Monday, January 7, 2013

Children's Literature: Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, and that day is now commemorated as International Children's Reading Day, which might give you a sense of how enormously beloved he is.  His fairy tales for children are about as universally known as it is possible for any stories to be; in my experience they are often known where the folktales collected by the Grimms are not.   The tales have been translated into over 125 languages and turned into innumerable cartoons, films, plays, and everything else.

We are going to call him HCA, for ease and because that is how I am used to thinking of him.  I once spent a year in Denmark, and I happened to live quite close to Odense, where HCA was born (I still think it one of the nicest cities ever), and that is how people spoke of him.  You pronounce the letter H like 'hoh' so say it hoh sea ay.  Got it?  As long as we are talking Danish, we might as well say that the word for fairy tale is eventyr, pronounced EH-ven-tur, only you must make the y sound like a very tight sort of u.  So if you want to really impress people with your erudition, you can say eventyr instead of fairy tales.

HCA was born quite poor, and after his father died he was even more so.  His father Hans Andersen seems to have had slight delusions of grandeur, thinking he was related to nobility when he was not, but I always get the impression that this rubbed off on the young HCA rather strongly.  HCA's mother was a washerwoman.  The boy went to school and was then apprenticed until he was confirmed at 14, which made him a man, and so he set out to seek his fortune in the big city.  He wanted to be an actor.  He did actually find employment as a singer, but not for long; his voice changed and he decided to be a poet instead.  A benefactor sent him to school, which was horrible.

Young Hans started writing small tales around this time; at first retellings of stories he'd been told as a child, then his own original works.  These were not his serious focus.  Really, HCA wanted to be a famous novelist, a poet, a playwright.  You can still read his novels--the most known is The Improvisatore, which is semi-autobiographical.  I have read it, and, well, there were a lot of better novelists in the 1830s, but it was well-received.  He did quite a lot of very good travel writing, which was popular.

But it was the little fairy tales that really led to success for  HCA.  They weren't popular at first; they are a bit on the dark side (maybe you noticed?) and they weren't easy to translate.  But English translations made a hit in Britain, and his popularity steadily grew until he was famous throughout Europe--though the saying about prophets never being appreciated in their own countries applied, and Danes were skeptical for some time.  By the time of his death in 1875, however, he was world-famous and considered a national treasure (officially!  It came with a pension!).

HCA especially liked England and made friends with Dickens, but the friendship ceased after a short visit to Dickens' home turned into a 5-week stay in which the Dickens family endured and HCA obliviously enjoyed himself very much.  He tended to be a little socially awkward that way, and then there was his tendency to fall in love with unattainable women...

HCA also had a talent for papercutting, known as papirsklip in Danish.  To this day, papirsklip is a Danish thing; you can buy machine-made pictures anywhere, and hand-made items are of course a real art form.

Just a couple of months ago, we got big HCA news!  An early fairy tale was unearthed in a family's archives.  Tællelyset, or The Tallow Candle is now his first known fairy tale, written in the 1820's while HCA was still a teen in school. 

I hope this has told you a little bit about Hans Christian Andersen; I meant to get it posted earlier but things have been a little crazy around here.  We're getting ready to do a pioneer day re-enactment event tomorrow and family members are in town for a visit and there has not been a minute!  Anyway, try out a new-to-you HCA story today.


Eva said...

After reading The Palace of the Snow Queen (a Lapland travelogue) and Isak Dinesen's Winter's Tales last week, I feel like HCA is calling my name. Hope my library as the Nunnaly translation!

Eva said...

Forgot to add, loved hearing a bit about your time in Denmark! :D

amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

The few HCA stories I can remember off hand are indeed a bit darker than one thinks of in children's tales. It's no wonder Disney changed the ending for their The Little Mermaid! I remember reading about the new HCA story discovered at the time--it's so neat to know that researchers are constantly uncovering fun new writing!

Amy said...

I absolutely loved HCA when I was little. We had a book of his tales with some illustrations that I can still remember. I always found his endings intriguing--usually hopeful(ish), but by no means classic happy endings. There was one tale about a princess who was turned into a swan, and her seven brothers who tried to help her, and one of them was somehow left with one swan wing in place of his arm? I can still see the picture of that prince.

Jean said...

Yes, that's The Wild Swans! Her brothers are turned into swans and she has to break the spell by making them shirts of nettles, and she doesn't manage to finish the last sleeve before the time is up. I think that story is really neat, because spinning shirts out of nettles sounds impossible (and it's a magic spell in the story), but you really can treat nettles like flax and make cloth out of them, and Scandinavians did.

Amy said...

Yes! That's it. I *loved* that story. I had never heard of nettles, and couldn't get my mind around what they were. No google image searches in those days, lol.