Once upon a time, there was a genius

Hans Christian Andersen revolutionized children's stories

HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSEN: THE LIFE OF A STORYTELLER By Jackie Wullschlager Alfred A. Knopf 489 pp., $30

Almost two centuries on," notes Jackie Wullschlager in her wonderfully wise and sympathetic biography of Hans Christian Andersen, "it is hard to imagine the impact on a child in the 1830s who opened an obscure little volume and read the following first lines: 'A soldier was marching along the high road: Left, right! Left, right! He had his knapsack on his back and a sword at his side for he had been to the wars and was going home. And on the way he met an old witch. Oh, she was horrid: her bottom lip came right down to her chest.' "

"Today," Wullschlager reminds us, "we accept imaginative, anarchic stories as the basis of all good children's books, from 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' ... to 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.' But when Andersen wrote his first fairy tales, children's books were not expected to be about enjoyment."

Inaugurating a new kind of literature for children was only one of the literary innovations that can be credited to the humbly-born Danish genius who gave the world such unforgettable creations as "Thumbelina," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Little Mermaid," "The Princess and the Pea," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and "The Ugly Duckling."

While Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm had assiduously collected folk and fairy tales, Andersen (1805-1875) was among the first writers to create original work in this genre. Richly detailed, playfully humorous, gently ironic, often wistful, his stories not only delighted children, but also appealed to adults.

Nor did Andersen write only fairy tales. Indeed, as Wullschlager points out, his early novel, "The Improvisatore" (1835), a great hit in Denmark, England, Sweden, Holland, France, and Russia, was "one of the first novels to concentrate on its hero's childhood, and to trace his adult development as a result of it," predating "Jane Eyre" and "David Copperfield."

Without resorting to pretentious academic jargon, Wullschlager shows us how Andersen transformed the fairy-tale into something surprisingly close to the modernist novella. Certainly, a persistent strain of melancholy and pessimism runs through many of his tales, as well as a poignant sense of the absurd. A precursor of Kafka and Borges, Andersen is viewed as a serious writer in countries like Germany and his native Denmark. But in English-speaking countries, he is seen only as a children's writer. This, of course, was no small legacy: Andersen's fantasy world of animate toys and talking animals paved the way for books like "The Wind in the Willows" and "Winnie the Pooh." But, as Wullschlager explains, English translations of Andersen's work have been woefully inadequate, and many of his "later great works, written for an adult audience, remain unknown" to English-speaking readers.

Andersen's own life story had a certain fairy-tale quality. He was born in the small town of Odense, where old women still told folk tales. His parents were poor people: his sensitive, book-loving father was a shoemaker, his practical, pious, warmhearted mother was a washerwoman. Hans Christian was a tall, ungainly child, an "ugly duckling" mocked by many of his peers. But his beautiful boyish singing voice, and later, his gift for storytelling, gave him an entree into the homes of his wealthier countrymen.

While still a lad of 14, he set off to make his fortune in the royal city of Copenhagen: "First you go through an awful lot, and then you become famous," he told his mother.

There was indeed an awful lot that Andersen went through, and though he did become famous, he remained emotionally vulnerable, desperately hungry for praise. Like the arboreal hero of his tale "The Fir Tree," he longed for the warmth of domestic bliss, but never found it.

Although Andersen often struck those who met him as naive, he was a self-aware literary artist with a deep understanding of what he was doing: "The wonder story," he wrote, "holds a merry court of justice over shadow and substance, over the outward shell and the inward kernel. There flows a double stream through it: an ironic over-stream that plays and sports with great and small things, that plays shuttlecock with what is high and low; and then the deep under-stream, that honestly and truly brings all to its right place."

A poignant portrait of the man, a thoughtful appreciation of his art, Wullschlager's biography of Andersen should go a long way toward stimulating fresh interest in his works, including some much-needed English translations of those still untranslated. As Wullschlager demonstrates, Andersen is a writer worth reading and re-reading.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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