As I sat in my father’s arms and entered the tales of Hans Christian Andersen, I learned the lessons that would mark my life.

In this essay, prolific author Walter Wangerin, Jr., reveals the debt his imagination and spiritual life owe to the tales of Hans Christian Andersen. This is the third in a series of essays that have been produced for CHRISTIANITY TODAY on how contemporary Christian writers have been influenced by those who have gone before them. These essays will be collected and published next month as Reality and the Vision (Word).

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child. When I became a man I put away childish things, but the man I became was shaped in childhood, and that shape remains forever.

Fairy tales shaped me. I have since “put them away.” That is, the adult is a mostly rational creature, aware that fairy tales are not “real” but are a fantasy, an entertaining escape from the problems of the real world.

But as a child all full of wonder, I approached the fairy tale as something real indeed. Children meet the problems of the world with their imagination, and the fairy tale honors and feeds and abets the imagination. As a child, I never analyzed the tale I read; I felt it; I sank inside of it; I lived its experience through to the happy conclusion.

The tales of Hans Christian Andersen were my world for a while. They named and shaped the universe in which I dwelt, and something of that shape has remained forever: not the fantasy, but the faith that created the fantasy continues even now to explain existence.

When my father bought a thick, pictureless book containing all the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and began to read them to his children, he did me a kindness more profound than mere entertainment. Those things that were horrible and senseless in my external world were, in Andersen’s world, horrible still; but his stories gave them a sense (often a spiritual sense) that I could grasp, by which the horror might be mastered, if not by me then by someone, by goodness, by God. Andersen was my whispering, laughing, wise companion when I most needed companionship.

“Ready?” Dad asks. I nod. I curl tight beneath the covers.

“Once upon a time,” Dad reads, “there lived in a village two men who had the same name; they were both called Claus.…”

Little Claus and Big Claus: This is the first of all the tales my father chooses to read to us. It’s an astonishing beginning. There is violence here: horse killings, grandmother killings, old men sent to heaven, and a great, rich fool apparently drowned. But the violence accords with nightmares of my own.

Article continues below

And the violence is funny! I listen and laugh, and my father laughs, too. What is happening? Violence is being reduced to something manageable; and because I am the one laughing at it, scorning it, recognizing the blustering silliness of it, then I am larger than it, capable of triumphing over it. This story does not deny the monster in me or the cruelties of the general society. Rather, it empowers me.

I identify with Little Claus. In contrast to the big and brutal Big Claus, I am poor and weak (though cleverer by half), hobbled by kindness while he is strong in amorality. In the beginning I have one horse and he has four. All week long he plows with all five, but on Sundays the team is mine. And because I am not sinless, either, vanity makes me cry out: “Giddy-up, all my horses!”

This infuriates Big Claus. “Four of those horses are mine,” he yells. “If you say that again, I’ll knock your horse in the head, and then you will have none.”

But I am not sinless. (This is a troubling fact, both in my life and in this story—which makes the story true.) In spite of his threat, the passing of churchgoers stirs my vanity again, and I cry: “Giddy-up, all my horses!”

So Big Claus comes and knocks my only horse dead.

I like Little Claus. I want to be—I am—him. I dislike Big Claus. I sever myself from—and I am not—him, even though he represents a real iniquity in me. But within the story, by laughter and luck and cleverness (but call luck “grace”), I amputate this evil which I don’t want to be.

And here is how I do it. I tan the hide of my murdered horse. I take it to market to sell it. On the way I have the “luck” to witness a farmer’s wife involved in an impropriety with a deacon while her husband is absent: she’s feeding the deacon a fine dinner in her kitchen. Just before the farmer returns, she hides the dinner in the oven and the deacon in an empty chest. I see all this, and then the good farmer invites me inside for food.

“I’m sorry, dear, we have no food,” says the farmer’s wife.

But I, who am cleverer by half than deacons and wives and Big Claus, too, step on the hide of my murdered horse. I make it squeak and interpret the squeaks as a prophecy that there is dinner ready-made in the oven. There is, and the farmer is amazed by my wonderful horsehide. Moreover, I step on it again, and it squeaks again, declaring that there’s a devil-deacon in that chest. There is! So the farmer buys my horse’s hide for a whole bushel of money and sends the deacon-in-a-chest away with me. I’m so clever that I cannot quit this cleverness: when I come to a river, I pretend out loud that I’m going to toss the chest in it. The deacon roars and pleads and bargains, until I sell him his freedom for another bushel of money. I am rich.

