Many of Andersen’s works do not seem to be conscious creations, but rather folk tales that speak to us from the darkness of time.
And yet fairy tales such as “The Ugly Duckling” or “The Little Mermaid” are sublime works of art that were created less than 200 years ago.
They all originate from the ingenious pen of this Danish poet who, despite his childhood full of pain and despair, has kept his faith in the beauty of existence throughout his life.
Hans Christian Andersen (or H. C. Andersen, as he called himself throughout his life) was born on 2 April 1805 in Odense on the Danish island of Fyn.
His father was a simple shoemaker with no economic skills, and his alcoholic mother, a simple washerwoman, also contributed little to the household.
His childhood was marked by bitter poverty and the struggle for daily bread. It is all too understandable that there was no money left for a reasonable education for his son.
That’s why the little boy fled to the world of books at a very early age and dreamed of theatre. Without being able to give his mind the incentives he so longed for, he created a puppet stage out of the simplest materials. There he found a retreat from the demands of the cold world and lost himself for hours in his dreams.
But even from these little pleasures he was soon pulled out. When Andersen was eleven years old his father died and left the small family penniless.
Now the need became so great that the boy had to work for a tailor and a weaver at the same time. When that was not enough to survive either, he became a worker in a cigarette factory.
Escape to Copenhagen
At the age of fourteen, he decided to escape this drudgery and fled to Copenhagen. Still trapped in his childhood dreams it was his greatest wish to become a famous actor.
“Monday morning, September 5, 1819, I saw Copenhagen for the first time from the hill near Friedrichsberg. There I descended and with my little bundle I went through the castle garden, the long avenue and the suburb to the city…With barely 10 talers in my pocket I stopped at one of the small guesthouses. My first hike was after the theatre; I walked around it several times, looked up the walls and almost regarded it as a home”.
With the help of renowned patrons, he succeeded in obtaining instruction at the Royal Theatre. But as he had no talent for acting he soon felt compelled to finish his education.
So he is forced to do odd jobs and sings in the theatre choir. But when he had his voice break at the age of seventeen he also lost this job.
Now he makes a decision that will determine his further life: He writes two stage plays, which remain unsuccessful, but attract the attention of the then director of the Royal Theatre.
Jonas Collin, his name should be engraved with gratitude on every monument to Andersen, takes the boy into his house and decides to take care of his future.
He provides him with a place at the Latin school in Slagelsen and persuades the Danish king to provide the financial means for it.
After finishing school, Frederick VI also enabled him three more years at the school of scholars in Helsingør and Andersen was able to attend university.
The first stories and poems were written at this time, which was marked by suicidal thoughts and self-doubt. He had an early success with a story inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann: A walk from the Holmen Canal to the eastern point of Amager in 1828 and 1829.
But even before that, he created works that denoted a significant light on his later work, such as the poem “Das sterbende Kind” (“The Dying Child”).
It is interesting because it does not tell a story in the usual manner from the point of view of an adult, but depicts the world from the point of view of a child.
A artifice that later became typical of his literary work.
“The Dying Child”
Mother, I’m tired, let me in your room.
Your child now slumbers to faithful arms,
But first promise me you won’t cry anymore.
Hot and Burning Your Tears are
It’s cold here, and storms blow outside,
But in a dream everything is light and clear,
I saw angelic children there,
Whenever my eye was closed.
Look! There is already one at my side,
Listen how sweet it rings, Mother, look.
But the wings, white and shining both!
Mother, did our father give him these?
Gold and flowers float before my eyes
God’s angel scatters them around me.
Say, will I have wings in my life too,
Or first in his star house?
Why are you squeezing my hand together?
Why my cheek, your cheek?
It is wet and yet burns like the flames,
I’ll be with you all my life.
Let only your tears no longer flow
I have to cry, when you’re sad.
O how tired! – It wants to close my eye
Look – look – how the angel kisses too.
Time of search
With the end of his studies, Andersen begins his journey to become the most important fairy tale writer of his time.
In an early fairy tale (The Flowers of Little Ida) we get a beautiful, if certainly idealized picture of the young author.
“My poor flowers are dead, said little Ida. They were so beautiful yesterday, and now all the leaves are hanging down, why do they do that? she asked the student sitting on the sofa, because she loved him very much: he could tell the most beautiful stories and cut out such funny pictures: Hearts with little women dancing in them; flowers and big locks where doors could be opened; it was a funny student.”
This year he also met Riborg Voigt, the sister of his student friend Christian Voigt. The pretty girl was taken with the young artist and enthusiastic about his work, and Andersen fell in love with her right away.
There was even a secret engagement, but as Riborg had already been promised to another man, the two had to separate and renounce a life together.
The letter that Riborg wrote to him to say goodbye was to be kept by Andersen in a small leather bag and kept with him for the rest of his life.
