*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Fairy tales have captivated the imagination of children for generations, leaving them spellbound with tales of heroes and villains in fanciful lands. Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, who produced more timeless tales to fill the genre than perhaps any other author, was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense. With his work adapted widely for the stage and screen, he is regarded as one of the most influential children’s writers ever.
Born to a father of the same name, much of Andersen’s childhood has vanished into the mists of history. Watching his shoemaker father and washerwoman mother, he gained an appreciation for the type of hard work required living below the poverty line — his family did not have a permanent address until two years after his birth. At the age of 7, he experienced the theatre in Odense for the first time, a crystallizing event for the young boy: a career in the performing arts would be his dream.
At the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen to pursue a position with the Royal Danish Theatre. Determined to prove himself an able actor, he made every effort to show his worth to the company, offering to dance, sing or play any role asked. Despite interest in his soprano singing voice, Andersen never joined the cast full time due to a change in his vocal range during adolescence.
Without a job and woefully lacking in education, Andersen was fortunate to attract the attention of people with more wealth than his parents. First, King Frederick VI of Denmark helped to pay part of his expenses, then a friend from Copenhagen paid for him to move to the small town of Slagelse for more complete schooling. Even with the limits of his knowledge, Andersen published his first short story in 1822 at the age of just 17. Though he despised his time as a student — later claiming abuse from the schoolmaster and discouragement by the faculty — he finished his education in 1827.
In his early twenties, Andersen took to writing as a career, gaining a reputation for enthralling narratives with “A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager” and some poetry. Still a relative unknown, he benefited from the patronage of Frederick once again, taking a trip to Italy by way of Germany and France after receiving a grant. While away in the southern half of the continent, Andersen refined his writing style and produced a variety of works — including his first novel, The Improvisatore, in 1835.
Buoyed by the success of his book, which featured lush descriptions of the Italian countryside and the towns dotting it, Andersen continued traveling. He moved through Sweden and Norway next, sketching out the famous lines of “I am a Scandinavian” in 1839, an ode to the rustic spirit of his countrymen and their neighbors to the north. (Swedish composer Otto Linblad later put the words to music, creating a song which briefly achieved popularity in the region.)
Later in 1835, Andersen put together a collection of his fantasy-driven short stories in Fairy Tales. Unlike his next two novels — O.T. and Only a Fiddler — sales were very slow. As he gained more of an audience for his work over the following 15 years, it seemed Andersen’s writings about travel would be his legacy: his fiction achieved a measure of fame, yet his meticulous and engaging discussions of cultural differences gathered the most attention.
A literary phenomenon with well-received plays on stages in Stockholm and Odense in addition to his books by the 1830s, Andersen received a hero’s welcome wherever he traveled. Luminary musicians Franz Liszt and Felix Mendelssohn became his friends and, when he arrived in England during 1847, he spent the afternoon in the company of Charles Dickens.
A complex man, Andersen never seemed to have a knack for romantic relationships. His personal writings are filled with a long list of unrequited loves despite an intense desire to find the object of his heart’s desire. Many of his pursuits were unobtainable women, a fact made all the more challenging to overcome due to his oppressive shyness.
On August 4, 1875, after a three-year decline in health, Andersen died at the home of his friend Moritz Melchior. Already regarded by the Danish government as its foremost cultural export, he had received the honor of a pension and the placement of a large commemorative statue in Rosenborg Garden in Copenhagen. (It was not finished until after his death.)
The reach of Andersen’s work is difficult to quantify: his writings have been translated into 150 languages, with “Thumbelina, “The Snow Queen,” “The Ugly Duckling” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” remaining favorites all over the planet. Many of his stories have been adapted for the stage and screen, most famously Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) and the independent The Princess and the Pea (2002). As a testament to the enduring quality of his books, Andersen’s birthday is now celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.
Also On This Day:
1513 – Juan Ponce de Leon sights a land mass known today as Florida
1800 – Ludwig van Beethoven premieres Symphony No. 1 in C major
1912 – The Titanic begins sea trials
1917 – President of the United States asks Congress to declare war on Germany, bringing Americans into World War I
2002 – Israeli forces lay siege to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a Christian holy site where Palestinian militants retreated