More than a century earlier, a little boy in Denmark, born into poverty to a shoemaker father and an illiterate washer-woman mother, was spending his days listening to the old women in the local insane asylum as they spun their yarn and spun their tales to pass the time.
Later this unusual hub of fabulous storytelling became his ticket to success as he listened his way to lift himself out of poverty and into international celebrity, becoming one of the history’s greatest storytellers and the patron saint of the fairy tale genre.
His name is Hans Christian Anderson, one of the greatest creators of immortal, timeless fairy tales ever created.
Andersen’s stories have entertained generations of readers young and old throughout the world. Tales such as The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, and The Snow Queen are a mere sampling of the 212 fairy tales published during his lifetime and posthumously.
So What qualities did Anderson have that made him such an endearing and enduring storyteller?
Let us see…
Andersen differed little from many writers in that his initial inspirations were his family. His mother and father were poor, a cobbler and washerwoman, but they were devoted to providing their son with every possible opportunity.
His mother introduced him to Danish folklore, and Andersen says this of his father in his 1846 autobiographical The True Story of My Life.
“My father gratified me in all my wishes. I possessed his whole heart; he lived for me. On Sundays, he made me perspective glasses, theatres, and pictures which could be changed; he read to me from Holberg’s plays and the Arabian Tales; it was only in such moments as these that I can remember to have seen him really cheerful, for he never felt himself happy in his life and as a handicrafts-man.” Anderson admits candidly.
Andersen was also a great listener — in the spinning room of the asylum, to his father’s story time, to the actors of the theater he adored. He listened acutely to the characters and voices around him, and it trained his ear.
He developed an inner ear for the sights and sounds of whole imaginary worlds which he captured so beautifully in his endearing works like “The Darning Needle,” or the emperor’s comical inner monologue of self-doubt in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” or in “The Nightingale.”
Thus to become a better writer, he was always striving to learn and experience new ideas and cultures. The more he could learn, the more he had to write about.
During an age when every fairy tale started and ended with preaching children on “what to do” and “what not to do”, Anderson changed the status quo by offering his readers a familiar, colloquial tone in his writing and often adopted the uncommon view of impartiality.
He was one of the very first authors to appreciate the “immense” learning one can get from observing and understanding the magical world of children.
As such, Andersen layered witticisms and social lessons aimed at adults into his fairy tales and encouraged all of his readers to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. These ageless lessons can be found in almost every one of his fairy tales from the “Emperor’s new clothes” to the “Ugly Duckling.”
Editor Noel Daniel nails his style perfectly when he says.
“Andersen imbues a simple inkstand, a toy soldier, a bird, a pea, a spinning top with their own drives, blind spots, desires, arrogances, and courage. Andersen’s characters are human like in their passions as well as their frailties, and often have a slightly kinked perspective.”
One of the greatest factors attributing to the success of his timeless characters is that they appeal to adults as well as children. Parents enjoy reading about them at bedtime or watching their cartoons on TV just as much as their children do.
“The whole world is a series of miracles … but we’re so used to them we call them ordinary things,” he wrote in “Hans Christian Andersen’s Shorter Tales”
‘I will become famous,’ Andersen wrote in his diary, underscoring that his professional drive to greatness was not the aspirational narcissism of the restrained and well heeled.
He possessed a gritty drive to perform, a marvelous soprano voice, a gift for telling stories, and, along with all of this, an irritating ego; an ego that egged him on continuously to succeed against all odds.
His background and breeding was a constant impediment to absolute acceptance from the society to which his talent and success introduced him and of which he so desired to be a part. Indeed, this struggle remained one of the underlying themes prevalent throughout his writing.
Unlucky in status, in love and in looks, Andersen refused to let others intimidate him out of using his talent and became determined to only live up to the standards that he set for himself.
“Each soldier was the living image of the others, but there was one who was a bit different. He had only one leg, for he was the last to be cast and the tin had run out. Still, there he stood, just as steadfast on his one leg as the others on their two,” Andersen wrote in “The Steadfast Tin Soldier.”
Andersen compared his own life to the story of “The Ugly Duckling”, seeing his prosperity and fame later in life in stark contrast to how he was treated before the public found value in his work.
So when he wrote in The Ugly Duckling that “being born in a duck yard does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan’s egg,” Andersen was making an oblique, melancholy comment about his own bitter journey to stardom.
It was this journey that made his stories beautifully paced and passionate, at times sorrowful and full of pathos, and at other times wickedly funny. Andersen had the outstanding ability to articulate his own disappointments and desires, petty and profound and make them into transcendent tales.
Anderson wrote this as a reference to his life in “The Flax”, where he says, “We cannot expect to be happy always … by experiencing evil as well as good we become wise.”
At an age, when every fairy tale was “deemed” to have a “happy ending”, Anderson went against the grain.
Andersen’s fairy tales were sensational when they were first published. It may be hard to imagine today as they have become staple childhood memories, and his characters have been incorporated into our language, but for early 1800’s Denmark, he was radical and revolutionary in his treatment.
Many of Anderson’s fairy tales go against the grain of the more traditional folk tales of his era, choosing to show that sometimes darkness wins. While this may seem unnecessarily morbid for a children’s story, Andersen sought to expose the injustice of the world around him without explicitly telling the reader what to do.
This is presumably why the match girl freezes to death, the tin soldier gets melted down, and the fir tree in “The Fir Tree” is chopped into firewood. Andersen’s stories implied that only through fighting the darkness can we feel the light of joy, even if we don’t always win in the end.
He saw the unfair nature of a finite world and encouraged his readers to look for those injustices that could be cured and to do just that, identify them. That is the only way to fight injustice and not sugarcoat them into meaningless idioms. That is the first and foremost social responsibility of any writer worth his salt.
“No, the light is too intense; we do not yet have eyes that can see all the glory God has created. But maybe someday we will have such eyes. That will be the most wonderful fairy tale of all, for we ourselves will be part of it. — Hans Christian Andersen writes in, “The Toad”
So, what are the key takeaways we learn from Anderson?
Andersen understood that he would be unable to write in a way that would connect with people all over the world unless he stepped outside his comfort zone and found a new way to communicate. This theory must have worked because to this day Andersen’s writings are published in more than 125 languages.
And the 2nd most important lesson we learn from him is his unrelenting grit to perform against all odds. He had to endure the humiliating ghost of his socioeconomic caste and to cultivate that vital capacity for courage in the face of rejection. As Writers, nerves of steel are required to succeed against anything that is thrown at you and come out shining.
As Anderson has rightly said:
“Just living is not enough… one must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower.”
About the author-:
Ravi Rajan is a global IT program manager based out of Mumbai, India. He is also an avid blogger, Haiku poetry writer, archaeology enthusiast and history maniac. Connect with Ravi on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter.