Hans Christian Anderson
by Eva Bell
The Fairy Tale of His Life
On the 2nd of April,
the children of Denmark will celebrate the birthday of the most popular ‘Teller of Tales’ with a story reading party. Called “Odin Story Day,” Hans Christian Anderson’s stories are read out to groups of children, conjuring up for them images of Thumbelina, The little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling and many other characters from his fairy tales. His aim was to fill the lives of young boys and girls with joy and laughter and drive away the sadness which they were experiencing. Memories of his own poor deprived childhood made him compassionate and filled him with concern for the deprived children of the world. He never forgot the moments of happiness he enjoyed when his father read him a story every day at 2 p.m. after a frugal meal.
Hans’ father was an impoverished shoemaker. But he was self-taught and a free thinker, who had great ambitions for his son. The stories served a dual purpose. They got his creative juices flowing and took his mind off his hungry, growling stomach.
But the shoemaker died when Hans was eleven years old, leaving the boy at the mercy of an irritable and illiterate mother, who could not empathize with his dreams and aspirations. So at the age of fourteen, Hans ran away to Copenhagen.
Today, tourists flock to Odense where the master story teller spent his early years. The house where he was born on April 2nd, 1805, is now the Hans Christian Museum since 1805. The small rooms have pictures and original artifacts, which trace the career of the cobbler’s son from the poverty of his childhood, through trials of his youth, to his eventual success and fame. Hans was also an artist and his drawings, origami specimens, painted screens, have been tastefully displayed, showing the extent of his artistry. The huge library with its range of books, CDs, cassettes and souvenirs, is an awesome treasure house for any book lover young or old. Though writing fairy tales began as a diversion from his serious books, travel sketches and plays, this genre was what brought him not only fame and immortality, but was the best medium of expression for his poetic gifts. Hans said, “I have written them as I would tell them to a child.” Six volumes were published between 1835 and 1842 and were titled “Tales Told for Little Children.”
Also at Odense, very close to St. Knud’s Cathedral, a cobbled street leads to a tiny house covering 18 square metres, where Hans lived between the ages of two to fourteen. Memories of difficult days he spent here are reflected in his stories. Here on display is an exhibition of photographs and artifacts that link him to this small town.
Alone in Copenhagen, it was a tough time earning a living. But all through those dark days, he clung to his dream of acquiring a formal education. He begged, pleaded and cajoled the rich to help him. He did house jobs in the homes of the wealthy or in theatres, to keep body and soul together. But he never lost sight of his dream. Even the king heard of this unusual beggar.
With his pinched cheeks and long nose, he was never a handsome boy, and though he got to play bit parts in the Danish Royal Theatre performances, he was packed off when his voice began to crack. But persistence paid and his luck eventually turned when the Director of the Royal Theatre Jonas Collins, became his mentor. He arranged for Hans to attend Grammar School of Stalgaise and to board in the house of the headmaster. The latter was a tyrant who subjected the young boy to untold physical and mental torture. Collins withdrew him from the school and had him tutored privately until he was ready to enter university.
Hans Christian Anderson’s life teaches us what perseverance and ambition can achieve. He rose above poverty and depression, to make a name for himself in the world of literature. Though his first book “Youthful Attempts” was published in 1822 under the pseudonym William Walter, his first novel “The Improviser” was published under his own name in 1835. This established him as a writer and from then on, his career soared. His wide-ranging authorship included 14 novels, 50 dramatic works, numerous travel accounts of his journeys through Europe, Asia, Africa and England. Besides this he wrote 800 poems and 175 fairy tales. In his lifetime he also wrote several autobiographies. The first one was published when he was 28 and the last which was titled “The Fairy Tale of My Life,” on his 50th birthday in 1855. He was of the opinion that unless people knew something of his life, they would not be able to appreciate his writing. Even so, Dickens whom he considered his friend treated this simple, unassuming man very shabbily during his 5-week stay in England in 1847. One of Dickens’ daughters called him a ‘bone bore who stayed on and on.’
While 156 of his fairy tales grew out of his own imagination, many like the Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Red Shoes were those he heard at his father’s knee, but retold in his own style. Almost every story has a lesson to teach. While the “Wild Swans” implied good over evil, the Emperor’s New Clothes unmasked vanity. The tale of “The Nightingale” and “Little Mermaid” were born out of his own unrequited love. Though Hans loved children, he never married nor had children of his own. But for the children of the world, he has left behind an invaluable legacy of stories - of kings and princesses, of wicked step mothers and benevolent fairies, of tiny Thumbelina who sprouted gossamer wings and lived in the “Land of Flowers.”
In Copenhagen there is much to keep his memory alive. The Louis Tussaud Museum has a section where his stories come to life. He is depicted sitting on a chair, surrounded by children listening to his stories. Across the street is the Hans Christian Boulevard over which his statue presides. In the harbour is the Little Mermaid seated on a solitary rock and looking wistfully down.
Hans’ last few years were spent Nyhavn, where his room with its furniture, books, famous top hat and trunk are preserved. Here again is a wonderful library with 20,000 volumes in different languages. Hans’ books have been translated into 80 languages. Many of the original illustrations for his books created by Danish and International artists are also on display. In the spacious Commemorative Hall are frescoes executed by the artist Niels Larsen Stevns, depicting various stages in the life of Hans.
Hans died of liver cancer on August 4th 1875. He was buried in Assistens Kierkegaard Cemetery, which was once a burial ground for paupers. But by the time of his death, others were also buried there, as burials were prohibited inside the city. In those days there were many grave robbers. Sometimes people were buried even before they were fully dead. Anderson had a great fear that he would either be disrobed by robbers or buried when still alive. He lies peacefully in the oldest section of the graveyard at Norreport, in the company of many great men like Soren Kierkegaard the philosopher and Christian Kobe the painter. His headstone is a simple brown marble slab.
“He who gives a child a treat makes joy bells ring in Heaven’s streets,” said John Masefield. Anderson’s stories are a feast to every child’s imagination, as he opens up vistas in the wonderland of ‘Make Believe.’ This simple man was convinced that “Every man’s life is a fairy tale written by God’s own fingers.” *******