Hans Christian Andersen: Biography & Fairy Tales

Instructor: Bryanna Licciardi

Bryanna has received both her BA in English and MFA in Creative Writing. She has been a writing tutor for over six years.

Hans Christian Andersen wrote over 160 fairy tales, many of which have become beloved and classic children's stories. Read about the man behind the fairy tales, and learn about some of his more popular creations.


Hans Christian Andersen, the internationally acclaimed Danish writer, was born in Odense, Denmark, on April 2, 1805, as an only child. Andersen grew up poor and awkward. His tall height, large nose, and love of singing made it hard for him to fit in. Luckily, his father tried to encourage Andersen's creativity by taking him to the theater and handcrafting toys.

When Andersen was only 10 years old, his father tragically died. Within a few years, his mother remarried and sent Andersen off to a school for underprivileged children, where he was forced to support himself financially. At the age of 14, he moved to Copenhagen to try his hand at acting. Though he was accepted into a theater group as an operatic singer, his voice did not last long. The theater's director empathized with Andersen and set him up with a better education so that Andersen could pursue another art - writing.

Painting of Hans Christian Andersen, 1834
Hans Christian Andersen portrait

Andersen first began writing fairy tales by reimagining those he had heard as a child. Though they sold poorly at first, he took his first steps towards literary fame with his collection Fairy Tales, published in two volumes in 1835. And again, in 1838, he published the collection Fairy Tales Told for Children.

In 1845, following the translations of some of his fairy tales and the publication of another collection, his popularity grew rampant. Other collections he wrote include Wonderful Stories for Children, A Danish Story Book, and Danish Fairy Tales and Legends.

Andersen continued to travel across Europe and expand his fame. The Danish government admired his work so much so they gave him a yearly stipend for being a 'national treasure'. In 1872, liver cancer deteriorated his health, and he died in a friend's home on August 4, 1875.

Popular Fairy Tales

During his 70 years on Earth, Andersen published plays, travelogues, novels, and poems, but his fairy tales were his claim to fame. The more than 160 fairy tales have been translated into over 125 languages, many of which have since become ingrained into children's literary culture. His dark imagination, authentically child-like nature, and rich humor made the tales groundbreaking and captivating.

These tales have become the inspiration of plays, ballets, movies, and animations. Disney has taken on many of his stories in their movies and animated shorts, such as The Little Mermaid and The Ugly Duckling. Even Andersen's birthday has become a holiday, known as the International Children's Book Day. Here are descriptions of three of his more popular tales.

The Princess and the Pea

This story was one Andersen had heard as a child. Though it did not receive much critical acclaim at the time of publication, it has since become a classic tale. The story is that of a prince desperately seeking a real princess, but finding only frauds. One stormy night, a woman caught in the rain shows up at his castle seeking shelter. She claims to be a princess, but her disheveled appearance makes the royal family hesitant to believe her. They decide to slip a pea under her bed, made up of 25 mattresses, without telling her. In the morning, the princess complains of having a terrible night's sleep, thus proving to the prince that she felt the pea and is in fact a true princess. The two are married and place the pea in a royal museum as a kind of trophy.

Illustration of The Princess and the Pea, 1895
Princess and the Pea sketch

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