10 Writing Prompts from Hans Christian Andersen
I’ve had my fancy leather-bound collection of Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales for ages now and been trying to find the time to read some of them. Then it dawned on me. I have a link for you but I did not use the stories from the site to write this article. There may be discrepancies in the title or details. The site does list all the stories in chronological order with the date of original publication, which I have included here. The book that I am using says this about the translation: “The stories in this edition are taken from Heinrich Oskar Sommer’s translation Stories & Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (London: George Allen, 1897).” I will keep them in the order in which they appear in my book.
I picked stories I hadn’t heard before avoiding the classics such as, Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid, and The Ugly Duckling. As I read I was reminded just how strange, and macabre, some of these stories are. I will have to go back and read the classics to see just how much Disney had to clean them up for kids. I hope you enjoy these odd little tales as much as I did.
1) The Rose-Elf 1839
In the most beautiful rose in the garden lived a little elf. He was so tiny he could not be seen by humans. He played in the garden all day and slept in his rose at night. But one night, he didn’t make it back before the sun set and his rose had closed. Never having slept outside before, he was frightened and rushed to the summer house across the lawn where he might stay the night in the honeysuckle blooms.
When he arrived he heard a young couple talking. The young man was to depart and both he and the woman were lamenting. The girl’s brother hated her suitor and was sending him on an errand that would necessitate a long journey. Upon their parting the young woman gave him a rose, first kissing it. With her kiss, the rose opened and the elf flew into it.
The rose was placed in the man’s breast pocket and he rose off into the woods. Not far out, the young man was accosted and murdered. His head was cut off and both head and body buried in the bushes. The murder mused how the dead man would be assumed lost on his journey and no one would ever suspect him. The elf stowed away on a leaf under the killer’s hat and returned to the estate he had left.
Upon returning the evil brother visited his sister while she still slept. He bent over her and laughed, at which point the elf on his leaf drifted down onto the windowsill. When the brother had left, the elf whispered in the girl’s ear what had happened and offered as proof that it was not just a dream the leaf upon which he had ridden.
When she woke and found the leaf she believed her dream to be true. As soon as night fell she snuck off and went to the place the elf had told her and found her lover buried there. She wept and wept and wanted to bring the body home but could only carry his head. This she concealed and when she returned home placed in a flower pot and covered it with soil and a jasmine bough she had taken from the sad grave site.
The girl cried over the flower pot often and was harshly derided by her brother who didn’t know what she had hidden there. As time went on she grew pale and wan. One day the little elf found her asleep over the pot and whispered in her ear the beauty of the rose elf and all the wonderful things he could think of. She drifted into death amidst the lovely images of her dream and joined her love in Heaven. In it’s grief, the jasmine bloomed.
The brother took the jasmine back to his own room and the rose elf spent the night traveling between the blooms telling all the jasmine elves about the evil deeds of the brother and sad loss of the sister. The remained calm and simply replied, “We know.” The rose elf was angry and wanted them to be angry with him. He flew off to find the bees and requested their assistance in getting revenge on the brother.
In the night the jasmine elves came out with poisoned barbs. They first gave the brother evil dreams and then stabbed his tongue, killing him. In the morning the rose elf returned with the bees and found their revenge had already been done. The great swarm could not be turned back, however, and when one of the many men in the room lifted the pot to move it, a bee stung him on the hand. He dropped the pot and the young lover’s head was revealed. The men in the room instantly understood all that had happened.
The queen bee sang a song of the flowers and rose elf and how the smallest creatures can exact revenge for evil deeds.
Revenge stories usually center around a character personally wronged. Someone who lost a family member or was double crossed. In reading this story I found the idea of a third party taking up the mantle of revenge to be nearly heartwarming. The rose elf was so touched by the love of the young couple and the evil deeds of the brother that he took it upon himself to reveal the wrongs, soothe the girl in her last moments, and eventually take action against the brother.
Try writing a story where a witness finds a reason compelling enough to make it their goal to get revenge for someone they don’t know.
2) The Daisy 1838
There once was a little daisy growing in a field at the edge of a forest. There was a garden a short way off but it was alone in the grass, though it was not sad to be so. I quite enjoyed its life and could, without envy, rejoice in the song of the lark overhead.