Article continues below

And what do I do to the brutal Big Claus? Why, I use his stupidity and his greed against him.

“Where did you get all that money from?” cries Big Claus.

“Oh, that was for my horsehide. I sold it last night.”

Immediately Big Claus hurries home and takes an ax and knocks all four of his horses in their heads. He skins them and runs to market to humiliate himself. Who would buy horsehides for bushels of money?

And so my story goes: I trick Big Claus into knocking his poor grandmother in the head. Ah, me, but the man is dumb! And his nature is violent altogether! Finally, I trick Big Claus into jumping into the river himself, and so I am rid of dumbness, greed, and brutality all at once.

Dad closes the book. He turns out the light and leaves. But I am flying the night wind, living still in a good, good story—“good” in that evil is overcome and suffers its due, in that the Old Adam need not forever be my master. But I discover the truth in experience, laughing till the tears run down my cheeks, not in remote and intellectual lessons that my poor brain can scarcely translate into “real life.”

Hans Andersen has persuaded me of optimism, a tough and abiding optimism, not the pollyanna sugar that merely sweetens the facts of evil and suffering, danger and death.

I cannot run. I am short, hampered by big buttocks, hunched with a miserable miscoordination, generally inferior in the contests of children—unable to run. But in the track meets of the fifth grade, they make me run the 100-yard dash. It causes me a vomitous anxiety. I have nightmares of running under water. My dreams are not untrue, for when the starting gun goes off, I stumble and am the last to leave the line; slowly, slowly I suffer my way to the end of the race, and when I arrive, people have departed to run in other races. I am humiliated. Ellery Yurchuck cries out, “He walks like a girl!” I do. I burn with shame. I cannot do what other children do so thoughtlessly. I cannot run.

But Dad reads of a duckling more ugly than others, and I listen with unspeakable sympathy for that duck. “I know, I know,” I murmur.

The ugliness alone—not wickedness, not cruelty, not any error on our part—brings shame upon us, the ugly duckling and I. Other ducklings are cute, in the image of our mother. But we were hatched from a larger, vagrant egg—an odd beginning, producing an odd shape. Therefore, we are pecked and pushed and scorned. Our wonderful mother defends us; but we only feel pity for her that she should so unjustly suffer for our own troubles. Merely that she loves us is cause for pain. Oh, it is so complicated to be ugly!

Article continues below

For our own sakes she says, “I wish you were far away”—from pain and teasing, she means. But we take her literally. We run away to other barnyards, never to see her again.

On our own we discover “the way of the world.” It includes the death of the few who befriend us: Hunters kill two kindly wild ganders. It includes a sneering judgment against all the things we cannot do: Can’t lay eggs like chickens, can’t arch our backs like cats. Do, do, do, cries society; but we can do nothing it likes and therefore are the uglier.

It is utterly natural that in the end we wish to die. Sorrow drives us to such extremities, even though we are but a child and a duckling.

In the dead of a dreary winter we notice three swans moving in absolute elegance, nobility, and beauty. Surely, they, too, will despise our ugliness, and their spite will be as intense as their distant beauty. Surely, then, they will kill us. In fact, we desire to die by beauty rather than by any other means. It seems right. We think to ourselves, “It is better to be killed by them than to be bitten by the other ducks.”

But here appears the outrageous grace that we never anticipated: all along, while we were ugly indeed, another mercy was working within us, uncaused by us but given to us purely as a gift. What was this mercy? What sort of gift is given now to us? Why, it is we ourselves, transfigured!

“ ‘Kill me,’ whispered the poor creature, and bent his head humbly while he waited for his death.” So goes the story, and thus do we surrender ourselves. “Humbly …,” writes Andersen. “Humbly,” my father reads, and I more than hear it; I feel such humility in my heart. I am the one who cannot run. But what does such humility reveal to me?

