Authors: Hans Christian Andersen

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

Danish folklorist, novelist, poet, and dramatist

April 2, 1805

Odense, Denmark

August 4, 1875

Rolighed, near Copenhagen, Denmark


Born on April 2, 1805, in the little town of Odense, Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen lived a life that followed the pattern of some of his fairy story characters. His father was a poor cobbler; his mother took in laundry to help support the family. His grandmother cherished her grandson, telling him stories and myths and handing down tales of horror, superstition, and romance—the very fabric of Danish folk culture as it had come to her. {$I[AN]9810000268} {$I[A]Andersen, Hans Christian} {$I[geo]DENMARK;Andersen, Hans Christian} {$I[tim]1805;Andersen, Hans Christian}

Hans Christian Andersen

(Library of Congress)

Andersen’s cobbler father implanted in his son the desire to lift himself above his humble cottage life. The father had read beyond his station in life; he questioned religion and abhorred superstition. He made toys as well as a small theater. He also gave the child companionship and passionately enjoined him to follow his imaginative interests so that he should not be bound to a menial trade.

When Andersen was eleven his father died, and the sheltered life he had led as a well-loved child came to an end. He attended the city school for poor children. There he learned rapidly what he wanted to learn, but he was jeered at by his schoolmates because of his gentle and artistic nature. He made friends with an assortment of adults who were more perceptive of his eagerness to make a mark in the world.

In 1819 he went to Copenhagen. Fiercely determined to find recognition, he tried ballet, singing, and acting, and he all but starved. He was snubbed by theater managers, but he attracted the attention of Jonas Collin, who was to be his lifelong friend. Andersen had already written a number of poems, and in 1829 his first play, Kjœrlighed paa Nicolai Taarn: Elle, Hvad siger Parterret (love on St. Nicholas Tower), was performed in the Royal Theatre. He fell in love with Riborg Voigt; she inspired poems and sketches but never became his wife.

Andersen traveled throughout Denmark and then through Europe to Italy, a country which impressed him vividly. He wrote The Improvisatore, a veiled autobiography which was well received, and a psychological novel, O. T., its scenes laid in Denmark. Thus only slowly did he approach the fairy tales that became his final basis for fame. By this time his social position was secure, and everywhere he was entertained by people of prestige. Nevertheless he frequently sought the astringent criticism of the Collin family, who saw him almost as a member of their household.

Andersen became the recipient of gifts and honors from various royal houses; his fairy tales were winning wide favor. He was acclaimed in Germany, Holland, and England. The Danish press, however, affronted him by its restrained attitude toward his foreign success. He was a friend of singer Jenny Lind; novelist Charles Dickens; and composers Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Felix Mendelssohn. He was welcomed as a guest anywhere. Although he was considered eccentric, he was a genuine poet with the sensitive understanding of the artist. Andersen traveled extensively during his lifetime, completing thirty foreign trips and writing numerous travelogues about his experiences.

The first series of his Eventyr (wonder tales) appeared in 1835, to be followed by a second series in 1838 and a third in 1845. Andersen continued to write groups of these stories yearly until 1872, and it is upon these that his fame rests. The stories of fantasy and superstition that he heard from his grandmother, combined with her personal experiences, produced his legendary tales. “The Little Match Girl” is a replay of his mother’s childhood, and “The Ugly Duckling” was molded from his own childhood experiences. He longed to excel as a novelist or dramatist and tried his hand at both, but his genius lay in telling the ancient folktale with fresh perception. The fairy story took on new proportions because of Andersen’s remarkable ability to make the simplest description come alive. Moreover, the most ordinary objects can suddenly take on strange and haunting life. Andersen breathed new life into the folktale. He had a poet’s eye for detail, and to him reality was more marvelous than any imagined realm. A visual artist too, Andersen often illustrated these stories with drawings, collages, or paper cuts. Many of his 212 tales have been published in numerous languages throughout the world. They rank with the classics of world literature.

