated ugly duckling who would eventually “show everyone”. And he did, I guess. I mean many of his stories are now a standard part of the fairytale canon.

That being said, as far as fairytales go, this one is probably one of the least dodgy ones. A lot of fairytales have a lot of things in them that to the modern audience feel very unsavoury, when you start to think about them. This is a simple rags to riches kind of deal. The duckling finds the place he belongs, discovers his true self, and all is well.

You could definitely do worse. 🙂

The Moomins and the Great Flood – Tove Jansson

More in the Series – Moomin Valley
“More in the Series” scores the other books in a series where one (or more) of the books have made it into the 1001 Books list. Mostly because I’m a bit of a completionist. 

POINTS: 4 out of 10.

Bechdel: 1 point
Variety of characters: 0 points
Good story:  2 points
Discretionary ideological points: 1 point.

I cannot express how much I love these books and wish I had found them sooner. This one passes the Bechdel, but only just. There are two female characters (Moominmamma and Tulipa, the girl with the blue hair), and they do direct dialogue at each other, so I am passing it. It is a children’s story, so “conversation” is always a tricky thing to pin down, so while it’s hard to say they have a conversation about something other than a man, when Tulipa leaves the party to stay with the boy in the golden tower, she and Moominmamma do have a conversation of sorts about how Tulipa would like to help them more, and Momminmamma says she will send letters. I think it’s close enough, for a fairytale. 🙂

And a fairytale this is. It is a wonderful story of a group of characters going on a journey to find Moominpappa, and encountering a number of characters along the way who help or hinder. There is a flood, of course. They experience trials and hardships, as well as lovely places full of temptation (the man with the garden made of sweets is a perfect fairytale thing), but ultimately find their way to Moominpappa and the beautiful house he has built for them, that has gotten washed, whole, by the flood, and planted down in a new place.

It’s the most perfect “you can go home after travelling, but it’s never quite the same really” metaphor, really. 🙂

Jansson has such a total knack for creating a magical world full of danger that is also somehow based in kindness and love. It’s astonishing and wonderful. C loved it, gave it not just one but two thumbs up, even though I wonder how much he understood. He was utterly entranced though.

Really lovely.