to movies, fairy tales in all their various permutations (straight-forward, fractured, updated, post-modern) seem to have the market cornered. The Grimm Brothers have certainly received their due; so let’s celebrate another man of fairy tale renown on his birthday: Hans Christian Andersen, who was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense, Denmark.
His is a classic poor boy-makes-good story. Born of a shoemaker father (I kid you not!) and a laundress mother, his family background flavors many of his tales, as he frequently explored class differences between the poor and the wealthy. He was teased by school mates for his ungainly appearance and was later bullied by a teacher who told him his writing was fit only for the trash can (any writer can relate to that!). At age 14, he left home to make his fortune. He dabbled in art, music and acting; was not especially successful at any of those trades, and sank into poverty. The director of the Royal Theatre took pity on him and gave him some money to continue his education. He high-tailed it to Copenhagen, the capitol city, entered the university and found a new interest in writing.
Andersen explored poetry, and finally found some success. Wealthy patrons sponsored his way on a Grand Tour of Europe. Through his travels, he became interested in writing for children and his first book of fairy tales was published in 1835. He hit the big time and followed it with numerous volumes of children’s stories, writing at the pace of almost one book a year. In his lifetime, he wrote more than one hundred and fifty fairy tales, and his stories have been translated into over 100 languages!
Melancholy and longing permeate Andersen's stories. Many of his humble characters long for love and/or acceptance into a higher realm of society or what they perceive as a more exalted existence. A mermaid pines for a human prince; an ugly toad crawls up from the bottom of a well to seek something "higher"; a starving beggar child who sells matches on a streetcorner imagines ever more beautiful tableaux of prosperity as she freezes to death.