Hans Christian Andersen’s Bicentenary

“Geek does good”

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Born in Denmark in 1805, Hans Christian Andersen is remembered for his fairy tales: “The Ugly Duckling,” “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and some 150 others. This year, Denmark will celebrate their native son in a series of festivals, exhibits, symphonies, and theatricals. These events will be coordinated with others taking place around the globe in a “Worldwide Celebration of Andersen’s Bicentenary.

If the truth be known, Andersen was not at all like the cheerful children’s author played by Danny Kaye in the film about him. Instead, Andersen makes Denmark’s other melancholy celebrities — Hamlet (“that moody Dane”) and Søren Kierkegaard (the philosopher of anxiety) — look like slackers. His biography suggests reasons: his idealistic father was often away fighting for his hero Napoleon and died when the boy was eleven, his mother (fifteen years her husband’s senior) seems to have lead a racy life, and his dotty grandmother (a resident of a mental asylum) encouraged his love of fairy tales by telling him queer folk stories.

Besides acute poverty, Andersen also suffered because he was tall, awkward, and — to be as kind as possible but as photos attest — striking in his homeliness. Indeed, when he finally found a patron to pay for his education, this lanky 17-year-old was mercilessly tortured at school by children five years younger than him — in other words, treated as badly as the Ugly Duckling is.

fantasy comeuppances

Of course, the Ugly Duckling turned into a beautiful swan and became universally loved. While this is ostensibly Andersen’s own story, more to the point is his theme of the Revenge of the Rejected. In the tale “The Swineherd,” for example, a prince masquerades as a peasant in order to turn the tables on a princess who refused his offer of marriage: in the end, he reveals he is a prince, rebuffs her, and strolls away in smug satisfaction. Here is both a picture of Andersen’s unlucky love life and his fantasy comeuppances.

His first love, Riborg Voigt, was the girl-next-door and declined his proposal, eventually marrying another; when he died, around Andersen’s neck was found a pouch he wore all his life and that contained a letter from her. His next courtship was more impossible; the most beautiful woman in Europe at the time, the opera singer Jenny Lind, indicated she wanted to be “just friends” with her lovestruck but homely swain.

He wasn’t much better at companionship. Often away from home, he was an accomplished writer of travel books full of keen observations and special advice (he always took a coil of rope in his trunk in case of a fire). When he came to London to visit Charles Dickens’ family for a few days, the children were at first delighted by his ability to create intricate figures with scissors and paper. But as was the case with his hosts elsewhere, after five weeks, the whole family grew weary of the Guest Who Wouldn’t Leave. Social awkwardness was his forte but also his subject in stories about the ungainly Duckling, the rejected Mermaid, and the guest who impolitely complains about having suffered after sleeping on a pile of mattresses in “The Princess and the Pea.”

Andersen was drawn to suffering. His most representative tale may be “The Little Match-Girl” which tells of an abused child who freezes to death in the streets, still clutching the matches she means to sell, while the good burghers of the town are toasty indoors eating their New Year’s dinners. But again, the story ends with a comeuppance: God shames the well-to-do by taking up the poor little matchgirl and admitting her to heaven.

Andersen’s stories are especially appealing to the young when they fancy themselves a Cinderella: mistreated and under-appreciated, dreaming of belated recognition and fantasy revenge. His life and his tales might be summarized under this reassuring headline: “Geek Does Good.”

Though numerous editions are available, Erik Haugaard’s translations of the fairy tales are generally considered best:

The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Ages: All Ages. By: Hans Christian Andersen Translator: Erik Haugaard. Anchor, $21.00 (Paperback)

Timed to the Bicentennial, a number of books have recently appeared about Andersen or featuring his work:

Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen
Ages: 4–12 yrs.
By: Jane Yolen Illustrator: Dennis Nolan
Dutton, $16.99 (Hardcover)

Terrific and prolific writer Jane Yolen neatly retells and summarizes the facts of Andersen’s life, emphasizing his dreary and aspiring childhood. More interesting is her parallel inclusions of quotes from Andersen’s works, leaving for readers the chance to connect the facts with the fiction. Dennis Nolan’s chalky illustrations are often inspired by the comic and more accomplished work of Maxfield Parrish.

The Ugly Duckling
Ages: 4–12 yrs.
By: Hans Christian Andersen Translator: Anthea Bell Illustrator: Robert Ingpen
Penguin, $15.99 (Hardcover)

Since the story is so well known, what commends attention are the illustrations by this prize-winning Australian artist. Ingpen’s paintings of waterfowl and landscapes are both accurate and impressionistic — indeed, the kind of art you might find in a gallery and want to hang in your home. On the other hand, the text (in Times Roman font) seems superimposed or “typed” on top of the paintings and, in that way, superfluous.

The Wild Swans
Ages: 4–12 yrs.
By: Hans Christian Andersen Translator: Naomi Lewis Illustrator: Anne Yvonne Gilbert
Barefoot Books, $17.99 (Hardcover)

Eleven brothers transformed into swans by an evil stepmother, a sister who has to go to the ends of the earth and weaves shirts out of thistles to save them — “The Wild Swans” is a little known Andersen tale worth discovering. As noted translator Naomi Lewis observes, it is a story that echoes others — including Swan Maiden tales and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” as well as the Grimms’ “The Seven Ravens” and “Brother and Sister.” Gilbert’s illustrations likewise echo the work of others (Michael Hague, Mercer Mayer, and Trina Schart Hyman); and at times, like Andersen’s story itself, her pictures are too busy and crowded with details. Still, in design and beauty, Gilbert has done something of her own. This is an altogether impressive picture book.

This essay originally appeared in Parents’ Choice (April 2005). See these related essays:

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