Do you remember some of the stories of your childhood: The Little Mermaid, The Emperor’s New Clothes, and the Ugly Duckling? I do, but I hadn’t realised that they were all written by Hans Christian Andersen, back in the 1800s. But this was only one of the many fascinating facts that I learned during my visit to the museum dedicated to his life and work in the small Danish city of Odense.
Little over an hour and half from Copenhagen by train, Odense is definitely worth a short visit. Its relatively small size makes it easy to explore on foot – with lovely little cobbled streets to wander around, (some of which display an interesting selection of street art), and a great selection of eateries in which to sample Danish food. You can have a really nice evening out here.
But the main draw is without doubt Odense’s connection to its famous son, Christian Andersen. He was born in 1805 and many of his early works were spawned while he was resident here. There are three main sites dedicated to his legacy: the museum and the two homes that he once lived in (one his birthplace and one where he spent his early years). I’d recommend starting with the museum as this puts both houses into context.
The museum is set on two levels and provides a detailed walk through of Andersen’s life, as well as artefacts and illustrations from some of this most famous work. I was utterly captivated by the spread of materials. I have to admit that my knowledge of Andersen was confined to him being a storyteller: a purveyor of fairy tales. What I didn’t know was how varied his body of work was.
He set his heart on being a poet and writer first and foremost, his first published work being a travelogue in 1828, and he had a short stint as an actor. In 1835, he published his first foray into children’s fairy tales, but according to the information in the museum, he largely ignored the impact of this publication, sticking firmly to his dreams of writing novels instead; over the course of his lifetime he published 11 novels and novellas, 21 travelogues, 24 works of poetry and an extensive range of other works (including diaries and work published posthumously). This is in addition to a large stock of paper cuttings that he produced, another outlet for his vivid imagination. However, his output of fairy tales completely overshadowed all of this, with over 150 works being published.
When you visit his childhood homes, it is revealed that he was born in one of Odense’s poorest districts. Despite this potential social barrier, he was lucky enough to have experiences that were denied many other children, including playing with the Prince of the city, Frits, when he went along with his mother who worked in the castle. Growing up, he saved any money he had, rejecting the idea that he would stay locally and take up an apprenticeship, instead gravitating to the bright lights of the capital, Copenhagen, to make his fame and fortune.
Perhaps this had already broadened his horizons, for he went on to travel overseas extensively widely, spending nine years away from Denmark; this might partly be the reason that he never set up a permanent home, preferring instead to rent or stay in hotels. Or it may have been because this lifestyle allowed him to stay in the areas that inspired him most – for example, near to Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Theatre and Nyhavn (for anyone who has visited Copenhagen, it’s not hard to see why he would have wanted to live in the picturesque part of the city). If you’re interested in this period of his life, you can don a virtual reality headset that takes you into his home in Nyhavn – it’s amazing. I had never experienced VR before and thought this was a fantastic addition to the museum, helping you to almost step back in time and give a bit more thought to what life might have been like for Andersen at the time.
This partly peripatetic life may have explained why romance apparently alluded him, despite there being evidence that this is something that he yearned for. He did, however, have long lasting friendships, and was living with friends towards the end of his life, and died in 1875 when he was their house guest. He was also friends with the writer Charles Dickens (although a stay at his house was apparently not a successful one).
All in all, I came away from the museum having learnt a lot more about the life and works of Hans Christian Andersen. I was amazed at just how prolific an artist – across a diverse range of artist pursuits – he was, and how long lasting his legacy has been (to date, his work has been translated in 161 different languages, and there can’t be many of us who don’t know at least one of his fairy tales).
But I also felt a tinge of sadness – he clearly never really appreciated just how significant his fairy tales would be: in the introduction to my Wordsworth Classics compendium of his fairy tales, it says that “he was much more anxious to please big people, than delight small ones”. And having gone back and re-read some of his most famous tales, it’s hard to ignore some of the melancholy that comes through in some of the stories: The Little Mermaid who made the ultimate sacrifice for her love, the Little Match Girl dying cold and alone on the street, the Emperor’s New Clothes, a tale of deception and humiliation, and The Steadfast Tin Soldier who dies in a fire.
Then again, there are tales of hope amongst his work, not least the rejected Ugly Duckling who turns into a beautiful swan, and the Princess who proves her authenticity after an uncomfortable night sleeping on a pea embedded in her mattress. And even if he didn’t know it, these stories have been read time and time again to children all around the world. It’s a shame he didn’t realise how long lasting his legacy would be, but he left us with so many childhood stories to fondly look back on, even if we didn’t at our early age realise just how sad some of them were. I came away from a rewarding trip to Odense, thinking that it was literally where fairy tales were made.
We stayed at Grand Hotel Odense, right in the centre of Odense. Other than visiting the museums here, Odense is a lovely place to stroll around and spend some time in: