"The most wonderful fairy tale is life itself" - On H. C. Andersen, art fairy tales and ever-ready scissors

31.03.2022 Lena Hennewig (Research Assistant)

Once upon a time, the son of a penniless shoemaker and an alcoholic washerwoman saw the light of day on 2 April 1805 in the small town of Odense on the Danish island of Funen. But until he moved out to delight people with his stories, it was still a long, rocky road – and at first a lonely one.

"My life is a beautiful fairy tale, as rich as it is happy. If, when I was a boy, poor and alone, I had gone out into the world, a powerful fairy had met me and asked: "Choose your career and your goal, and then I will protect and guide you according to your spiritual development, and as it must be according to reason in this world! - My destiny could not have been guided more happily and better. My life story will tell the world what it tells me: there is a loving God who makes everything work for the best."

This is how the fifty-year-old Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) summed up his life in his autobiography "The Fairy Tale of My Life" (1855). But let's start at the beginning of his story - or better: his very personal fairy tale.

"I never dreamed I'd be this lucky when I was the ugly duckling!"

Once upon a time, the son of a penniless shoemaker and an alcoholic washerwoman saw the light of day on 2 April 1805 in the small town of Odense on the Danish island of Funen. But until he moved out to delight people with his stories, it was still a long, rocky road – and at first a lonely one.

The young H. C. Andersen was a talented child. However, due to his family's poor financial situation, he could rarely attend to school. Nevertheless, Andersen was interested in theatre and devoured the few books his poor father owned. When Hans Christian Andersen's father died at the age of only 34, his eleven-year-old son had to contribute to the family's financial livelihood from then on. He started working in a factory to support his mother.

Perhaps it is this deprived childhood - the early confrontation with responsibility and physical labour, financial worries, and death - in which the melancholy, but also the sparkling optimism in H. C. Andersen's writings is rooted.

"Life is not enough!" said the butterfly. "You have to have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower!"

The desire to escape his precarious circumstances formed in H. C. Andersen in his early youth, and he moved to Copenhagen at the age of fourteen. Here he tried his hand as a theatre actor and singer, and he wrote his first poems. However, there was no great success at first.

However, he came to the attention of Jonas Collin, then director of the Copenhagen Theatre. He invited Andersen to live with him and his family. Supported by Collin and the then King Frederick VI, the boy from Odense was able to attend Latin school and then university.

Already at the end of his school years, H. C. Andersen wrote his first internationally published poem "The Dying Child", which describes death from the perspective of the eponymous child. From 1822 onwards, further published poems, stories and plays followed. At the same time, he also wrote his first art fairy tale, the manuscript of which, however, was only found in 2012, and published to great media interest.

"Whoever writes for adults writes for time, whoever writes for the children writes for eternity."

Hans Christian Andersen wrote more than 150 other art fairy tales from the 1830s onwards, which helped him achieve world fame during his lifetime. Children and adults were equally the target group of his fairy tales, whose ironic and sometimes amorous allusions are only understandable to the adult reader.

He was familiar with the famous Children's and Household Tales by the Brothers Grimm. The Hessian brothers' stories, published in Danish as early as 1820, are considered one of the Dane's sources of inspiration. The Grimm's Children's and Household Tales belong to the group of folk tales that are characterised by their oral tradition and an unknown author. Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm had the fairy tales told and sent to them by various sources so that they could then write them down. They did not write their own fairy tales.

Hans Christian Andersen's stories, on the other hand, are so-called art fairy tales. They are conceived and written down by an identifiable author and are often fixed in time and space. Some art fairy tales take up motifs from folk tales, but most are completely independent narratives. What both types of fairy tales have in common, however, is the use of fantastic, magical, or surreal components.

Hans Christian Andersen's art fairy tales have a very special character within their style. Thus their setting is precisely defined and described in detail: the children's room with the paper play castle in "The Steadfast Tin Soldier", the cold streets on New Year's Eve in "The Little Girl with the Matchsticks" or the green meadow on a glorious summer's day in "The Ugly Duckling". H. C. Andersen also often wrote from a childlike perspective and tried to integrate the fairy-tale elements into his tales of everyday life.

"Silhouettes are the prelude to writing."

H.C. Andersen, however, was not only a gifted storyteller with paper and pencil. He was also a master at capturing alien worlds with paper and scissors.

Silhouettes were nothing more and nothing less than a beloved pastime for Hans Christian Andersen. He did not exhibit them or sell them, but gave them away to friends, hosts and their children. He made them while telling his stories - with a pair of scissors that he always carried with him.

Some silhouettes he put in bouquets of flowers for decoration, others were intended for puppet shows. Still others could be made to work by blowing on them. The motifs of his silhouettes were as varied as those of his fairy tales - and those of his life: there are Pierrots and dancers, animals, fantastic figures, and exotic architecture.

About 400 of his silhouettes are still preserved today, and researchers assume that there were numerous others. There might have been 1,000 to 1,500 originally.

"You get a clear head when travelling"

Hans Christian Andersen found the source of inspiration for his silhouettes and fairy tales during his numerous excursions. The first sketches for "The Little Mermaid", for example, were made during a trip to Italy. The influence of Italy is clearly evident in Andersen's descriptions of the country that the Little Mermaid views from the water:

"Now she saw the solid land before her, high blue mountains, on whose summit the white snow shone as if they were swans lying there. Down on the coast were beautiful green forests, and in front of them was a church or a monastery, she didn't quite know, but a building it was. Lemon and orange trees grew in the garden and tall palm trees stood in front of the gate. The sea formed here, where it was quite calm but very deep, a small bay just up to the cliffs, against which white fine sand was washed [...]."

A state scholarship financed H. C. Andersen's first journeys through numerous countries in Europe and to the Ottoman Empire. In addition to inspiration, the journeys also ensured increasing international fame - to date, H. C. Andersen's books have been published in 120 languages. 

And they all lived happily ever after...

Hans Christian Andersen died on 4 August 1875 in Copenhagen as a world-famous author. Through his work he has become immortal, his life is still celebrated today: In June 2021, the new "Hans Christian Andersen Museum" was inaugurated in his birthplace Odense, and the bronze "Little Mermaid" has been sitting in Copenhagen's harbour basin since 1913 and is one of the most popular landmarks of the Danish capital. Famous Disney films like "Arielle, the Mermaid" and "Frozen" are based on his ideas. The great pop artist Andy Warhol even dedicated his own series of works to Hans Christian Andersen in 1987. And perhaps the greatest honour: International Children's Book Day will be celebrated on the occasion of his birthday on 2 April.

More Hans Christian Andersen in the Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Sources (German):

H. C. Andersens Autobiographie „Das Märchen meines Lebens“, 1855, online: https://www.google.de/books/edition/Das_M%C3%A4rchen_meines_Lebens/HXlBAAAAYAAJ?hl=de&gbpv=1&printsec=frontcover