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A soul for stories

Hans Christian Andersen, imaginative master

The Snow Queen by Kay Nielsen, 1924
The Snow Queen by Kay Nielsen, 1924
Hans Christian Andersen’s outstanding sensibility for stories
In The Ugly Duckling, one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous fairy tales, he sums up his own life story when he writes, “Being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg.” Born into poverty in 1805, Andersen was homely, eccentric, fiercely ambitious, and dead set on cultivating his artistic gifts to escape his lower-class roots. In his lifetime, he would win praise as one of Denmark’s most important writers. By the end of his life, he was regularly feted and kept the company of kings. Today, he is known as the most famous Scandinavian writer ever. But his rags-to-riches story was not without childhood misjudgment and maltreatment by others, deep anguish, and heartbreak, which was the engine of his ambitions. While these experiences created a relentless need for recognition, Andersen’s brilliant talent for storytelling and his gift for everyday language spawned a whole new kind of fairy tale and have endeared him to millions since his first collection was published in 1835.

The spinning room as laboratory for listening
The old women in the lunatic asylum in Andersen’s hometown of Odense spun tales to amuse themselves as they spun their yarn. While Andersen’s paternal grandmother tended the garden, a young Hans Christian gravitated to the spinning room—the social heart of the asylum and a traditional hub of tale-telling. It was a room full of chatter, gossip, sweat, and cackles, alive with the rhythmic motion of the spinners, and the click and clack of their wheels. It was a laboratory for listening. There, Andersen heard all manner of peasant folktales in the oral tradition. Typical of Scandinavian folklore, they were full of supernatural creatures such as goblins, trolls, witches, and water spirits. “A world as rich as that of One Thousand and One Nights was revealed to me,” wrote Andersen later in one of his autobiographies. “The stories told by these old ladies, and the insane figures which I saw around me in the asylum, operated in the meantime so powerfully upon me, that when it grew dark I scarcely dared go out of the house.”

This spontaneous, messy, vibrant living oral tradition was the Holy Grail to a growing number of scholars and Romantic writers in Europe. Learned academics like the Brothers Grimm in Germany sought to preserve this very same colloquial and unrefined art form in their collection of German fairy tales, which was first published in 1812, when Andersen was seven years old. Andersen would read the tales later as a young writer, and much later he visited the Grimms as an established one.

A watercolor illustration of The Tinderbox by Swiss illustrator Heinrich Strub, 1956. Like Hans Christian Andersen, he learned to draw and make paper cuts early in life.
A watercolor illustration of The Tinderbox by Swiss illustrator Heinrich Strub, 1956. Like Hans Christian Andersen, he learned to draw and make paper cuts early in life.

From superstitious world to imagination on fire
Contrary to popular perception, the Grimms did not travel the countryside gathering oral stories, but relied heavily on a few trusted sources, both oral and literary. By contrast, Andersen’s exposure was the real deal: He grew up in the thick of a superstitious society where oral tales were a source of entertainment as well as purveyors of life lessons.

In Andersen’s youth, Odense was Denmark’s second-largest city, with 8,000 inhabitants, and was still more a medieval town with traditional customs than an urban hub like Copenhagen. These centuries-old Scandinavian stories were part of an oral culture that colored Andersen’s childhood, and the peasant tales he heard would eventually all but vanish as the countryside was industrialized and the social habits of the lower classes changed.

Fairy tale historians Iona and Peter Opie note that “Andersen was in fact the first writer of fairy tales to come—as the Grimms with their professional background did not—from the humble class to whom storytelling was a living tradition. All the people who surrounded him in his childhood, other than his father, were people who relied on word of mouth, not on books, for their knowledge.” His mother, who by all accounts loved her son very much, visited fortune-tellers and, deeply superstitious, explained all manner of phenomena by ghosts and goblins. For those in Andersen’s immediate orbit inclined toward superstition, inanimate objects literally had minds of their own. Andersen’s masterful ability to anthropomorphize objects became a hallmark of his work.

Theo van Hoytema was one of the Netherlands’ most accomplished illustrators of plants and animals; seen here is The Ugly Duckling, 1893.
Theo van Hoytema was one of the Netherlands’ most accomplished illustrators of plants and animals; seen here is The Ugly Duckling, 1893.

