August 2008

Lorette C. Luzajic

Fascinating Writers

The Fairy Tale Fairy

It’s a bit of delicious irony that the fun but old-fashioned euphemism, "fairy" is quite fitting, given that the king of fairy tales, Hans Christian Andersen, was actually a queen. Indeed, the quirky, fussy, self-absorbed, effeminate oddball was probably a lifelong virgin, as concluded by a few biographers, including Jens Andersen. He was awkward and shy and really rather an eyesore.

Fairy tales are a portal to the imagination, to a realm that bubbles vibrantly under the pulse of the mundane and tragic, giving that fairy dust shimmer to the hopelessness of mortal life. They are the stuff of daydreams, and of nightmares. The stories are filled with fantastical creatures, talking animals, beautiful princes and princesses, untold riches, stunning jewels, colorful frocks, magical objects, whimsical critters, dragons, witches, and yes, fairies.

In the early 1800s, Germany’s Brothers Grimm recorded stories with ancient origins, peasant folk tales passed along from generation to generation. While the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen are both names synonymous with the fairy tales we know today, Andersen’s stories were, for the most part, his own invention. Of about 150 fairy tales, a dozen or so were inspired by known folktales and the rest were the fruits of his wild imagination. And who can imagine a world without The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, or The Little Mermaid? Disney would go out of business, that’s for sure.

Born in 1805, Hans Christian Andersen was something of an ugly duckling. (Indeed, later in his life, when asked if he planned to write his autobiography, Andersen said The Ugly Duckling had already been written.) His own life is a fairy tale, though he never did land a prince. He was born into poverty, to a shoemaker and an illiterate and superstitious laundress. His mother was an alcoholic and some evidence suggests that his sister may have been a prostitute.

In any event, the family’s poverty was debilitating, and when Papa Andersen died, 11-year-old Hans Christian had to enter the workforce. Before this tragedy, however, the boy’s eccentricity, intelligence, and profound imagination were already clear to any observer. He lived in his own world that he fashioned with wooden doll puppets for which he made his own clothes and a theatre. With these puppets, he reenacted entire Shakespeare plays that he had memorized, a feat for anyone and obviously a strange genius for a child.

Poor Hans Christian had to leave his dolls at home but he employed his costuming skills as an apprentice for a tailor and weaver. He also worked in a cigarette factory, where he was bullied for his effeminacy, and the other factory workers would cruelly pull down his pants in search of evidence of masculinity. He couldn’t bear the humiliation, and at the tender age of 14, headed to the big city of Copenhagen, hoping to blend in with other freaks in the theatre, where he sought work as an actor. His soprano voice got him a few gigs with the Royal Danish Theatre. It was here that another actor observed Andersen’s potential as a poet, and so the young man began to write fervently.

A chance encounter with a kind soul meant that Andersen would go back to school. Andersen was then 17, and had already published some short fiction. Though the poor child possessed remarkable intelligence, the generous benefactor who paid for the gift of school was actually a giver of nightmares, for this is the period that Andersen described as the worst torture of his life. The schoolmaster abused him because he was ugly and to "build his character." He was older than the other students, which isolated him completely. Worst, he was forbidden from writing, probably because he had a learning disorder, dyslexia, which hid the depths of his intelligence from the impatient faculty.

Still, this misguided and cruel power play did little to repress his formidable genius: Andersen later learned to speak fluently in English, German, Dutch, and other Scandinavian languages, in addition to his mother tongue. And after publishing some poetry and finding success with short stories, he was two years shy of 30 when the king himself gave Andersen a travel grant to explore Europe. He began writing prolifically -- poems, novels, travel work, and of course, the fairy tales. While his fairy tales were not received as well as his other works, they went on to become his most lasting legacies, translated into 150 languages, becoming more and more popular as the decades and indeed, centuries, move along.

Throughout his life, Hans Christian dreamed of a fairy tale romance, something that never transpired for him. It seems no one ever fell in love with the poor man. That did not stop him, however, from loving wildly, however unrequited his affairs were. He was deeply romantic at heart, and many of his fairy tales are fantastical versions of autobiography. The Nightingale, for example, was inspired by his love for an opera soprano named Jenny. But she turned down his handwritten proposal, expressing that her love for him was as for a brother. There were several other women whom Andersen awkwardly tried to woo, without success.

He didn’t have much better luck with the boys, though not for lack of trying. Many have tried to stuff Andersen into that proverbial closet where he himself hid, like most bisexuals and homosexuals in history, because he had no choice. But in his own words, it’s pretty clear what kind of love he felt for the various princes who caught his imagination. "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," he wrote to Edvard Collin, whose lack of reciprocity caused Andersen great heartache.

Despite all the rejection, Andersen had quite the libido, and he masturbated furiously, according to his own notes. To add to his lengthy list of eccentricities, Andersen felt it necessary to mark a special symbol down in his journals every time he wanked, which was apparently often. Indeed, it seems he very much enjoyed visiting a "friend" and then heading home to wack off and write about it in his journal.

While we cannot know for certain if he ever had a single encounter in the company of another, we do know that from his journals that he visited a brothel at least once. If no man or woman wanted to sleep with him, he could certainly pay somebody. But the author left the encounter short twelve francs and still having sinned only in his thoughts.

In a final irony, Andersen, who died in 1875, was buried with Edvard Collin and his wife. But Andersen was rejected even in death, and the ménage a trois was broken up. The Collins’s were moved to another cemetery, leaving Hans Christian alone: the story of his life.

Lorette C. Luzajic picked up a massive, undated but definitely old copy of Andersen’s Fairy Tales at a yard sale last year for a dollar. And so it was that she revisited the intriguing and familiar stories that peppered her youth. The colourful templates illustrating the stories, along with the black and white lithographs, captivated her. Unfortunately, her godchild, for whom the purchase was intended, will not be receiving the incredible volume.

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