by Lola Danielson, dramaturg
Hans Christian Andersen is a name many are familiar with because of the many adaptations of his fairy tales. Most have heard of his stories, such as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Nightingale, or The Emperor’s New Clothes. But, how many know the man behind the stories?
Born in Odense, Denmark on April 2, 1805, Hans Christian Andersen was the only child of a poor cobbler and his wife. At the age of eleven, his father passed away. To help support his mother, he began working in factories telling stories to his coworkers and making up songs to entertain them. At the age of fourteen, shortly after his mother remarried, Andersen set off for Copenhagen to become famous.
After many failed attempts to join the Copenhagen’s Royal Theater, Andersen received help from Jonas Collin, the director of the Royal Theater, and was provided the opportunity to receive an education at the expense of the theater. After finishing his exams, Andersen decided to pursue his career instead of attending university. He began writing travelogues, poems, novels and plays as he traveled around Europe; documenting his experiences and capturing his imagination on paper.
Andersen was not a collector of folktales, like the Grimm brothers, but a unique creator and weaver of the written word. Some of his tales are based on Danish stories he was told as a child, but he was able to create his own characters, change the events of the stories and add his own unique flair to the tales. Other stories he wrote are based on his personal adventures; like The Ugly Duckling, which seems to speak of Andersen’s own experiences growing up. He did not write with the intention that his stories would be for children; Andersen wrote for the enjoyment of all ages.
Hans Christian Andersen had a very unique physical appearance with his tall, gangly frame and rather large feet. He was uncomfortable with how he looked and felt that no one would find him terribly interesting or attractive. He was also rather moody and would soar at a compliment and become miserable if someone looked at him with a sour expression. While a literary genius, he was lonely and always seeking approval from his friends and other prominent figures from fellow literary figures, to royalty, and even little children who would read his stories.
Andersen never married, but he loved often and only at a distance. He often fell in love with unavailable women and many read his stories as interpretations of those loves. It was his love for a woman named Jenny Lind that inspired The Nightingale, but I will save that story for next time.
The height of Andersen’s life came on December 6, 1867, when he was made an honorary citizen of Odense, his birthplace. It was a major event with schools being closed, a torchlight procession through the streets and everyone in the city came out to honor him. Andersen later moved in with his close friends, Moritz Melchior and his wife, and died August 4, 1875, of liver cancer.
Hans Christen Andersen’s stories have stood the test of time and have been translated in almost every language around the world. Movies, plays, books and other adaptations of his works grace almost every home. This man has touched so many hundreds and thousands of people with his stories. It gives one hope that, no matter how awkward they may be, there is a something special and unique inside each of us that is worth sharing with the world. Like Hans Christian Andersen, who knows where your passion will lead!