Today we will tell you the biography and works of the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, the man who reinvented the literary genre of the short story. We owe him in particular the very famous “Little Mermaid” or “The Snow Queen” taken by Disney. But let’s start as perhaps today’s protagonist would also do. Once upon a time…
Biography of Hans Christian Andersen
Writer Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805 in Odense (Denmark) in a particularly poor family. His father was a shoemaker and his mother a washerwoman. Andersen managed to become the first Danish author to elevate his social class.
His difficult childhood in fact prompted him to move to the city of Copenhagen at a very young age. The story goes that when asked what he was planning to do there, Andersen replied:
“I’m getting famous! First you suffer a lot and then you become famous “.
With a head full of dreams of glory and fortune, he tried to enter the world of theater. After some difficulty, he piqued the interest of the director of the Royal Theater, Jonas Collin. The latter allowed him to follow studies, which were not, however, very successful.
Andersen never learned to write in the elegant Danish of the time. Thus, his literary style remained close to the spoken language and this still makes him modern today, unlike most of his contemporaries.
In 1829, which coincided with the end of his studies, Andersen wrote a travel diary, the beginning of success.
Drawing inspiration from his own life, he produced novels such as The Improviser or Only a Violinist and various collections of poems. From 1832 he began writing short stories, which were published until his death.
With heightened sensitivity and enjoyable writing, Andersen gave birth to characters such as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, and The Snow Queen. After a few trips, including to England where he met Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen died on August 4, 1875 in Copenhagen, at the age of 70. His body is placed in the cemetery behind the Church of the Assistance in the area of the Danish capital known as Nørrebro.
Works of Hans Christian Andersen
It was relatively late, in 1835, that the overflowing imagination of writer Hans Christian Andersen led him to publish his first short stories. It was around this time that he published his first collection.
Success was immediate and all readers were moved by The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina and The Little Mermaid. If it is true that his first tales are more designed for children, Andersen makes it known as early as 1843 that these are not intended only for young people. The same year he released a new collection, followed by others.
In composing his stories, Andersen draws inspiration from his childhood memories, or from observing daily life. His stories are sometimes autobiographical. This is the case with The Ugly Duckling or The Little Match Girl, written in reference to Andersen’s grandmother. The writer composes more than 150 short stories in all. While their outcomes sometimes lead to tragic or unfortunate situations, their conclusions always confer an important moral and philosophical dimension.
Although it is to the fairy tales of him that he owes his success, Andersen is not limited only to this literary genre. The beginning of his artistic career was marked by the writing of poems, Fantasies and Sketches (1831), The twelve months of the year (1832), but also travel diaries. He also tries his hand at the theater and is also the author of several novels, in particular his autobiography entitled History of my life (1855), in reference to the many stories that would have made him famous.
Speaking of short stories, let’s talk about a couple of his most famous.
The Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is, as we have just said, one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most famous tales. Published in 1937, it tells the story of a young mermaid, a wonderful creature that lives at the bottom of the ocean. During her first ascent to the surface, on the day of her majority, the Little Mermaid falls in love with a young prince. Irresistibly attracted to the world of men, she decides to sacrifice everything about her, including her true nature, to marry the prince.
The fairy tale of the Little Mermaid has been the subject of numerous literary and artistic adaptations, including a very famous cartoon with the same name by Disney. However, the adaptation differs from the original mainly in its happy ending. In Andersen’s story, in fact, the prince will feel only friendship for The Little Mermaid. We can rely on Harry Clarke‘s illustrations for a narrative more similar to the original.
The love she so longed to find remains inaccessible to the little Mermaid, despite her best efforts. She ends up throwing herself into the sea: this tragic ending would be a metaphor for the author to express his homosexual and impossible love for Collin, son of his benefactor. The bronze mermaid statue located in Copenhagen harbor was made in honor of this story.
The Snow Queen
Published in 1844, The Snow Queen is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s longest-running stories. The main characters of this story are two children, a boy, Kay and a girl, Gerda. One day, two of the pieces of a magic mirror invented by the devil land in the eyes of the innocent boy who becomes a hard and indifferent being. When he is kidnapped by the Snow Queen, Gerda goes looking for him.
In her search for him, she meets many magical and fantastic characters. Darker and more complex than the Disney version, Andersen’s “Frozen” completely reverses the genre models as this is Gerda, the heroine, who saves a boy, Kay. Like many of the author’s stories, women are portrayed as strong and courageous characters and therefore play a leading role.
Characteristics of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales
Aimed mainly at children, Andersen’s stories are addressed to a very wide audience, both for their poetic narration but also for the morality that emerges from them and for the universal themes. Let’s start talking about the first themes, religion and death.
Religion and death
Religion occupies an important place in Andersen’s work. In different forms (rites, God, angels, death), it appears in almost all the stories. Andersen grew up in a Lutheran family and should have been observant, just as Danish society was at the time, but he wasn’t very much.
Death is featured in The Little Mermaid and The Little Match Girl. In the latter, explicit reference is made to a life in the afterlife: “they flew away joyfully … they were with God”. Likewise, the Little Mermaid wishes to access humanity and thus guarantee the eternity of her soul. More generally, death does not take on the tragic and painful dimension that we commonly find in Andersen. It appears more as a culmination or even a liberation, in any case the adhesion of the soul to eternity.
