Hans Christian Andersen was born in a small village, Odense, a hundred miles north of Denmark’s bustling capital, Copenhagen. His father was a poor cobbler who became mentally ill, as did his grandfather. His mother scrubbed the clothes of the rich in the cold river Odense, with legs wrapped in straw and the flask of gin that later proved her undoing. Hans himself was frail, awkward, bullied at school, and eventually preferred to remain at home with his dolls, his paper cut-outs…and his imagination. In his imagination he could be whomever we wished to be – a soldier, a mermaid. The world could be transformed. Wrongs could be made right. Justice could be achieved.
He had a lovely soprano voice, and he created songs and dances that he performed after suppers of the well-to-do of Odense. His father died when he was 11, his mother remarried, and he left home at 14 to try for the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, but his voice had changed, his dances were considered amateurish, and he was rejected. The head of the theater, however, took him under his wing and arranged for him to study at Elsinore. He again was bullied, and in “the darkest moments” of his life he was told by his teachers not to bother with such frivolous things as poetry and stories.
He continued to write, however. A book of his poems was eventually published by a school chum. Its small success gave him a chance to travel, and he began to gain an audience as a writer of travelogues. He visited Germany, then France, then Italy, and as the climate became sunnier, so did his sense of self-worth.
Folk and Fairy Tales
Folk and fairy tales were recognized as being entertaining cautionary forms for all to appreciate. Hans Andersen’s stories, with literary sources from Greece to Spain, were read by young and old alike, and expressed the hope, the joy, the longing and the pain he saw in the world around him, the emperor who is so self-absorbed he is blind to the needs of his people; the ragged little street girl who escapes her misery through the glorious frozen death of her last matches; the bullied duckling who suffers the long winter to realize at last that he’s a beautiful swan; the little fir tree who is so impatient for the next moment she misses the beauty of the moment she’s in.
Sorrow brings joy
Andersen’s life, even in the midst of his success, was difficult. Although his one-sided flirtations and crushes were many, he never developed a true relationship. In his awkward naivete he often considered himself a “professional guest”, and though he was honored by admirers and even royalty, he was never truly embraced socially. He continued to march to his own drum his entire life.
Hans Christian Andersen developed cancer and died at the age of 70. In a world where we are constantly encouraged to conform he presents a refreshing, and perhaps dangerous alternative. As with all great writers he is continually reborn in the rediscovery of his stories.