Hans Christian Andersen gifted us with many beloved fairy tales throughout his life, including The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, and The Ugly Duckling. Though widely embedded in Western culture, many in the newer generations have all but forgotten Andersen’s role in shaping the pop world as we know it. This is the story of the man whose stories inspired your favorite Disney characters and movies.
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His early years
Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark, in 1805. His first taste of the literary world came when his father, who infamously claimed to have noble blood, read to him the Arabian Nights when Andersen was a kid.
His father’s claims of noble blood notwithstanding, Andersen had a very humble childhood. His family was poor, and after his father died, he had to support himself as well as go to elementary school for poor children in order to get at least a basic education. When he was 14, Andersen considered becoming an actor. With a great soprano voice, he initially had some success. But adolescence is a difficult beast. Soon, Andersen’s voice had changed, and his dreams were suddenly jeopardized.
Fortunately, one of his colleagues told him he considered Andersen a poet. So, Andersen reconsidered his whole career, started to take his texts seriously, and focused on writing. Right then and there, a star was born whose work would change the lives of generations to come.
A troubled childhood
But he didn’t have it easy. In his later years, Andersen would recall his school period as the darkest time of his life. For a while at one of his schools, he would have to live at his schoolmaster’s house. And that was unfortunate. The schoolmaster abused Andersen, claiming it would help “improve his character.”
Andersen’s career didn’t take off immediately. Though he had some success with one of his first short stories, A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager, progress was slow and publishing was hard—much like now. Luckily, Andersen got a travel grant from the king in 1833, which allowed him to journey throughout all of Europe. This gave the young author plenty of material, which helped him produce incredibly popular works from then on.
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His fairy tales
Andersen was always attracted to fairy tales. His first attempt at writing them consisted merely in revisions he made to stories he had heard as a child, but soon he was creating his own original material. By 1837, Andersen had published a whole volume including most of his popular fairy tales, nine in total. This first collection contained Thumbelina, The Little Mermaid, and The Emperor’s New Clothes. Though originally these stories didn’t attract much attention, one of them, Only a Fiddler, was reviewed by the famous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who had much praise for the rising star.
One year later, Andersen published yet another collection of fairy tales. But it wasn’t until 1845 that he finally released pretty much all the beloved tales we know him for, including The Nightingale, The Ugly Duckling, and The Snow Queen.
Many years into the future, Disney would reread, reinterpret, rephrase, and repurpose Andersen’s fairy tales so as to adapt them into featured animated films. The Little Mermaid provided the basis for the film of the same name, which single-handedly revived Disney in the 1990s and founded a whole period known as the Disney Renaissance. The Snow Queen inspired yet another miracle film for the company, Frozen, a cultural phenomenon which arguably harbored in a new era for Disney.
Friendship with Dickens
Andersen was a big fan of Charles Dickens, whom he met at an intellectual gathering in 1847, much to Andersen’s starstruck delight. Since Dickens also admired Andersen’s work, the two of them became friends. One time, Andersen traveled to England with the sole purpose of paying Dickens a visit, and he stayed at Dickens’ family estate for what would initially be a short time.
The thing was, do you know those people who like to overstay their welcome? Well, Andersen seems to have extended his visit far longer than Dickens’ family was comfortable with, so they politely asked him to leave (read: they kicked him out). After that, Dickens gradually stopped corresponding with Andersen. Confused and saddened, he never understood why.
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One morning in 1872, Andersen, then 67 years old, fell out of his bed. Trivial an incident though it may sound, it actually injured him, and he never managed to fully recover. Soon, cancer symptoms began to appear. By this time, he was an internationally renowned writer whose stories and poems were praised far and wide across countries and cultural borders. His fame was such that he was even considered a national treasure by the Danish government. This was the height which Andersen got to see. It was the height from which he said farewell.
Hans Christian Andersen died on August 4, 1875.
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