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The Intellectual and Fantastical World of Hans Christian Andersen

Hans Christian Andersen was a noted Danish author and a poet renowned for his thematic fairy tale stories. ‘Thumbelina’, ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Ugly Duckling’ are some of Andersen’s famous fairy tales which are a delight among children to this day.


The early days


Andersen was born on the 2nd of April, 1805 in a small town called Odense. It lies on the Danish island of Funen. Andersen had no siblings. Andersen’s father as a kid was told stories of their family belonging to an upper middle class. Numerous investigations made later however did not reveal any relevancies of the family belonging to the higher social class. His mother was a washerwoman and his father, a shoemaker.


Hans' family worked for the Danish royal class and there were also some speculations made that, Andersen could have been an unlawful son belonging to the Danish royal family who was given away.


Andersen had been born into a poor family, but still his father frequently took him to plays in the nearby towns. Andersen used to enjoy watching these plays. As a child, he was also very creative and designed a few of his toys. He loved to sing, dance and act and was indeed a gifted child. King Frederick VI admired the child’s abilities and took the responsibility of educating Andersen. Some stories though reveal that Andersen was forced to support his means himself. The stories also revealed that Andersen worked under a tailor and weaver for some time.


Andersen, since a very young age, aspired to become an actor. This could have been because of the interest, his father had established in him by taking him to theatres and plays. At fourteen when his father died, Andersen went to Copenhagen in search of employment. This was very much against the wishes of his mother who finally had to let go of the stubborn child.


Andersen did possess a fabulous treble voice and after a lot of struggle that lasted for three years, was hired at the Royal Danish Theatre. Hailing from a small town, Andersen found it a little difficult to adjust to the materialistic city life. In addition, there was the competition to excel in the theatre field. It was here that one of his colleagues mentioned about Andersen possessing the traits of a poet, when he took to serious writing.


A patron Jonas Collin, whom Andersen met at the theatre, observed his passion towards writing and helped him join a school in Slagelse. When in school, Andersen produced his first story called The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave. He was seventeen then. Andersen wasn’t a very obedient student then but continued to attend school until he was 22. He later shared his bitter experience at school where he had to live in his master’s home while being abused and ordered around by the master. His writing was also never encouraged by the master. This led Andersen to go in to depression for a long time.


His first poem ‘The dying child’, an inspiration from his own hard life was published in the ‘Copenhagen Post’ in 1827.


Beginning a career in literature


Andersen did not know to read or write in Danish. In fact, he found it difficult to even spell the words. From whatever little he knew of the spoken language, he went on to polish his skills. This flavor is visible in Andersen’s work even today which is why on reading it, the verses sound refreshing.


After two years of passing out of college, in the year 1829, Andersen released his first story ‘A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager’. This got Andersen a considerable amount of fame and success. It also encouraged him and in the coming years, his work got more recognition.


Andersen published a comedy and a few poems after his first story. In the year 1833 after seeing his work, the king granted Andersen some money to travel across Europe. It was then when Andersen’s successful journey to the future had begun. In Switzerland, Andersen wrote ‘Agnete and the Merman’. He visited Sestri Levante, a pretty little seaside village in Italy and came up with The Bay of Fables. The town Sestri Levante now celebrates an ‘Andersen Festival’ every year. 


In 1834, Andersen visited Rome. His first novel ‘The Improvisatore’ was published in the year 1835 after his trip to Rome. The novel instantly became a huge success and it received acclaim internationally.  This success provided Andersen with the breakthrough he needed and it helped Andersen commence his literary career. The story of the novel was based in Italy and revolved around incidents happening to a small boy. It is believed to have been inspired from Andersen’s own life. The Improvisatore is also considered to be one of the first modern European novels today.


Andersen then took to writing plays and some of his plays by the names ‘Love at St. Nicholas’ Tower’ and ‘The Mulatto’ were performed at the prestigious Royal Theatre. Andersen’s travels to different places intrigued him about the diverse cultures prevalent in these various places. This curiosity made him produce a number of travel books namely: ‘A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of the Amager’, ‘Pictures of Sweden’, ‘Life in Denmark’ and few others.


