Next on Winter Tales: Folklore Edition — a fairy tale that is also a great ghost story.
I have to confess, when I was a child I was never super fond of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. So many of his tales that I knew—The Little Mermaid, The Little Match Girl, The Steadfast Tin Soldier,— are, well, pretty depressing. Even The Emperor’s New Clothes isn’t exactly cheerful (though I always did like The Ugly Duckling). I liked happy endings.
I revisited several of his stories recently, via M.R. James’s charming translations, Forty-Two Stories (1930). As an adult, I appreciate the melancholy beauty of his writing much more. And I appreciate Andersen’s wit, too. Though I still prefer happy endings.
Many of the stories borrow freely from Andersen’s native Danish folklore, including the story that I’m sharing today: Anne Lisbeth.
A proud woman abandons her own child, leaving him with another family, to become the nursemaid to the son of a Count. Mother’s and son’s lives take different directions: she becomes affluent and respectable; he goes out to sea. Their fates eventually collide again — in quite a spooky way.
As M.R. James says of Anne Lisbeth (and several other tales): “popular beliefs or anecdotes are… conspicuously drawn upon”; specifically the legend of the strandvarsel, which Jean Hersholt rendered as “sea ghost” in his definitive translation (circa 1949):
As she continued on her way she remembered many stories she had heard as a child about the old superstitious belief in the “sea ghost” – the ghost of a drowned body that lay still unburied, washed by the tides on the wild seashore. The lifeless body itself could harm no one, but the “sea ghost” would follow a solitary wanderer, clinging fast to him and demanding to be carried to the churchyard and buried in consecrated ground.
James rendered strandvarsel as “shore-crier”— a transliteration, I suspect.
Andersen had a pronounced religious and moral center that shows strongly in his work; as I’ve said before, these aren’t just fairy tales, but parables. And Anne Lisbeth, with its nightmares and apparitions and unhallowed dead, with the moody calls of the ravens that echo throughout the second half of the tale, is very much a ghost story as well.
You can read Anne Lisbeth here. (Link to The Hans Christian Andersen Centre; translation by Jean Hersholt.)
It doesn’t happen in winter, and it’s got nothing to do with Christmas, but I think it’s still a great winter tale. And it seems appropriate for the Christmas season, too.
Preface by M.R. James to Hans Andersen: Forty-two Stories, Hans Christian Andersen, M.R. James, translator. First published 1930. Faber and Faber Edition, 1971.
A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.
Two more short anecdotes about the strandvarsel can be found here, from Benjamin Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, Vol. 2 (1851).
Featured Image: Anne Lisbeth’s Boy, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive
Ann Lisbeth Found on the Sea Shore, A.W. Bayes, Illustration from Stories for the Household, Hans Christian Andersen, translation by H.W. Dulken (1889). Source: Flickr/Internet Archive