Unable to read or write, Andersen’s mother was a washerwoman who later succumbed to alcoholism. Andersen’s father was a shoemaker by trade who loved literature and, remarkably for the time, owned a cupboard of books. Until he died when Andersen was eleven, he read stories and plays to his son regularly, among them One Thousand and One Nights and the Bible. Thanks to his father, who had carved out his own rudimentary education against all odds, Andersen’s early and loving introduction to the printed page led to a lifetime of voracious reading. Andersen wrote in his diary, “From as early as I can remember, reading was my sole and my most loved pastime … I never played with other boys, I was always alone.” Reading suited Andersen’s temperament and powers of imagination to a T. But Andersen was also a great listener—in the spinning room of the asylum, to his father’s story time, to the actors of the theater he adored. He listened acutely to the characters and voices around him, and it trained his ear. He developed an inner ear for the sights and sounds of whole imaginary worlds, like the haughty tone of the deluded sewing needle in The Darning Needle, or the emperor’s comical inner monologue of selfdoubt in The Emperor’s New Clothes, or the little silver bells in the palace flowers that “tinkled so that no one could pass by without noticing them” in The Nightingale. No person or thing in the real world escaped Andersen’s notice as a potential character.

“I will become famous,” Andersen wrote in his diary, underscoring that his professional drive to greatness was not the polite narcissism of the restrained and well educated. Early on, his patrons recognized a powerful self-confidence in Andersen. He possessed a gritty drive to perform, a marvelous soprano voice (before it cracked), a gift for telling stories, and, along with all of this, an irritating ego. Andersen sought recognition all of his life. Historians tell us that his letters reveal he was privately haunted by feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Andersen never married, and experienced several instances of unrequited love that scarred him deeply. For a romantic with a profound sense of pathos and for a lifelong bachelor who enjoyed the warm, secure family lives of his close friends, he was haunted by a life devoid of reciprocated love. One such instance was to the famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind, “the Swedish Nightingale” who served as the inspiration for Andersen’s tale The Nightingale. Born into poverty and rising to fame through their artistic talent, Lind and Andersen had much in common. But his infatuation with her was not reciprocated.

Ascending the social ranks through poetry
While it was oral storytelling that helped shape Andersen’s mind and his literary voice, it was the democratization of Danish society that opened up doors for him that in the past would have been closed to someone with Andersen’s background. Part of Andersen’s genius lay in his ability to somehow perceive, while growing up in the poorest corner of Odense, that high society was mobile enough that if he cracked it, he would go far. He armored himself with steely ambition, an electric imagination, and not an ounce of stage fright as he tried first to break into the theater in Copenhagen. But he also cultivated what was necessary to move ahead: “Andersen was quick to realize that socially, poetry was a winning card,” biographer Jackie Wullschlager observes. She goes on, “this was a time when art and literature stood at the intellectual core of the nation, because political life was barely allowed to exist.” In the face of the absolute monarchy that ruled Denmark until 1848, “artistic life ... consumed the energy that other nations were pouring into politics, and the result was a Golden Age of culture, a flowering of painting, music, literature and philosophy, unprecedented in Danish history.”

Royal patronage dependent on good breeding and connections was way out of Andersen’s league, and his path to success was fraught with deprivation and repeated rejection. But incredibly, he persisted. Ultimately, he was noticed by the director of the Royal Theater, Jonas Collin, who helped secure a royal stipend for the teenager. What followed was a painful five-year period of being schooled with 11-year-olds when Andersen was 17 at the insistence of his sponsors. They had demanded that he either get a proper education before advancing as a writer, or go home and learn a trade. The latter had been the fate of his father and was absolutely out of the question for Andersen. But sprinkled in these experiences was just enough positive reinforcement, and with Collin’s vital help, Andersen would go on to receive an artist’s allowance that gave him the time and energy to write. Collin and his son would remain important figures throughout Andersen’s life, and the closest thing to family he would know as an adult.

