Unlike the Brothers Grimm, who were scholars of mythology and folklore, the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen was a literary craftsman, and in particular he was the author of stories for children. Without a doubt, Andersen is one of the best known children's authors of all time, and his stories have been translated into many languages all over the world. You probably know many of Andersen's stories already. Some of the most famous are "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Little Mermaid," both of which we will be reading this week!
Andersen worked with traditional stories and story motifs, but he reworked each of the stories in his own style, which is highly descriptive and atmospheric. Andersen is a highly sentimental author, and over time his stories became increasingly spiritual, sometimes with an explicitly Christian message. Yet while Andersen's stories are meant for children, they are not written in simple language, and they are not short. Andersen's stories are filled with detailed descriptions and they are often quite lengthy. In many cases, his stories have become famous through shortened and simplified versions of the stories - or even in versions where the story has been radically altered to make it "happier," as in Disney's version of the Little Mermaid.
Hans Christian Andersen was born in Denmark in 1805, in the city of Odense. His parents were extremely poor; his father was a shoemaker, and his mother was a washerwoman. Andersen's half-sister was a prostitute. For the first years of his life, Andersen's family was homeless. They were too poor for him to be able to attend school regularly, but from his early years he made up fairy-tales and built little puppet-shows. As Andersen explained in his autobiography, Odense was a small, traditional town, and he was able to learn a great deal about the folk traditions of Denmark from the people that he knew as a child, especially from his mother and the other poor women of the town.
When Andersen was 11 years old, his father died and he had to go to work, first for a tailor and later in a tobacco factory. When he was 14, he ran away to Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark, in order to try to become a ballet-dancer or a singer or an actor. Thanks to one of the directors at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen, Andersen was finally able to start attending school - when he was already 17 years old. He went to schools in Slagelse and Elsinore - Elsinore being the home of that legendary "prince of Denmark," Hamlet. When Andersen was 22 he was able to enroll in Copenhagen University, and he already knew at that time that he wanted to write. He wrote fantasy stories and fairy tales, but he also wrote novels and plays. Meanwhile, Andersen traveled all over Europe and wrote accounts of his travels. His first book of stories for children - "Tales, Told for Children" - appeared in 1835. His stories were already being translated into English and other languages in the 1840's. Andersen continued to publish children's stories for the rest of his life, to wider and wider acclaim. He died in 1875, at the age of 70. He is buried in Assistens Kirkegård in Copenhagen (this is also the burial place of many other famous citizens of Denmark, such as Niels Bohr and Soren Kierkegaard).
Over the course of his career, Andersen published 168 stories, and by the time of his death in 1875 he had achieved international success and fame for his writings. The year 2005 marked the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth, and there were many celebrations of his life and work around the world. Andersen is a national hero in his home country of Denmark, and there is a famous statue of the "Little Mermaid" that you can see in the harbor of Copenhagen. Andersen's literary fairy tales have exerted an influence on many other writers, especially English writers such as Oscar Wilde (who wrote some lovely stories for children) and C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia stories have a great deal in common with Andersen's works.
Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology.
Laura Gibbs, Ph.D.
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