Andersen’s visit to Sweden had made him curious about Scandinavians. He wanted to express the bond that Swedes, Danes and Norwegians shared, in a refined way.  It was then that he came up with the first lines of his work ‘Jeg er en Skandinav’ which means 'I am a Scandinavian'. In this poem, Andersen has beautifully captured the evolution of the three sister nations and how people have shared a relation staying together. This poem gained popularity and a composer by the name Otto Lindland lent music to the poem.


The fairy tales


As a child, Andersen had heard a lot of folktales from his grandmother and from few other elders in his village. These stories had a deep impact on Andersen’s mind for a long time to come. With an inspiration from these old folktales Andersen began writing short stories.


After writing some plays, novels, poems and travel books, Andersen decided to explore the mystery land. He published his first collection of fairy tales in 1835. A few more were added to it in the following years of 1836, 1837 and it collectively came to be known as a Volume 1. There were a total of 19 stories and the volume was named Fairy Tales Told for Children. These stories somehow did not appeal to the excited crowd who were waiting for more of his intellectual works. A few of the fairy tales were poorly received too.


Andersen came back with more fairy tales in 1845 and changed the title of his fairy tales collection to New Fairy Tales. There were four volumes and had about 22 stories and some of them have been considered as Andersen’s best works till date.


In the years that followed, Andersen published a few more fairy tales. Thumbelina however remains his first famous fairy tale that was published in 1835. The story was about a very small girl, almost the size of thumb and the adventures she encountered with different creatures. The Ugly Duckling published in 1843 was the tale of a little bird that was born ugly and suffered because of its inferior complexion, but miraculously grew into a beautiful swan one day. This is Andersen’s complete imagination and an original piece of work that doesn’t find any relation to any old folklore. Among the famous fairy tales published there also were ‘The Princess and the Pea’ and ‘The Little Mermaid’.


At first, Andersen wasn’t very happy with his fairy tale writing. Some critics and friends had even convinced him to give it up. He then changed his perception of his stories and started fancying the poetic side of the fairy tales. He started looking at his fairy tales and began seeing them as a form of poetry that would be accepted across all cultures and so went on to continue with his work.


Andersen’s fairy tales in the form of poetry combined the elements of art and literature and threw light on the difficult and lighter side of life. His fairy tales also signify deep illusions and depict the perfect fantasy land.


Andersen continued his travel writing and in 1851, published In Sweden. The book also had some sketches of the beautiful Swedish city. This was followed by Shadow Pictures of a Journey to the Harz, Swiss Saxony and In the Summer of 1831. In 1866, he wrote ‘A visit to Portugal’; where he mentions his two close Portuguese friends who lived with him in 1820 in Copenhagen. Andersen’s travel writing carried a certain contemporary style and that genre was unique to him. His travel books combined philosophy and were also descriptive of the sights and places he visited. The book In Sweden also contained some fairy tales.


‘Pen is mightier than the sword’ held very true for Andersen. After gaining success with his writing, Andersen had the chance to meet some of the noted figures of those days including Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Victor Hugo and many more. He even received invites for parties from royal families. At one such party, he met Charles Dickens and had the opportunity to visit him in London a few years later. Andersen had the chance to befriend Grand Duke Carl Alexander of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach. King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, in 1846, bestowed upon Andersen the Knighthood of the Red Eagle title. In 1867, he was made an Honorary Citizen of Odense.


The sad end of a legend


Andersen never married, but fell in love many times. One of the most touched memories of his had been his love for an opera singer Jenny Lind. In his story ‘The Nightingale’, he has expressed his love towards her and gave her the nickname of the Swedish Nightingale. Andersen, however, was hesitant in expressing his feelings for her but managed to hand over a letter one day. Unfortunately she did not reciprocate.


Around 1872, Andersen severely injured himself in a fall from his bed and never fully recovered. He was diagnosed with liver cancer and breathed his last breathe on August 4, 1875 at a close friend’s house near Copenhagen.


Long after his departure, Andersen’s legacy continues. His popular fairy tales have been translated in many languages and are widely read today. A statue of a little mermaid at the Copenhagen harbor symbolizes a mark of respect to Hans Christian Andersen. His birthday is today celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.