Tuesday, June 21, 2011


It is often said that the mood of the writer tends to creep into his work. I have a friend, who loves to write stories, who validated this statement. Being an amateur, she says she is able to write her best stories when she is experiencing some sort of extremity in her mood- extremely happy, extremely angry, extremely sad, and so on. She has not yet been able to fully capture her moods and nurture her abilities accordingly. I recently saw X-men : first class, which shows how the X-men came into existence. They showed Magneto as a child - the first time Sebastian Shaw asks him to show his ability to him. He tries, with a frustrating concentration, applying his entire energy to moving the coin with his powers. But he is unable to do it. Shaw calls in his mother, whom he has captured. He tells the boy, “I will count to three. Till then, if you are not able to move the coin, I will shoot your mother.” The boy is aghast at the repercussions of the failure of this transaction. He looks at his mother, with trepidation in his eyes. His mother, helpless, tells the boy it is okay, and he will be able to do it. Magneto concentrates. His entire energy is on the coin. “One”. The camera closes in on him, his nerves pulsating with tension. “Two”. The coin hasn’t moved. His mother looks on, nervous, telling him it’s okay. “Three”. Gunshot. Magneto watches in despair as his mother falls to the ground with a thud. He screams in anguish. And then, it begins. Sebastian looks on in wonder as his troops’ metal helmets are destroyed, still on their heads, his office is wrecked, his entire lab is destroyed. Thus, the world is introduced to his superpower, in its entirety. “Anger, and pain”, says Sebastian, taking his hand, “is the key to unlocking your powers. And with this, we are going to have a lot of fun”.

Fast forward. Similar scenario, different person. Magneto is now standing with Charles Xavier, also known as Professor X, who is training him to use and control and harness his powers. He tells him to move a satellite dish towards themselves. Magneto says it is not possible, since he needs the anger and pain. The emotions are not present. Then Charles Xavier says something beautiful. He says, “I believe that true focus lies somewhere between rage and serenity.” Using his telepathic powers, he controls the mind of Magneto, taking him to a beautiful memory with his mother. It is so beautiful that even watching it, Charles gets tearful. “I didn’t know I still had that one”, Magneto says, awed by the sudden revelation, experiencing something he had not felt ever before. He turns towards the satellite dish, with complete calm, and laughs, like he has never laughed before, as he sees the miracle before him, he watches and learns, how he can do the exact same thing, and yet feel so different, not make himself go through hell as he does it. Even the nature of things that entail, have a different effect. No more crushing helmets, for a long time, at least.

Everything that we do has our inbuilt signature in it. Even a simple thing as making a cup of tea, when made with the right mood, makes it taste different. The doer lends a little of himself to everything that he does. My friend says that no mattr what, however she is feeling manifests itself in some way in the story. It may be an object, a person, anything. This one time she sent me a story about a boy who is going home dejected after an examination, and talks about his adventured with a beggar who was once the son of a successful businessman, who lost everything. The beggar gives him a toffee and tells him to not get disheartened, and so begins a lifelong friendship. The story was beautiful. Just one thing. She wrote this story right after getting her results. And yes, you got it. They didn’t go very well. These things struck me a few days back when I was reading an article on a mother who had a problem with ’too much pink’ and did not want her daughter to follow in the steps of the little mermaid, who gave up her voice for a man who ultimately, she did not get. The story talks about sacrifice, maybe, stupidity, even, I would like to think so at least. I decided to find what other people think. One thing led to another, and very soon I was reading on Hans Andersen and the other stories written by him. There seemed to be a recurring pattern of sadness, or darkness in all of his stories. Be it ‘the ugly duckling’, ‘the little mermaid’, and several others.

I mean think about it. Andersen’s life was one full of feelings of ostracism, alienation, a deep inferiority complex, unrequited love, the works. And his stories always have some element present in it, which shows one or more of these, it is just difficult to grasp sometimes. It says somewhere that after the death of his father, Andersen travelled to Copenhagen to pursue an acting career at the Royal Theatre. Under the patronage of the Theatre’s Jonas Collins, he attended the Copenhagen University which were formative but difficult years for him. Coming from a humble provincial background he had to adjust to bourgeois life in the capital city and competitive realm of the theatre. *

‘The poor duckling didn’t know where it dared stand or where it dared walk. It was so sad, because it looked so ugly and was made fun of by everyone in the duckyard.’ ‘The Ugly Duckling’.

'"Poor little ugly duckling!" the Mother Duck would say. "Why are you so different from the others?" And the ugly duckling felt worse than ever. He secretly wept at night. He felt nobody wanted him.'

