The Man Behind the Fairytale: Meeting the Real Hans Christian Andersen

For one week every year, Denmark brings the author's world of fantasy alive.  
Hans Christen Anderson
A sculpture of Hans Christen Anderson in Odense. Photo courtesy: Visit Odense

Growing up in the Bombay of the 1980s and ’90s, my make-believe world included characters from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales: a girl so tiny that one of her suitors was a frog, another girl who proved she was a princess because she could sense a pea lodged beneath her bed of 20 mattresses. Andersen’s world was ruled by whimsy and magic. I didn’t realise how much of his stories had coloured my imagination until I walked the streets where he lived in Odense, Denmark.

The first sign that our group of five journalists and our host were in the 19th-century author’s hometown, was the traffic signal outside the railway station of Odense. The traffic light’s little green and red men resembled Andersen in profile, complete with coat, top hat, and cane. On the pavement, footprints in the author’s giant size 46 created a trail to Andersen attractions across the city.

Around a corner marched golden-haired princesses with wands and crowned princes with sceptres, all singing. Their invisible pied piper was none other than Andersen, who is celebrated for a week every August in his hometown. The Hans Christian Andersen Festival, started in 2013 by a group of local businesspeople, hosts parades, street performances, ballet, theatre, and 3D light shows, all inspired by Andersen’s magical world. In keeping with the festival theme of “anything can happen”, drummers banging on trash cans would suddenly fill up a square, or we’d turn down a street to find a canopy of umbrellas swaying overhead.

Hans Christian Andersen Museum, Denmark, Europe

Every July, visitors to the Hans Christian Andersen Museum can sprawl on its lawns and watch a free performance of “24 Fairy Tales in 24 Minutes”. Photo: jordi salas/age fotostock/dinodia photo library

Odense may be Denmark’s third-largest city, and just a two-hour train ride from Copenhagen, but it exudes an air of the last century. As we wandered lanes away from the festival bustle, we passed pretty half-timbered houses, restaurants serving traditional Danish food like fried pork belly with potatoes, and quaint cottages with windowsills displaying porcelain figurines. We paused by the museum to Odense’s other celebrated resident, Carl Nielsen, and peered down a narrow cobblestoned street that looked the same 500 years ago. And yet for all its old world charms, Odense was a hub for robotics, with the national test centre for drone technology inside the Hans Christian Andersen Airport. It was mind-boggling.

At 14, Andersen caught a bus to Copenhagen where he spent most of his adult life, but he never really left—we saw his portrait drawn on a building facade, and his metal likeness seated outside a hotel. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to be a kid in Odense, reading his stories in school and then walking by sculptures from his tales on the street. At one street corner was a larger-than-life statue of Andersen’s tin soldier toy, who literally burned with love for a paper ballerina. As a child, the melancholic tale made me pull faces, but looking at the soldier, I couldn’t escape its grimness. Andersen’s life was far from easy, as I was about to find out at the Hans Christian Andersen Museum and Childhood Home.

Odense, Denmark

Andersen’s fairy tales come alive all over Odense as grown-ups enact them for children across the city. Photo: paolo bona/shutterstock

Large-nosed and taller than average at around 6 feet, Andersen was considered ungainly; in a way, his life paralleled his story about an ugly duckling that turned into a swan. But he loved having his portrait made. Little details like these were turning a legendary author into a real human being for me. In Copenhagen, he tried to be a ballet dancer, an actor, a singer, but had made his mark as a writer. He was a prolific writer of plays, stories, poetry, and travelogues, and became one of the most translated authors of all time. But he was also terrified of dentists, and was so scared of dying in a building fire—a real fear in the 19th century—that he used to carry a rope with him on his travels for a speedy escape.

