On my current trip through Denmark I visited Odense – Denmark`s third largest city and also the birth town of Hans Christian Andersen. Or H.C. Andersen, as he is known as in Denmark.
You may not immediately know who Hans Christian Andersen is, but I`m sure it`ll ring a few bells if I mention The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, The Princess on the Pea and The Emperor`s New Clothes. These are just a few of the huge amount of fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen wrote.
The city of Odense has made a museum for Hans Christian Andersen, using his childhood home as part of that museum. If you ever go to Odense, I can really recommend that you visit this museum. It tells the amazing tale of Hans Christian Andersen`s life and that life will take your breath away. The beginning of his life is sad like The Ugly Duckling but the in the end he was acknowledged like the swan who grew up in the duck`s nest.
Today Hans Christian Andersen`s childhood home looks cozy and charming but when he grew up there, his family was only one of five families residing in this house situated in the poor part of town – a part of town where 30 percent of all the children were born out of wedlock; a huge sin back then. The house had dirt floors and Hans Christian Andersen`s family had just one room in the house.
Hans Christian Andersen`s parents were married but his mother was an illegitimate child and she had a daughter out of wedlock when she married Hans Andersen, Hans Christian Andersen`s father. Hans Andersen was a poor shoemaker who gave up his trade to become a soldier. Unfortunately soldiering ruined his health and he died fairly young. Hans Christian Andersen`s mother was a washer woman, taking clothes from the rich people of Odense down to the stream to wash them. At some point her life became to harsh for her and she turned to alcohol.
Widow next door
Hans Christian Andersen`s life could have turned as ugly as the life of most of the children he grew up with if it hadn`t been for his neighbor, the widow Mrs. Bunkeflod. She was not a rich woman but she was learned and had been married to a priest and poet. Therefor she had a small library in her house and she invited the young Hans Christian into her home to read. He soon spent most of his days in her library, reading everything he could, and he was also invited into intellectual discussions with the widow and her sister-in-law.
Rich citizens of Odense saw Hans Christian`s talent and paid for his education which took him away from his childhood city, but he never forgot Mrs. Bunkeflod. His very first fairy tale was dedicated to this widow who was so valuable to his finding his way to becoming a famous fairy tale author.
Hans Christian Andersen wasn`t just born into a duck`s nest, he was also physically an ugly duckling. Letters written by people who`d met him usually mentioned his physical appearance and it was only people who really knew him, who talked about his appearance in nice terms. Most people mentioned how extraordinarily tall he was – he was 185 centimeters tall, which was around 20 centimeters taller than his contemporary men (and about average of Danish men of today) – how thin he was, his huge nose and his strange facial features.
Apparently he was very vain and when he started earning money from his fairy tales, he spent quite a bit on clothes and hats. He was sometimes referred to as a dandy.
His fairy tales
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a ton of fairy tales and so many of them have received international fame. His fairy tales are extraordinary because they can be read by a child (or to a child) and the child will immediately fall in love with the tale because of the drama or the characters. But when you read his fairy tales as an adult – and I would recommend that you do just that if you haven`t already – his fairy tales offer a rather complicated moral which shows how Hans Christian Andersen looked at the world and the people he met.
It`s been discussed if Hans Christian Andersen`s father was really the king of Denmark because of the fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. Was Hans Christian Andersen truly a swan (a prince of sorts) that grew up in the duck`s nest? It`s a huge discussion but I must admit that I don`t like it much. It`s as if some people can`t fathom that the son of a poor shoemaker and an alcoholic washer woman can have talent – he must be the son of the king. I say that talent can grow anywhere, especially if you have a neighbor like Mrs. Bunkeflod.
Disney ruined The Little Mermaid
One of the things I`m truly angry about is how Disney ruined The Little Mermaid. Hans Christian Andersen was very careful about the moral in his stories and in this story the moral (in my very simplified interpretation – there is much more depth to the tale than this) is how you should never change to be attractive to another person. That doesn`t fit with the story of The Little Mermaid, you say? No, it doesn`t fit with Disney`s version of The Little Mermaid because in that version The Little Mermaid gets her prince after having suffered and gone through a lot.
This was most certainly not the way the original story ended. In Hans Christian Andersen`s The Little Mermaid, the mermaid never managed to attract the prince. She was mute since the Sea Witch`s price for giving the mermaid legs was her voice. And without her voice she could never talk to the prince. He acknowledged how beautiful and devoted she was but since he never got to know her as a person, he never fell in love with her. Unfortunately for the mermaid, the prince ended up marrying someone else and the little mermaid died. Or “became foam on the water” as Hans Christian Andersen calls it.
Which Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale is your favorite?