In Andersen’s words: “But what was that he saw in the water? It was his own reflection; and he was no longer an awkward, clumsy, gray bird, so ungainly and so ugly. He was a swan! It does not matter that one is born in the henyard as long as one has lain in a swan’s egg.” And Andersen goes on to name the goodness that has existed in all our sorrow, the duckling’s and mine. Andersen names the grace upon grace that we have received, and the graciousness that we shall show hereafter: “He was thankful that he had known so much want, and gone through so much suffering, for it made him appreciate his present happiness and loveliness of everything about him all the more.… Everyone agreed that the new swan was the most beautiful of them all. The older swans bowed toward him.”

Article continues below

But does pride or vengeance then rear up in him, or in me? No, and that is much the point: for the suffering transfigures us even to the soul. Humility showed us our new selves; humility remains in our hearts to keep these selves both beautiful and virtuous: “He felt so shy that he hid his head beneath his wing. He was too happy, but not proud, for a kind heart can never be proud.”

So then, there is hope—not only that there may emerge from my ugly self a beauty, but also that the suffering that my ugliness has caused is ultimately valuable, making my beautiful self also a good and sympathetic self. In the end I shall love the world the more; and even the people who once did me dishonor, I shall honor.

Can any child receive a better impress on his person, a subtler, more spiritual shape than this, that he be taught grace and to be gracious? And what is more fortified than the self-esteem that comes as a gift from God?

Night after night my father reads the stories from a thick book with pastel-colored pages, pink and blue and yellow. Night after night I live the adventures that order my turbulent days and shape my waking self, my instincts, my faith, my adulthood to come. Optimism grows in me, and hope in the midst of suffering, and this third thing too, perhaps the most difficult thing of all: forgiveness for my own most self-centered and wretched sins. Not the doctrine of forgiveness. Not the concept. Forgiveness in fact, as a mold to my experience ever hereafter. Andersen’s world is a dramatic enactment of theologies that the child simply cannot grasp in the abstract.

The north wind whistles at the eaves, an almost malevolent warning. “This story,” my father murmurs, the pipe gone dead beside him, “is called The Red Shoes.”

A fatherless girl named Karen appears before me. She is not aware of me, but I am of her. I join her. We are one. And we are both very vain. We think that we are more than pretty: gorgeous. We want everyone to notice how splendid we are; therefore, even at inappropriate times, we slip our little feet into a pair of patent-leather shoes so red, so red, O Lord, that we shine!

Article continues below

This is how vain we are, and this is how the story begins: at the funeral of our mother we follow the coffin in red shoes. And we are noticed. A kindly old woman notices us. We think it’s because of our red shoes and our gorgeousness. But it is her love that sees us; she is moved by the sight of a newly orphaned child. So by grace we are granted a second mother, for the woman takes us in and raises us as her own.

Her eyes grow dim. Ours stay sharp for red adornments. When the time of our confirmation arrives, and when we must buy shoes for the holy occasion, the old woman thinks we’ve bought black, but it is red we carry home, and it is red we wear to church. Everyone notices our bright red feet. We are so proud! Our mind is scarcely on the words of our “covenant with God to be a good Christian.” We are thinking of red shoes.

Then it happens that the old woman, our second mother, grows sick, as our first mother had. Once we were ignorant of the world, of the laws of God, and of our own wicked tendencies. But now we have been taught and scolded and warned. This time we ought to know better. Nevertheless, we do again exactly what we have done before.

On the very night when the doctors say that the old woman is dying, we contemplate the red shoes, the alluring red shoes, the bright red shoes so perfect for our gorgeousness. There is a dance tonight. Looking leads to touching, and touching leads to donning; and as soon as the shoes are on our feet, we have to go. We leave the dying woman behind and steal away to dance.

And we do dance. We laugh and whirl the whole night through; for once we have begun, we cannot stop. It is the shoes that are dancing now. The red shoes! Dancing and dancing wherever they wish, taking us with them, down the stairs and out the door. And while they are dancing, the old woman dies.

I know this only too well.

