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AuthorHouse Writing Master Class: Hans Christian Andersen

The world celebrated International Children’s Book Day on April 2. Unsurprisingly, the day chosen to “inspire a love of reading and to call attention to children’s books” is also the birthday of the “Father of the Modern Fairy Tale,” Hans Christian Andersen.

Andersen’s stories have entertained generations of readers young and old throughout the world. Tales such as The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Ugly Duckling, and The Snow Queen are a mere sampling of the 212 fairy tales published during his lifetime and posthumously.

AuthorHouse combines celebrating International Children’s Book Day and Hans Christian Andersen’s birthday by looking at some of the qualities that made him such an endearing and enduring storyteller.

He Wrote About What He Knew

Although Andersen is most famously known for his fairy tales, he also wrote plays, novels, poems, travel books, and several autobiographies. He did not actually pen his first fairy tale until he was twenty-nine. His first passion was to become an actor, and he had a beautiful singing voice as a teenager. These ambitions moulded a great portion of his work.

Andersen’s own life has been likened to that of his Ugly Duckling, who is born humbly amongst the ducks yet blossoms into a swan. Born the son of a poor cobbler, he became a rich man, famous throughout the world.

He suffered a great deal on his journey to fame and wealth. It is these experiences he draws upon in his fairy tales which, when read in their original versions, are far more sophisticated than just mere children’s fables. His personal struggles with his peers and idols during his formative years are recorded as a commentary on human nature and the society to which he was subjected. Sometimes this manifests itself as optimism, where goodness and beauty triumph, or pessimism, where the end is inevitable. In either instance, Andersen identifies with the downtrodden and oppressed.

The fact that he is remembered as a storyteller who has made the world smile by drawing on his own tumultuous experiences is testament to his status as a literary master craftsman.

He Appealed to Parents While Entertaining Children

What do J. K. Rowling, cartoonist Matt Groening, and Roald Dahl have in common? Yes, they all write stories for children, correct. But think about the characters and stories they are famous for: Rowling’s Harry Potter, Groening’s Bart Simpson, and any one of Dahl’s characters, like Willie Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

One of the greatest factors attributing to the success of these characters is that they appeal to adults as well as children. Parents enjoy reading about them at bedtime or watching their cartoons on TV just as much as their children do.

And this is no accident. They, along with many other successful writers of children’s tales, employ a technique pioneered by Hans Christian Andersen. His stories can be read simply as magical flights of fancy designed for children, but the more discerning reader will also delight in the comedy, social commentary, satirical critiques, and philosophical reasoning skilfully layered into his work.

“I seize on an idea for grown-ups and then tell the story to the little ones while always remembering that Father and Mother often listen, and you must also give them something for their minds.”

His Passion and Ambition Overcame Discrimination and Parochialism

Andersen was born into a poor, lowly existence. His ambition, however, was unwavering. He initially strove for a theatrical career as a dancer, and when this door was closed to him, he embraced writing with the same determination and vigour.

His background and breeding was a constant impediment to absolute acceptance from the society to which his talent and success introduced him and of which he so desired to be a part. Indeed, this struggle remained one of the underlying themes prevalent throughout his writing.

Instead, his resolute self-belief and confidence enabled him to overcome the rejections he would constantly experience professionally in his early career and constantly within high society. No matter how well known and successful he was, he would forever be known as “the cobbler’s son from Odense.”

This resoluteness spilled over into defiance during his schooling under the sponsorship of his patron. Despite being forbidden to practice and develop his literary talents (the sole purpose for him being at school in the first place) by his headmaster, he composed the poem “The Dying Child.” Andersen’s headmaster denounced the poem as “rubbish” and he was soon withdrawn from the school. “The Dying Child” would become one of the most famous poems of that century.

Self-Publishing was his Gateway to Success

Andersen wrote his first book at the age of twenty-two. The difficulties of new writers today were certainly mirrored by the writers of the early 1800s. He was unable to find a publisher who would accept A Walking Tour from the Holmen Canal to the Eastern Point of Anger, so he decided to self-publish his work (if only AuthorHouse had been around in 1827!).

The book was a great success, sold out its print run, and paved the way to an illustrious career delighting millions over the next century, with millions more to be entertained ad infinitum.

