Today is the birthday (1805) of Hans Christian Andersen, Danish author who was a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, but best remembered for what in Danish are called eventyr, sometimes “fairy-tales” in English. I prefer to call them “fantasies.” In Danish “eventyr” has the cognate root meaning of “adventure,” and can also be translated as “fantastic tales” or “tales of fantasy.” Andersen’s tales, which have been translated into more than 125 languages, have become culturally embedded in the West’s collective consciousness, readily accessible to children, but presenting lessons of virtue and resilience in the face of adversity for all readers.
Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark. He was an only child. Andersen’s father, who had received an elementary education, introduced Andersen to literature, reading to him The Arabian Nights. Andersen’s mother, Anne Marie Andersdatter, was uneducated and worked as a washerwoman following his father’s death in 1816; she remarried in 1818. Andersen was sent to a local school for poor children where he received a basic education and was forced to support himself, working as an apprentice for a weaver and, later, for a tailor. At 14, he moved to Copenhagen to seek employment as an actor. Having an excellent soprano voice, he was accepted into the Royal Danish Theatre, but his voice soon changed. A colleague at the theater told him that he considered Andersen a poet. Taking the suggestion seriously, Andersen began to focus on writing.
Jonas Collin, director of the Royal Danish Theatre, felt a great affection for Andersen and sent him to a grammar school in Slagelse, persuading King Frederick VI to pay for part of his education. Andersen had already published his first story, “The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave” (1822). Though not a keen student, he also attended school at Elsinore until 1827.
He later said his years in school were the darkest and most bitter of his life. At one school, he lived at his schoolmaster’s home. There he was abused in order “to improve his character”, he was told. He later said the faculty had discouraged him from writing in general, causing him to go into a state of depression. Among other things, he was dyslexic, which is evident from his autograph manuscripts, which editors cleaned up prior to publication.
A very early tale by Andersen, called “The Tallow Candle” (Danish: Tællelyset), was discovered in a Danish archive in October 2012. The story, written in the 1820s, was about a candle who did not feel appreciated. It was written while Andersen was still in school and dedicated to a benefactor, in whose family’s possession it remained until it turned up among other family papers in a suitcase in a local archive.
In 1829, Andersen enjoyed considerable success with the short story “A Journey on Foot from Holmen’s Canal to the East Point of Amager.” Its protagonist meets characters ranging from Saint Peter to a talking cat. Andersen followed this success with a theatrical piece, Love on St. Nicholas Church Tower, and a short volume of poems. Though he made little progress writing and publishing immediately thereafter, in 1833 he received a small traveling grant from the king, enabling him to set out on the first of many journeys through Europe. At Jura, near Le Locle, Switzerland, Andersen wrote the story “Agnete and the Merman”. He spent an evening in the Italian seaside village of Sestri Levante the same year, inspiring the name, “The Bay of Fables”. In October 1834, he arrived in Rome. Andersen’s travels in Italy were reflected in his first novel, an autobiography titled The Improviser (Improvisatoren) which was published in 1835, receiving instant acclaim.
His initial attempts at writing eventyr were revisions of stories that he heard as a child. Andersen then brought this genre to a new level by writing a vast number of tales that were both bold and original. Initially they were not met with widespread acclaim, due partly to the difficulty in translating them and capturing his genius for humor and dark pathos.
It was during 1835 that Andersen published the first two installments of his immortal Fairy Tales (Eventyr). More stories, completing the first volume, were published in 1837. The collection comprises nine tales, including “The Tinderbox”, “The Princess and the Pea”, “Thumbelina”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Emperor’s New Clothes”. The quality of these stories was not immediately recognized, and they sold poorly. At the same time, Andersen enjoyed more success with two novels, O.T. (1836) and Only a Fiddler (1837). The latter was reviewed favorably by the young Søren Kierkegaard.
After a visit to Sweden in 1837, Andersen became inspired by Scandinavism and committed himself to writing a poem that would convey the relatedness of Swedes, Danes, and Norwegians. It was in July 1839, during a visit to the island of Funen, that Andersen first wrote the text of his poem, Jeg er en Skandinav (“I am a Scandinavian”). Andersen composed the poem to capture “the beauty of the Nordic spirit, the way the three sister nations have gradually grown together”, as part of a pan-Scandinavian national anthem. Composer Otto Lindblad set the poem to music, and the composition was published in January 1840. Its popularity peaked in 1845, after which it was seldom sung.
Andersen returned to the eventyr genre in 1838 with another collection, Fairy Tales Told for Children. New Collection. First Booklet (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Ny Samling), which consists of “The Daisy”, “The Steadfast Tin Soldier”, and “The Wild Swans”.
1845 was a breakthrough for Andersen with the publication of four different translations of his tales. “The Little Mermaid” appeared in the periodical Bentley’s Miscellany. It was followed by a second volume, Wonderful Stories for Children. Two other volumes enthusiastically received were A Danish Story Book and Danish Fairy Tales and Legends. A review that appeared in the London journal The Athenæum (February 1846) said of Wonderful Stories, “This is a book full of life and fancy; a book for grandfathers no less than grandchildren, not a word of which will be skipped by those who have it once in hand.” Andersen continued to write eventyr, and published them in installments until 1872. He also liked to make paper cuts as illustrations:
In Andersen’s early life, his private journal records his refusal to have sexual relations. Andersen often fell in love with unattainable women, and many of his stories are interpreted as references. At one point, he wrote in his diary: “Almighty God, thee only have I; thou steerest my fate, I must give myself up to thee! Give me a livelihood! Give me a bride! My blood wants love, as my heart does!” A girl named Riborg Voigt was the unrequited love of Andersen’s youth. A small pouch containing a long letter from Riborg was found on Andersen’s chest when he died, several decades after he first fell in love with her, and after he supposedly fell in love with others. Other disappointments in love included Sophie Ørsted, the daughter of the physicist Hans Christian Ørsted, and Louise Collin, the youngest daughter of his benefactor Jonas Collin. One of his stories, “The Nightingale”, was written as an expression of his passion for Jenny Lind and became the inspiration for her nickname, the “Swedish Nightingale”. Andersen was often shy around women and had extreme difficulty in proposing to Lind. When Lind was boarding a train to go to an opera concert, Andersen gave Lind a letter of proposal. Her feelings towards him were not the same; she saw him as a brother, writing to him in 1844: “farewell… God bless and protect my brother is the sincere wish of his affectionate sister, Jenny”.
Andersen certainly experienced same-sex love as well. He wrote to Edvard Collin: “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” Collin, who preferred women, wrote in his own memoir: “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” Likewise, Anderson’s infatuation with Danish dancer Harald Scharff and Carl Alexander, the young hereditary duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, did not result in any relationships.
In the spring of 1872, Andersen fell out of his bed and was severely hurt; he never recovered. Soon afterward, he started to show signs of liver cancer. He died on 4 August 1875, in a house called Rolighed (literally: calmness), near Copenhagen, the home of his close friends, the banker Moritz Melchior and his wife. Shortly before his death, Andersen had consulted a composer about the music for his funeral, saying: “Most of the people who will walk after me will be children, so make the beat keep time with little steps.” His body was interred in the Assistens Kirkegård in the Nørrebro area of Copenhagen.
You get two recipes today, one for an open faced sandwich (Smørrebrød) designed by a Danish chef using Anderson’s favorite meats, and his favorite raspberry slices (Hindbærsnitter), which he liked to eat with coffee. For the latter use the best raspberry preserves, preferably homemade. If you use store bought, add some extra crushed fresh raspberries. The commonest topping is hundreds and thousands, but some cooks prefer chopped nuts or chopped raspberries.
Hans Christian Andersen Smørrebrød
The image here gives the basic idea. Spread a slice of dark Danish rye bread with butter. Top with crisply fried Danish bacon. On one half place slices of liverwurst followed by a slice of beef aspic. On the other side place sliced tomatoes, then shavings of fresh horseradish. Garnish with chopped, fresh parsley.
350g plain flour
200g cold butter
125g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla pod seeds
1 egg, beaten
200g raspberry jam
250g icing sugar
Toppings (chopped nuts, freeze dried raspberries, hundreds-and-thousands)
Put the cold butter, cubed, flour and sugar into a food processor and pulse about 8 to 10 times. Add the egg, vanilla, and a pinch of salt, and pulse again until the dough is smooth and holds together.
Divide the dough in two, wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
Roll out each piece of dough to a 25 x 25 cm square. Line two baking trays with baking parchment and place one square of dough on each. Refrigerate again for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F
Bake the pastry until golden (10-12 minutes, depending in your oven), then remove from the oven and leave to cool slightly for just a few minutes.
Meanwhile add the icing sugar to a bowl and incrementally add 2-4 tablespoons of hot water. Stir until it has a thick consistency. You want it spreadable but not runny.
Spread the raspberry jam on one of the pastry sheets. Line up the second pastry sheet on top. Spread the icing on the top sheet (not too thick), and immediately sprinkle with the topping of your choice.
Put the pastry back into the refrigerator for 30 minutes or more to completely harden.
Using a very sharp knife trim the pastry into an even square, then cut it into bars. You can make 10 to 16 depending on the size you want.