The large footprints of Hans Christian Andersen laid in his bicentenary

Copenhagen

June 2005 Scotland on Sunday

STORIES. We can't get enough of them. The taxi driver told me one on the way to the airport. His step-father's great great grandfather, he said, was the brother of Hans Christian Andersen. Slightly more than six degrees of separation, admittedly, but it conjured up romantic images of a family of Danes expanding across Europe over the decades, eventually for one of them to end up in Leith.

Landing in Copenhagen a few hours later and scouring the Hans Christian Andersen museums, I could find no reference to the writer having had a brother. But why let that stand in the way of a good story? I was probably just looking in the wrong place.

Not that there's any shortage of places to look in the Danish capital. In this, the bicentenary year of Andersen's birth, you get the impression he's the only famous figure ever to have passed that way. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and physicist Niels Bohr hardly get a look in, while all over the pretty pedestrianised streets in the city centre are white footprints – size 12, just like Andersen's – guiding you to 62 points of Andersen interest from the apartments he rented to the place he got his hair cut.

It's easy to forget that the author of timeless childhood standards such as The Snow Queen, The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Pea was producing his tales as recently as the 1870s. It means that his life is unusually well documented. Aside from uncertainty over the exact house in which he was born in Odense, his progress from rags to riches, small-town nobody to international traveller, ugly duckling to swan is extensively mapped out in letters, sketches, paintings, furniture, possessions, even stereoscopic photographs.

The story goes that Andersen was bitten by the fame bug from an early age. He left his home at 14 to make his name in Copenhagen and never really looked back. Filled with uncommon self-belief and undaunted by his tall and gawky appearance, he sought out the Royal Theatre and tried to get a break as an actor, a dancer or a playwright. He was not a natural performer, but Jonas Collin, a director of the Royal Theatre, recognised his raw talent as a writer and supported him through grammar school.

The creative urge never subsided – he once said he didn't know if that was a blessing or a curse – and he would go on to write around 210 fairy stories, 50 plays, five travel journals, six novels, three autobiographies and an endless number of intricate paper cuts. It was in 1835 that he published his first collection of three children's stories, a venture he considered a sideline but which would make his name. His friend, the scientist Hans Christian Ørsted, told him: “If the novels will make you famous, the fairytales will make you immortal.”

To prove the point, one room in the Hans Christian Andersen Hus museum in Odense – a 90-minute train journey across the flat landscape to the west of Copenhagen – is lined with editions of his works from around the world. It claims no author has been translated into as many languages – around 150 of them including Braille and Esperanto.

But what is it about these stories that maintain such a hold? Even in Denmark the answer isn't immediately apparent. There they talk about Andersen in the same breath as Shakespeare, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, and with good reason, yet nowhere on my HCA tourist trail did I come across anything that seriously engaged with the stories themselves.

In Copenhagen's striking new Royal Library extension there was an interesting exhibition about his largely forgotten work in the theatre; in the Danish National Gallery, a survey of the artists who were around at the time of his first journey to Italy in 1833; and in the museum at Odense, an excellent outline of his life and times. But in all cases, the nature of the stories was taken for granted.

Get around on one of the city's colourful public bikes

Copenhagen3

When the stories did emerge it was in the most banal and superficial way. Tivoli is a much-loved Copenhagen amusement park – like a mini-Disneyland without the queues or the fat people. Throughout the summer it has an outdoor show performing every night. It is little more than a parade of outsize puppet characters – the naked emperor, Thumbelina, the tin soldier and others taking turns to totter in front of us. What was remarkable, however, was the audience. At 10pm on a weekday night there were few children still around, but the adult faces were radiant with delight. It was clear that even in this heavily romanticised form, Andersen's characters had a central place in their grown-up hearts.

This debasement is odd. The reason it's right to count Andersen among the literary greats is that his best stories have profound depths – his gift was to be able to transform archetypal impulses into simple narratives. Children instinctively tune into them, but the resonances are just as acute for adults. You won't find a rites of passage story more chilling than The Snow Queen, a metaphor more pertinent for the act of self-discovery than The Ugly Duckling or a tale more revealing of the elusive beauty of art than The Nightingale.

One critic recently described The Emperor's New Clothes as a "savage commentary on inherited privilege, creeping materialism and the clear-sightedness of the dispossessed". That's the way we might talk about Charles Dickens, his contemporary, but it's no less true of Andersen.

Certainly, he is not about big-eyed puppets waving benignly at the crowds. Apart from anything else, most of his stories end in death and misery. Modern parents would think twice about reading many of them in their original form to a generation brought up on saccharine Disney endings.

Architectural detail in Copenhagen

Copenhagen2

Robert Lepage, the Quebecois actor and theatre director, understands this. His latest one-man show, The Andersen Project, expected in Britain next year, draws on two lesser known stories, The Dryad and The Shadow. In the first, a tree spirit longs to experience the excitement of the big city instead of being confined to the branches. She is given the chance but at the expense of her soul. Andersen describes her closing moments as being "like a woman who has cut asunder her pulse-artery in the bath, but is filled again with the love of life, even while she is bleeding to death". Danny Kaye it is not.

In The Shadow, a man becomes detached from his shadow which grows into a human being and returns to transform the man into his own shadow. It's a disturbing metaphor for the new generation usurping the old and it ends with the destruction of the central character.

These are themes that would chill you in something by Edgar Allan Poe let alone a children's author. And neither do they seem out of place in Lepage's grown-up show.

All of which is reason to consider the various Andersen events taking place in Edinburgh for his bicentenary as something more than just a diversion for the kids. True, youngsters will look forward to the autumn exhibition at the Museum of Childhood – Once Upon A Time: Hans Christian Andersen and Fairy Tales – and to the production of Thumbelina on the Fringe that will take the audience out onto the Water of Leith. They'll also enjoy the season of Andersen-related films at the Filmhouse in October and the three Andersen-based performances that are expected at next year's Children's Festival.

But the mums and dads might be surprised to find how much they get out of Andersen too. At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August, for example, a panel of distinguished Danish authors will seek to get to the core of Andersen’s vast body of work. At around the same time at the Danish Cultural Institute, there'll be a touring exhibition from Odense of Andersen's letters, portraits and personal belongings. That will be followed in September by a display of Andersen-inspired design and costumes by no lesser personage than Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. In November at the Usher Hall, the Edinburgh Royal Choral Union is making a musical contribution to the celebrations.

Such diversity is an appropriate reflection of Andersen's own creative range as well as a recognition of his true artistic worth. And that, 130 years after his death, feels like a happy ending.

© Mark Fisher 2005/2009

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