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Hans Christian Andersen
With a Child's Eyes

Text by: Novan Komintas

Hans Christian Andersen remains one of the most beloved writers in the world. A true artist of the written word, he has produced numerous novels, poems, short stories, comedies, and travel memoirs throughout his years. And even among such contemporaries as Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, and dear friend Charles Dickens, his writings remain a magnificent display of creativity, emotion, and delight. His well known children stories and fairy tales have been retold across countries and languages, generation through generation. One simply cannot doubt the delightful influence of these magical tales on the imaginations of the little folk. There was laughter at the foolish (and naked) emperor, excitement with the adventures of the steadfast tin soldier, and both smiles and tears as they listened to the tale of a poor little match girl. The magic of his works was not overblown or overdone. It was simple, to be used to excite the imagination, which could undoubtedly create greater magic when tickled to do so. Magic is most strong to those with the child's outlook of the world. I believe Andersen believed this and made his appeal to the greatest magic believers to keep their beliefs and dreams alive. So let's take a journey through the life of this delightful man.

Many biographers describe Andersen as a perennial autobiographer. By reading the man's stories, you could read the man's life. Andersen's life mirrors the rags-to-riches style of many fairy tales. Born on April 2, 1805, Hans Christian was the only child to Mr. Hans Andersen and Mrs. Anne Marie Andersdatter. A shoemaker and washerwoman respectively, theirs was the life of poverty in the little Danish town of Odense. Though their earnings were few, like good parents they trusted their gentle son would grow up to be a fine gentleman. Elder Hans took little Hans to the local playhouse from time to time and crafted little toys for him. The family owned such books as Arabian Nights and the Bible to invite the young Andersen to the world of reading. This rough poverty and early exposure to the creative world would define Hans for the remainder of his career.

By the age of 12, the tall, frail, and awkward Hans sought to sustain himself after his father's death in 1816. With the arts clear in his mind, he headed to Copenhagen in 1818 and joined the Royal Danish Theatre through various sponsors such as C.E.F. Weyse. He tried just about every job they offered: actor, soprano, dancer, and playwright. Despite his best efforts, Andersen was unable to find a solid foothold. The director of the theatre decided he should attend school for a proper education.

From 1822 to 1827, the foundation of his life, he would experience both bad and good. School life was very stressful for him, due both to his average intelligence level and the strictness of the setting. There were even times when the faculty openly discouraged him from writing, which weakened his will. But at the same time, the time spent at school developed his writing craft and his social network. The latter would become his boost up the social ladder.

He had made close friends with two bourgeois families, the Collins and the Wulffs. Jonas Collin, a director of the Royal Theatre, even funded all his school expenses. Hans thus began to clearly see the divided society of Denmark, and much of Europe. The contrasting worlds between the rich and poor, and how he walked the area between as he came to depend on their aid, all would play deeply into his later works.

During his schooling at Copenhagen University and the few years after, Andersen would write his most early pieces, which included poems, short stories, and novels. His first poem, "The Dying Child", was written during his school depression and communicated his slow despair and the discouragement of his teachers. Hans was an avid traveler, which led him to write up many traveling memoirs of the places he had visited. Through connections to the upper class, he was even able to receive a small traveling grant from the Danish King, which would allow Andersen to travel Europe as he continued to write. He would meet many of his fellow contemporary artists and become more and more invited into the party rooms of the rich during this time. These travel experiences would culminate into his first novel in 1835, the autobiographical "The Improvisatore". It was a runaway hit throughout the known world, and his name became widely recognized. It was in this same year, that the first and second volumes of Andersen fairy tales were published, under the name "Fairy Tales, as told by Children."

His children's stories were quite groundbreaking during his day. The setting often reflected the current period, which made their magical appeal much more relevant to readers young and old at the time. Instead of being didactic and dark like the Grimm's Fairy Tales, the stories would often side with the viewpoint of children. It was a child that exposed the emperor's lack of new clothes. The little mermaid looked at the world of dry land with a child's curiosity. He wrote stories for children to read and delight in on their own, not for the disciplinarian to command with.

Bits and pieces of his previous experiences all become magical fairy tales. The toys his father created gave life to a tin soldier, a ball and top, and a pair of porcelain lovers. His experiences with poverty and awkwardness gave him the vision to write of a poor match girl and an ugly duckling. The characters were easy to relate to and learn from. Children could learn valuable lessons and emotions through their own eyes.

By the late 1850s, Andersen was able to travel through Asia and Africa. But every great journey must end eventually. He eventually slowed down his writings in the next decade. By 1872, he had contracted liver cancer. He spent much of his last years in Denmark. There he passed away at his home, the Rolighed (calmness), on August 4th, 1875. Already, though, he had left his mark on the world he had so energetically traveled and written for. His stories have taught that death does not always mean despair. For if the life that preceded it was joyful and fulfilling, then death is merely a beautiful end to a wonderful tale. His stories will live on, and his life will remain celebrated (see International Children's Book Day, Andersen's birthday).

Again I state the message of his fairy tales was to keep alive the magic of a child's imagination, to let them think, learn, and live as they do. Let the delightful man's beautiful last words ring true for our generation and generations to come: "Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps."