YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Denmark's Master of the Fairy Tale

January 12, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

COPENHAGEN — "To travel is to live," said Hans Christian Andersen, and this is the year to make his fairy tales part of your travel life.

Commemorating the publication of his first fairy tales 150 years ago, 1986 has been declared Hans Christian Andersen Year in Denmark.

For everyone who has ever been touched by his tales, the sesquicentennial will be a highlight of travels to Europe this year.

As a bonus for travelers eternally young in spirit, the Hans Christian Andersen celebration will climax two years of following fantasy trails during West Germany's continuing bicentennial for the Brothers Grimm.

The Fairy Tale Festival in Denmark will include exhibitions, sightseeing excursions, films, musicals, performances and readings of Andersen's works, in Copenhagen and the small city of Odense on the isle of Funen, where he was born in 1805.

Multiple Careers

At age 26, four years before his first slender volume of fairy tales appeared in print, Andersen was already a published poet and successful travel writer and had used teen-age efforts to become part of the Royal Theater in Copenhagen as a stepping stone to a literary career.

When Denmark chose 1986 as Hans Christian Andersen Year, it didn't really matter that his first book of four "Fairytales for Children" was actually published in 1835. No one year could possibly be enough to commemorate the life and genius of a writer whose works have been translated into more languages than any other writings except the Bible and Shakespeare. One anthology estimates a total of 80 languages.

Japanese tourists already booking tours to Denmark this summer will arrive with copies of books that they have cherished since childhood.

The same poetic flexibility with dates has been happening in West Germany with the bicentennial for the Brothers Grimm and their fairy tales, now into its third year. This celebration began in the summer of 1984, went into high gear for Joseph Grimm's 200th birth year in 1985 and is continuing with Wilhelm Grimm's 200th this year.

Andersen Magic

The people of Denmark never miss a chance to honor their teller of fairy tales. We were here in 1975, the 100th anniversary of Andersen's death, and found that a full summer of commemorative events had been scheduled. That was the year we discovered how much his magic can add to any visit to Denmark. You can use the milestones of his life for your own self-guided tour.

Odense has become an enchanting little fairy-tale city. Each old house along the narrow streets seems sure to have the kind of spinning room and garden in which young Hans listened to Danish folk tales. The small house in which he was born has been made into a museum. Red and white signs giving the number of kilometers to nearby villages also point the way to his birthplace house.

In the Memorial Hall at the entrance is a series of paintings that span his life. They were painted in 1929-32 by Niels Larsen Stevens. Within the low-ceilinged house are the furnishings of the early 19th Century, his manuscripts, drawings, paper cuttings. Here is also the best known of all portraits of the storyteller, painted by C. A. Jensen. In another house nearby, he lived many of his boyhood years.

Folk Tales of His Life

The fabric of these years is laced with folk tales and backstairs gossip. An often-told story is that he was born two months after his 38-year-old washerwoman mother had been married to a 23-year-old cobbler and that his mother was the illegitimate daughter of a woman who once had been sentenced to a week of bread and water in jail after giving birth to three illegitimate children fathered in successive years by different men.

After Hans became famous, many families for whom his mother had worked began to claim him as their illegitimate son. One tangled tale of backstairs lovemaking somehow made him a cousin of Madame Du Barry, mistress of French King Louis XV. For many possible reasons, Hans' grandfather became mad; Hans went to the asylum with his grandmother to visit him and was terrified by the experience.

Hans' young cobbler father lived only until Hans was 11 years old. He had served in the Napoleonic wars and was a moody dreamer who read endlessly to his son. Hans' mother regaled him with peasant folklore and superstitions. When Hans was 14, he told her he was going to Copenhagen. When she asked what he would do there, he replied matter-of-factly, "I shall become famous."

In addition to the permanent exhibitions around Odense this year, there will be guided and self-guided Fairy Tale Walks in the Footsteps of Hans Christian Andersen from June 15 through Aug. 15. Three- and-four-day Fairy Tale Tours of Funen and nearby isles will also be offered.

Road to a Degree

Los Angeles Times Articles