The Paper Cut Fairytale by Hans Christian Andersen

By Karsten Eskildsen

In early May 1864, two bazaars were held in Copenhagen. One was hosted by the Royal Shooting Society in the building presently occupied by the Copenhagen City Museum and benefited the victims of the bombardment of Sønderborg – a calamity of war that had befallen the Southern Jutland town the same year – and the families of fallen soldiers in the defeat against Prussia. The other bazaar was held in a small hall in Amaliegade in Copenhagen and benefited Danish prisoners of war. Hans Christian Andersen donated a large paper cut, which Odense City Museums acquired at auction on 2 December 2002. Andersen originally added a little verse commemorating the charitable event.


This cutting is somewhat dear

The price is a half a rix-dollar

But it is an entire paper-cut fairytale

Acquired out of the goodness of your heart.

H.C. Andersen


No one knows what price the paper cut fetched. However, on the day of auction Andersen entered the following remark in his diary referring to the large paper cut among others:

’Made paper cuts for the bazaars.’

He also mentioned the rumour that master baker August Bruun, purveyor to the Royal Court, was purported to have purchased the large paper cut for almost two rix-dollars – the Danish currency at the time – which amounted to more than four times the price so romantically advertised by Andersen. Furthermore, it was rumoured that the baker had mounted the paper cut in his private copy of Andersen’s Collected Fairy Tales. This, however, can be confirmed since it sits here to this day, 139 years later. Opposite the title sheet the baker wrote: ‘This paper-cut fairytale has been donated by Andersen to a bazaar benefiting Danish prisoners of war’. Signed: A. Bruun. Copenhagen, 1 June 1864.’


It is easy to understand why a satisfied benefactor should wish to regard the cutting made by the master of fairytales himself as a fairytale in its own right – even without the inscribed verse by Andersen. But the baker’s comment also reflects an interesting approach to the understanding of Andersen’s paper cuts. Several sources mention that Andersen’s cuttings were made while storytelling. Nothing has been recorded on the nature of his oral storytelling – whether it was general discourse on the figures he would be cutting, whether fairytales would be recited, or more likely that he would improvise. No doubt, making paper cuts was to some extent a method by which Andersen would systemise his inspiration before finally turning it into poetry. This is no surprise since he had always aspired to become a poet and had made paper cuts all his life.

Viewed in this light, the large paper cut is indeed a fairytale, although its most novel feature at the time was its size. It is the first large cutting (42 cm x 34 cm) by Andersen’s hand. He was later to make more. His large paper cuts were most probably made for bazaars. After all, at auction they had to be attractive sales items. However, large paper cuts were also open to a wide variety of motifs. This first large cutting features many of his celebrated paper-cut characters and motifs – swans, angles, ballet dancers, a dancing Pierrot clown, festoons and theatre masks both above and below. But additionally, there are two rare characters: A profile of a man and a tragi-comical jester wearing a short-tailed jester’s hat. These two figures point to the later fairytale The Will-o’-the-Wisps are in Town where the jester represents the man ‘who once knew so many fairytales.’ In contrast to the jester, the male profile does not face the viewer but the realm of the paper-cut tale – just as the man in the fairytale who stares so longingly at the door until ‘black spots appeared in his eyes’ in the hope that the fairytale would yet again come knocking on the door.

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