Andersen, Hans Christian (1805-1875)

Hans Christian Andersen is considered the father of the modern FAIRY TALE. While a few authors before him (such as Charles Perrault in France and the Grimm brothers in Germany) collected folk tales deriving from oral lore, Andersen was the first to treat this peasant form as a literary genre. Many of his original tales, such as "The Ugly Duckling" and "The Snow Queen" entered the collective consciousness with the same mythic power as the ancient, anonymous ones.

Andersen was born in 1805 in provincial Odense, Denmark, the son of an illiterate washerwoman and a poor shoemaker, who died when Andersen was eleven. An important influence during his childhood was his grandmother, who told him folk tales. At fourteen, Andersen went alone to Copenhagen to seek his fortune in the theater. Patrons funded his study, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-two, at a GRAMMAR SCHOOL, where his life was very much like that of the unhappy, over-large duckling of his story.

At a time when children's books were mostly formal, instructive texts, intended to educate rather than entertain, the appearance of his Eventyr (Fairy tales) in 1835 marked a revolution in children's literature. The colloquial manner, the humor, the exuberant detail, and the fantastical imaginings in his stories all distinguished them from traditional folk tales, which are generally characterized by an anonymous tone and formulaic structure.

Between 1835 and 1845 Andersen wrote "The Emperor's New Clothes," "The Little Mermaid," "The Nightingale," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen," and many other tales whose grace, simplicity, and penetrating insight into the human condition won him a wide following. These tales were translated throughout Europe and in America (they were translated into English in 1846), making him one of the most famous writers of the nineteenth century.

With his use of comedy and fantasy, Andersen determined the course of children's literature right through to the twenty-first century, and his influence as the world's first great fantasy storyteller is inestimable. He created speaking TOYS and animals, and he gave them colloquial, funny voices that children could instantly identify with. Yet he suffused his domestic settings with the fatalism of legend and his own modern sense of the absurd, so that in stories such as "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Fir Tree," and "The Top and the Ball" he became the artist of the idealized world of middle-class childhood. His appeal to a joint audience of parents and children set the standard for the double articulation that has marked all great children's books–as the British Daily News said of him in 1875, "it is only a writer who can write for men that is fit to write for children."

Despite his fame, Andersen always remained an outsider: lonely, gauche, sexually uncertain, and socially uneasy. He travelled widely across Europe and had several unhappy, unfulfilled love affairs–with both men and women. His tales are, in fact, often veiled autobiographies: the gawky duckling, the restless fir tree, the poor match girl, the mermaid unable to speak her love; these are self-portraits whose honesty to experience reveals universal truths.

See also: Children's Literature.


Wullschlager, Jackie. 2001. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: Knopf.