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Meeting the 'Christian' Hans Christian Andersen

In fairy tales, I read his story of faith

A bronze statue of Hans Christian Andersen in the Copenhagen Town Hall Square.

“How profoundly did I realize that I was nothing, that all, everything was from Him” (The True Story of My Life, Hans Christian Andersen).

With fascination, I recently discovered a hidden treasure—the real Christian in Hans Christian Andersen. I learned how he expressed his faith in many of his stories, though most have been secularized through the years. Preparing for a press tour to Denmark to mark the country’s celebration of the 2005 bicentenary of the author’s birth, I read his autobiography, The True Story of My Life; a recent translation, The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen by Jeffrey Frank and Diana Frank; and older editions of his works.

In 1819 Andersen, only 14 and just after his Lutheran confirmation, traveled alone to Copenhagen. His home life in the village of Odense had been one of poverty, with loving parents who tried to protect their talented son. But in the city he often went hungry, as struggling young writers do.

Years later when he returned to his hometown, a success, he was welcomed with a day of honor. He wrote: “I felt so overwhelmed, so humble and insignificant, as though I were before my God. I could see my every weakness, fault and sin in thought, word or deed.”

But it was through his fairy-tale characters that I learned how his faith is revealed in his work. Consider, for example, The Little Mermaid (the original is not much like the Disney rendition). Andersen’s little mermaid longed for the prince but also for immortality—in heaven, or as she called it, “the layer above.” When the prince married another, she had the opportunity to regain her mermaid life by killing him. Instead she threw the knife far into the sea and herself, too, expecting to turn into sea foam—which was what became of mermaids after death. But joyfully she found herself instead among ethereal beings with whom she was going to attain an immortal soul and “float ... into God’s kingdom.”

A 19th century photo of Hans Christian Andersen.
In The Wild Swans, Elisa sought God’s help in rescuing her brothers from a spell that made them swans by day. She prayed, even while asleep, and God showed his care in a vision of an apple tree bowed down with fruit. “Suddenly, it was as if the branches ... opened up ... and God looked down at her with gentle eyes, and small angels peeked out above his head and under his arms.”

In The Snow Queen, another girl, Gerda, looked for a friend who was carried away by a sorceress. When she felt frightened, she sang a little hymn: “In the valley, the roses grow wild; there we can talk to the Christ-child.” God rewarded Gerda’s faith. She found her friend in the ice castle and helped him spell the word eternity—so they could make their joyful escape.

You may remember how The Little Match Girl sat freezing. She saw her loving grandmother who “lifted the little girl in her arms, and they flew upwards far above the Earth in lightness and joy. There was neither cold, hunger nor pain—for they were with God.”

I was especially moved as I read a less familiar story, By the Uttermost Sea, which is based on Psalm 139:9-10. Andersen tells of ships stuck in the ice while on an expedition to the North Pole. The sailors made igloos and huddled under furs that the native people brought them. One sailor read from the Bible he used as a pillow. Suddenly warm breezes and hymns surrounded him, as he felt himself in God’s presence. Looking up he saw a brilliant angel rising up from his Bible. As the angel opened his wings, the ice walls disappeared.

Then the sailor sensed and saw a warm autumn day in the green fields of Denmark. He could see his grandmother as she read the words of a psalm he’d included in a letter: “In the uttermost parts of the sea, Your right hand shall uphold me.” The vision over, darkness descended but hope and faith filled his heart. “God was with him,” Andersen assures the reader “... in the uttermost parts of the sea.”

A 19th century photo of Hans Christian Andersen.
Andersen also had his dark side, writing of painful subjects that reflect his suffering. Some Danes, who study Andersen much as we do Shakespeare, believe The Shadow is about a personal slight to Andersen who both agonized over insults and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

Andersen once told of walking in a cemetery on a snowy day. With his cane he wrote on the snow:

Immortality is like the snow;
Tomorrow you cannot see it.

There was a thaw, and when he next passed that way only the word immortality remained. He said he thought: “God, my God, I have never doubted.”

Denmark’s celebration of Andersen’s birthday continues throughout the country. You can join it at www.hca2005.com.


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