The Original Ugly Duckling Has His Day

Once upon a time, an ugly duckling was born to a very humble home. He was tall and gawky, with a big nose and simply enormous feet. Although he did win fame and fortune, he never felt truly appreciated in his homeland. Now, two centuries later, he's finally getting the swan treatment -- and then some.

Over the next several months, celebrations and cultural events will be held around the globe to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth on April 2, 1805, of Hans Christian Andersen. The Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation is promoting theatrical productions, musical concerts, and television and film events in honor of the author of "The Little Mermaid," "The Ugly Duckling," "The Little Match Girl," "The Steadfast Tin Soldier," "The Emperor's New Clothes," and more than 200 other fairy tales.

Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik and his Australian-born wife, Crown Princess Mary, helped launch the U.S. celebrations Tuesday at the New York Public Library.

Andersen's fairy tales are staples of children's literature, and the bicentennial events are aimed at promoting literacy as well as boosting tourism to his native land. The organizers also hope it will spur adults to take a second look both at the stories and their author. The idea, HCA 2005 Secretary-General Lars Seeberg told a news conference, is "to celebrate Andersen, to show a more complex and nuanced picture of Andersen, to depict Andersen as a writer for all ages."

Speaking to Both Adults and Children

The stories of Hans Christian Andersen have been told and retold so many times and in so many different mediums that it's easy to forget just how groundbreaking they were in the 19th century.

"What is interesting about Andersen is that he addresses both children and adults at the same time," said Anne-Marie Mai, professor of literature at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense -- Andersen's hometown.

Before Andersen, there really wasn't any literature written for children, or written in a child's voice, Mai said.

Another reason Andersen's work is so enduring may be the sympathetic appeal of the outcasts who appear in so many of his stories -- the duckling who is mocked because he doesn't look like everyone else; the poverty-stricken, lonely little matchstick salesgirl; the mermaid who falls in love with a human prince.

But don't expect everyone to live happily ever after. In the original story, there are no dancing crustaceans singing "Under the Sea." The little mermaid doesn't become human and she doesn't marry the prince. The steadfast tin soldier and the paper dancer he loves are both burned up in the fireplace. The little matchstick girl freezes to death.

Not So 'Wonderful, Wonderful' After All

The melancholy theme that surfaces again and again in Andersen's work isn't surprising, given his own bleak background. Fanciful Danny Kaye, spinning tales and singing about "Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen" in the 1952 movie "Hans Christian Andersen," bears little resemblance to the real story.

Andersen was born in a slum in Odense, then Denmark's second-largest city. His father was a shoemaker; his mother was a washerwoman. He had an older half-sister, Karen Marie, who was born out of wedlock. She seems to have worked as a prostitute for a while.

Some scholars have theorized that Andersen was really the illegitimate son of a Danish prince, the future King Christian VIII. But certainly he was raised in sordid conditions; the cobbler left the family to fight in the Napoleonic wars. He returned a broken man and died when Hans Christian was 11. His mother became an alcoholic and eventually died in the poorhouse.

"I think he always felt very strongly about his social background," said Mai.

In his autobiographies, Andersen stressed that his mother worked very hard to keep their home clean despite their poverty; in his stories, he let a more realistic picture creep in. In "She Was No Good," he writes of a poverty-stricken washerwoman who takes to brandy. The better-off townspeople look down their noses at her, failing to recognize the pathos of her situation.

Andersen left Odense for Copenhagen, the capital, when he was just 14, and struggled to make it in the theater as an actor, dancer and even a singer. He found some patrons who sent him to school, which turned out to be a rather traumatic experience, since Andersen was a good deal older than the other pupils and became the butt of their teasing.

He survived the experience, however, and went on to a prolific career as a writer. His first book of fairy tales was published in 1835.

And fairy tales weren't the only type of tale he liked. He wrote travel books, novels, plays, poems and three autobiographies. His works would be translated into something around 150 languages. A talented illustrator, he would also use scissors to make elaborate paper cutouts. Understanding that success often depended on contacts, he worked hard to meet the right people. Among his friends was fellow author Charles Dickens, with whom he shared an interest in social justice issues.

A large part of Andersen's appeal as a writer, said Mai, is that he touches on "fundamental, existential issues."

He was also extremely innovative. "The plots are exciting, are surprising, but his way of using language, being able to speak to children and adults at the same time, his way of expressing himself in Danish --

it's a new way of expressing himself."

Unlucky in Love

Andersen had a tendency to plunge headlong into love with women who did not return his affections. He fell for Riborg Voigt, but she ended up marrying another man, the son of a local chemist. Later he became hopelessly enamored of the singer Jenny Lind, known as the "Swedish Nightingale."

Andersen also had some strong attachments to men, and scholars have questioned whether he may have been gay.

"Was Andersen actually a homosexual? In my opinion, he had these strong emotions for both women and these male friends, but friendships between men were different in the 19th century," said Mai. "It was a part of being a male to cry, to say 'I love you.'"

In her opinion, Andersen's attachments were always much more emotional than physical. Tall (he stood 6 feet 2 inches), skinny, with a big nose, Andersen was destined to be unlucky at love.

He won international acclaim, but somehow the attention at home was never so positive. The philosopher S&slash;oren Kirkegaard, a fellow famous Dane, once gave Andersen a bad review, and Andersen never forgot it.

In a way, Andersen felt very much like the Ugly Duckling, said Mai. "He also thought that we here in Denmark didn't appreciate him," she said.

Andersen died on Aug. 4, 1875. He was 70 and had become prey to various morbid fears, Mai said. Terrified of fire, he would carry a rope along with him whenever he traveled so that he could always escape his hotel room.

Tormented by the idea that he might fall into a coma and be buried while still alive, he made his friends promise that they would make sure he was really gone before calling for the coffin, Mai said. "He always carried a small note that said, 'I'm not dead, I just seem dead.'"

The Hans Christian Andersen bicentennial celebration ends on Dec. 6. On that date in 1867, said Seeberg, the city of Odense was illuminated in honor of its native son. Andersen, alas, was suffering from a toothache and in too much pain to enjoy his fete.

That's why he would probably be especially thrilled by the bicentennial celebrations in his honor, said Mai. "He would love every moment of it."