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The Hans Andersen fairy tale

30 November, 1999

Hans was born into squalid poverty over 200 years ago, his father died insane and his mother ended her days as an alcoholic in a workhouse. Yet his 156 fairy tales probably gave more pleasure, especially to children, than the works of any other writer. Once upon a time a poor boy of 14 left […]

Hans was born into squalid poverty over 200 years ago, his father died insane and his mother ended her days as an alcoholic in a workhouse. Yet his 156 fairy tales probably gave more pleasure, especially to children, than the works of any other writer.

Once upon a time a poor boy of 14 left his home in a Danish seaport slum to seek fame and fortune in the country’s capital. Everything seemed against him. He was shy, sickly, ugly and had no education. But his ambition was unbounded. He was convinced that future generations would honour the name of Hans Christian Andersen.

“My life is a beautiful fairy tale.” These are the opening words of his autobiography. Though not quite so beautiful as he pretended, his life was indeed a fairy tale. As a rich celebrity he was able to say, “Twenty-five years ago today I arrived with my small parcel in Copenhagen, a poor boy, and today I drank chocolate with the King and Queen.”

Hans Andersen was not the first fairy tale teller, but he was by far the most famous. For a long time his renown was greater than that of any other Scandinavian writer. In 19th century Europe his books ranked second in sales after the Bible.

He was born into squalid poverty in the port of Odense on 2 April 1805.  His father, who worked as a cobbler in the one room where they lived, died insane when Hans was 11.  He then got a job in a mill, while his illiterate mother worked as a washerwoman.  She became an alcoholic and died in the Odense workhouse in 1833. Hans wrote about her sad life with great frankness in his fairy tale, She was Good for Nothing.

His own fate should have been to become a street-urchin, as she had been. She wanted him to be a tailor, but instead he went off as a boy of 14 “to become a famous actor in Copenhagen. He tried acting but, unable even to spell, he was a complete failure. He was 17 when Jonas Collin, director of Copenhagen’s Royal Theatre, took an interest in him and had him educated. At 23 he finished secondary school and began writing at once.

His first works earned him some money, which enabled him to make his first trip abroad, to Germany. He soon became one of the most travelled men of his time. All told, he made 29 journeys, some lasting many months, to England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey and North Africa.

In his early years he wrote 30 plays and six novels, all long forgotten. His fame rests entirely on the 156 fairy tales he wrote between 1835 and 1872. Written for children, they won him world renown.

Some were taken from folklore, like those of the brothers Grimm, but most were created by his own vivid imagination. They all have a moral. They are about the conflict between good and evil, truth and falsehood, appearance and reality, the judgment of men and the mercy of God. They make the real world fantastic and the fantastic world real. “The whole world is a succession of miracles,” he wrote in The Puppet Player, “but we are so used to them that we call them everyday things.”

Most of his fairy tales were about himself. He was the poet in The Naughty Boy, the soldier in The Tinder Box, the little boy who alone could see that the emperor wore no clothes and, above all, he was the ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan. “All his life,” wrote his biographer, Elias Bredsdorff, “the one thing that interested him most was Hans Andersen.”
We are told that he was a manic-depressive, an egomaniac and a hypochondriac. He was plagued by phobias of dogs, of crowds, of being robbed and poisoned. When travelling, he carried a rope for escaping from the fire which he feared would engulf his hotel. He would arrive hours too early at a railway station for fear of missing the train. And he always left a note on his bed at night stating, “I only appear to be dead” – for fear of being buried alive.

His slavish admiration for royalty and rich people was probably due to his humble origins. Wherever he went he visited the local celebrities, so that there were few famous figures in Europe between 1831 and 1875 he didn’t meet. He was entertained by the royal families in Britain, Germany, Greece, Sweden and Denmark. He spent most of his later life in the mansions of wealthy Danish families. He disliked aristocrats. “It is terrible to see the emptiness of their world.”

He insisted on reading aloud his own fairytales wherever he went. When Dickens invited him to spend a week in his London home, he stayed for five.  “He was a bony bore,” said Dickens’ daughter Kate, “and he stayed on and on.”

Andersen never married, though he proposed to at least three girls. The first was Riborg Voigt, whose last letter to him was found in a purse round his neck when he died; and the third was the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind. One reason why they rejected him was his unattractive appearance, of which he was always very conscious.

He was a Lutheran, but rarely went to church. In his diary for 10 July 1864, he wrote: “I believe that God and Jesus are one; and that the Virgin Mary is the chosen one among humans. In our humble way we can pray to her to plead with God on our behalf.”

When he died from cancer on 4 August 1875, aged 70, his funeral service at Our Lady’s Church in Copenhagen, was attended by King Christian IX but mostly by children.
Hans Andersens’ life was that of an extraordinary man, whose simple stories probably entertained more people than those of any other writer.

This article first appeared in The Word (April 2005), a Divine Word Missionary Publication.