For I have dealt with my mother as though she were nothing to me. My mother the dim-eyed old woman, my mother the stepmother, who unjustly (so it seemed to me) punished me for many things, could easily be dismissed. I have run out to play when I knew she didn’t want me to go. I have stayed gone too long, causing her anguish at my absence. And when she confronted me with my fault, I have whistled. I have reduced her, once or twice, to tears at my cold impertinence. She has gone into her bedroom and shut the door and grieved in a deep frustration. Then I was burned by guilt to hear her hurt. She was ill in her bedroom, dying. She said so: Dying. “I am sick to death of your disobedience,” she said. O Mama! Never again! But always my demons have been too powerful for me, and I have done it again in spite of every resolution.

Article continues below

I am Karen, surrendering to sin until my sin has taken me over completely—and even when I want to stop, I cannot. Even when my heart desires goodness, it has it not. Dancing and dancing, our shoes have taken us into the street.

We dance toward the church. Maybe there is help for us in church. But at the door an angel appears, dressed in white, holding a shining sword.

“You shall dance,” he declares, “dance in your red shoes until you become pale and thin. When you pass a house where proud and vain children live, there you shall knock on the door so that they will see you and fear your fate. Dance, you shall dance. Dance!”

“Mercy!” scream Karen and I together. But we cannot hear what the angel answers, because the red shoes carry us away and away, always dancing.

One morning in a lonely place we dance past a solitary cottage. The man who comes out when we cry is the Executioner. “I am the one,” he says, “who cuts off the heads of evil men.”

“No,” we plead, “for then I should not be able to repent. But cut off our feet instead.”

We confess our sins (isn’t this enough?), and the Executioner cuts off our feet, and the red shoes go dancing away into the forest. For us the kindly Executioner carves wooden feet. He teaches us the psalm that penitent people sing. We kiss his hand and go.

Now have we suffered enough?

We go again to the church. Is this what it takes? That we are severed of our sin? Will ritual and formality receive us now? No, no, this isn’t enough. For when we come to the door, the red shoes arrive ahead of us and dance and dance to block our way. In horror we flee. O God! The sins keep coming back! What can we do to be free?

So now we despair. Nothing we do can save us. Not true sorrow, which we have done. Not true goodness, which we have done. Do this, do that—we’ve done it all, and still the shoes, they mock us.

Therefore, let us live in misery till we die. We deserve no better.

We go to the minister’s house and ask for work. In pity he takes us in, gives us his roof and food. We work very hard, though hopelessly, for we know this changes nothing—our feet are still wooden. In the evening the minister reads to his children from the Bible and we listen; but we make no great account of the listening, because we are wiser now and know this changes nothing.

Article continues below

On Sunday, the minister’s whole family goes to church. We are invited, too, but our eyes fill with tears. They go without us.

In a tiny room we sit down to read a psalm book. The wind blows hither the music of the church organ. We hear it, and we weep. We lift our face and whisper simply: “O God, help me.”

All at once the sunlight seems doubly bright in the room, and the angel of God is standing before us: in the tiny room of the minister’s house, in the attic bedroom where my father is reading. This is the very same angel who held a sword at the church’s door—but now he holds a rose branch thick with flowers. He raises the branch and touches the ceiling above Karen and above my bed. The ceiling suddenly sails aloft, and where he touched it a golden star appears. He brushes the walls of my attic, and they widen. Lo, here is the church organ! The congregation is sitting and holding their psalm books and singing. The church has come to us, to Karen and me! When the psalm is done, someone sees us and smiles and whispers, “It is good that you came, Karen.”

And this is what Karen replies; so these are the words in my mouth, too, brilliant with significance: “This is his mercy.”

Mercy! It never was what we might do that could save us. It never was our work, our penitence, our goodness that would forgive us and bring us back to God. We can do nothing! It always was the pure love and mercy of God—God’s doing, given us freely as a gift.

Mercy. Mercy is the healing that had waited for us all along. Love. Pure, holy love, unpurchased, undeserved.

When my father reads the final sentences of this story, I am crying. I am tingling. For I am not learning, but rather am experiencing the highest truth of our faith. Not in doctrine, but in fact it is releasing me from the sins against my mother, even as it is imprinting me for adulthood, to show in what I speak, to shine through what I write forever. In the deeps of my bones I know and believe in forgiveness, for I have lived it.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.