And boy, did he love to travel—to Italy, Germany, the Czech Republic, Scotland. On my first walk around Copenhagen, I’d spied the last line of a favourite Andersen quote “To travel is to live” on a signboard near our hotel in Nyhavn, now a gentrified waterfront district. During Andersen’s time, Nyhavn’s charm was its cheap rent; it used to be frequented by pub-goers, sailors and women of pleasure. He lived in three different houses on that waterfront, writing stories like “The Tinderbox”, about a soldier with questionable morals and a bit of magic. Andersen was so broke that he used to stroll with a dinner napkin in his pocket, ready to be invited for a meal. At the Odense museum, we saw his beautiful paper cut-outs of ballerinas, pirates, and angels. Andersen was known to entertain friends by spinning a story around his paper art as he worked, finally revealing an intricate chain of paper figures that he would gift to his host.

Andersen was famous by 30, so much of the details of his life remain. Even his birthplace is reconstructed at the museum; I was quite struck by a short bed made for people to sit up and sleep as a precaution against tuberculosis. A troubled man emerged from Andersen’s correspondence and journals. He fell for unattainable women, expressed unrequited love to men and women, and was lonely though he was so well known. It is a side that most of Andersen’s biographers ignore, but it made me better understand the often unhappy endings of his stories.

It was at The Tinderbox, the children’s cultural centre next door, that the fantasy of Andersen’s fairy tales came alive. A huggable life-size soldier puppet waited by the entrance, while enormous geese soared against the ceiling, and a tree curled above us with paper leaves for kids to scrawl wishes on. There was a large castle where kids could play dress-up, and a costume room with racks of spangled mermaid tails, fluffy octopus puppets, and royal costumes. We were tempted to join the kids.

Odense, Denmark

The island of Funen, on which Odense is located, is called Denmark’s Garden Island for its rolling hills, apple orchards, and fresh farm produce. Photo courtesy: Visit Odense

The Andersen trail continued as we headed for lunch by the River Odense, sipping on store-bought cans of potent Hans Christian Andersen beer. Close to the museum, we passed the spot where Andersen’s mother, a washerwoman, did laundry; his shoemaker father died early. At Kramboden, a quaint shop whose premises were 450 years old, I sampled traditional tart rhubarb candies. Outside, a wheelbarrow marked the spot where the teenaged Andersen caught a bus to Copenhagen, a ride that would change his life forever.

The author’s spirit was still alive in Copenhagen, I found the next day, on a whirlwind Andersen tour with our guide Richard Karpen. Dressed in a top hat and coat, with a cane in hand, Karpen was quickly recognised as Andersen and warmly greeted by locals and tourists. After all, Andersen had helped put Denmark on the world map—and he was everywhere in the city. Tivoli Gardens had an amusement park ride named after him, his statue graced the royal gardens and the City Hall square, his Little Mermaid character was the city’s most photographed statue.

I had arrived in Denmark looking for a long-forgotten childhood companion. I had stood outside Andersen’s homes, shuffled by his leafy grave in Assistens Cemetery, gazed up the Round Tower where he wrote stories. Behind those timeless tales, I found an intriguing person. At the airport the next day, I couldn’t resist buying a beautifully illustrated copy of his work. Andersen wrote his fairy tales as much for children as for adults, I remembered Karpen say. I couldn’t wait to re-read them.

THE VITALS

Orientation Odense is on Funen Island, Denmark’s second largest island. The birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, it hosts a week-long festival every August in his honour. The Hans Christian Andersen Festival will run from August 20-27 2017. Details and tickets on www.hcafestivals.com. For details on Richard Karpen’s Hans Christian Andersen tour of the old city, see www.copenhagenwalks.com.

Getting There & Visa Flights from India to Copenhagen require a short layover in a European city such as Munich, or a Middle Eastern hub like Dubai. Travellers to Odense can take a train, bus, or car for the roughly two-hour journey from Copenhagen.

Indian travellers to Denmark require a Schengen visa. A 90-day, multiple-entry visa costs Rs 5,641 including service charge. Applicants must have a return ticket, a confirmed itinerary, and travel medical insurance with a minimum coverage of €30,000/Rs 21,00,000 valid for the duration of the visit across EU states. For application forms and documentation details, visit dk.vfsglobal.co.in. It is best to apply for a visa at least 15 days before departure.

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    Saumya Ancheri is the former Assistant Editor of NGT India's web team. She loves places by the sea, and travels to shift her own boundaries. She tweets as @Saumya_Ancheri.

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