He Drew Deeply upon His Inspirations

Andersen differed little from many writers in that his initial inspirations were his family. His mother and father were poor, a cobbler and washerwoman, but they were devoted to providing their son with every possible opportunity. His mother introduced him to Danish folklore, and Andersen says this of his father in his 1846 autobiographical The True Story of My Life:

My father gratified me in all my wishes. I possessed his whole heart; he lived for me. On Sundays, he made me perspective glasses, theatres, and pictures which could be changed; he read to me from Holberg’s plays and the Arabian Tales; it was only in such moments as these that I can remember to have seen him really cheerful, for he never felt himself happy in his life and as a handicrafts-man.

Andersen would also listen to the folktales his grandmother and her friends would tell while spinning. Some of these were traditional Danish tales, but they also regaled him with exotic Arabian tales from The Thousand and One Nights.

Andersen’s first book of fairy tales was published in 1835 and comprised The Tinder Box, The Princess and the Pea, Little Claus and Big Claus, and Little Ida’s Flowers. These early stories are clearly inspired by the Danish folktales his mother and grandmother lovingly recited to him.

Interestingly, Danish folklore has been the inspiration for many great writers and the basis for stories, which are still classics today. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is based on the medieval story of Amleth and in the epic poem Beowulf, the hero comes to the rescue of the king of the Danes.

He Challenged Conformity

Andersen’s fairy tales were sensational when they were first published. It may be hard to imagine today as they have become staple childhood memories, and his characters have been incorporated into our language, but for early 1800’s Denmark, he was radical.

Here are some of the ways Andersen broke with literary tradition through his groundbreaking style and prose:

  • His particular use of idioms was new in Danish writing, and he was much more ambiguous in his storytelling when fairy tales were strictly used as an educational tool.
  • He wrote in a voice that was more like traditional oral storytelling rather than just relaying a story. He spoke to children with familiarity rather than simply lecturing them.
  • He uses Christian imagery in his stories, but the tales themselves do not highlight its moral in an obvious, forceful way.
  • He mixed contemporary settings and household objects with fantastical, magical qualities rather than inventing far-off lands and mythical beasts.
  • His written style was deliberately direct and informal, making his stories accessible to everyone rather than using contrived, convoluted language geared at the educated and sophisticated classes.

He Strove to be a Better Writer and Knew How to go About it.

A lifestyle coach told a story about a successful businessman who asked, “I’m a multimillionaire, but I want to be a billionaire. How do I make the jump?” The lifestyle coach told him to associate with billionaires more regularly. And so the businessman did. He started playing golf with billionaires, dining with them, and socializing with them as much as he possibly could. Within a year, he was a billionaire himself.

“So what does this story have to do with what Hans Christian Andersen can teach me about writing?” you ask. Well, the lifestyle coach’s advice to the businessman was founded in two methods Andersen employed to help himself make the transition from good writer to great writer and from great writer to one of the most beloved writers of children’s stories in history.

Here are the two methods both Andersen and the businessman practised to make their desired transitions.

1. Expand Your Horizons

The first quality we identified in this article is that Andersen wrote about what he knew. To become a better writer, he was always striving to learn and experience new ideas and cultures. The more he could learn, the more he had to write about. In order to do this, he travelled extensively, which was unusual for a Dane at that time. In fact, he was passionate about travel and wrote a number of books on the subject. His travels took him to Sweden, Spain, Italy, Portugal, England, and the Middle East and Africa.

Richard Hébert, AuthorHouse author of MindWarp, one of Kirkus Reviews’ best indie books of 2011, explains that he also travelled extensively to help him gain more knowledge and experience, thus improving his writing. Hébert was the featured author in our February edition of Bookends.

2. Associate with Those You Wish to Emulate

So now you are benefitting from the billionaire’s experience, you need to know how to implement what you have learned. By associating with your superiors, they become your mentors. Observe and adopt the mannerisms, behaviors, and habits that produce success as you view the world through their eyes.

Hans Christian Andersen actively sought meetings with as many of the great writers of his time as he possibly could. His associates included Charles Dickens, Wilhelm Grimm, Victor Hugo, Heinrich Heine, Balzac, Alexandre Dumas, and Norwegian writer Björnson.

We hope the seven qualities we have identified that made Hans Christian Andersen such a remarkable writer will help you in your writing goals. No matter how good he already was, Andersen always wanted to learn more and become a better writer. That is probably the underlying moral to this particular tale.