27 October 2012

The Great Dane

Less grim than the Brothers Grimm, more lucid than Dr. Suess, an actual person (unlike Mother Goose), Hans Christian Andersen was a master of fairytales.  His works have been translated into 160 language dialects and have been rehashed, updated, paraphrased, quoted and borrowed for nearly two centuries.  Some of his stories are so woven into popular culture that they've become figures of speech, illustrations of some of life's most pervasive themes.  The naked, duped, leader in the Emperor's New Clothes is the archetype of vanity.  The Ugly Duckling's triumph over bullying is the original It Gets Better.
"It doesn't matter about being born in a duckyard, as long as you are hatched from a swan's egg!" The Ugly Duckling, 1843.   Andersen's duckyard was Odense, where he was born to a poor cobbler There are places and things names after Anderson throughout Denmark, but the greatest congestion of tributes is here in his hometown.  On a Saturday afternoon, we joined the rush at Den Grimme Ælling ('The Ugly Duckling') which was serving a brunch buffet of epic proportions.  The 'all you can drink' period was just ending, but the servings of pork crackling, smoked salmon and fried eggs were being replenished with fervor.
Odense is a charming, livable town with a strong attachment to its famous son.  There are statues of some of his best known characters scattered around town, a large statue of him in the park.  There is the big, wonderful Hans Christian Andersen Museum and a smaller collection within his childhood home.  My favorite tribute was Odense's Walk/Don't Walk signs.  The little green man wore a top hat and held a cane, no doubt an impression of Hans' silhouette.
The Hans Christian Andersen Museums itself was fun to explore.  My knowledge of the author came from childhood viewings of Hans Christian Andersen starring Danny Kaye.  The movie-musical was as much a work of fiction as Thumbelina or The Princess and the Pea, but the fact that all of these stories sprung from the mind of a single man still resonated with me.  As it turns out, the real HC was much more interesting than the Kaye version.  He was a paranoid neurotic who traveled with a big rope because he was convinced he'd need to escape a hotel fire.  When pen wasn't being put to paper, his high-speed creative mind found an outlet in paper cutting.  Think snowflakes gone beautifully mad.  His nose was big, his feet were bigger, he abstained from sex and had infatuations with both genders.  In a questionnaire, he answered "Fresh Air" for his "Favorite Perfume."  This 'fresh air room' in the museum celebrated his love of outdoor introspection.
Other answers in the questionnaire included "to be happy" for "Dream in Life" and "contentment" for "Your Idea of Happiness."  The museum had a pair of old dentures, as lifelong toothaches kept him constantly ill at ease and these 3D portraits that you could view through stereoscopes.  Beyond these, there were hundreds of portraits of the author around the space and quotes from friends saying that no photo or painting ever really looked like him because he'd always try to put on a 'dignified pose.'  In that same questionnaire, he answered "Hans Christian Andersen" for "Who would you most like to be if not yourself?"  It's a good guess that he never really saw himself as the swan. 
For all his eccentricities and depressive moods, he appeared to be well loved by everyone he met.  Dignitaries and royals fawned upon him.  Before he ever published a word, chance encounters with nobles resulted in scholarship to school and connections in Copenhagen.  There was the Charles Dickens debacle, when Hans accepted an invitation to dinner and then stayed for five months.  He had no idea why Charles never returned his calls afterwards.  But mostly, he was adored worldwide.  It actually took Denmark a little longer to recognize their own genius, but once they did, he became a local hero.  Above, a 3D statue of Hans Christian Andersen at Legoland.
From the very start and until the very end, the greatest love for Hans came from children who ate up each new collection of fairy tales as they were published.  It was fitting that our trip to Odense coincided with the last day of the week-long Harry Potter Festival.  Children ran around in costumes playing a game I don't know how to spell because I've never read the books (blasphemy!)   Andersen enjoyed a notoriety akin to Rowling's.  When a nasty rumor started about Andersen being destitute and ill, children in America began a collection and a big wad of US cash arrived in an envelope.  On his deathbed, once he was actually ill but still not destitute, Hans requested that his funeral march be composed to "keep time with little steps" because "most of the people that will walk after me will be children."
Of course, there's a kid in all of us, right?  (Hence our visit to aforementioned Legoland, which will be covered in more depth soon).  The tourists taking photos at the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen may not even know the origins of the character or the author of the tale.  Disney gave her red hair, a purple shell bra and a happy ending, but Hans Christian Andersen gave her to the world as a version of himself.  In that same questionnaire posted in the Hans Christian Andersen Museum,  he was asked to state his occupation.  "Dreaming life away."

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