Yes, people, Hans Christian Andersen wrote novels, not just fairy tales. He wrote six novels, 51 drama (plays and similar), 25 travel literature and four auto-biography among other things. I didn’t know this when I stumbled over his book To be or not to (be) in my grandfather’s bookshelf. I’ve seen the translation in English as both To be or not to and To be or not to be. It depends on the translator. In Danish the title is At være eller ikke være, (To be or not to be), and in Norwegian the title is Dagen i Morgen (The day tomorrow). The Norwegian title sounds better in Norwegian.
By the title alone you can guess that this is a very philosophical book, borrowing the title from one of the most known philosophical discussions in western literature.
Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
– Hamlet, Act III, scene I
While this soliloquies starts with the question whether Hamlet should kill himself or do something towards the problems he is in, it develops into a question of if there is something out there, or more precise, if there is a god. The argument against suicide in the text is that, if there is a God whom has said killing yourself will put you in hell, surely suffering a few years is worth not receiving that punishment. Put more bluntly; I can’t risk killing myself for fear of being sent to hell if God is real. To quote Hamlet
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all – Hamlet, Act III, scene I
In a similar way, To be or not to (be) is about faith, about the question of what one can believe in (one god, which god or in no god). This question was quite common among H. C. Andersen’s contemporary writers.
The Danish Golden age as inspired by the German romantics. It reaches from about 1815 to around 1850. With the Danish literature at the time there was a focus on a spiritual literation. This covers more than a purely “God is dead”, but was a way to explore and unify spirituality, philosophy and religion.
To be or not to (be) is a part of this unification. The story is about a boy whom is adopted by a priest, and when he goes to university gets interested in the natural sciences.
“It’s the miracle of our time” exclaimed Niels.
“That’s how it can appear” said the old priest, “But it is man-made. Don’t give them a holy name.”
– To be or not to (be), IX, my translation
The book presents the old archaic faith, what happens to faith when faced with the technological breakthrough that where happening at the time. The book also dives into how faith can change and about how faith can face war and death.
While the protagonist Niels takes a stand at the end, I didn’t feel like the book was mocking one group of people, or saying one faith (the faiths mentioned in the book were Christianity, Judaism or Atheism) was the correct one. I felt like the book presented these people in a positive light, showing both the positive and negative sides, and trying more to find a common ground than picking a side. I also enjoyed the theological discussions the books raised, especially about whether or not having a faith in a god meant that you couldn’t be interested in natural science and technology or if it was rather a celebration of his/her/their work. I was captivated by how Andersen worked around talking about how people of different faiths can live together in the same society and be there for one another.
“Do you believe,” the sick asked “that there is a life after death?”
The word where uttered so severely they moved him in a fundamental way, him that didn’t believe in that kind of life. He didn’t respond. The question made him uncomfortable. He couldn’t give an answer against his own beliefs, but in this circumstance to tell him “No, I do not” was impossible. “Is there a life after death?” repeated Julius with a weak voice.
“The Christian believes so” he said.
“Yes,” exclaimed the dying, “Esther says so”. He bowed his head and his eyes closed never to open again.
– To be or not to (be), VI, my translations
To me, this is one of the best books about living in a multi-faith systems I have ever read. How can and should we live in regard to change and when it comes to people with a different life stance and faith system than ourself. While the book is respectful, it also doesn’t shy away from the difficulty of the theme, even including two different stories of children choosing a different path than their parents.
The writing style is filled with the fragility and depression of Andersen’s fairy tales. It is a slow build that I could have been without, but it it is worth the wait. The slow parts in the middle becomes a welcomed breather to digest everything.
Now the biggest aspect of the book is that while the subject matter is complex, the book is an easy read. The same way that his fairy tales are easy reads despite talking about self-sacrificing oneself in the name of love (The Little Mermaid), the barrier between machine and living things and if we can get the positive from living things if we treat them as machines (The Nightingale) or if evil is something someone is born with and unchangeable or if people can change if you are willing to put in the effort (The Snow Queen).
More fairy tale writers should write novels on heavy topics. In a time when some themes (like different faiths) is considered so controversial we need books like this one to present them easy and respectful. Happy reading.