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Wisława Szymborska and the Ageless Tales of Hans Christian Andersen


Honor Appleton's illustration (1932) for Andersen's "The Shadow"
Honor Appleton's illustration (1932) for Hans Christian Andersen's "The Shadow"

In “The Importance of Being Scared: Polish Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska on Fairy Tales and the Necessity of Fear,” writer Maria Popova celebrates “the proper kind” of fairy tales she experienced as a child in Eastern Europe for “affirm[ing] what children intuitively know to be true but are gradually taught to forget, then to dread: that the terrible and the terrific spring from the same source, and that what grants life its beauty and magic is not the absence of terror and tumult but the grace and elegance with which we navigate the gauntlet.”


Popova believes Polish poet and Noble Laureate Wisława Szymborska “makes a wonderfully spirited case for the developmental gift of frightfulness” in Szymborska’s essay on Hans Christian Andersen. For decades, Szymborska worked for the Polish literary journal Życie Literackie (Literary Life) and wrote reviews and reflections on a variety of literature. Several of her literary essays have been published in a collection called Nonrequired Reading: Prose Pieces. In a piece about Andersen called “The Importance of Being Scared,” Szymborska states, “Andersen took children seriously. He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats.” Perhaps because Syzmborska focuses on Andersen’s tales with children in mind, she admires Andersen’s “courage to write tales with unhappy endings” and his realization that goodness is not always rewarded. However, Andersen’s intended audience was not just children: he wrote stories for all ages and are, thus, a blend of naïveté and sophistication, ambiguity and certainty, fantasy and realism, and joy and sorrow. Andersen’s tales are ageless as well as timeless.

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