In illustrating The Emperor’s New Clothes in 1916, Irish artist Harry Clarke demonstrated the sensitivity to texture and decorative detail which also gained him repute as one of Ireland’s most accomplished stained-glass artists.
In illustrating The Emperor’s New Clothes in 1916, Irish artist Harry Clarke demonstrated the sensitivity to texture and decorative detail which also gained him repute as one of Ireland’s most accomplished stained-glass artists.

A poor peasant in a royal mantle
Andersen was forever dancing between selfassuredness and feelings of inferiority and emotional vulnerability. He never escaped feeling unequal to the royals, celebrities, and dignitaries he socialized with as his fame grew, writing in his diary, “I had and still have a feeling as though I were a poor peasant lad over whom a royal mantle is thrown.” But he seems to have also drawn considerable strength from his rags-toriches story, which he eulogized frequently to others. He valued the hardship and tribulation that shaped his life. The genre of fairy tales must have instinctively felt comfortable for their prevalence of centuries-old tales of mistaken identity, where the humblest figure is shown through trial and tribulation to be a true royal, if not by blood then by character. Andersen immortalized this theme in many tales, from The Ugly Duckling to The Princess and the Pea and Thumbelina.

Sweeter than chocolate and cream
Andersen wrote his fairy tales for both adults and children. But Andersen’s inner ear was writing for what historians have called “the listening child.” It was his own childlike ability to remain open to the sights and sounds of the world that allowed him to write so effectively for youngsters. This was a radical development in children’s literature, which had previously been made up primarily of morality tales.

In a 1928 illustrated book of Andersen’s stories by the marvelous Japanese artist Takeo Takei, the Japanese publisher describes Andersen’s tales as “sweeter than chocolate and cream.” Contemporary readers might find it hard to imagine just how different Andersen’s tales were from those before him. They were beautifully paced and passionate, at times sorrowful and full of pathos, and at other times wickedly funny. Simply put, they were a pleasure to read, and they spoke directly to children’s sensibilities rather than condescending to them. As the Japanese publisher aptly sensed, Andersen’s tales arrived on the scene like dessert after centuries of hard-to-swallow didacticism and flavorless moral teachings in children’s literature (although Andersen was careful to sprinkle in moral lessons and Christian adages befitting his middle-class audience).

Children’s stories for children’s sake
Andersen had tasted an art form that didn’t yet exist beyond his own tales: children’s stories for children’s sake. Wullschlager calls Andersen the world’s first great fantasy storyteller: “He used speaking toys and animals, and he gave them voices, easy, colloquial and funny, with which children could instantly identify.” From Andersen’s tales springs the modern legacy of stories told from the child’s perspective in a world of make-believe, from Alice in Wonderland to The Wizard of Oz to Toy Story. This “new” perspective is the core of two of the most modern genres: animation and cartoon. Where the Brothers Grimm, both trained academics and linguists, were inspired by the direct language and powerful emotional imagery that flavored folktales, Andersen wore his heart on his sleeve. Describing himself as apolitical, Andersen writes in one of his autobiographies, “God has imparted to me another mission: that I felt, and that I feel still.” He was a romantic by constitution, not by choice, and it made life hard for him. As he matured as a writer, he discovered that the poetry and emotional vulnerabilities of the German Romantics flowering in Europe were very literally balm for his introspective and brooding soul. Although Andersen’s tales were as poetic and emotionally candid as the literature of the German Romantics, they were also highly modern in that their subjects and style were rooted in everyday contemporary life, not in a glorified or idealized past, which was a hallmark of older “Once upon a time” fairy tales, with their caste systems. His break with what Andersen biographer Reginald Spink calls “academic conventions” resembled the rifts created on the brink of modernity by avant-garde European artists tired of the soulless restrictions of establishment artistic practice. Andersen’s style was dreamy yet sensual, and the worlds depicted in his tales existed in an emotional ecosystem of its own logic.

The Little Mermaid by British artist Jennie Harbour from Hans Andersen’s Stories, 1932.
The Little Mermaid by British artist Jennie Harbour from Hans Andersen’s Stories, 1932.

