Wow. How do you sum up the legacy of a great man like Hans Christian Andersen, who was born 209 years ago, on April 2, 1805? Perhaps if I had spent more of my life studying him I’d be equipped to really delve into him here, but since I haven’t, let’s just take a few paragraphs to contemplate his life and contributions to the world of storytelling.
He faced an upward climb from the day he was born in Odense, Denmark; he was the son of poorly educated parents; his father died when he was 11; he had to support himself while still a teenager; his school years were the darkest years of his life; and no one exactly encouraged him during his early writing career. Only a person with a literary genius like Andersen could go on to become one of the greatest writers the world over.
He published his first story, “The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave” in 1822. Although he is best known for his fairy tales and short stories, he also wrote plays, poetry, novels, and travel works. He wrote and published fairy tales, both original and reworked, from 1835 to 1872. While I was researching this blog post, I was surprised by the number of well-known tales that originated from his fertile mind, or at least that we know because he retold them! Without those fairy tales, we wouldn’t have all the entertaining adaptations we’ve enjoyed for over a hundred years. We may also have missed out on stories by other authors that were inspired by Mr. Andersen. Not a happy thought! His tales weave a rich story world, with Christian values, lyrical language, thought-provoking insights, issues to overcome, and characters that creep into your heart. They’re made for remembering and retelling and perfect for whimsical, colorful illustration. They always leave you feeling a strong emotion.
One of my favorite passages (obviously translated) that showcase his artistic storytelling is from “The Little Mermaid”:
Far out at sea, the water is as blue as the bluest cornflower, and as clear as glass. It is very deep, so deep that no anchor can possibly reach the bottom. It would require a great many church towers, stacked on top of each other, to reach from the floor of the sea to its surface.
Now, you should not imagine the floor of the sea as a naked, white sandy bottom. No, indeed! An amazing variety of trees and plants grow there. Their branches are so resilient they move like living creatures at the least movement in the water. The fish, both small and great, dart between them just like birds in the air. And this is where the sea-folk lived.
Little Claus and Big Claus
The Princess and the Pea (This one has always fascinated me.)
Thumbelina (Love this one! I knew the animated movie first.)
The Traveling Companion
The Little Mermaid (This has captured so many imaginations.)
The Emperor’s New Clothes (This one always makes me laugh.)
The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Fantasia 2000! But, not one of my favorites – too sad.)
The Wild Swans (I LOVE this one. Adventure, heartbreak, and a happy ending.)
The Pen and the Inkwell
There is a Difference
A Gift for Hans
The Marsh King’s Daughter (I equate this one with The Wild Swans. So good!)
The Snow Queen (Frozen!!)
What the Old Man Does is Always Right
The Ugly Duckling (One of my favorites.)
The Little Match Girl (This story always has the power to depress me.)
She Was Good for Nothing (About a boy and his mother – so moving!)
The Fir Tree
It’s Absolutely True!
The Red Shoes
Here’s an episode that rekindles the phenomenon of Hans Christian Andersen in our own generation: In October 2012 a fairy tale called “The Tallow Candle” was discovered in a suitcase of a Danish family’s old documents. It is Andersen’s first known fairy tale; he wrote it as a teenager and dedicated it to a benefactress. For almost two hundred years it lay unknown, even after Andersen became world-famous. In the story, the candle goes unappreciated at first, and it questions its purpose. Why was it made if it is only to get begrimed and ignored? Then it meets a tinderbox, which strikes a flame to its wick and shows it that it indeed has a grand purpose: bringing light to a dark world. Doesn’t that sound a little like its author’s life story? How appropriate that this story surfaced today at a time when its value has no question!
Because Andersen’s birthday is April 2, that day has also become International Children’s Book Day. So, Happy Children’s Book Day! Where would we be without the books we read as children and still cherish today?
What is your favorite Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale?