“Every man's life is a fairy tale" - On Hans Christian Andersen

2 April 1805, The Danish author, poet and creator of some of the world’s best-known literary fairy tales Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense.

“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.” (Hans Christian Andersen)

Edmund Dulac's (1882 - 1953) illustration of H.C. Andersen's Little Mermaid for
"Stories from Hans Christian Andersen" (1911)

There are few narrative forms, besides verse romance, of course, that appealed to the Romantic heart more than fairy tales. The fluent passage towards mythology and heroic epics taken for granted, “Sleeping Beauty”, for instance once was Brunhild, her ring of fire became a hedge of briar roses, the grim Norns were turned into fairy godmothers and unfaithful Siegfried a nice young prince who just kisses her awake sans fateful consequences, fairy tales have everything the Romantic Movement was fond of. A sense of wonder, tales of yore and, more often than not, enough drama and few ”fairy tale endings” before they were declared children’s literature and received a complete washdown by the end of the 19th century. And even before the Brothers Grimm began their epic quest of collecting and writing down folktales in the German states, exemplary for others who gathered the archetypical variants told from Dingle Bay to the Ural and beyond, Romantics began to write their own fairy tales. There are classical antecedents, Aesop and Apuleius, to name but two and Charles Perrault, who introduced folk tales into the official literary canon already in the 1600s, but the tradition of composing Kunstmärchen, literary fairy tales, began in earnest with the dawn of the Romantic Age in Germany. Tieck, Novalis, Chamisso, de la Motte Fouquè and, most prominently, E.T.A. Hoffmann formed a trend, followed up by other romantically moved minds such as Charles Nodier. During the repressive atmosphere and censorship of European Restauration’s Congress System after the wars ended in 1815, literary fairy tales often were writers’ vanishing point, instinctively and romantically, Wilhelm Hauff’s and Hans Christian Andersen’s, who came up with some rather ambiguous “once upon a time”-stories under the influence of Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Lord Byron.

Hans Christian Andersen in his living room (1874)

It is somewhat difficult to imagine Hans Christian Andersen in the guise of Danny Kaye singing the theme song of Charles Vidor’s movie from 1952 and reconcile it with influences of Lord Byron. “Read Byron's biography, oh! he was just like me, even down to his little tattling; my soul is ambitious like his, it can only feel happy when admired by all“ Andersen wrote himself at the age of 20, suffering under the regime of grim schoolmaster Meisling during his catch up on a proper grammar school education, sponsored by Jonas Collin, director of the Royal Danish Theatre, who was one of Andersen’s first prominent patrons. And even though a lot of juveniles felt a Byronic streak of Promethic rebellion during their school years, Andersen carried on with it, beyond his popular international image of world literature’s arguably most prominent teller of fairy tales, i.e. children’s stories. Bitten by the travel bug, bisexual and with a gift for expressing grim humour and dark pathos, there are indeed parallels with his Romantic lordship but while Byron had the means, the mind and the mettle to act out many of his imaginations and become his own myth, Andersen’s demons remained firmly fastened to his imagination and wishful thinking and came to light only clothed in quite harmless mannerisms and in the guise of his tales, dressed up in fairytale-like garb, more often than not. Up to the point that Andersen never engaged in physical relationships with other human beings, neither men nor women, even though there were love letters written to male friends and rejected marriage proposals, courtships and mentally intimate friendships with the female of the species, most notably the back then immensely famous Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. She saw the eccentric poet as something of a brother, inspired him to write at least three of his fairy tales and thereby become the author of her household name “The Swedish Nightingale” and maybe she even became the role model of the Snow Queen who plays cruel games with poor Kay’s impaled heart.

One of the paper cuts Andersen used to make for children and some of his lady friends*

is more to Hans Christian Andersen than literary fairy tales. He wanted to become a dancer at first, then an actor, struggling with his humble origins as son of a cobbler and an alcoholic washerwoman from Odense, an ugly duckling indeed with barely an education to speak of, who had dreams of becoming a swan one day. He thirsted for baking in the limelight and he did, finally, after discovering his knack for storytelling in his late teens. Initially, he was at least as successful with novels, poems and travelogues as he was with his fairy tales and he found his patrons, his niche as something of a curiosity among the better classes of Denmark and his fame as an author already during his life and times. But his fairy tales stand out. As literary treatments and dreamwork, processing his many fears and imagined shortcomings as well as his wishful thinking into artificial archetypes firmly enshrined in Western thinking, from the lesson taught by the cheeky nipper in “The Emperor’s New Cloths”, the grimly poetic fate of the “Little Mermaid” and the sheer beauty of “Thumbelina” appealing to everyone’s inner child, young and old. “His own image; no longer a dark, grey bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan. To be born in a duck's nest, in a farmyard, is of no consequence to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg” and even if Andersen himself made himself believe that he was something of an illegitimate grandson of a Danish king along with other bloomers from the neurotic's family romance, he became a swan indeed, graceful and beautiful, whose song is sung in more than 125 languages across the globe.

* Andersen's paper cut was found on http://visitandersen.com/paper-cuts along with a lot of others, a page well worth your visit 

And more about Hans Christian Andersen on: