It's the two hundreth anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen's birthday today. He was born in the little Danish town of Odense, in 1805, the son of a washerwoman and a cobbler, the poorest of the poor in the town, though Andersen's mother claimed that the family had noble heritage somewhere in its past. Andersen's father never could quite make the pair of dancing shoes that would catch a passing princess's eye and rescue the family from their perennial misfortunes. Nevertheless, he treated his son with great kindness, performing puppet shows for him, instilling in him a love of literature, and nurturing in the boy a desire to win fame and fortune. Andersen's father had sought these things himself, going off as a soldier in one of the Napoleonic wars, but all he came back with was ill health and despair -- not the magical tinderbox Andersen would write about later in his first and one of the most enduring of the 156 fairy tales he would compose in his life.
Painfully awkward, haphazardly schooled, flambouyantly ambitious, and self-confident to the point of delusion, Andersen set off for Copenhagen to become a celebrity when he was only fourteen. Before he left, Andersen's mother consulted a fortune teller who proclaimed that one day the whole town would be illuminated in his honor. Forty-eight years, in 1867, the now-famous author, was invited back to receive just such an accolade from his hometown. Ironically, though, he was unable to enjoy the festivities because of an excruciating toothache.
"First one has to endure terrible adversity, then one becomes famous," he told his mother when he was a boy. But for Andersen, after the fame, he continued to endure terrible adversity. Unmarried, without a permanent home, often afflicted by extreme depression, he carried phobias with him wherever he went -- fears of rabies, of fire, and of being mistaken for dead while asleep and buried alive. He also thought his fairy tales were the least important of the many works that he had written. Yet these stories, many of which have been translated into more languages than any works other than the Bible and Shakespeare's, have endured. They are like the nightingale in Andersen's story, whose "song shall make you happy and make you thoughtful.... [who sings] not only of those who are happy but also of those who suffer." And, one must add, of those who are ready, in the core of their beings, to be transformed. Which is to say, all of us.
Copyright 2005© John Cech
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