In search of immortality
Even though Andersen grew up surrounded by Danish folktales, he made up his own, rather than collecting them like the Brothers Grimm. According to Danish folktale expert Bengt Holbek, only seven of Andersen’s eventual 157 tales are based on preexisting ones. In 1835 Andersen released a small booklet of his first four tales. When a close friend told him that if his first successful novel, The Improvisatore (1835), had made him famous, these tales would make him immortal, “for they are the most perfect things [you] have written.” Andersen reflected, “I myself do not think so.” In fact, the psychology that pervaded Andersen’s tales was new and fresh, and his tales literally touched a nerve in premodern Europe. It is no wonder that he was a daydreamer, often escaping into his own private thoughts. The safe, internal world of his imagination would become the infinite well of his creative writing. His mind was primed to leap at inspiration instantly. Wullschlager quotes Andersen describing the way his mind worked: “[Ideas] lay in my thoughts like a seed corn, requiring only a flowing stream, a ray of sunshine, a drop from the cup of bitterness, for them to spring forth and burst into bloom.”

Andersen’s fairy tales have had so great an influence on children’s literature since, that the two most important awards in children’s literature for writing and illustration are called the Hans Christian Andersen Awards, and his birthday, April 2, was chosen as International Children’s Book Day.

A glimpse of the unconscious in early modernity
Historians have speculated that Andersen’s fairy tales are in fact early tales of the unconscious that presaged artistic movements of the early 20th century and later Surrealism. While artists and thinkers such as Freud in the modern era tried to capture the unconscious or, in the case of many modern artists, unleash its creative potential, Andersen’s approach was to stand ready to act on the wild inspiration within his own mind.

Tumultous childhood experiences and the persistent bumpy road he experienced as a social outsider could have easily embittered him for a lifetime and dispirited him to the point of giving up his dreams. But Andersen’s drive—also described by historians as a belief in his own special destiny— made him eternally prepared. While the critical reception of Andersen’s plays, travel writings, and novels has shown them to be somewhat uneven artistically, his fairy tales remain brilliant examples of his unique imagination and his obvious total comfort in and mastery of the imaginary worlds he conjured in his mind, a safe place to which he returned time and time again in the face of adversity. It was there that he integrated his emotions with reality. Fairy tale historian Jack Zipes writes: “His fairy tales were of the life he did not lead, and they spoke what he wanted to say publicly but did not dare. His writings were majestic acts of self-affirmation and selfdeception.”

The pain and the pleasure of subjectivity
Andersen imbues a simple inkstand, a toy soldier, a bird, a pea, a spinning top with their own drives, blind spots, desires, arrogances, and courage. Andersen’s characters are humanlike in their passions as well as their frailties, and often have a slightly kinked perspective, unable to see their real fate or position, as if Andersen were shining a light on the limitations of our own human subjectivity. In this way, perhaps the real subject of his tales is the inescapable condition of subjectivity as the essence of human experience. But it is precisely this subjectivity that also allows for love, to be deeply possessed by one’s own experience, to become engulfed and even consumed by caring for another person. For Andersen, this is both a powerful creative engine and a source for potential hurt and disappointment. His tales are infused with the enormous depth of feeling he was capable of, but which remained unfulfilled in his own life. Zipes writes of Andersen’s relationship to his own personal story: “Andersen tried desperately to give his life the form and content of a fairy tale, precisely because he was a troubled, lonely, and highly neurotic artist who sublimated in literary creation his failure to fulfill his wishes and dreams in reality. His literary fame rests on this failure, for what he was unable to achieve for himself he created for millions of readers, young and old, with the hope that their lives might be different from his.” The imperfect, unresolved psychological recesses and emotional landscapes in children’s tales were his gifts to us, and his heart and soul took refuge there.
Tom Seidmann-Freud, niece of Sigmund Freud, was a groundbreaking children’s bookmaker. Her 1921 book Kleine Märchen (Little Fairy Tales) includes an early version of her artwork for The Princess and the Pea.
Tom Seidmann-Freud, niece of Sigmund Freud, was a groundbreaking children’s bookmaker. Her 1921 book Kleine Märchen (Little Fairy Tales) includes an early version of her artwork for The Princess and the Pea.