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A not-so-fairy-tale life

Denmark celebrates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen, whose life of rejection produced a master story teller.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published May 9, 2004

[Photo: Odense City Museum]
At the museum in his hometown of Odense, this golden image of the sun, based on one of Andersen’s paper cutouts, is frequently used as a symbol of his talent.

[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
ABOVE: At the museum in Odense, a statue of Hans Christian Andersen stands before a representation of one of his clever paper cutouts.

I am like water. Everything brings me in motion, everything is mirrored in me. This must be part of my nature as a creative writer, and often I have derived pleasure and blessing from it, although often it has been a torment.

- Hans Christian Andersen

ODENSE, Denmark - It may seem odd that the creator of such beloved fairy tales as The Princess and the Pea, The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes and The Ugly Duckling could proclaim, at the age of 50, that he was often in torment. But scholars of his work know that the stories are aimed at adults as much as children, for they tell of unrequited love, and of being shunned because of physical appearance.

Andersen wrote these stories as a release from his sorrow, his torment.

He wrote, too, for his livelihood, but at 29 he applied for a job at the Royal Library "to be freed from the heavy burden of having to write in order to live." The Library rejected him, too.

That was 170 years ago, and now the Library proudly displays his original manuscripts. And 30,000 copies of The Ugly Duckling, translated into 10 languages including Turkish and Kurdish, will be handed out in 2005 by Danish libraries to foreign visitors.

The giveaway is part of the national commemoration of the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth. With parades, a film festival, performances and more, Denmark will honor its favorite son all year.

No one would have dreamt of such things when he was born in Odense, about 85 miles southwest of Copenhagen.

In 1805, this place was a large village of about 5,000. That was big enough to have a poor neighborhood, which is where his parents - he a cobbler, she a washerwoman - lived. They shared a seven-room house with at least two other families.

When Hans was about 2, the Andersens moved to another house that they shared with just one family. The Andersens' space there measured about 11 by 14, divided into two rooms. One room was the kitchen; by the window in the other room, his father worked on shoes.

Hans would often sit above the rooms in a loft, looking out a window. Legend has it that from ice crystals formed on the window, he later drew inspiration for The Snow Queen.

The boy had no friends his age; he enjoyed the old women who entertained him with stories. They were giving young Hans ideas he would later mold into his fairy tales.

However, the lad pictured himself not as a writer but rather a dancer and singer.

Off to seek his fortune

Hans' father admired Emperor Napoleon and joined the French Army, only to be killed when Hans was 11. Three years later, Hans boarded a coach to Copenhagen, drawn by the promise of life onstage.

He carried a letter of introduction from a book publisher, addressed to a ballerina in the Royal Ballet. Hans began to dance for her, but even as a teenager he was tall and gangly, and he made an inept dancer. The ballerina had him thrown out.

Ultimately, the teenager won some work as a singer in large productions and was befriended by a director of the Royal Theater, who thought Hans might have writing talent. This patron sent him off to a school. Hans was a mediocre student and was 24 before he graduated.

He traveled about Europe and soon fell in love with Riborg Voight, the sister of a friend. But she was already engaged; she wrote Andersen a farewell letter. When he died more than 40 years later, her letter was found in a leather pouch he wore around his neck.

His essays on travel and other writings began to find success, and he was able to meet notable writers of his day such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. Elizabeth Barrett Browning reportedly praised his work to her husband shortly before her death.

But Andersen never grew wealthy, nor did anyone return his love, and there are reports that he cared for certain men as much as for certain women.

He pined for the famous singer, Jenny Lind - known as the Swedish Nightingale - but she liked him only as a friend. For her he wrote the story, The Nightingale.

Not just a guest

Because Andersen was adept at reciting his stories, he often was the performing houseguest of the wealthy and minor nobles. He would gather children around him, and while the adults listened in, he would tell a tale. All the while Andersen would be spinning a folded piece of paper in one hand while he snipped it with scissors.

When he finished his story, he would unfold his paper to reveal astonishing cutouts: windmills, castles, fairies, even - as displayed in his museum here - a man hanging from a gallows and a three-dimensional rocking chair.

A pair of his scissors and one of his pens also are on display in the museum, which features an intriguing wall of photos and antiques that portray changes in the world during his lifetime, from 1805 to 1875.

There also is a huge collection of his works, as translated into many of the 130-plus languages, reportedly only the Bible and Karl Marx's Das Kapital have been translated more. He is credited with creating 174 fairy tales, 14 novels and short stories, about 12 travel essays and and estimated 800 poems.

Also on display are several photos of Andersen taken in the 1860s, when portrait photography was a new art form. Though he possessed an imposingly large nose and pinched face, he thought himself attractive and enjoyed posing for the camera.

He was sought after by photographers because, by then, his genius had been recognized. But if he had not earlier suffered such rejection - and torment - would he have created the stories that have moved people the world over?


Commemorative events are underway in Denmark, though the bicentennial kickoff will be next April 2 (Andersen's birthday). On the calendar are a two-week film festival in Copenhagen, symphony performances in several countries and tours that trace his movements between the country estates of his wealthy hosts and his own apartments and haunts in Copenhagen.

Perhaps the most spectacular event is scheduled for July 28, 2005, when there is to be a performance of a musical based on The Little Mermaid; it will take place on a floating stage in Copenhagen Harbor with 650 performers.

A number of entertainment celebrities, business executives and even academics from around the world have been named Hans Christian Andersen Ambassadors. Those from the United States include actors Harvey Keitel and Susan Sarandon, choreographer/ballet master Peter Martins and singer Suzanne Vega.

For more information on the calendar of events, go to the Web site

For details of the various tours, go to

[Last modified May 7, 2004, 11:12:47]


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