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."
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.
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.