Hans Christian Andersen: The Rebirth of a Poet

In 2005, we celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Hans Christian Andersen - a celebration, which will mark the rebirth of Hans Christian Andersen as both a poet and a person. This according to Lars Seeberg, Secretary General of the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation charged with coordinating the bicentenary celebra

By General Secretary Lars Seeberg - H.C. Andersen 2005 - 11 December 2003

In celebration of Hans Christian Andersen's 70th birthday in 1875, a public appeal was launched to erect a statue of the poet idol in the royal gardens, Kongens Have, in Copenhagen. This was not to his liking and he was quite sharp in his rejection of Danish sculptor August Saabye's draft. The sketch depicted the storyteller reading aloud to a group of children.

Andersen was particularly at odds with the "tall boy, almost sitting in my groin" and was vehemently opposed to the way he was depicted, which he found unnatural since he would "never read aloud while someone stood behind me or close to me, even less when children were sitting on my lap or (hanging) on my back."

He disliked the public perception of him as a "children's poet." His intention was "to be a poet of all age groups. Children (alone) cannot represent me: the naive is just an element of the fairytale - humour lies at the heart of them."

Anyone who visits Kongens Have will know that Andersen's protest made its mark. In the final version of the statue, he sits alone with a book on his lap and reads to an invisible crowd of listeners.

I am Hans Christian Andersen
This situation is one of the early examples of the mythmaking that would haunt the legend of Andersen. The twentieth century offered many a sentimentalised version of his life story - not least in the Hollywood adaptation from 1952 where Danny Kaye depicts Andersen as a sweet, pathetic entertainer, reducing the image of the fairytale poet to a caricature: a divinely inspired halfwit. Nothing could be more unfair.

In 2005, Denmark's most famous son and author will be celebrated. We commemorate the bicentenary of Hans Christian Andersen's birth. A bicentenary of such magnitude offers the opportunity to re-address the character at the centre of all the attention, and in the case of Hans Christian Andersen, there is good reason to consider whether the image of the storyteller has become too narrow to encompass the message he has to our contemporary world.

Most people would readily agree that Hans Christian Andersen's fairytales are so central to Danish culture that, if we were to neglect him, we would lose part of our cultural soul and a measure of our self-understanding. But if we are to celebrate a long-gone Golden Age poet with such fanfare, our efforts must concentrate on making him accessible to our modern age.

He should not simply be treated as a museum exhibit dusted off for the occasion or kept alive as a nostalgic memory of a beloved children's entertainer. Rather we should celebrate him for his timeless contribution to our common understanding of the human condition.

For adults too
One aim should be to expand our knowledge of more unknown chapters of the oeuvre of Hans Christian Andersen. Children are widely familiar with him all over the world - and for that reason, so are adults.

He is rated by UNESCO as one of the most translated authors, along with Shakespeare, Barbara Cartland and Stephen King. When pressed, most non-Danes will remember three to five of Andersen?s most famous fairytales, while most Danes recall as many as eight or ten. In fact, Andersen wrote more than 150 fairytales and stories. There is much to be done in creating a wider awareness of the man and his work.

But what we really need is a rebirth of Andersen. Two centuries after his birth, he still fails to be universally acknowledged as the world-class author he no doubt was. In blunt terms, Hans Christian Andersen's fame stifles his wider appreciation. His name puts a smile on peoples' faces all around the world - from China to the USA - but the smile is one of childhood nostalgia and memories of bedside storytelling.

Hans Christian Andersen is, in effect, a character that you leave behind and neglect to revisit as an adult. But the fairytales themselves, known and loved by children, contain much that children cannot grasp, and which is primarily aimed at the adult reader. This applies to his view of nature and society, his religious beliefs and view of love and art, his satirical portrayals of human nature, his sharp-witted irony - everything that in reality makes Andersen so unique and original.

In a time when children's stories were blatantly moralising and didactic, he revolutionised the genre by introducing humour, anarchy and the melancholy of great literature. Andersen's stories are full of the most painful and raw feelings. At his best, he relates in his own straightforward and unpretentious way as much about the human condition as any of the world's greatest authors or philosophers.

Some of the fairytales are solely directed towards an adult audience and foretell Surrealism and the Freudian concepts of the subconscious. His experimentation pointed in the direction of Modernism - just think of his fairytale The Shadow. Most of his works beyond his fairytales were directed at adult audiences too: novels, plays, poems, travel books, letters, and diaries.

The complex Andersen
The stated aim of the bicentenary celebration is the promotion of a wider and more nuanced appreciation of Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark and the world at large - of his diverse authorship and complex personality.

Hans Christian Andersen was a man of the real world, and the chocolate-box image of the old, naïve storyteller surrounded by children should give way to a more complete portrayal of a complex personality with passions, a sense of shame over his upbringing, loneliness from feeling of being unloved, his insatiable yearning for praise, his dislike of criticism, his optimism, his anxiety, hypochondria, vanity, vigorous ambition, and sexuality.

That the full picture is much greater than most of us realise becomes apparent to anyone who reads the Andersen biography by the British cultural writer Jackie Wullschlager, which is an extremely competent interpretation of Andersen's authorship that paints a modern psychological portrait. It is a highly entertaining, moving and accomplished biography and has just been published in Danish. One of this season's major book releases is Jens Andersen's weighty yet lucid biography of the author, which relates its extensive material with clarity and outstanding argument.
I must be heard!
The head office of the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation is in Andersen's hometown Odense. The Secretariat opened on 1 September 2001. The foundation was established by the Municipality of Odense, the Funen County, the Danish Ministry of Culture, the Danish Ministry of Economic and Business Affairs and the Bikuben Foundation.

The bicentenary budget is DKK 230 million. Copenhagen and Aarhus Municipalities also support the project, just as a number of other Danish municipalities and counties are expected to join the celebration that will commence in Denmark on 2 April 2005 and finish on 6 December 2005, commemorating the day when Andersen returned to his hometown Odense, which was torch-lit in his honour.

In the period leading up to the bicentenary celebration, a number of events will take place in Odense. But the bicentenary itself will be celebrated both nationally and internationally with nationwide projects and international events that reach out to the world. An artistic council with Danish and international members from areas collaborating with the foundation will advise the Secretariat, which in turn coordinates, collects, inspires and sponsors the many projects and events.

Andersen's world
With the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 celebrations we seek to highlight his influence with a wide array of events within classic art forms and new media, including theatre, music, dance, literature, film, TV, animation and educational programmes, conferences and the Internet.

Contemporary artists within all genres are fascinated and inspired - directly or indirectly - by Andersen's world. Hans Christian Andersen 2005 will be a wide-ranging celebration featuring huge productions and initiatives that promise lasting impact as well as a number of smaller events.

There will be events with wide popular appeal and more marginal productions targeting narrower groups. A large number of major theatres, museums, orchestras, TV stations and other institutions in Denmark will be preoccupied with Andersen during the bicentenary year. Naturally, the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation has established a close partnership with these institutions. In addition, other artists working outside the bounds of institutions will also be inspired by the Andersen celebration.

A new light
Some events will be international co-productions, working with partners in different countries. A wide array of projects with, for instance, the most exciting international directors of drama, composers, choreographers, and "new circus" artists will cast new light on Andersen and his authorship.

Some theatre performances will initially be produced and staged abroad - in the USA for instance - and will then tour a number of cities worldwide before visiting Denmark sometime during 2005. The intention is to involve the entire world in the celebration, not only as passive recipients of an officially sanctioned Danish view of the poet, but as active contributors addressing the poet in diverse ways. Andersen belongs to the world!

The Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation Secretariat has already experienced an immense worldwide interest in joining the celebration. No doubt, international interest will rise further as we approach the event-packed bicentenary. Many partnerships have been forged with Hans Christian Andersen 2005, and more are on the way. Naturally, these Danish projects will also reach out to the world. This is to take place in collaboration with the International Secretariat of Culture. 

A new audience
Asking contemporary artists to be ambassadors in showing that re-visiting Hans Christian Andersen can be an inspiring experience is one thing, making his original work accessible is another. Among the significant projects supported by the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation to precede the bicentenary is the publication of the new Danish edition of Hans Christian Andersen's collected works.

The first volume has been published by the Gyldendal Publishing House and the Danish Language and Literature Society. The remaining 18 volumes will be issued during the bicentenary year to replace the collected works published more than 100 years ago in the Gothic typeface. The first volumes - the fairytales - have been given a sweeping reception, not least because of the extensive notes and illustrations including Andersen's own paper cuts.

A considerable obstacle to the wider acknowledgment of Andersen's authorship among adults is the inadequacy of the current translations available in several principal languages. Furthermore, large parts of his oeuvre have not even been translated into English. Better translations are called for. The Hans Christian Andersen 2005 Foundation collaborates with foreign publishing houses with wide distribution in a number of countries.

We must not forget the children in our endeavour to promote a more variegated image of Hans Christian Andersen. Apart from features such as cartoons, large children's theatre festivals and drawing competitions, a number of educational projects are being prepared for use during the next academic year.

This initiative in devising new educational programmes for primary and secondary schools and high schools is coordinated in collaboration with the Centre for Children's Literature and the Centre for High-School Education. Schoolteachers from Bogotá to Yokohama can access the multi-language programmes by downloading them free of charge from the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 portal.

Everything worth knowing about Hans Christian Andersen can be found at the hca2005.com portal with current information on the many events taking place during the bicentenary celebration. The website is intended for those with a general interest in learning more about the fairytale storyteller as well as for researchers, who are given better access to prime material.

The portal is the primary platform for the international promotion of Hans Christian Andersen 2005 and is managed in collaboration with major Danish institutions within education, research and tourism.

I was born in Denmark
An obvious spin-off advantage of the revitalisation of the works of a world-famous literary name such as Hans Christian Andersen is a revision of the tourist image of Denmark. The thatched cottage image of the fairytale land is undergoing rapid transformation.

The aim is to portray an image of a more industrious, living and modern society and appeal to more sophisticated tourism in the hope that it will take hold beyond 2005. The country is to be seen as a place worth visiting for its culture, reflected in events in Denmark but also closer to home. The tourist axis in Denmark in relation to Hans Christian Andersen 2005 will be his hometown Odense and Copenhagen, where he spent most of his adult life.

Throughout his life, Andersen suffered from anxiety. He had a phobia of dogs and a deep-seated fear of fire. One of his worst nightmares was the thought of being buried alive, which is why he customarily placed a note on his bedside table with the words "I only seem dead".

Hans Christian Andersen was a complex, multi-faceted personality, and hopefully the Hans Christian Andersen 2005 celebration will help rescue him from the mummification that his image has suffered. He should be acknowledged as a poet of full character - as a man of flesh and blood.