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

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Hans Christian Andersen is the author of more than 150 fairy tales, many of which are among our best-known and most loved stories. The Danish writer published his first collection of nine tales in 1837. Titled Eventyr, fortalte for børn, or Tales, Told for Children, it included "The Little Mermaid," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "The Princess and the Pea," all now classics of the genre. At the time they were published, the stories didn't sell well, though. Many of them are bleak, focusing on outcasts or those who are poor or suffering. It wasn't until 1845, when they were translated into English, that readers began to respond positively to the stories. His last fairy tales were published in 1872.

Those early fairy tales have been made into films, television shows, and stage productions and inspired a number of songs. Andersen himself became a beloved figure, both in Denmark and around the world. His birthday is celebrated as International Children's Book Day, and a statue of one of his most enduring characters, the little mermaid, sits in the harbor of Copenhagen, where she receives over a million visitors a year.

1. Critics believe "The Ugly Duckling" was based on Andersen's own childhood experience.

As a child, Andersen was awkward and unattractive, with "a big nose and big feet." He grew up in poverty and was often considered foolish. Much like his creation, the ugly duckling, however, he rose above his difficult beginnings to become a beloved icon. Though he never outgrew his odd appearance, he found support from a wealthy benefactor, lawyer Jonas Collin, who took Andersen under his wing. As director of the Royal Danish Theatre, Collin's influence helped Andersen achieve fame and a sense of belonging among the lawyer's circle of friends and family.

2. Andersen's mother, raised in poverty, was the inspiration for "The Little Match Girl."

Andersen noted in a letter that each character he wrote about "is taken from life; every one of them; not one of them is invented. I know and have known them all." One of those characters, the little match girl, was based on his mother, Anne Marie. She was illiterate and poor, but she told her son many of the folktales that later became his beloved stories. Anne Marie had been a beggar as a child, and Andersen used her experience as the basis for the tragic tale of the little match girl.

3. Many of Andersen's fairy-tale characters died in horrible ways.

In many of Andersen's tales, characters suffer terribly. The little match girl freezes to death on the street as she begs. In "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," the soldier is melted in an oven. The fir tree is cut into bits and burned. Both the daisy and the lark in "The Daisy" die, the lark of thirst and the flower tossed into the road by a group of children. The little mermaid dissolves into sea-foam, and in "The Story of a Mother," a mother chases death in an attempt to retrieve her dying child. However, she allows death to take him when she is shown that if he lived, his life might be unending misery.

4. Andersen fell in love with both men and women but probably remained celibate for his entire life.

Andersen kept diaries that showed he was terrified of sex, and he "probably died a virgin." He was in love with Edvard Collin, the son of his benefactor Jonas Collin, but the feeling was not reciprocated. He often believed himself in love with women, but he remained devoted to Edvard Collin for most of his life, settling for what a biographer called a "sensitive friendship."

5. Andersen called his school years "the darkest" of his life.

After his father died in 1816, Andersen went to Copenhagen to write for the Danish Royal Theatre. His plays were rejected, but the head of the theater, Jonas Collin, recognized his talent and paid for him to go to school. Andersen had to live with the rector, a man who allowed and possibly even encouraged his abuse at the hands of fellow students. Tormented by classmates and teachers, Andersen wrote about those days, "I suffered so severely in my mind that I was very near sinking under it. That was the darkest, the most unhappy time in my life."

6. Andersen enjoyed visiting brothels in Paris, but only to talk to the women there.

It is difficult to pin down Andersen's sexual orientation. He seems to have loved both men and women but claimed he never consummated a relationship. However, in the late 1860s, he visited brothels in Paris, where apparently he would merely talk to the prostitutes. About one of these visits he wrote, "I spoke to her, paid 12 francs, and left without having sinned in deed, but certainly in my thoughts." He also referred to a visit to a prostitute in Copenhagen. It is less clear that that experience was entirely innocent, as he mentioned his concern about having contracted an illness while there.

7. Critics disagree about whether Andersen had dyslexia.

Scholars have long thought that Andersen had dyslexia, a learning disability that causes distorted perceptions of words and letters. His mediocre grades in school, difficulties learning, and spelling and syntax errors in his diaries and letters seemed to confirm that diagnosis. However, an article in the Journal of Learning Disabilities in November 2000 disputed this, stating that the number of both his spelling and his syntax mistakes were similar to those of people from his time without learning disabilities and much lower than those who did have dyslexia.

8. Some scholars believe Andersen was the illegitimate son of the king of Denmark.

In the early 1800s, the crown prince of Denmark, later to become King Christian VIII, had an affair with a noblewoman named Elise Ahlefeldt Laurvig. They couldn't marry, as the prince had to make a political alliance through his marriage. Laurvig became pregnant. A historian, Jens Jorgensen, claims that the child, born in the castle of Bronhem, was given away to a washerwoman who already had an illegitimate child. This woman, according to Jorgensen, was Andersen's "mother." Some details seem to support this idea. Andersen paid much more for his school tuition than other students, and the payments were found to come from the royal family. And the writer didn't have a birth certificate until he was 17. Though there is no real proof to back up Jorgensen's theory, it is an agreeably fairy-tale-like origin story for the fairy-tale author.

9. Andersen's love for the opera singer Jenny Lind may have inspired the story "The Nightingale."

Jenny Lind was a celebrated singer known as "the Swedish Nightingale." Andersen met her when she was still performing only in Sweden, and he was immediately enthralled by her beauty and her glorious voice. She was terrified of performing internationally, but Andersen encouraged her, and she went on to travel with showman P.T. Barnum and achieve enormous fame around the world. Andersen's love for her was never reciprocated. He wrote "The Nightingale" for her, but she claimed to prefer his tale "The Ugly Duckling."

10. Andersen wrote plays, novels, and travel books as well as fairy tales, but they were not popular.

Andersen is known almost entirely for his collections of fairy tales, but he wrote in many other genres. His first published work was a short story, "A Journey on Foot from Holmen's Canal to the East Point of Amager," which came out in 1829. After that, he published a book of poetry, a travelogue, and a play, and his novel The Improvisatore was published in 1835, the same year he began publishing fairy tales. It took another decade for the fairy tales to achieve popularity, however, and during that time Andersen wrote additional plays, poems, novels, and autobiographies.

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