Once Upon a Time in Denmark

If you are walking through New York’s Central Park on a fine summer day, you might come across a group of children enthusiastically listening to a story. The storyteller will be sitting beside a statue of a kindly looking man holding an open book. Although this man never actually visited New York, his fame as a writer of fairy tales and children’s stories has spread far beyond his homeland. 

Along with the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen is recognized as a key figure in 19th-century romantic fiction. He is, without question, the best-known writer Denmark has ever produced. His stories continue to delight children and adults the world over. Classic tales such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Ugly Duckling,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” are loved for their humor and imagination. They are also loved for the simple but significant messages they often contain. 

Born on April 2, 1805, in Odense, Denmark, Andersen was an emotional, yet imaginative, child. His father, a poor shoemaker, died in 1816. With a mother who was very superstitious and unable to read or write, the boy received little education as a child. 

At 14, Andersen traveled to Copenhagen. There, he hoped to become an actor or singer. He was lucky enough to spend some time with the Royal Theater, but when his voice changed, he had to leave. Luckily, one of the directors helped him by arranging his education. 

Andersen gained admission to the University of Copenhagen in 1828, and his literary career began soon afterwards. He hoped to achieve success with poems and plays, and underestimated the kind of stories which have made him famous. Though not particularly fond of children, he had a gift for entertaining them. This led a friend to suggest he write down the stories he invented. 

Many of Andersen’s tales are based on folklore, and many are products of his own imagination. All of them are told in a humorous and informal style that children loved from the start. Few serious critics, however, took notice of them when they first appeared.

Before his death in 1875, Andersen regularly traveled around Europe, and was enthusiastically welcomed everywhere he went. Because he had always wanted to be famous, he worked hard to gain a reputation in European literary circles. Being a rather vain man, he complained in “The Fairy Tale of My Life,” one of three autobiographies he wrote, that people were not interested in his “serious” writing.

Nowadays, of course, Hans Christian Andersen is a household name. Whether he would have liked it or not, millions of children and adults will always be grateful for the magic his stories have brought to their lives. The enchanted young listeners in Central Park are proof of that.