Traditional Fantasy

Reading the 10 Essential Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales

Andersen's Fairy Tales, illustrated by Troy Howell

Last month, I thinned my book collection and found myself with four copies of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales. In the process of deciding which of those four I was going to keep, I made an Excel sheet of all of the stories the anthologies had and if they overlapped. Out of 94 unique stories (give or take a few), there were exactly 10 stories in common. Among four anthologies, of which I saved two (one is in the picture above), there are 10 stories that those editors and compilers agreed everyone should read: “Great Claus and Little Claus,” “Hans Clodhopper,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “The Nightingale,” “The Red Shoes,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” “The Swineherd,” “The Tinder Box,” and “The Ugly Duckling.”

Since they all agree on these stories existing in each of their anthologies, I consider them the essential 10 Andersen fairy tales. Because I haven’t heard of most of those in this list, I intend to read them and share my thoughts about them. So that you all can see what I read, I read these stories on H.C. Andersen Centret (The Hans Christian Andersen Center), and I am listing them under this website’s translation of the titles.

1. Little Claus and Big Claus

This is one of those stories where a young man constantly outwits the antagonist. I’m not thrilled that the protagonist seems to be so powerful, but I love seeing this kind of cunning in stories. I like that Little Claus uses cunning to make himself wealthy and to keep himself alive. I also like that it broke fairy tale formula that normally sticks to threes.

2. Clumsy Hans (a.k.a. Hans Clodhopper)

I’ve only heard “clodhopper” in relation to roaches, so I thought this was going to become Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. I’m happily surprised to discover that it’s a fairy tale where brothers try to win the hand of a princess. This could be a hilarious 10- or 20-minute cartoon with the hilarity that ensues at the end.

3. The Emperor’s New Clothes

This is one of the few stories I’ve read or watched in several different versions before. This version starts by announcing that the swindlers who sell the new clothes aren’t fit for office if they can’t see the clothes. I was surprised this time because I thought it was only the emperor’s pride that kept him from proclaiming he couldn’t see anything. As far as everyone else in previous versions, I thought they alluded to the public’s fear of angering the emperor for why no one said anything. The H.C. Andersen Centret edition has everyone’s pride get in the way of basic observation.

4. The Little Match Girl

This is one of my favorite fairy tales. It’s about the warm visions she sees in match light as she freezes to death. I didn’t enjoy it as much reading it as text on a webpage as I did when I read the picture book that was illustrated by Rachel Isadora. I like the contrast of warmth and cold in this story.

5. The Nightingale

I have read this fairy tale of the difference between a real and a mechanical nightingale before, but I haven’t known it that well. It’s a good, dramatic story. I liked that there was more detail about some of the other characters aside from the Emperor, but I would have liked to know more about that fisherman from the start of the story.

6. The Red Shoes

Unlike the previous three stories, I haven’t read this one before. I didn’t expect the red shoes to be dancing shoes or to involve so much of the church. I think the main theme is the consequences of vanity. There’s a very weird ending involving an angel, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. For a cautionary tale, I feel more fear about the dancing shoes than what happens after.

7. The Steadfast Tin Soldier

This was unexpectedly a tragic romance about two toys, a one-legged tin soldier and a paper doll. I don’t know how I feel about it, but it does remind me of The Twilight Zone episodes. Also, the toys come to life at night! Was this an influence for Toy Story or The Nutcracker?

8. The Swineherd

“The Swineherd” was a surprise for the lengths one prince went to try to win over a princess and then taught her a lesson she wouldn’t soon forget. He was quite clever how he went about it. Could he be the son of the witch in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? I like that, for once, a spoiled princess in a story is really forced to learn the lesson without a happy ending. I think it’s similar to Tomie de Paola’s Helga’s Dowry for the similar lesson.

9. The Tinder Box

This story feels like a mashup of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin,” but it’s still an interesting tale. What bothers me about it is that the princess seems to just accept what happens by the end of the story. I know that most retellings of it would probably focus on how she’s been forced to go along with it, but that’s still not the story.

10. The Ugly Duckling

I’ve also read this tale in various picture-book iterations. I liked how much this version lingered on the mother duck’s perspective and the trials the ugly duckling suffered through for a year. I didn’t realize how many more characters have existed in the story, like this cat and hen who think they’re the better half of the world. They add another dimension to the story.


I haven’t read more than half the stories on this list, so it was interesting to read some new ones. Based on what I read above, I would say that where the Brothers Grimm are dark and gruesome, Andersen is clever and often tragic. I am not sure that I agree that these are the essential 10 Andersen fairy tales to read, but they gave me a better look at his writing.

If you made a list of essential Andersen’s stories, which would be your essential fairy tales? What is your favorite fairy tale? Let me know in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Reading the 10 Essential Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales

  1. I always find HCA to be depressing, though I love The Snow Queen. As a kid I had a record (dating myself!) of The Selfish Giant and The Nightingale. This is a great project you set for yourself, and now I want to go read a few of the ones I don’t remember.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh, wow, I haven’t read any of these. In fact, I think the only original tale that I’ve read from these is The Snow Queen (which I just read last year with my language arts class because we also read Breadcrumbs, which is a retelling). I also had a read-along cassette tape/book combo of The Selfish Giant when I was a kid that I LOVED. I listened to it over and over again. My youngest destroyed it when he was little, and it made me so sad (and pretty mad—he climbed up to the top of his closet to get it down and then pulled the cassette tape apart). Someday I will find it again. Oooh—a Selfish Giant retelling would be awesome. Hmmm…

    Liked by 1 person

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