The garden flowers were proud, the peonies and tulips. They stood tall and puffed up. But it was the daisy that the lark stopped to praise, not those haughty flowers. The daisy was everjoyed to be praised by such a creature. The other flowers refused to acknolwedge the daisy and seemed quite sullen.
A short time later a little girl came from the house and cut the lovely garden flowers and took them back inside. The daisy mourned for them that night.
In the morning, the daisy heard the lark agian, but it sounded sad. And well it should be. It had been caught by some boys and put in a cage. The next thing the daisy knew it was being scooped up and put in the cage with the poor bird. They boys then left and the lark and daisy were alone.
The lark grew sadder and weaker, it’s song fading. The daisy wished to comfort it but could not say any of the things it was thinking. Finally the lark died. The boys had forgotten to give it any water. The daisy mourned the poor lark.
When the boys returned they also mourned the lark. They cried and gave it a lovely burial. The daisy noticed they paid it much more respect in death than they had in life. When they were done they took the cage, with the daisy in side, and dumped in in the road. They daisy, which had cared so much for the lark and loved life so fully, was left to perish alone.
This story made me sad. The poor daisy had such a fleeting life and only the lark had noticed how sweet it was. Despite how this short story made me feel for the daisy, the question I had at the end was: Will the boys catch another lark? And will they treat it better?
What if the daisy had been brought into this situation with the lark only to find out that this was not the boy’s first foray into kidnapping. Imagine a scenario, perhaps a kidnapping, perhaps a political conspiracy, where the main character gets caught up only to find out that whatever it was had happened before. And was going to happen again. Will the daisy find a way to save itself and save the next lark?
3) The Saucy Boy 1835
One stormy night an old poet sat inside by his warm fire feeling sorry for the poor people getting soaked out side. Then he heard pounding at his door and someone pleading to be let inside. When he opened the door, he found a little boy, naked as can be, shivering and soaked.
He ushered the boy inside and guided him to the fire and asked his name. They boy said he was called Cupid. He saw the boy carried a lovely little bow and arrows which had surely been ruined by the rain. He helped the boy warm up and fed him an apple. When he said he was sorry about the bow, the boy leaped down and ran to it. He insisted it was fine and as proof took an arrow and show the old poet right in the heart then ran out the door.
The old man laid on the floor in agony and declared he would make it his duty to warn everyone how terrible Cupid was and urge them to stay away from him. And so all the girls and boys were on the look out but Cupid was clever and disguised himself. He shot them anyway. He even shot your mother and father. Even your old grandmother whose wound has long since healed, though she will never forget. “Now you know what a bad boy this wicked Cupid is.”
I’m not above admitting I chose this because the title made me laugh. Then the story made me laugh. Can you come up with any other little encounters between humans and mythical beings?
4) The Old Street Lamp 1847
There once was an old lamp post that was being retired. It was taken down and heading for an inspection to determine whether it should be used elsewhere or melted down. It was quite nervous about the whole ordeal and on its way, remembered some episodes from its life fondly. It remembered reading a young man’s love letter with him for the first time, and the person who stopped to weep under its light during a funeral procession.
Most of all it remembered the old watchman and his wife. The watchman started his post at the same time the lamp was put in and he had lit it for the first time. His wife had come to take care of it in her old age and they always made sure it was polished and filled with oil.
It came to a bridge where it met three who wished to take the old lamp’s place now that it was retired. They were a herring head, a rotten plank, and a glow worm. They all gave off light and felt the lamp should choose them as successor. The lamp told them none gave off enough light and it didn’t get to choose besides.
At that moment, the wind blew into the lamp and told it had a gift. It blew memories into the lamp so that it would always be able to recall its experiences as clearly as when they first happened. It would also be able to “see all that is read about, or spoken of, in your presence.” The lamp thanked the wind profusely. The wind then asked who else had a gift. It asked the moon, who said the lamps never gave it light and so it had no gift for a lamp. A drop of rain fell down and said it gave the lamp the power to turn to dust and crumble in an instant if it so chose. Then a shooting star fell and filled the lamp with another gift. This was the gift to project its memories and all that it heard for others to see. The lamp was exceedingly excited by the wind warned it that the power would only work if a wax candle was lit inside it.
