HCA goes beyond the traditional fill-in-the blank fairy tales to create characters with depth. True, this limits the amount that people can insert themselves into stories, however it also makes it more possible to insert yourself into a beautiful world and escape for a bit. Heck, that’s why I spent so many bath/shower times of my childhood imagining I was a mermaid who was going to meet a wonderful prince. These journeys are possible because his stories go beyond the simple imagine-it-yourself images to paint beautiful pictures in your mind (or for your artwork).
A common theme from the traditional fairy tales and those of HCA is the inclusion of religious ideas, although he idealizes suffering and the protestant ideals much more than your average fairy tale.
In The Little Mermaid the mermaid is searching for an immortal soul, something that humans have, but apparently mermaids do not. Heavily preoccupied with this, she decides that she must be human in order to have one, although I believe her true motivation is to be with the man she loves and to fulfill her curiosity of what lies above the sea. If she was really only interested in having an immortal soul, I believe that the writings would not have focused so heavily on her depression due to the lack of recognition from the prince. To become human she essentially sells her mermaid soul (as symbolized by her voice) to the devil (as portrayed by the sea witch). She is not accepting of her “god-given” form, and is not accepting of it because she cannot be satisfied with her own kind. In some strange way I suppose you could also comment on subtle tones of bestiality as she is half fish, an idea that can be shared with The Beauty and the Beast. She fails to gain the love of the prince which would have allowed her to remain human, thus leading to her death. She could have saved herself by murdering the prince with a knife procured by her sisters from the sea witch; however her selfless love for him forces her instead to commit suicide and accepting her fate as sea foam. Because of this she is given the opportunity to travel the world for 300 years in penance in order to gain an immortal soul. The religious aspect of her journey is placed back into the spotlight in the end and is used to help enforce the morals of the story: do not try for upward mobility if you are not ready for the trouble and suffering. HCA also subtly adds in the lesson that children should behave for their parents in order to shorten the amount of time that the little mermaid must suffer, a technique only slightly less blatant than that of Perrault who explicitly gives the morals in his stories.
The Red Shoes is another religion-centered tale by HCA, although to a greater extent than The Little Mermaid. An orphaned girl named Karen, who has no proper shoes except for a scraggly pair of red shoes, is eventually adopted by a rich older woman who throws away her red shoes. This woman goes to buy her new shoes and Karen “tricks” her into buying new red shoes fit for a princess and continues to wear them to church despite the protestations of the churchgoers and the paintings. It is said that this is because she coveted the shoes and then focuses her attention on the shoes, moving away from God and religion because she is in love with the shoes. Eventually the man holding the door seemingly curses Karen and when she dances in the shoes she cannot stop. At first they can get them off; however when she goes back to them again she cannot and misses the rest of the life of her mother and cannot go to church as the shoes prevent her. She must have her feet chopped off and tries to go back to church due to her suffering; however the shoes still stop her. Eventually the church is brought to her and in happiness her heart bursts and her soul goes to Heaven. This story is supposed to teach that we need to move away from the love of material possessions and pride; however it just makes me feel bad for Karen. I imagine that she was not very old and she was an orphan. All she wants is a pair of nice shoes and sees those of a princess and wants to be like her. This idea is similar to that of starving children being given food for the first time: they overeat. I will admit that her re-donning of the shoes is appropriately punished in fairy tale terms as she did have a chance to escape and repent; however she did not. Perhaps if someone had explained to Karen why it was wrong to be wearing bright red shoes in church it would not have been a problem. Either way, HCA managed to write an entire story based around the profuse Christian Ideals of his time and as a continuation of the more subtle Christian additions to the Brothers Grimm.
Both of HCA’s tales have spurred other interpretations just like the other fairy tales, they even have about the same amount of change to become suitable for newer generations such as the lack of death in other versions of The Little Mermaid and the lack of foot amputation in some versions of The Red Shoes (although it can still be found in many of the ballet versions and the Korean horror film).
Overall, HCA’s tales can be seen as the next step (or many unplanned dance steps) in a fairy tale journey.