Prof. Waller Hastings
Northern State University
Aberdeen, SD 57401

Hans Christian Andersen

        Next to the Bible and Shakespeare, Andersen's tales are the most translated literary work in the world, have been translated into 100 languages.  John Cech notes that his tales “have been retold so often, and in so many different forms, that they have become part of the public domain of our oral folk traditions” (14); his work has thus been “honored” by being appropriated by lesser writers and rewritten as if it were genuine folk material.
        Andersen was born in a one-room house in Odense, son of a poor shoemaker; his father died early and his mother had to work as a washerwoman.  His upbringing caused him to be immersed in the folklife of rural Denmark, so that unlike his near contemporaries of the Romantic movement, he did not have to collect or read the folk tradition; he acquired it naturally, in childhood (Cech, 16).  At the age of 14, he set off to make his mark in the Danish capital, Copenhagen.  Danish society of the time was very static - one was born in poverty and died in poverty - and Andersen came out of the lower end of the working class.  Fortunately, in Copenhagen he made some influential friends (in particular the Collin family) who helped him to attain a better education - the equivalent of four years of high school, then one year of college.  While recognizing the value of this education, Andersen often chafed at being forced to attend school with children much younger and smaller than himself.
        His initial aspirations as an actor and playwright never really were fulfilled, but he published his first novel in 1835 and became instantly known as a novelist.  His Tales Told for Children (initially consisting of four tales: "The Tinderbox," "The Princess and the Pea," "Little Claus and Big Claus," and "Little Ida's Flowers") was published the same year and added onto every year, making him famous - even though he thought they were a waste of time.  He made it to the top but retained his lower-class consciousness, seeing the world from the outside.  Throughout his life, he longed for acceptance among the literary and social elite of Copenhagen, but Danish society of the time was very closed; no matter how well-regarded he was in the rest of the world, Copenhagen saw him as the poor boy from Odense, and constantly put him in his place.  Even his friends and patrons, the Collin family, constantly urged him to trim his sails to his origin, not to overreach, etc.
        Andersen also tended to fall in love with unreachable women (most notably with Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale”), so his relationships with the opposite sex and with the upper classes was distinctly bittersweet.
        Andersen once wrote, “Most of what I have written is a reflection of myself” (Cech, 15), suggesting a biographical reading of the work would be appropriate.  Certainly, he wrote several versions of his life story (the best known of which is called The Fairy Tale of My Life), which collectively reveal "powerful social anxieties andpersonal insecurities" (Tatar 335-36).  The characters in his fairy tales, unlike those in traditional folk tales, generally reflect his own character.  However, the works continue to be enormously popular because they touch on universal themes/feelings (consider “The Ugly Duckling” in this regard).  Cech also notes the frequent bitterness and darkness of Andersen’s work, and suggests that he always wrote with an eye to the adult who was reading the story to the children (20).
        But if Andersen was capable of great bitterness, he also was able to see the humor of human pretension even in himself.  Erik Christian Haugaard relates the following tale, reminiscent of Andersen's tale "The Emperor's New Clothes": "A foreign artist arrived in Copenhagen and announced in the newspapers that he had come to paint portraits of the most famous Danes, and he hoped that these great personages would come to the studio he had just rented.  The very next morning who should appear at his door but Andersen and one of the actors from the Royal Theatre, a man known for his self-love and conceit.  Andersen looked at the actor and could not help laughing, both at him and at himself."  (qtd. in Cech 22)
        Although he ostensibly wrote for children, Andersen also kept his eye on the adult audience: "I seize an idea for the grown-ups, and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds." (Tatar 337)

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Page last updated April 4, 2003