Hans Christian Andersen



Above: The book is open to the story of the ugly duckling.

Andersen duckling

A life telling fairy tales

In 1819, 14-year-old Hans Christian Andersen (4/2/1805-8/4/1875), son of a small-town shoemaker, set off for Copenhagen with a couple dollars, a few clothes, and a letter to a famous ballerina. She refused to see him.

He tried acting, and failed.

After reading his early literary efforts, Copenhagen intellectuals awarded him a scholarship ... so he could learn to spell.

But at age 24, Andersen self-published a book that made him famous, locally at least. Soon afterwards, funded by a royal stipend, he jaunted off to Europe to write poems and travelogues.

Andersen hit his literary stride with children’s stories that became worldwide favorites, such as “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Little Match Girl,” “Thumbelina,” and “The Princess and the Pea.” Later these were illustrated by such fabulous artists as Arthur Rackham (click here, or search "Andersen illustrated Rackham") and Edmund Dulac.

Andersen illustration by Dulac

Above: Illustration of Andersen's "The Princess and the Pea" by Edmund Dulac

The Ugly Duckling

The book on Andersen’s lap is open to his most famous story, “The Ugly Duckling,” which appeared in 1843. It’s a pretty grim story . No one tells the ugly critter that he’s special. No one offers him antidepressants or plastic surgery.

Tormented by cats, hens, and children, he finally shivers his way through a miserable winter in a cave. In the spring, when a flock of swans descends on the lake outside his cave, the ugly creature decides he’d rather be killed by these beautiful birds than live in misery. But when the new arrivals see him, they greet him as one of their own. Looking into the water, he realizes he’s grown up into a swan.

Years later a critic asked Andersen if he planned to write an autobiography. Andersen replied that he already had.

Cross References