A fairytale legacy

Denmark is celebrating its most famous storyteller's 200th birthday.

The tales of Hans Christian Andersen have entranced millions of readers for well over a century and continue to be among the best-known works of world literature.

This year, Danes are marking the 200th anniversary of his birth with a wide range of events.

Andersen was born on April 2, 1805, in the slums of Odense, in the heart of Denmark. A walk through Copenhagen, where Andersen moved when he was 14, brings many of his tales to life, from The Little Mermaid and The Brave Tin Soldier to The Galoshes of Fortune.

In a grassed-over moat, a flock of ducklings runs squeaking to their mother for safety.

It could well have been their predecessors who prompted the tale of The Ugly Duckling from Andersen's fertile imagination.

In this tale, a large grey duckling is mocked by his siblings until he turns into a magnificent swan, in a clear parallel to Andersen's own unhappy early life in Odense.

Born the son of a poor cobbler in Odense, he was penniless when he moved to Copenhagen, making his way only with difficulty.

"My first stroll was to the theatre," Andersen wrote later in his autobiography, but the unusually tall young man with his prominent nose and feet that were much too large soon had to give up his dream of treading the boards as an actor.


Instead, he tried his hand at writing plays and tales after support from rich sponsors helped him to gain an education.

Andersen loved the theatre and spent many an evening at the Royal Theatre on Kongens Nytorv.

Although the theatre itself was replaced in 1874, the year before Andersen died, the lively New Market, the statue of Christian V as a knight and the neighbouring streets and alleyways have largely retained their mid-19th century flavour.

Andersen felt himself at home here, as many of his numerous Copenhagen homes were in the neighbourhood of the theatre.

The young writer lived in 1827-28 in the narrow Vingard Street, which inspired a fairytale that begins with a penniless student living in a garret. The small medieval house still stands.

Ascending the many stairs to the room under the roof brings the visitor into the smallest Andersen museum in Denmark.

In this little garret, which has recently been restored to its condition at the time, Andersen entertained his friends with his home-made cut-out figures.

"He had to sit on his bed, as there was no other place," Andersen guide Anita Vystavel says.

Later as a prosperous and acknowledged author, he lived in the city's large hotels, including the nearby Hotel D'Angleterre, which is one of the oldest hotels in the world.

Also in this neighbourhood is the Cafe A'Porta, above which Andersen lived from 1866 and where he was a regular customer. These ornate surroundings reveal how he lived once he had become rich and famous.

Although his first play had its premiere in 1829, the main breakthrough came in 1834 with publication of his first fairytales.

"I retold what had made me happy as a boy," he was to write later, but unhappiness also found its way into the tales, as for example in The Little Mermaid.

In this sad tale, a mermaid falls for a prince, feeling a love which cannot be fulfilled. This was Andersen's fate.

Although he believed he had found true love on a number of occasions, such as when he fell for the singer Jenny Lind, his feelings were seldom returned by the object of his desire.

The Little Mermaid soon became one of Andersen's best-loved fairytale figures and later even the symbol of Copenhagen itself.

The beautiful girl with the tail of a fish sits sadly on the bank to the east of the Kastell, looking out over the harbour in the direction of Oresund.

This famous bronze statue, erected in 1913, is considerably smaller than most of the photographs suggest.

"American tourists in particular are sometimes somewhat disappointed - perhaps they're expecting something like the Statue of Liberty," Vystavel says with a smile.

The Tivoli Gardens often draw a similar reaction. These famous amusement gardens behind the main railway station are really quite small and, with their trees and lake, resembles a city park rather than a place of entertainment.

Pavilions in Arabic and Chinese style lend an aura of the exotic to the Tivoli, which were opened in 1843, and Andersen is said to have sought inspiration here as well, such as for The Nightingale, which is set in China.

Today a roller-coaster and a big wheel are the main attractions. There is also a theatre for pantomime and an open-air stage, which accommodate works by Andersen.

Andersen also used everyday life on the streets and in the homes of Copenhagen as themes for his fairytales.

Some of the features of his day are still there, such as the round tower of the university chapel. The dog in The Tinderbox has eyes as large as this tower.

And the guards on Amalienborg Castle, home to the Danish royal family, served as models for The Brave Tin Soldier.

The area around Nyhavn is perhaps the most characteristic of old Copenhagen. There are still many fishing vessels on the canal, which was cut in 1671 to create this "New Harbour".

Cranes protrude from the gables of the warehouses, and cramped cobblestone courtyards are still visible through gloomy entrances.

Andersen lived in several houses in the Nyhavn area up to his death in 1875. Later it was a red-light district, and in recent years it has become a popular entertainment area, with its fish restaurants and pubs.

"My life is a beautiful fairytale , so rich and happy," Andersen wrote in his autobiography. Starting out from a poor home, he had achieved much by then. Decorations and titles were showered upon him and he was a welcome guest at the tables of the cream of society.

His works, including around 170 fairytales, novels, plays and poems, achieved success in his lifetime and were widely published and translated.

In fact, he was better known abroad, particularly in Germany and England, than he was in his native Denmark.

The fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen have to date been translated into 144 languages - from Abkhazian to Zulu - as they are shown in the Hans Christian Andersen House in Odense, 150 kilometres west of Copenhagen.

Odense has the largest collection of Andersen memorabilia, including manuscripts and personal possessions, among them the six-metre rope he carried with him on his many travels, so that he could abseil down from his hotel room, should the building catch fire.

The house where he is thought to have been born - a small shack in what was then one of the poorest parts of the town - is still standing. The area remained poor for many years but was refurbished a few years ago. DPA

For details of Denmark's Hans Christian Andersen anniversary celebrations, visit www.hca2005.com