After the marriage of his first love, Andersen embarks on the first of his many journeys, which take him to Germany, Italy, Spain and the Ottoman Empire.
“On September 5, I crossed the Simplon to Italy. On the very day that I came to Copenhagen 14 years ago, poor and helpless, I was to enter this land of my longing and poet’s happiness… Everything was sunshine, everything was spring. The grapes hung in long threads from tree to tree – never have I seen Italy so beautiful later…”
First trip to Italy
This journey became the model for all his later journeys. It almost seems as if it were a recurring escape from the loneliness of his life, because as soon as his means allow it, he leaves his desk and travels into the world.
At the end of his life there will have been almost thirty journeys abroad, which led him not only across Europe, but to the remotest corners of Asia and Africa.
In October 1830 Andersen lived in Rome for a few weeks and there he received the news of his mother’s death. Fortunately he had a circle of friends around him to comfort him in his suffering and so he quickly recovered from this stroke of fate.
In the spring of the following year he is back on the road, this time heading south to the top of the Italian boot.
In his notes you can see how much he loves the country and the people and how good life under the Italian sun is for his maltreated soul. Everywhere he walks with an open artistic gaze and soaks everything up to use it later in his fairy tales.
“Only from one side is accessible the island Capri; all around steep vertical rock walls, to lower to Naples they amphitheatrically with vineyards, orange and olive groves. At the bottom of the beach there are several fishermen’s huts and a guard house. Higher up, among the green gardens, the little town of Anna Capri looked out; a very small drawbridge and a gate lead into it. In Pagani’s inn, in front of whose door a high palm stands, we took a break.
After lunch we thought of riding on donkeys up to the ruins of the Villa des Tiberius; but now breakfast awaited us, and between this and the following lunch Francesca and Fabiani wanted to rest in order to gather strength for the forthcoming trip. Gennaro and I felt no need to do so. The island didn’t seem any bigger to me than that we couldn’t row around it quite well in a few hours and look at the high rock gates that stand out isolated from the water towards the south.
We took a boat and two oarsmen; a light wind had risen so that we could use the sails about halfway. The sea broke at the low archipelago. Fishing nets lay stretched out between them, so that in order not to injure them we first had to thrust a little further out into the sea. It was a deliciously funny trip in the small boat. Soon we saw from the sea to the sky only the vertical rocks, the grey stone masses, here and there in the crevices an Aloe or a wild Levkoje, but not even so much solid ground that it would have been enough for only one Capricorn. Below in the surf, which rose like a bluish fire, the blood-red sea apples grew on the rocks, which, moist from the water, had a double shine. It seemed as if the rock was bleeding with every wave.”
The greatest fairy tale narrator of his time
After years of free wandering, Andersen is forced to start his actual work due to lack of money. The first full-fledged fairy tales are written, such as “The Little Mermaid”, in which Italy’s influence is clearly visible.
For years he was only to work doggedly on his work, without the desired success being achieved.
It was not until 1847, when a narrow volume entitled “Gesammelte Werke” (Collected Works) was published in Leipzig, containing a collection of several of his fairy tales, that the sheet began to turn and Andersen’s star began to rise.
The German audience loves him from the first line on and slowly even the critics are forced to revise their opinions.
When asked whether he would write down his life story, he replied that this had long since happened in the “Story of the Ugly Duckling”.
Anyone familiar with the story will recognise the fine lace that he is leading against the Danish critics who had ignored him for so long.
When King Frederick VI finally exposes him to an annual pension of 400 Thalers, he is relieved of all financial worries and can concentrate entirely on his work.
“It was as if from that day on the spring sun should seem more constant in my life; I felt a greater security, for looking back over the years of my life, I saw more clearly that a loving providence watched over me, that everything was directed to the best for me, as if by force majeure…”.
For more than twenty years now he has been working on his work, which should make him one of the greatest fairy tale poets in Europe.
He created such classics as “The steadfast Tin Soldier”, “The Wild Swans” or “The Little Girl with the Sulphur Woods”.
He spent the last years of his life on the country estate “Rolighed” near Copenhagen, spun into the world of his dreams and tirelessly working on his work.
When he died at the age of seventy, he had long since become an internationally recognized author who was loved by his readers.
At his funeral service countless people gathered and a short time later Andersen was declared a Danish national poet.
With the sculpture of the little mermaid erected in 1913, he was finally given a monument that is still considered to be Copenhagen’s landmark today.
Many of his works still belong to the collection of world literature today and are read and loved by children and adults alike.
Based on the stories and legends of Europe, he works on the most diverse folk tales and, inspired by the literary trends of his time, creates a unique symbiosis that makes him the most significant storyteller of his time.
In a life full of tireless work, he created 168 fairy tales and more than 1000 poems.
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