Hans Christian Andersen: Behind the happy stories

By Robert N. Jenkins


I am like water. Everything brings me in motion, everything is mirrored in me. This must be part of my nature as a creative writer, and often I have derived pleasure and blessing from it, although often it has been a torment.

- Hans Christian Andersen

ODENSE, Denmark -- It may seem odd that the creator of such beloved fairy tales as The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling could proclaim, at age 50, that he was “often in torment.’’ But scholars know that the stories are aimed at adults as much as children, for they tell of unrequited love, and of being shunned because of physical appearance.

Andersen wrote these stories as a release from that torment.

He wrote, too, for his livelihood, but in 1834, at 29, he applied for a job at the Royal Library "to be freed from the heavy burden of having to write in order to live."

Alas, the Library also rejected him.

This handsome statue of the unhandsome author sits in a pedestrian area of Odense.But that was 176 years ago, and now the Royal Library proudly displays original manuscripts. And in 2005, as part of the national commemoration of the 200th anniversary of his birth, 30,000 copies of The Ugly Duckling, translated into 10 languages including Turkish and Kurdish, were handed out to foreign visitors.

The birthday celebration included a film festival, stage performances, new displays in the recently enlarged museum here, and more. No one would have dreamt of such things when he was born in Odense, on an island about 85 miles southwest of Copenhagen.

In 1805, this place was a large village of about 5,000. That was big enough to have a poor neighborhood, which is where his parents – he a cobbler, she a washerwoman – lived.

They shared a seven-room house with at least two other families.

When Hans was about 2, the Andersens moved to another house that they shared with just one other family. The Andersens' total living space measured about 11 by 14, divided into two rooms. One room was the kitchen; by the window in the other room, his father worked on shoes.

The youngster would often sit above the rooms in a loft, looking out a window. Legend has it that from ice crystals formed on the window, he drew inspiration for his The Snow Queen.

Hans had no friends his age; he enjoyed the old women who entertained him with stories. They were giving him ideas he would later mold into his fairy tales.

However, the lad pictured himself not as a writer but rather a dancer and singer.

Off to seek his fortune

Hans' father admired Emperor Napoleon and joined the French Army, only to be killed when Hans was 11. Three years later, he boarded a coach to Copenhagen, drawn by the promise of life onstage.

He carried a letter of introduction from a book publisher, addressed to a ballerina in the Royal Ballet. Hans began to dance for her, but he was tall, gangly and inept. The ballerina had him thrown out.

Ultimately, the teenager found work as a singer in large productions and was befriended by a director of the Royal Theater, who thought Hans might have writing talent.

This patron sent him off to a school. But once again, Andersen proved mediocre – he was 24 before he graduated.

He traveled about Europe and soon fell in love with the sister of a friend. But she was already engaged; she wrote Andersen a farewell letter. When he died more than 40 years later, her letter was found in a leather pouch he wore around his neck.

But during his travels, Andersen wrote essays on what he noticed. His writing was well-received, and he was able to meet notable writers such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens.

Nonetheless, Andersen never grew wealthy, nor did anyone return his love. There are reports that he cared for certain men as much as for certain women.

He pined for the famous singer Jenny Lind -- known as “the Swedish Nightingale” – but she liked him only as a friend. For her he wrote The Nightingale.

Not just a guest

Because Andersen was adept at reciting his stories, he often was the performing houseguest of the wealthy and of minor nobles. He would gather children around him, and while the adults listened in, he would tell a tale.

All the while Andersen would be spinning a folded piece of paper in one hand while he snipped it with scissors. When he finished his story, he would unfold his paper to reveal astonishing cutouts: windmills, castles, fairies, even -- as displayed in the Hans Christian Andersen museum here – a man hanging from a gallows and a three-dimensional rocking chair.

On display in the Andersen museum are many of the silhouettes Hans skillfully created with scissors while he related his fairy tales.

A pair of his scissors and one of his pens also are on display in the museum. This is actually the fourth version of the museum:

The first was a tiny thing, opened in 1908 in the house where he was born little more than a century earlier. This museum was enlarged with creation of a new building next door, which opened in 1930.

In the early 1970s, a new museum was built. And finally, in anticipation of the bicentennial of his birth, with his worldwide fame now established, a modernization of that museum took place between 2002 and 2004. When it opened, it had five times more display space.

Among its outstanding features is a compelling timeline – a wall of photos and antiques that portray the immense changes in the world during his life, 1805 to 1875. These included the rise and fall of Napoleon I, Karl Marx, Queen Victoria and the spread of the British Empire, the U.S. Civil War, invention of steam engines, the spread of the railroad, the growing Industrial Revolution, and a vast increase in free education.

The acceptance of Andersen’s work can be judged by the fact that despite the surge of science, technology and ever-worsening warfare, his tales of fairies, mermaids and princesses continued to delight generations of readers.

And so the museum includes a large display of these works, as translated into more than 130 languages. He is credited with creating 174 fairy tales, 14 novels and short stories, 12 travel essays and an estimated 800 poems.

Three times every day in July more than a dozen of the locals don costumes to perform a charming musical review of snippets of Andersen's works, on a stage next to the museum.

Also featured in the museum are several photos of the author taken in the 1860s, when portrait photography was a new art form. Though he possessed an imposingly large nose and pinched face, he thought himself attractive and enjoyed posing for the camera.

He was sought after by photographers because, by then, his genius had been recognized.

But if he had not earlier suffered such rejection -- and torment -- would he have created the stories that have moved people the world over?

Would his home town have created, and recreated, a museum for him that recorded in its first 41 years 1-million visitors – a phenomenal figure considering Odense’s location.

His popularity and the value of the museum continue: In 2005, the year of the bicentennial, the museum recorded more than 185,000 visitors. And now, three times each July day, more than a dozen townsfolk in costume perform a charming musical review of his stories. This free show takes place next to the museum and a tiny lake – occupied by a few ducks and a young woman portraying The Little Mermaid.

The story of Hans Christian Anderson at last has a happy ending.

If you go

The H.C. Andersen Museum nestles in the walkable old town of the otherwise quite-modern Odense. It is about eight blocks from the train station; the trip from Copenhagen takes just 75 minutes, so this is an easy daytrip from the capital.

Once a sleepy village days away from the capital of Copenhagen, Odense has preserved much of its historic streetscape and now is a lively town.

More info:The English-language web site for all three museums is www.museum.odense.dk/en.aspx.

A rewarding lunch choice in town is the traditional Danish buffet – think excellent fish, cheeses, crusty breads and cold salads – at Den Grimme Aelling, the Ugly Duckling. It is in an ancient building in one of the oldest parts of town. (www.grimme-aelling.dk).

Catch a cab back to town and either return to Copenhagen by train, or spend the night at First Hotel Grand, an old charmer near a lively pedestrian commercial area. (www.firsthotels.com/en/Our-hotels/Denmark/Odense-C).

Photo credit: All images courtesy of VisitOdense, www.visitodense.com





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