Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Hans Christian Andersen | Biography


Hans Christian Andersen, born on April 2, 1805, is one of the best-known Danish authors and among the most beloved children's authors of all time. Although he also wrote travel essays, plays, and poetry, his retellings of fairy tales and folktales and his contemporary fantasies published between 1835 and 1870 have remained popular worldwide to the present day.

Childhood in Odense

Andersen's first home was a one-room cobbler's shop in Odense, Denmark. His father was an impractical man, dogged with adversity. His mother took in washing to supplement their meager income. She had grown up illiterate and in extreme poverty, and was sent out as a child to beg from door-to-door. Andersen would draw on his mother's memories in stories such as "The Little Match Girl."

As Andersen was growing up, Odense had few modern conveniences. Located on the Danish island of Fyn (Funen), Odense in Andersen's day had many buildings and cultural remnants dating to the medieval era. Some of his stories (for example, "The Shadow") include contemporary and feudal elements side by side.

Andersen showed an early interest in the theater. His father constructed a toy theater for him, and he sewed costumes for the puppet actors. His father also told him stories as he worked. Andersen later adopted the habit himself, cutting out strange paper figures while telling stories to children.

With high hopes of earning a fortune, Andersen's father joined the Danish army. Denmark was fighting with France in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15), a series of conflicts pitting Napoleon I of France and his allies against Great Britain and its allies. However, the older Andersen returned ill and broken. He never recovered and died a year later.

Solitude and Dreams

Two years after the death of his father, Andersen's mother remarried. His stepfather ignored him, and his mother tried to apprentice the young Andersen first to a weaver and then to a tailor. It didn't take the other apprentices long to make the gawky and socially inept boy the butt of merciless teasing, so Andersen increasingly kept to himself. In the belief that a hill near the Odense River led straight through the earth to China, Andersen would sit there and sing, hoping the emperor of China would hear him and appoint him his imperial court singer.

After his confirmation, a Christian rite of passage in which a person professes his faith, Andersen gathered his savings and persuaded his mother to let him leave for Copenhagen and pursue a career in the theater. Even though he was only 14, he had a knack for getting people to help him on his way.

Andersen's attempts to become a stage performer did not meet with success. He didn't have the physique to be a dancer, and when his voice changed, the singing master declared it could not be trained. Minor character roles did not bring in sufficient funds on which to live, so Andersen attempted to support himself with writing fantasy plays. This didn't bring him success, either. Although he was very imaginative, Andersen was dyslexic and couldn't spell. But after his writing came to the attention of Jonas Collin, one of the directors of the Danish Royal Theatre, Collin raised the funding required to send Andersen to school. With strict discipline and fortitude, Andersen stuck out the long years and severe conditions of his schooling and managed to pass the two entrance examinations for the University of Copenhagen at age 23. A year later he began to publish his writing.

Determined to write plays, Andersen's first publication was his 1822 poetical drama Alfsol. This work was rejected for performance. However, his second book, a travel-fantasy titled A Walk from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of the Island of Amager in the Years 1828 and 1829, was hailed as innovative because it featured the internal monologue of a traveler. Andersen subsequently became regarded primarily as a novelist, and then as a poet, but these genres weren't quite the right fit for his unique imagination. Although Andersen yearned to be regarded as a serious artist, he found himself most at ease in the presence of children, telling stories and acting out the characters. Finally in 1835 he wrote some of them down and presented them in a collection titled Tales Told for Children. In so doing, Andersen reinvented the fairy tale. Writers such as Charles Perrault (1628–1703) had published editions of tales from the oral tradition. Andersen used his keen sense of a child's perspective, knowledge of travel lore and poetry, and memories from his life to weave together folktales and fairy tales. The success of this collection (which included such stories as "The Tinder Box" and "The Princess and the Pea") was quickly followed by additional collections published from 1837 to 1872. Although some are retellings of older stories, most are his own creations. Andersen still didn't think this kind of writing was serious (he called his stories "Bagatelles") but they increased steadily in popularity, particularly outside Denmark. Finally the genre in which folk and literature meld would become what others would call "universal poetry."

Personal Life

Many of Andersen's stories are interwoven with descriptions of the open road, the beauties of nature, and foreign lands. He enjoyed travel and first went on journeys as a young man to get over a broken heart. Later in life, he relied on travel to ease the sting of harsh criticism of his writing. Andersen retained a high degree of sensitivity to any real or perceived slight throughout his life. Compounded with his social ineptitude, his feelings of alienation from others often left him susceptible to fits of uncontrolled weeping and depression.

Andersen had a habit of falling in love with very beautiful young women who, without fail, passed on the awkward writer in favor of more worldly and financially secure suitors. His romantic failures included a friend's sister, Riborg Voigt, who married the son of an apothecary and Louise Collin, who turned him down to marry a lawyer. One potential sweetheart became engaged to another man before Andersen had the courage to propose to her. The famous singer Jenny Lind (1820–87), known as the "Swedish Nightingale," captured his heart but evidently did not return his love. Andersen never married.

Andersen in the Literary World

Between the ages of 30 and 40, Andersen became so famous he found himself invited to dine with the royal families of Europe and enjoyed the company of famous authors. That decade of his life is also considered the one in which his best stories were written and published. They included "Thumbelina" (1835), "The Little Mermaid" (1837), "The Emperor's New Clothes" (1837), "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" (1838), "The Nightingale" and "The Ugly Duckling" (both 1843), and "The Snow Queen" (1844) and "The Red Shoes" (1845). Interest in his work spread to the United States. An American publisher produced the first editions of 10 of Andersen's stories even before they appeared in Denmark.

On his 1857 trip to England, Andersen paid a visit to author Charles Dickens and his family, but the two writers did not get along very well. Andersen overstayed his welcome by at least three weeks and was given to such emotional outbursts that the more reserved Dickens was embarrassed by his guest's behavior. Chronically lonely and personally and professionally disappointed, Andersen perceived himself as an outsider at even the warmest of social events.

Recognition at Last

At the height of his fame, Andersen received many honors. The king of Denmark named him Commander of Dennebrog First Class and Emperor Maximilian of Mexico honored him with an appointment to the Order of Our Lady of Guadalupe. His other awards included appointments to the Order of the Red Eagle of the Third Class (Prussia), the Swedish Order of the Polar Star, the White Falcon of Weimar (Germany) and the Norwegian Order of St. Olaf.

Andersen wrote 168 stories and sketches, including several works that were not published until long after his death. In addition, he wrote over 100 poems, 36 plays, 6 travel books, and 6 novels. His stories have been translated into more than 150 languages. He died on August 4, 1875, of liver cancer. His stories live on in print and in many media adaptations. Several hundred movies in dozens of languages have featured plots adapted from the tales, from the 1902 silent film The Little Seller to Disney's 2013 animated film Frozen, inspired by "The Snow Queen." Disney included "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" in Fantasia 2000 (1999) and repopularized "The Little Mermaid" in its 1989 film, this time with the mermaid winning the prince.

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