God is also mentioned in many accounts. When it is mentioned, the characters often seem to rely completely on him and scrupulously follow his advice and decisions. If in some cases the divine word is questioned or challenged, it ends up imposing itself and being accepted.
This theme is present in many stories but takes on forms and meanings that can vary. It is intimately linked to the author’s experience as metamorphosis can be a means of escaping from an environment or a condition. Coming from a modest background, Andersen never felt that he belonged to the intellectual or bourgeois elite of Danish society at the time. Furthermore, he was never truly loved and suffered from it. He also seems to have fallen in love with Jenny Lind, the Swedish singer whose story is briefly reported in the masterpiece film The Greatest Showman.
Furthermore, Andersen has always been aware of the fact that he was different (physically too, for that matter). How can we not see in the metamorphosis of the ugly duckling into a swan the social rise and success of Andersen who has overcome the prejudices and criticisms of a small elite?
The Little Mermaid is also a variation on the theme of metamorphosis. If the reasons are opposite to the previous ones (the little mermaid is not affected by her social background) the approach is the same: change nature to access another life.
Nature and travel
A favorite theme of the romantics, nature occupies a prominent place in Scandinavian literature. It is not surprising, therefore, that this theme is recurrent in the work of Hans Christian Andersen. Plants and animals are therefore characters in their own right (The Snail and the Rose Bush, The Nightingale, The Last Dream of the Old Oak, The Ugly Duckling, etc.). However, unlike those of another famous writer, La Fontaine, Andersen’s stories have no moralistic purpose or anecdotal significance. The descriptions are always precise and reveal his excellent knowledge of flora and fauna. This is also sometimes accompanied by a lyricism and emphasis that reveal his admiration for the beauty of the landscapes and the spectacle of nature.
An unrepentant traveler, Andersen traveled around Europe all his life. It is therefore not surprising that the theme of travel and discovery is an essential component of his work. Let’s not forget that he made his first trip at 14 when he left Odense for Copenhagen!
If the journey is a source of wonder and discovery, it is also a privileged means of transformation and metamorphosis. It often allows access to another state. We therefore consider the flight of the ugly duckling joining the swans as the means to access its true nature and its new existence. As for the Little Mermaid, it is her first journey to the surface that generates her desire to change status, her second journey to the witch that allows her to indulge this desire and her third journey to the prince to learn about the reality of the world of humans. Very often the journey of Andersen’s heroes is similar to a rite of passage as it requires will, effort and perseverance on the part of those who undertake it.
As we said at the beginning, Hans Christian Andersen was born into an extremely modest family. Very soon he started writing, aspiring to literary glory. Although he managed to attend the most important circles in Denmark and Europe, he did not forget his past so much so that his writings gave him the opportunity to denounce the harshness, the cruelty of the society of the time. The little match girl can be seen as a denunciation of child labor, of their living conditions in popular environments and of the indifference of society in front of it.
As usual, Andersen expresses things in a simple and accessible way to everyone. Just like a comment of a spectator: “he wanted to warm up”.
Familiar with European courts and high society, he also gladly mocked the vanity and fatuity of the elites and powerful. Andersen used farce and satire, as in The Emperor’s New Clothes, where he mocks the obsession with exhibitionism and the stupidity of a man, but also of those who, by herd instinct, do not dare to expose the scandal . Finally, Andersen points the finger at individualistic and discriminatory people. In The Ugly Duckling, probably the most autobiographical of his stories, we can see how being different can arouse rejection or even aggression on the part of others.
This critical dimension, however, dispenses with morality and Andersen’s stories are not manifestos. Andersen certainly showed the errors of his contemporaries, while avoiding assuming the position of dispenser of lessons.
Legacy of Hans Christian Andersen
The fortune of Andersen’s work is almost entirely linked to the fairytale production that has taken deep roots in our culture. Everyone knows famous fairy tales such as The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea (consider that, as of 2005, Andersen’s fairy tales were translated into 153 languages).
Hans Christian Andersen remains, even today, a point of reference, in particular towards literature for the youngest: his birthday, April 2, is celebrated in the world with the International Children’s Book Day.
2005 was the bicentenary of Andersen’s birth, and his life and his works have been celebrated around the world. The interest in the figure of Hans Christian Andersen and in the cultural legacy he left has never been more alive, especially in Denmark, a country of which the author is considered the most important literary exponent.
And it is precisely in Andersen’s hometown, Odense, that a museum has been erected in his honor: https://hcandersenshus.dk/en
Recently renovated, it is a must visit!
The writer’s work influenced many contemporary and later authors; we can certainly mention Charles Dickens, William Thackeray and Oscar Wilde. Biographies, plays and films have been written about Andersen and his works. The films inspired by the works are hundreds, those of Disney have been enormously successful however there is no film that has spread to the masses as much as Hans Christian Andersen has done for literature.
Tim Burton, we thought of you to fix this lack, are you reading us?