The Magazine

A Fairy Tale

The life and work of Hans Christian Andersen.

Feb 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 20 • By HENRIK BERING
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen

A New Translation from the Danish

by Jeffrey Frank and Diana Crone Frank

Houghton Mifflin, 293 pp., $27

IN VICTORIAN LONDON, a Danish tourist who had lost his way approached a police officer to ask for directions to his hotel. When his garbled English and accompanying gestures failed to make him understood, he pulled out a piece of paper on which he had written what he believed to be the name of the street of the hotel. The words on the paper read "Stick No Bills." The policeman, convinced he had a lunatic on his hands, took him to the police station, from which the Danish consul had to bail him out.

The unfortunate tourist was the Danish children's author Hans Christian Andersen, who was in London in 1847 to promote his books. It is typical of the sort of situation Andersen got himself into throughout his life. The bicentennial of Andersen's birth is coming up in 2005. In his home country, elaborate celebrations are planned. A massive two volume biography by Jens Andersen has just come out in Denmark, and in the United States a new translation of his best- known stories by Jeffrey Frank and Diana Crone Frank has been published.

The impression most Americans have of Andersen stems from the musical, starring Danny Kaye as an extremely noisy teller of children's stories. And then, of course, there are the cartoon versions of his fairy tales, which have had their teeth pulled by Disney. The real Andersen--in both his life and his stories--is considerably darker and more complicated.

He is both dated, closely tied to the ideas of his own age, and very modern, the famous author on perpetual book tour. He was a great and enthusiastic traveler who lived in mortal fear of being robbed and who brought his own rope along in case fire should break out in the hotels in which he was staying. He was a snob of the first rank who avidly collected the orders of the courts of Europe and at the same time a self-made man who could see that the Prince of Wales was a fat wastrel. He was a sensitive soul, who would save a worm from a beetle. Given to fits of crying, he could be maudlin and descend into bathos of the worst Victorian kind. At the same time he was an extremely vain and ambitious man who plotted his career with tenacity.

His appearance was decidedly odd. One contemporary Danish painter described him as belonging to that category of people "who are set apart by their terrible outward appearance." He was six feet tall, which made him large in his day, but he seemed to lack a spine. He had tiny beady eyes, a huge nose, massive hands, the handshake of a dead fish, and huge feet. And he dressed like a Parisian dandy. He was of course totally uncoordinated and prone to accidents. Yet he was able to cut some of the most intricate paper silhouettes for children with a gigantic pair of scissors he always carried with him. He was aware of his own failings and inconsistencies, but always insisted that his surroundings put up with them: "Accept me as I am. It is against my nature to be any different."

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN was born in 1805 in the provincial city of Odense, the son of a poor shoemaker and a superstitious washerwoman who later died of alcoholism. His father, a rather imaginative and kind parent, joined the Napoleonic armies and returned a broken man, while his grandfather was demented, a figure of fun in the streets of Odense. The young Hans was left to himself much of the time.

Determined to escape from rural backwardness, the gangly youth arrived in Copenhagen on September 6, 1819, at age fourteen, set on becoming famous and fulfilling the prophecy of a fortune-teller who had predicted that his hometown would one day become illuminated in his honor. He did not know a soul in the capital except his mother's sister, who ran a brothel--in which he stayed in a cupboard-sized room without a window.

Starting from this rather unpromising point demanded careful planning and considerable nerve. His first ambition was drama, and he set about seeking out the leading theatrical names. With a deep bow he would introduce himself: "May I have the honor of expressing my feelings for the stage in a poem written by myself?" In one celebrated instance, he appeared at the residence of the leading ballerina of the day, Mrs. Schall, rushed into her entrance hall, pulled off his boots, and began frantically performing all the parts of a comedy he had seen in Odense, singing and using his high hat as a tambourine.