The much-loved Hans Christian Andersen died quietly at the country estate of friends in Rolighed, near Copenhagen, on August 4, 1875, but the books of fairy stories that he composed have never been closed. His literary efforts live on through the regular reissuance of fairy tale books. His stories have never been out of print and have been presented in many visual forms, including ballet and film. Such Andersen classics as “The Little Mermaid,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Emperor’s New Clothes” have been known by every generation since Andersen’s day in more than one hundred languages. Previously unpublished tales have been found and printed since his death; in 2012, Esben Brage discovered a story believed to be Andersen's first, "The Tallow Candle" (ca. mid-1820s), and had it published in both Danish and English. Andersen's legacy lives on in the half dozen awards for literature that have been named in his honor.

Author Works Short Fiction: Eventyr, 1835–74 (The Complete Andersen, 1949; also Fairy Tales, 1950–58; also The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories, 1974) A Poet's Day Dreams, 1853 It's Perfectly True, and Other Stories, 1937 Andersen's Fairy Tales, 1946 Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales, 1953 Long Fiction: Improvisatoren, 1835 (2 volumes; The Improvisatore, 1845) O. T., 1836 (English translation, 1845) Kun en Spillemand, 1837 (Only a Fiddler, 1845) De To Baronesser, 1848 (The Two Baronesses, 1848) At vaere eller ikke vaere, 1857 (To Be or Not to Be, 1857) Lykke-Peer, 1870 (Lucky Peer, 1871) Drama: Kjœrlighed paa Nicolai Taarn: Elle, Hvad siger Parterret, pr. 1829 Agnete og havmanden, pr. 1833 Mulatten, pr. 1840 Kong Saul. Opera i fem Acter, 1876 Festen paa Kenilworth, 1876 Intermediet til Holbergs: Kilderejsen, 1883 Hr. Rasmussen, 1913 Danmark, 1937 Truth, 1940 Sangerinden, 1987 En Ødeland, 2003 Souffleurens Benefice, 2001 Langebro, 2001 I Maaneskin, 2001 Skovcapellet, 2004 Poetry: Digte, 1830 Phantasier og Skizzer, 1831 Vignetter til danske Digtere, 1831 Aarets tolv Maaneder, Tegnede med Blæk og Pen, 1832 Samlede Digte, 1833 Digte, gamle og nye, 1846 Fædrelandske Vers og Sange under Krigen, 1851 Kjendte og glemte Digte, 1867 Tre utrykte Digte af H. C. Andersen, 1878 Tre ufuldførte historiske Digtninge, 1935 Sangerinden, 1987 Lev vel I (Lev vel! Lev evig vel!), 2000 Nonfiction: Fodreise fra Holmens Canal til Østpynten af Amager, 1829 Skyggebilleder af en Reise til Harzen, det sachiske Schweitz, 1831 (Rambles in the Romantic Regions of the Hartz Mountains, Saxon Switzerland etc., 1848) Billebog uden billeder, 1840 (Tales the Moon Can Tell, 1855) En digters bazar, 1842 (A Poet's Bazaar, 1846) Mit eget Eventyr uden Digtning, 1847 I Sverrig, 1851 (In Sweden, 1852) Mit Livs Eventyr, 1855 (The True Story of My Life, 1847, also as The Fairy Tale of My Life, 1855) I Spanien, 1863 (In Spain, 1864) Et besøg i Portugal, 1866 (A Visit to Portugal, 1870) Levnedsbogen, 1805-1831, 1926 (Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen, 1990) Miscellaneous: Ungdoms-Forsøg, 1822 Tre Digtninger, 1838 Samlede Skrifter af H. C. Andersen, 1853–79 The Collected Works of Hans Christian Andersen, 1870–84 (10 volumes) H.C. Andersen. Samlede Skrifter. Anden Udgave, 1880 Bibliography Andersen, Jens. Hans Christian Andersen: A New Life. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 2005. A highly readable and useful biography examining the writer’s life and literary work. Book, Frederik. Hans Christian Andersen. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962. This biography studies Andersen’s personal and literary history. It considers how psychiatry, folklore, and the history of religion affected Andersen’s life. Andersen’s autobiographies are examined in the light of what was real and what was the fairy tale he was creating about his life. Contains illustrations of his fairy tales and photographs. Bresdorff, Elias. Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work, 1805-1875. New York: Noonday Press, 1994. This book is divided in two sections: The first part is a biographical study of Andersen’s complex personality; the second is a critical study of his most famous fairy tales and stories. Conroy, Patricia L., ed. The Diaries of Hans Christian Andersen. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990. A wide selection of excerpts from Andersen’s diaries written from as early as when he was a schoolboy and throughout the artist’s life. Complete diaries from two trips to England are translated in entirety. Includes illustrations of his drawings and paper cuttings, plus a useful bibliography. Dollerup, Cay. “Translation as a Creative Force in Literature: The Birth of the European Bourgeois Fairy-Tale.” The Modern Language Review 90 (January, 1995): 94-102. Discusses the European bourgeois fairy tale’s development as the result of translation of the stories of the brothers Grimm into Danish and the stories of Hans Christian Andersen into German because children would not be familiar with foreign languages. Argues that the Grimms and Andersen were adapted to European middle-class values. Grobech, Bo. Hans Christian Andersen. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Grobech provides a solid introduction to Andersen’s life told in entertaining narrative style. The book includes studies of Andersen’s fairy tales, his international influence, and his influence in the twentieth century. It can be read by the general reader as well as literary specialists. Johansen, Jorgen Dines. “The Merciless Tragedy of Desire: An Interpretation of H. C. Andersen’s Den lille Havfrue.” Scandinavian Studies 68 (Spring, 1996): 203-241. Provides a psychoanalytic interpretation of “The Little Mermaid,” focusing on the tension between earthly love and religious reparation in the story. Discusses the themes of love and salvation in an extensive analysis of love and sexuality in the tale. Nassaar, Christopher S. “Andersen’s ‘The Shadow’ and Wilde’s ‘The Fisherman and His Soul’: A Case of Influence.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 50 (September, 1995): 217-224. Argues that Oscar Wilde’s tale is a Christian response to Andersen’s nihilistic tale. Claims that, while Andersen’s tale is about the triumph of evil, Wilde’s story is about the triumph of Christian love. Nassaar, Christopher S. “Andersen’s ‘The Ugly Ducking’ and Wilde’s ‘The Birthday of the Infanta.’” The Explicator 55 (Winter, 1997): 83-85. Discusses the influence of Andersen’s “The Ugly Duckling” on Wilde’s story. Argues that, in spite of the surface differences, Wilde’s story is a direct reversal of Andersen’s. Rossel, Sven Hakon, ed. Hans Christian Andersen: Danish Writer and Citizen of the World. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. This scholarly collection of essays establishes Andersen as a major European writer of the nineteenth century. Special attention is given to his biography as well as his travel writing and fairy tales. Spink, Reginald. Hans Christian Andersen and His World. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1972. An excellent overview of Andersen’s life. Emphasizes how his background and childhood affected his art. Extensively illustrated with photographs, drawings, and reprints of the illustrated fairy tales in several foreign-language editions. "Tallow Candle: Hans Christian Andersen's 'First Work.'" BBC News, 13 Dec. 2012, Accessed 29 Sept. 2017. Describes the late discovery of "The Tallow Candle" and details the probable circumstances of its writing. Toksvig, Signe. The Life of Hans Christian Andersen. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934. An in-depth biography that provides valuable information in spite of its early publication date. Illustrated. Wullschlager, Jackie. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. A thorough biography of the writer.

Categories: Authors