Andersen wrote novels, poetry and drama, and began to experiment with the fairy-tale. Most of his work was autobiographical. Its reception, though generally favourable, was not without its critics – amongst them the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard. Andersen was acutely sensitive to criticism and longed for the approval of the intellectual and social elite. *

In May 1835, Andersen’s first four fairy tales were published under the title Eventyr, fortalte for Børn (Fairy Tales, Told for Children). The reception was mixed. Some saw their appeal immediately; others took longer to recognise their worth. Between 1835 and 1842, 15 further tales were published, many based on folk-tales which Andersen had heard as a child. For his second collection, Nye Eventyr (New Fairy Tales, 1843-48), Andersen wrote some of his most important and famous stories. He moved away from traditional folk material towards creating tales that came from his imagination. The words ‘told for children’ were omitted from the new title as Andersen sought to engage adults and children alike. He had found a genre in which he had a unique voice. *

‘Oh, to travel, to travel! If only one could spend one’s life fluttering about! I feel as if the world is my home and I shall, I must, frolic about in that home.’ - Mitt Livs Eventyr

"Oh, how I'd love to go up there and at last see the sky, which everyone says is so pretty, and hear the voices of humans and smell the scent of the flowers!" - The Little Mermaid

In both books, the ugly duckling and the little mermaid, you always find common elements of the ‘big, bad world’. The mermaid’s family warning her not to go into the world of men where she does not belong, but she does so, giving up her voice to the sea witch in exchange for legs, and once she reaches there, she only finds despair. The ugly duckling is ridiculed wherever he goes due to his inferior looks. Nobody accepts him. They are both misfits, longing for acceptance. She, from the prince, he, from society. And both these elements are reflected in Andersen’s life. He faces a spate of rejections from his objects of affection, and longs for acceptance of his work, and himself. There is a deep sense of ambition in both characters. What seem like innocuous parables to us, belie deep, unsettling feelings of loneliness and want.

As the duckling, he gets a happy ending, as the beautiful swan. Everybody bows down to him, humbled by his beauty and grace. An excerpt from the passage -

““Kill me,” said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.

But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. To be born in a duck’s nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan’s egg. He now felt glad at having suffered sorrow and trouble, because it enabled him to enjoy so much better all the pleasure and happiness around him; for the great swans swam round the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.

Into the garden presently came some little children, and threw bread and cake into the water.

“See,” cried the youngest, “there is a new one;” and the rest were delighted, and ran to their father and mother, dancing and clapping their hands, and shouting joyously, “There is another swan come; a new one has arrived.

Then they threw more bread and cake into the water, and said, “The new one is the most beautiful of all; he is so young and pretty.” And the old swans bowed their heads before him.

Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. Even the elder-tree bent down its bows into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart, “I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling.”

This incident is reflected in his acceptance and literary praises showered on him. He received the Knighthood of the Red Eagle from King Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia in 1846, and the Maximilian Order of Art and Science from King Maximilian II of Bavaria in 1859. He was made an Honorary Citizen of Odense in 1867.

But sadly, there is no such happy ending for our mermaid. She is shown as a girl who gives up everything for love. Her feet hurt with every step she takes, she leaves her world behind, gives her voice away, but she endures it all, for love, hoping the prince would return her love. But he is in love with someone else. It pierces her heart, and she longs to go back to the sea world. Her sisters give her a knife which she can use to pierce his heart and make her tail reappear. Blinded by despair, she almost does it, but at the last moment, throws it away. She walks away from the kingdom and throws herself in the sea, casting one last disdainful look at the world behind her. But just as she is about to die, she hears a voice. She becomes an angel, for her love, kindness and purity. This all seems very noble, and maybe I am being a little harsh, but i would not encourage any girl to do something like this. She was a dreamer, she longed to see the world, did so much for love. Call me cynical, but I would not endorse anything like this. And this again, to some extent showed Andersen’s own predicament. In the original version, some say, the angels do not appear, but I suppose it was added to sugar-coated for bed-time story consumption.

So, all in all, I feel, that the next time you are reading something, google a little about the author. You never know what you might find. Maybe if Andersen would have found his love eventually, perhaps the little mermaid and Sebastian would’ve got something going on, eh? I always loved that crab :)

*Wikipedia, several links


  1. Brilliant, insightful and amazing...
    its very interesting and I was lost in the piece...
    (a detailed analysis in your mail at night)
    Loved it! keep writing...
    and thanks for the magneto thing :P

  2. oh its fascinating how much depth the background info of an author can give to a literary piece by him. I think shiv reiterated this many times in the semiotics lecture too.

    The X-men scene you mentioned were my favourite too. Espectially the latter one. the expression on magneto's face when he turns the satellite - too good :)

  3. Nicely written. Well researched (Y)

  4. awesome. fascinating read. the symbolism of little things is shown beautifully.
    great article Ruchita ! :D

  5. This is reallllly reallllly great..well reserached, articulated concise and amazing...loved it.