Hans Christian Andersen lived from 1805 to 1875, and he left the world 156 stories. His fairy tales are a wealth of storytelling that are still inspiring people today. It’s no coincidence that so many of the most popular children’s movies and shows are based on his work, like “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Mermaid,” and “Thumbelina.” In the last few decades we’ve seen a lot of shows that are dark, gritty, and morally ambiguous. It can be good to remember that life sometimes presents us with difficult situation where it’s difficult to know right from wrong, and that even good people are tempted to sin and sometimes fall. However, we have to remember that there’s a golden ideal to aspire to. Andersen’s fairy tales don’t shy away from the reality of sin, but he uses it to highlight everything that is true, good, and beautiful. He reminds us to put the most important things first and not to compromise our principles.
These stories are good for children, because they show us the higher ideals. They present the beauty of virtue and the baseness of sin and vice by holding both of them up to the light and revealing their true nature. They show that virtue is worth working and sacrificing for. They do it by presenting a stark contrast. They show that virtue doesn’t depend on how you were born but on how you live, like in “Children’s Prattle.” They express the teaching of the Bible that we must become like little children to inherit the kingdom of heaven, as in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Old House.” They illustrate the Lord’s question, “For how does it benefit a man, if he gains the whole world, and yet causes harm to his soul,” and the parables of the pearl of great price, in stories like “The Swineherd” and “The Goblin and the Huckster.”
They’re also good for adults, even if you’ve already read them as children. We often get caught up in the details of life and our adult responsibilities. We learn to “go along to get along,” and we learn that life is full of compromise. There are things in life that are urgent and things that are important, and they aren’t always the same things. Urgent things need to be taken care of because they’re on a deadline. Important things are concerned with higher things, the things that make life worth living, like God, family, love, and joy. Some things aren’t important or urgent, and those can be safely ignored. Some things are both important and urgent, like a sick family member or friend, and those are easy to place at the top of our list. The difficult choice is when something is urgent but not important, like paying our bills, or important but not urgent, like prayer. We often let the urgent things distract us from the important things, because the urgent things get worse if we ignore them. Hans Christian Andersen can teach us that ignoring the important things can have consequences as well, so we need to make time every day to give some of our attention to God, in prayer, to family, in conversation, and to putting first things first. One of the ways you can do that is by taking the time to read some old stories with your children or grandchildren.
Fr. Bryan was pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes from July 3, 2017 to June 2022.