After receiveing such wonderful gifts, the lamp was even more worried about being melted down. In the end it had nothing to fear. The old watchman had asked that he might have the lamp as a gift for service since they had done their jobs the exact same time. It was granted and the lamp now sat in the armchair by the fire in the cellar where the old man and woman lived.
They continued to take good care of it and it was quite happy, but it wished to use its power for them. One day the old man was reading a book about Africa and the lamp could imagine all the images he described. It wished that it could project them onto the walls for the old couple. Even on the old man’s birthday when the woman finally lit the lamp again, she only did so with oil, not wax candles, which were a rarity in their house anyway. The lamp realized it would never get to use its gift and though perhaps it was best to be melted down after all.
The lamp had a dream that the old couple had died and it was being taken to be melted down. Instead of turn to rust and crumble it went along. It was recast as a beautiful candlestick that looked like a bouquet of flowers. The candlestick was used by a poet who kept wax candles in it and burned them often. As he wrote his poems the images he created were cast about the room.
When the lamp woke up it was happy again and able to live in peace with the old couple from then on.
There are many stories in this book about inanimate objects. This is one of the more touching ones. I enjoyed the lamp’s reminiscing and the relationship it had with the old couple. The gifts were the most fascinating part, however. I couldn’t help but wonder if all the retiring lamps were given gifts and if so, were they the same? If not, what did this lamp do to deserve such magical gifts? And what if someone found out about these magical lamps?
Imagine that this was not the only lamp to be given gifts. You can invent new ones or keep them the same for all the lamps. Now come up with a few characters who might want to get their hands on these lamps, some for good and others for evil. What could they do with them? If they were melted down what other enchanted objects could be made? And what lengths would these people go to to get them?
5) The Shepherdess and The Sweep 1845
On a table beneath a looking glass that contained a beautiful porcelain shepherdess and an equally beautiful porcelain chimney sweep. They were in love and wished to be married. There was a third figure on the table behind them, a large porcelain old man from China who could nod his head. The old man had decided to act as the shepherdess’s grandfather despite there being no real relation. He had promised her to another.
There was an old wooden chest across the room carved with vines and stag heads and a large figure of a man with goat legs. The children of the house had named him Under-General-Commander-War-Sergeant-in-Chief Billy Goatlegs. He had taken a fancy to the shepherdess and when he asked if he could marry her, the old man had nodded.
The shepherdess hated this idea and told the old man she heard he had eleven other wives in the cupboard. “Then you will surely be the twelfth,” the old man said. So, the shepherdess asked the sweep to run away with her.
Together they made it down from the table and hid the drawer of the window seat. There were three incomplete packs of playing cards and a doll theater inside. A play was on about a couple in love who were not allowed to get married. The shepherdess couldn’t stay and watch any longer so they ran out again.
The old man was starting to move and they couple thought he would sure catch them so looked for a place to hide. The shepherdess asked the sweep to take her out into the wide world where they would be free from the old man and Under-General-Commander-War-Sergeant-in-Chief Billy Goatlegs. The sweep protested that it was very large and she had to be sure brave if he was to take her there. She said she was sure and they went the dark and dangerous way through the stove and up the chimney.
When they finally reached the top the world was too big and the shepherdess cried on the sweep’s shoulder. She begged him to take her back. He was worried about the old man and Under-General-Commander-War-Sergeant-in-Chief Billy Goatlegs , but she said she couldn’t stay out there and begged so much he took her back.
When they reached the room it was silent. When the peeked out of the stove they saw the old man broken on the floor. The shepherdess felt bad for him but the sweep said he could be riveted. They climbed back up onto the table and took their places.
The old man was riveted and could no longer nod his head. When Under-General-Commander-War-Sergeant-in-Chief Billy Goatlegs asked if he was to marry the shepherdess or not the old man made no reply. “Thus the lovers remained together, blessed the grandfather’s rivet, and loved each other till they broke to pieces.”
The actual story starts with the cupboard and Under-General-Commander-War-Sergeant-in-Chief Billy Goatlegs, which is an amazing name. I changed the beginning to make it a little smoother. However, starting with the goatman and the children naming him sets up a query. Is the whole thing a game the children are playing? Did they break the old man?
