A 'Fairy Tale' Life

The stories of Hans Christian Andersen - many based on his personal struggles - have touched the hearts of all ages for over 150 years

IF you know the story "The Ugly Duckling," you may be surprised to learn that the author - Hans Christian Andersen - was writing about his own life.When he was a boy, his parents lived in the slums of Odense, Denmark. They were very poor and lived in one room large enough only for his father's cobbler's bench, a bed, and a couch. His father owned a few books, which he read aloud in the evenings. Describing his childhood, Hans Christian Andersen wrote: "From as early as I can remember, reading was my only and my dearest occupation; ... I never played with the other boys, I was always alone." The reason he was so lonely was that other children thought he was strange. He was much taller than boys his age, and he had an extremely large nose. He was so lanky that his clothes never fit right, and in trying to cover up for his short coat sleeves and pant legs, he often walked in a peculiar way. They laughed at him for more than his appearance. He made up stories that the other children thought were weird - stories in which he was always the hero. His grandfather was insane and often returned from walks in the woods covered with leaves, singing at the top of his lungs throughout the city streets. Neighborhood children laughed at and chased him, and they teased Hans that he was becoming just like his grandfather. Throughout his life, Hans Christian Andersen was extremely sensitive. His description of the ugly duckling's fear and hurt at the mean treatment he receives is taken directly from his own life. Like the ugly duckling, he eventually left home. His father died when he was 11. Because his mother was illiterate and thought school was unimportant, Hans dropped out. After briefly working in a factory, he decided to become an actor and go to Copenhagen to work in the Royal Theater. Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, was far from his home. His family and neighbors did not know anyone there, and they thought it was crazy for him to go, especially since he was only 14 years old. However, his mother was superstitious. Years before she had taken him to a fortune teller who predicted that he would be like a grand, wild bird flying high up in the sky and that his hometown would someday be illumined in his honor. Hans reminded her of this prophecy and begged her to let him go and fulfill it. She agreed, expecting him to get too scared to go through with his plan. He made it to Copenhagen, but quickly ran out of money. None of the people he approached felt he had talent or education to be accepted as a pupil in the Royal Theater, and they urged him to go home. Instead he went to the home of the head of the Royal Choir School to seek an audition. The housekeeper tried to turn him away. Undaunted, he told her his life story, which she found so moving that she interrupted the dinner party that was in progress. He was allowed to perform for the guests. Several of thos e present became so interested in him that they gave him money to help support himself. Although he was accepted at the Royal Theater, his attempts at acting, singing, and dancing were so poor that he was dismissed. However, during this time he started writing, and one of the directors of the Theater, Jonas Collins, became his benefactor. Mr. Collins sent him back to school, urging him to stop writing and to focus on his education. At 17, Hans was in a class of 11-year-old boys. The teacher developed an extreme dislike for him, blurting out on one occasion: "You may scribble a lot of nonsense, but no one will read what you write, and it will be sold as pulp." This teacher couldn't have been more wrong. After finishing school, Hans devoted himself to writing. His first attempts at novels, plays, and poems received bad reviews. Despite the criticism, he was convinced that he would be a famous writer someday. At age 30, he started writing fairy tales. His first stories, like the Grimm fairy tales, were based on folk tales. His approach, though, was different. He added details and descriptions that were so fresh and interesting that even a familiar story seemed t otally new. It was when he started writing original fairy tales that his genius was apparent. He wrote about everyday things - red shoes, toy soldiers, flowers, fir trees, snails, darning needles, street beggars, and chickens - with wonderful imagination, detail, humor, and insight. Hans Christian Andersen did not think of fairy tales as children's literature, but as stories that would interest people of all ages. He felt the events and perspective of the story would appeal to children, but the underlying message an d insight on human nature would touch the hearts of adults. "The Ugly Duckling" was not the only fairy tale taken from his life. It has been said that each of his fairy tales is a self-portrait. Although Hans Christian Andersen fell in love three times, the women did not love him, and he never married. One of these women was Jenny Lind, the famous Swedish singer. Her singing had been criticized for not being operatic. In defense of her more natural style, he wrote "The Nightingale," which tells of a contest between a real nightingale and an artificial, gilded one . Although the emperor is temporarily enthralled with the artificial nightingale, the song of the real nightingale is what heals him on his deathbed. Hans Christian Andersen had no idea that his fairy tales would be so popular. He wrote 156 stories, many of which were translated into other languages. These stories brought him the fame and recognition he had craved. He became a social, as well as a literary, success. Kings, princes, and aristocrats throughout Europe became his friends, as did authors such as Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, and Victor Hugo. He was invited to stay at castles and manors for months at a time. He traveled throughout Europ e, and on one trip to London a newspaper spoke of him as "one of the most remarkable and interesting men of his day." On this trip he was invited to so many balls, parties, dinners, and occasions in his honor that he couldn't begin to accept them. In 1867, when he was 62, his birthplace, Odense, held a day of celebration in his honor, which featured a torchlight parade. He loved the attention. Many people felt that Hans Christian Andersen was conceited because he was always talking about himself and reciting from his work. But it was not an arrogant or mean conceit. It was a childlike delight in how his life had turned out. In his autobiography, titled "The Fairy Tale of My Life," he said: "The story of my life up to this hour lies now unrolled before me, a rich and beautiful canvas, stirring my faith: even out of evil came good, out of pain came happiness... . As we move onward toward God, what is bitter and painful vanishes, what is beautiful remains; one sees it as the rainbow on the dark sky." These words echo in the ending of "The Ugly Duckling": "He was overwhelmed by so much happiness. But he wasn't a bit proud, for the pure in heart are without pride. It seemed strange, after having been ridiculed and tormented, to hear himself called the loveliest bird of all. His heart was full of joy as he murmured to himself: 'No one would ever have dreamed that the Ugly Duckling could possibly turn out to be so happy! Today Hans Christian Andersen is considered the master of the fairy tale. Although written over 150 years ago, his fairy tales have something important to say to children and adults today. Why not sit down tonight and read one?

'Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will tickle imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday. Hans Christian Andersen Classics Available at Your Local Library

The Ugly Duckling The Emperor's New Clothes The Snow Queen The Nightingale Thumbelina The Princess and the Pea The Wild Swans The Red Shoes The Little Mermaid The Tinderbox Little Ida's Flowers The Little Tin Soldier The Fir Tree The Little Match Girl

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