Denmark has quite a couple of internationally known heroes, but few of them are as well-known as fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen. His name itself may not be known everywhere, but his stories of the `Ugly Duckling` and `The little Mermaid` are commonly read all across the Western hemisphere and possibly even beyond. What is there to know about this man, and how do the inhabitants of his birth place Odense feel about the heritage of such a famous writer?
Danish children all grow up with the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. Whether they learn about the stories in school or get them read out by parents or grandparents ? a Danish kid not knowing any of the Andersen fairytales would be even rarer than a Danish child who cannot cycle. In many Danish households, the fat-sized lexicon Collected writings of HC Andersen takes a prominent place on the bookshelf. The stories of HC Andersen include the ones about the `Ugly Duckling`, which is said to describe the author`s own life, `The Tinderbox`, `The Emperor`s new clothes`, `The princess on the pea` and `The red shoes`.
`HC Andersen`s original stories were not as sweet as the Disney films. They were more ambiguous and twisted`
Ditte (27) knows why so many tourists make day trips to Odense when they visit Copenhagen: `They come to see Andersen`s birth place and Odense also has plenty of statues of himself and his characters. To Americans, all of Denmark looks like a fairytale: small colourful houses with neatly gardens. It works well with tourists. Also because Odense does not have any other particular highlights. Actually, many inhabitants of Odense are getting a bit fed up with all the Andersen stuff. We celebrated his 250th birthday in 2005, but that event turned into a bit of an elitist festival that had nothing to do with the original spirit of Andersen`s work. Many people were very disappointed.`
Ditte also acknowledges that she does not feel very tightly connected to Andersen`s fairytales: `I actually prefer the Grimm brothers. My family is partly Polish, partly Russian. Unlike the Danes, I grew up with Russian folk stories that my grandfather used to read me.`
Soeren (24) thinks that Andersen`s heritage is casting a shadow over other initiatives in Odense. `Andersen and his stories are very popular, but they make everything next appear small. All of Odense is full of Andersen-linked creations and there seems to be almost no attention to whatever else might interest people as well.`
Brian (29, photo) agrees that Andersen is all over the place in Denmark: `I know many of his stories and have heard many different versions of them. It would be hard to say when I first heard of each of them. It could have been my family reading them to me, a teacher, me reading them myself or seeing cartoons or movies based on the same stories. Many have been adopted by Walt Disney and turned into big commercial successes.`
`It`s interesting to see how some versions of the fairytales have moved away from the original versions. The Walt Disney films all have happy endings, while Andersen`s stories were a lot more ambiguous. The `Girl with the matchsticks`, who lit a match while shivering in the cold and seeing the people in warm and cosy houses having nice Christmas meals. In movies, she gets let into one of the houses. In the original fairytale, she dies. The nice part is that she meets her grandmother again in something that could represent heaven. It combines the sweet and the sour, it`s not just a happy, happy ending. It gives you something to think about. Without that extra dimension, I think the stories are not as special as they are now. But anyhow, I don`t particularly mind the adjustments. I am just happy I also know the real versions.`
Biran thinks that HC Andersen is special for being the first one who used stories to bring objects to live. `Most writers at the time simply wrote about people and their adventures. Andersen wrote about everyday items like toys or tools. Also, his stories were slightly moralistic and probably partly autobiographic. I think the values that Andersen puts forward in his book are quite Danish. They promote modesty, honesty and the philosophy of `be careful what you wish for`. I think they have an implicit message for people to be satisfied with life as it is.`
About the author
Anders (24) explains that Danish kids are not only exposed to Andersen`s fairytales and associated art projects, they also learn about the person HC Andersen himself and his ideas. `I got to know him as a bit of a weird person, a bit of a loner but not an evil one. He was born in Odense and every inhabitant of the city is probably aware of that, even though he lived in Copenhagen most of his life.` Anders says he got fed up with Andersen at times, especially in secondary school. `But I grew past that. I guess anything that you need to learn in secondary school will cause some resistance. Story analysis is not different from that and debating about which character in the story was right also got a bit boring at times. Anyway, school is over now and I am quite sure I will be reading Andersen`s fairytales to my children in the future.`
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