Editor’s note: Arland Fiske passed away June 16, but as a tribute to him, The Pilot-Independent will continue to print his column for the next couple of months.
In New York City’s Central Park, there is a statue of Denmark’s favorite storyteller. Crowds of children gather around it to hear his fairy tales. Many suppose him to American, but Hans Christian Andersen is still the pride of Denmark. Next to the Bible, his writings are some of the most widely read and translated in the world. Who is this Dane that many people have come to love?
Hans was born April 2, 1805, at Odense on the island of Fyn, the son of a shoemaker and a washerwoman. His father died when he was only 9 and his mother 20 years later.
How did this boy, reared in poverty and obscurity, rise to become so famous that when he died on Aug. 4, 1875, his funeral was held in the Copenhagen Cathedral? Nearest the coffin sat the royal family, foreign ambassadors and other famous guests.
Great writers have a streak of loneliness in their souls. Despite his fame and his welcome into the homes of the most famous people of Europe, he never owned a house nor did he marry. There were loves in his life, but it was usually fantasy. His self-centeredness and his strange appearance got in the way. He was his own “ugly duckling.” Even his most friendly critics noted that he wrote mostly about himself.
Despite his loneliness and outsider role, Andersen was a great entertainer and reporter of his times. He had a love-hate relationship with royalty. He lived at the time Louis XVI was beheaded. He enjoyed royal favor, but in his writings he showed contempt for the vanity of the blue bloods.
In private papers found after his death, he wrote: “I maintain that the Shoemaker’s Guild is the most famous, for I am the son of a shoemaker.”
Andersen was a deeply religious man, despite his father’s atheism. He did not, however, accept conventional creeds.
When questioned about his beliefs, he claimed: “I have become convinced that what Christ teaches comes from God.” He was at odds over theology with two other famous Danes, Bishop Grundtvig and Soren Kierkegaard.
Andersen was a legend in his own time and was the most photographed person of his day. He was one of the most widely traveled Danes, but he never visited America. He wrote: “What a pity that America lies so far away from here.” He was a pen pal of Longfellow in Massachusetts and visited Dickens in England. He made 29 journeys abroad and wrote 156 fairy tales and stories.
Some of his works include “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Red Shoes” as well as “The Ugly Duckling.” My favorite Andersen fairy tale is “The Snow Queen.” It’s the story about a little girl named Gerda who is the true Snow Queen that rescues her friend Kaj from the ice castle of the wicked Snow Queen.
The Danes of North Dakota erected a statue of the famous storyteller in the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, N.D., in October 2004.
If we could rescue the world’s political leaders from their fears for a week and gather them to read Andersen’s fairy tales, there just might be a chance for peace in our times.
Next time: “How Scandinavia Became Christian”