“To travel is to live.” Hans Christian Andersen from his autobiography The Fairy Tale of My Life
One of the most memorable days of my Scandinavian vacation was the day I spent in Odense, Denmark, getting to know Hans Christian Andersen. After visiting his childhood home and learning about his life and legacy, he became my latest favorite person.
Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1805, the son of a poor shoemaker and a washerwoman, in Odense’s worst slum area. The Andersen family shared the original small, yellow, dirt-floor house with as many as five families because of their poverty. But through Hans’s tremendous sensitivity and imagination, he managed to escape his humble beginnings and become one of the most significant and prolific writers of all time. He wrote 156 fairy tales, fourteen novels and short stories, as well as many plays, poems, and biographical works. His stories have been translated into 160 languages.
But of course lives can’t be understood with merely dates and numbers. I feel like I know what Hans Christian Andersen was really like because of his words and his stories. I never realized that Hans himself was “the ugly duckling”. From the museum booklet on his life – “Hans Christian Andersen was 6’1″. The long-limbed, tall man and his distinctive face with its deep-set, heavy-lidded eyes and big nose did not fit in the beauty ideals of that day. He was considered ugly, odd – even downright repulsive – and his outward appearance caused a stir and made an ungainly, comical impression on most people. However, those who got to know the writer had a different impression entirely. They found his face lively and spirited, full of life and wit, and his figure stately and his appearance elegant.” And that’s the part of his life story that I like the most. Of course we meet people like this all the time – people who may not fit the current definition of what is considered beautiful, but who are beautiful nonetheless because of the sheer sway of their personalities.
Hans left Odense for Copenhagen where he began his education and his travels. And from these travels and his imagination came the fairy tales that are just as relevant today as they were in the late 1800s. Some of my favorites are “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Little Mermaid”, “The Snow Queen” and “Thumbelina”.
“To live is not enough! One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower!” from “The Butterfly”
But my favorite, and I think his best, is “The Princess and the Pea” or as I like to think of it, the story of my life. A prince is searching for a princess to marry. So many girls claim to be princesses, but how can he be sure he has found the real deal? The old queen devises a plan and places a pea under twenty mattresses and twenty eider-down beds and on this the princess in question has to lie all night. But she couldn’t sleep at all. “Now they knew that she was the real princess because she had felt the pea right through the twenty mattresses and the twenty eider-down beds. Nobody but a real princess could be as sensitive as that.” Every time I think that I might be too much of a princess, I think of “The Princess and the Pea” and I feel good about myself.
Hans Christian Andersen lived alone from the age of fourteen until his death at the age of seventy. So it makes me happy to see a group of Danish teenagers swarming around the statue of Hans that sits in the center of Odense. They are laughing and acting silly and when I ask to take their photo, the boy in the center sticks his finger up Hans’s nose instinctively. It’s a move as classic as Hans’s fairy tales.
“Running through life is an invisible thread.” from The Fairy Tale of My Life