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Göteborgs universitets publikationer

När Tommelise for utomlands

Om svalans betydelser i H.C. Andersens eventyr

Författare och institution:
Stina Otterberg (Institutionen för litteratur, idéhistoria och religion)
Publicerad i:
Samlaren, 129:2008 s. 92-121
Artikel, refereegranskad vetenskaplig
Sammanfattning (abstract):
ABSTRACT Stina Otterberg, När Tommelise for utomlands Om svalans betydelser i H.C. Andersens eventyr. ( When Tommelise went abroad On the significance of the swallow in the H.C. Andersen story.) This essay aims to deepen our understanding of Tommelise (Thumbelina) and the swallow as characters by suggesting a new mode of reading the story. To begin with, the complexity in the social machinery that generates the plot actions is stressed, as well as the fact that the characters all depend upon each other. The article wishes to show to what extent the swallow plays a key role – both as saviour and helpless creature. What has been considered a quality of androgynity in Tommelise’s character is here understood rather as an attribute of the swallow. It is exactly the ambiguity of gender in the swallow that not only characterizes the bird itself but creates effects on other characters and, in a fundamental way, authorizes and demands a more precise way of reading. Historically, the swallow has been considered female. In languages that lack neutral forms of the pronoun, the swallow is always feminine (cf. French ”l’hirondelle”, Italian ”la rondine”). In ancient Greek, swallow or chelidôn designates the female sex. This duly noted, it is all the more remarkable that the swallow in H.C. Andersen’s Tommelise is thoroughly neutral, always called either ”svalan” (”the swallow”) or ”den” (”it”). In a passage called ”Lost in translation”, eigtheen translations into Swedish are analysed focusing on the swallow. The material is representative over time and covers 170 years of Swedish versions of this story. The survey shows that most translations do not retain the authorially sanctioned neutrality of gender, which is the case in thirteen of the texts, allowing the swallow be neutral in only five editions. Instead, the bird is rendered either female (three translations), male (five) or both genders. The tabula rasa that the swallow constitutes in the original text genderwise, has apparently remained tempting to determine independently and silently. The essay then turns to the swallow’s symbolic dimensions in cultural and natural history. In Antiquity the swallow was considered a sacred bird. In Christianity it symbolizes both Our Lady and Christ. It is argued that the sanctity of the bird makes its earthly chambers into a holy grave, and consequently the mole’s violence on its dead body a mortal sin. The swallow’s hibernative dwelling under ground is then associated with another context, namely the ancient but at the time of the Tommelise story’s first publication still established belief that swallows spend the winter sleeping in the ground or on the bottom of lakes. Even Carolus Linnæus believed this to be a fact, although it had been known by men and women of learning for centuries that swallows actually migrate. It is pointed out how H.C. Andersen combines a scientific code with folk-lore traditions in the particular passage which focuses on how swallows endure wintertime. The opening of the swallow’s eyes by Tommelise’s magic kiss is also interpreted both in light of religious symbolism and popular imagination; in Christianity the healing of blindness is a metaphor for salvation, whereas folk-lore traditions hold that swallows which have lost their eyesight always have the ability to regain it. This produces an absolute contrast between the seeing swallow and the blind mole, where the latter will never be able to (re)claim a sight that he indeed has never owned, and therefore – as opposed to the swallow – he will never be able to see in the way romantic poets do. The article then draws attention to the swallow as messenger. In literary as well as religious sources the swallow is portrayed as an agent that brings good tidings or warns of ominous machinations and evil doings. This is also how it acts in a saga by August Strindberg ”När träsvalan kom i getapeln” which is held forward as an important intertext to Andersen’s Tommelise, a connection that has hitherto not been noted. In Virgil, the swallow is called ”garrula” (”loquacious”), and this is also how it comes forward in Tommelise. Here, its chirping contrasts against the other animal sound in the story, namely the frog’s incomprehensible ”koax! koax! brekkekekex!”, and has a meaning that can be understood. It is rightly conceived only by the story’s chosen ones, namely the two characters that correspond symbolically to the swallow – Tommelise herself and the man who tells fairy tales. The message of the swallow is ”quivit!” in the Danish original, which in French reads ”qui vit” or ”who lives?”. But as Andersen attaches no question mark, it is argued we read it as ”(s)he who lives” or ”who lives” in order to form at once both a statement and an imperative. The force of the utterance lies in its being unfinished – it calls for the completion by a principal sentence and by the actions it generates. It it here suggested that the message be considered a magic spell of performative dimensions: it dissolves the scheming against Tommelise on behalf of the field mouse and the mole and gives her the courage to break the rules and join the swallow in escape. The message is then understood to be threefold – it gives Tommelise the choice of life, it prompts the man who tells fairy tales to write the story down, and finally it calls upon the story itself to live on and thereby give eternal life to its author. During the swallow’s and Tommelise’s flight to the south, Tommelise’s sash (in Swedish ”skärp”) plays an important role as she uses it to fasten herself directly to the bird’s body. It is pointed out how the translations miss the symbolism in the Danish ”Livbaand” which literally means ”tie of life”, and it is argued that it should be read also as ”umbilical cord” in the context of this particular story. The hebrew word for swallow, ”deror”, means ”to release” – and indeed the deliverance to the fair land also becomes a conduit for Tommelise into her new life where she is given a new name. The fact that she does not choose her own name reveals a social system where the individual both affects and is affected by his/her fellow citizens – although certainly this new world seems more promising for Tommelise than her former dwellings. The essay draws two major conclusions from its analyses. Firstly, it is pointed out that the Tommelise-character is more dynamic than she has been considered to be in earlier readings of the story. The story depicts an interaction between her and the other characters. Secondly, it is questioned whether Tommelise’s escape really amounts to a striving toward asexuality. By contrast we should bear in mind that all along she is gendered, as is the partner that she finally accepts in marriage. The happy ending should therefore be interpreted not so much as a transcendence to the pure world of the ungendered soul, but rather as the admission to an alternative world where the faculty of gender is defined in another sense, that stands under a different jurisdiction, namely the botanical sexual system. Finally, it is underlined how crucial it is for the understanding of both Tommelise as a character and Tommelise as a text that the swallow retain its neutrality of gender – and that the story be translated just so, at least into languages that have the possibility of neutral forms of the pronoun.
Ämne (baseras på Högskoleverkets indelning av forskningsämnen):
Historia och arkeologi
H.C. Andersen, eventyr, Tommelise, svala, August Strindberg, symbolhistoria, naturhistoria, tolkning, kön, makt, sexualitet, översättning, performativitet, romantisk outsider, romantisk estetik
Postens nummer:
Posten skapad:
2009-03-16 11:34
Posten ändrad:
2009-03-19 11:52

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