Try writing a story that interlaces with the one above about the children in the house. Whose house is it? Whose children are they? Do they live here full-time or is this their only visit? What happens to them when the old man breaks?
6) The Wicked Prince 1840
There was once a wicked prince who was conquering all of his neighboring countries mercilessly. He let the soldiers ravish the land and the citizens of the towns they took and didn’t have any problems with the worst cruelty.
All of his conquests brought great wealth to his own country and the people, not seeing the desolation left behind by the excising of these riches, marveled at the wondrous palaces and churches being constructed.
The prince also loved his beautiful projects and made them bigger and bigger. Finally he had statues of himself erected in public places. When he tried to get his statues put in the churches and on the alters the priests refused. They told him God was more powerful and they dared not do as he asked.
So the wicked prince declared he would conquer God. He set his kingdom to building a massive flying ship. It was powered by eagles and was beautiful and multicolored like a peacock feather. Where the eyes of the feather would be were guns.
He flew up to Heaven and God sent a single angel to fight him off. The prince shot at it with all his weapons but none damaged the angel but one bullet. One drop of blood fell from the wings and landed upon the ship and instant sank it. It was as if the ship had tripled in weight and the eagles could not keep it aloft. It fell through the clouds and landed in a large tree in the forest below.
The prince was determined to win so he ordered more ships to be built. While they were under construction God sent a swarm of gnats down upon the prince. They flew about his face and drove him quite mad. He had special clothing made to shield himself from them but one gnat managed to stay inside the barrier. It got into his ear and stung him with poison.
The prince was flailing about with madness for the gnat in his ear and all his soldiers and courtiers laughed at him. How powerful could he be if he was taken down by a single gnat?
Hey, a story with people in it! And God? I would really love to see the battle in Heaven. I can imagine the single angel flying down against a shadow of bullets. *shivers*
What I would really like to see, though, is the reaction of the angel, the other angels, and even God when that single drop of blood fell. Was it simply fortuitous that it sank the ship? Could the prince have won if the drop had missed? Write a story that shows both sides of that battle and the stakes for the holy side.
7) The Little Match Girl 1846
On an incredibly cold and dark New Year’s Eve, a little girl was wandering around a city with no hat or shoes. She’d lost her slippers, which were too big for her by far, running from a cart, and now her feet were blue with cold. Worst of all she hadn’t sold a single match all day. She was afraid to go home where her father would surely beat her. It was cold there too anyway.
Finally she stopped in an alley and sat against the wall to rest. She decided to light a single match to warm her fingers at least. When she lit the match, it was as if a warm stove had come to life before her and she warmed her fingers and hands all the way. When it went out the cold night engulfed her once more. She decided to light another to warm her feet.
This time when she lit the match the wall in front of her became translucent and she could see the dinner table set with a New Year’s feast. She breathed the aroma deeply. Just as the roast goose hopped off the table and came toward her, the match went out. The wall was solid again.
The girl couldn’t help but light one more match. This time she sat under the most magnificent Christmas tree she had ever seen. When the match went out the candles on the tree rose up into the sky until they turned into the stars.
At this the girl though that someone must be dying. Her grandmother, the only person she had ever loved, had told her that shooting stars signaled a soul rising to Heaven. And this time when she lit the match, she saw her dear grandmother. The girl called out to the woman who looked better than the girl had ever seen her.
“Please take me with you!,” she called. “I know you’ll vanish when the match goes out.”
In a rush, she lit the entire rest of the box. the light blazed like the daylight. Her grandmother took her in her kind arms and they rose together into the sky. The girl was no longer cold or hungry.
In the morning some people found her there. Her body was leaning against the wall and the box of burnt matches sat in her lap. They figured she must have tried to warm herself. What they didn’t know was how happy she was now in Heaven with her grandmother.
From the moment I started reading I knew this poor child was to have a sad ending. And despite the happy spin of going to Heaven with her grandmother I still couldn’t help but feel sad. Must be the mother in me.
In any case this story made me think of magic. At first I thought perhaps it could be taken down the line where the girl was just learning that she had magic powers. She would survive in this instance and adventures would follow as she learned to control her new powers.
Then I thought, what if the matches were magic? Where did her family get them? Could they have been slipped in by some kindly magician/wizard/whatever? Was the intention to save her? Does the kindly (or perhaps not so kindly) purveyor of magic deal in more than enchanted matches? How does they handle the loss of the girl and what do they do next?
8) “There Is No Doubt About It” 1852
Once there was a fine hen who was very respectable in every way. One day she was plucking at herself with her beak and a feather fell out. She admired herself and declared, “The more I pluck, the more beautiful I become.” And she went to sleep.
While most of the hens slept one could not. Finally she turned to her neighbor and asked if the other had heard what the respectable hen had said. “She said she intends to pluck herself in order to look good for the cocks. Did you hear?”
Above the hen house sat a family of owls, who have very good hearing. They heard the hen and the mother owl said to the father, “I know you heard that. There is a hen who has lost sight of respectability and plucks her feathers and lets the cocks see it.” Then she flew off to tell the doves. To the doves she said, “Did you hear of the hen who plucked herself clean for cocks? She is bound to freeze to death if she hasn’t already!”
The doves cooed down into their own yard, “There are two hens who have died from plucking themselves clean to look different and attract the attention of the cocks.”
“Wake up! Wake Up!” crowed the cock, and flew upon his board. Sleep was still in his eyes, but yet he crowed out: “Three hens have died of their unfortunate love for a cock. They had plucked out all their feathers. It is a horrible story; I will not keep it to myself, but let it go farther.”Has Christian Andersen: Classic Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble, p. 195
“Let it go farther!” called the bats, hens, and cocks until the story had circulated all the poultry yards and come back around to the one where the story had begun. By then the story was of five hens who had plucked themselves clean to show off for a cock which had grown leanest. Then they all pecked each other until they were bloody and died. It shamed their families and was a great loss to the owner.
The hen whose loose feather had started the whole thing heard this story and understandably could not see herself anywhere in it. She declared that she would make sure it made the paper so all could know the dangers and those hens and their families would get all that they deserved.
It got into the papers, it was printed; and there is no doubt about it, one little feather may easily grow into five hens.Has Christian Andersen: Classic Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble, p. 195
Hilariously worded sexist themes aside, this story is still amusing. I’m pretty sure they still have kids play that game of telephone in school to show how word of mouth gets twisted. When I was a kid I was always disappointed in that one kid who would just make something up rather than let the message get naturally warped by misunderstandings and word choice differences. As an adult I now realize that that one kid is part of the lesson.
But I digress.
This story gives us the opportunity to play with an unreliable narrator. Find a situation where a character comes into some information. Don’t make it clear whether this information is reliable or not. Force your characters to make decisions based on this information, or go looking for the truth.
You could also write from the perspective of that first hen, as it were, after the story has been blown out of proportion. Imagine a scenario where she finds out that she somehow started the whole thing.
9) The Two Brothers 1859
In a home full of bubbling concoctions and powdered herbs, was a family of parents and two boys. The parents were constantly telling the young boys that they should always strive for the truth. They both took to this idea in their own ways.
The older of the two wished to know the truth of the world. He envisioned himself an explorer discovering the hidden treasures of science. The younger of the two buried himself in books and raged against the injustices found there.
One night at bedtime, the younger boy took his book to bed with him for he wished to finish reading of Solon. All of a sudden his bed flew into the sky and sailed back in time. He heard the voice of Solon speaking the motto fof Denmark: By the law the land is ruled.”
The genius of the human race stood in the humble room, bent down over the bed and imprinted a kiss on the boy’s forehead: “Be thou strong in fame and strong in the battle of life! With truth in thy heart fly towards the land of truth!”Has Christian Andersen: Classic Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble, p. 332
The older brother stood at the window musing on the nature of the mist he saw outside. It was not the elves dancing as his nurse had told him. He saw a passing meteor and admired the stars in the sky. A voice said to him, “Fly with me.”
And the might genius of mankind carried him into space, where the heavenly bodies are bound together by the rays that pass from star to star. Our earth revolved in the thin air, and the cities upon it seemed to lie quite close to each other. Through the spheres echoed the words: “What is ear, what is far, when thou art lifted by the mighty genius of mind?”Has Christian Andersen: Classic Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble, p. 333
He was back in his room by the window and his brother slept in his bed. Their mother called their names: Anders Sandoe and Hans Christian. They were the brothers Oersted.
This is not a fairy tale it is an origin story. I looked up the brothers and found that they were both famous Danish figures. The elder brother, Hans Christian Oersted, was a physicist and the younger, Anders Sandoe Oersted, was a lawyer and politician. While the former seemed to live up to his seeking for truth, I have some doubts about the latter. One of his famous cases involved sending an escaped slave back to the west indies. While legal, not exactly just. In any case, they were clearly highly regarded at the time Hans Christian Andersen wrote his tales.
Take a character(s) from something you’ve written or are working on and give them a semi-supernatural origin story. Pick one of their main traits and envision some childhood event, real or imagined, that could have instilled that quality in them.
10) The Old Tombstone 1852
It was the time of year when people say the evenings are lengthening in a small town and a large family was gathered in their wealthy relative’s living room.
They were currently talking about a large stone outside the kitchen door which the maids often laid the spoons on after scouring them and upon which the children liked to play. One person said they thought it was an old tombstone and the old patriarch agreed.
He told of how the old convent church had been sold and all the other things on the property too, including the tombstones. Many were cut in half and used as paving stones. This one was bought by the old man’s father. The children pipped up that they could make out some words and letters on the stone in the rain. They could see “Preben” and “S” and “Martha.”
The old man grew excited. He remembered that old couple. They had lived in a nice house up on a hill and were said to have some money but never dressed fancy. Everyone loved them and loved to see them sitting on their bench on the porch.
One day when the old man was a boy, he and his father were going to see them and when they got there the old woman had just died. The old man was crying like a child as he lamented what his life could possibly be like now without her.
Then he began to reminisce about their youth and courtship, their wedding and life together. As he spoke he cheered some and the boy took it all in and felt the warmth and joy the old man was speaking of.
The old man died shortly after and the couple were the last to be buried in the convent church yard. Then their house was torn down as it was in disrepair. Then the church was torn down.
The old man broke from his recollection angry at the fact that everything ends up forgotten. And indeed the conversation eventually turned to other matters.
There was a boy in the room, however, who had enjoyed the old man’s tale. He went to the window and looked out at the moon-bathed stone. Everything he’d heard of the old couple was now focused on that stone.
Then an invisible angel came to the boy and kissed him saying
“Preserve the seed that has been entrusted to thee, that it may bloom and ripen! Preserve it well! By thee, my child, shall the effaced inscription of the weather-beaten tombstone be handed down to future generations in bright letters of gold. The couple shall again wander arm-in-arm and smiling through he old streets, sit with rosy cheeks upon the high bench under the lime-tree, nodding to rich and poor. The seed this hour shall ripen in the course of years into a lovely poem. The good and the beautiful is not forgotten; it lives in legend and song.”Has Christian Andersen: Classic Fairy Tales, Barnes & Noble, p. 335
This story struck me as a bit self-aggrandizing. Andersen is calling attention to the importance of his own collecting of stories. With an angel. It’s not a new concept though, or even a bad one. The Greeks believed in living on through memory and story and many people still value the idea today. As a writer, I must say that it appeals to me as well.
I loved the image I got at the end of this story of the old couple rising from the tombstone and embracing as the old man recites his memories and the boy takes up the mantle of remembering. As if they literally exist as long a someone remembers them. This concept alone would be a fun one to base a story on. In a world such as this the bard would become a religious figure ensuring that people lived on after death. How then might one completely smite their enemies? By removing all those who remember them of course.
I also liked the parting words of the angel, that a poem would be written. The idea that this couple was of particular importance and perhaps that poem would be the seminal work of some writer in the future.
You can see that, toward the end, I gave in to some of the lovely wording of the original and used quotes. Sometimes the old fashioned way was just too good to paraphrase.
I hope you enjoyed these stories as much as I did. I realize only one actually had a fairy tale creature in it (The Rose Elf) but it was a fun, diverse collection of characters.
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