7 Surprising Facts About Hans Christian Andersen

 Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) is recognized around the world for his beloved books, including The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, and many others. However, few people know much about the man behind these famous fairy tales—a man who endured many hardships and, by some accounts, transformed his pain into art. Here are seven surprising facts about Andersen’s life and legacy that you won't find in the children's section of a bookstore.

1. Some of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales are autobiographical.

According to scholars, the tale of The Ugly Duckling reflects Andersen’s own feelings of alienation. As a boy, he was teased for his appearance and high-pitched voice, which often made him feel isolated, and he later wrote a story about a boy named Hans who gets made fun of as a child. Much like the ugly duckling, Andersen only later in life became the “swan”—a cultured, world-renowned writer with friends in high places. Andersen even admitted of The Ugly Duckling, “This story is, of course, a reflection of my own life.”

There’s also evidence that Andersen placed his characters in desperate and hopeless situations to reflect his own personal traumas, which included being raised in poverty, losing his father, and having to briefly work in a factory at age 11 to support his mother. Paul Binding, a literary critic who penned a book about Andersen, said the long-lasting appeal of his stories go beyond their authenticity, though. "True, some of Andersen’s most famous stories—The Ugly Duckling, The Steadfast Tin Soldier, even The Little Mermaid—are dramatizations or sublimations of his own dilemmas, but they would not work on us as they do if they did not transcend the personal—in language, in observation and detail, and in intricate but unobtrusive structure—to stand on their own as perfectly wrought artifacts of universal appeal," Binding wrote for The Guardian.

2. Andersen's original version of The Little Mermaid was a lot more depressing than Disney’s take.

Andersen’s Little Mermaid story from 1837 was far darker than the kid-friendly Disney movie it would later inspire. In the original (which you can read online for free here), an unnamed mermaid who falls in love with a prince is offered the chance to take a human form, even though she'll live in perpetual agony and has to have her tongue cut out. The mermaid's goal—besides love—is to gain an immortal soul, which is only possible if the prince falls in love with her and marries her. After the prince marries someone else, however, the mermaid contemplates murdering him, but instead accepts her fate and throws herself into the sea, where she dissolves into sea foam. The mermaid is greeted by spiritual beings who say they'll help her get into heaven if she does good deeds for 300 years. So there’s that, at least.

3. Poor translations may have altered Andersen's image abroad.

According to UNESCO, Andersen is the eighth most-translated writer in the world, trailing right behind Vladimir Lenin. Though his works have been reproduced in more than 125 languages, not all of them have been faithful retellings. From the beginning, there have been many examples of “shoddy translations” that “obliterated” his original stories, according to the writers Diana Crone Frank and Jeffrey Frank in their modern translation of The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen. As a result, Andersen’s reputation beyond Scandinavia was “not as a literary genius but as a quaint 19th-century writer of charming children’s stories,” the pair write.

4. Andersen wore out his welcome while staying with Charles Dickens.

Andersen met his literary hero, Charles Dickens, at an aristocratic party in 1847. They kept in touch, and a decade later Andersen came to stay with Dickens at the British author's home in Kent, England. The visit was meant to last two weeks at most, but Andersen ended up staying five weeks, to the dismay of the Dickens family. On his first morning there, Andersen proclaimed that it was a Danish custom for one of the sons of the household to shave their male guest. Instead of complying, the family set him up with a local barber. Andersen was also prone to tantrums, at one point throwing himself face down on the lawn and sobbing after reading a particularly bad review of one of his books. Once Andersen finally left, Dickens wrote and displayed a note that read, “Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks—which seemed to the family AGES!” Dickens stopped responding to Andersen's letters, which effectively ended their friendship.

5. Andersen was terrified of being buried alive.

Andersen had a lot of phobias. He was afraid of dogs. He didn’t eat pork because he worried he would contract trichinae, a parasite that can be found in pigs. He kept a long rope in his luggage while traveling, in case he needed to escape a fire. He even feared he would accidentally be declared dead and buried alive, so before bed each night, he propped up a note that read, “I only appear to be dead.”

6. Andersen may have been celibate his whole life.

Although Andersen lived a long and full life, he struggled with personal relationships and never got his own fairy tale ending. At different points in his life, he fell for a number of women—and possibly a few men as well, according to some interpretations of the amorous letters he wrote to young men—but his feelings were unrequited each time. "I believe he never had a sexual relationship," biographer Bente Kjoel-bye told the Deseret News. Although Andersen is often regarded as a pure and chaste figure, he was no stranger to lustful thoughts. When he was 61 years old, he went to a brothel in Paris for the first time and paid a prostitute, but didn't do anything except watch her undress. After a second visit to a "shop which traded in human beings," he wrote in his diary, "I spoke with [a woman], paid 12 francs, and left without having sinned in action, but probably in thought."

7. Andersen is considered a “national treasure” in Denmark.

The Danish government declared Andersen a “national treasure” when he was in his late sixties, around the same time that he started showing symptoms of the liver cancer that would ultimately claim his life. The government subsequently paid him a stipend and started constructing a statue of the author in the King's Garden in Copenhagen to commemorate his 70th birthday. Andersen lived to see his birthday, but died four months later. Over a century later, you can still see tributes to the writer’s legacy in Copenhagen, including a second statue of Andersen along the street named after him (H.C. Andersens Boulevard) and a sculpture of the Little Mermaid at Langelinje Pier. Visitors are also welcome at his childhood home in Odense, Denmark, and at a museum dedicated to his work in the same city.

Keep Your Cat Busy With a Board Game That Doubles as a Scratch Pad

Cheerble
Cheerble

No matter how much you love playing with your cat, waving a feather toy in front of its face can get monotonous after a while (for the both of you). To shake up playtime, the Cheerble three-in-one board game looks to provide your feline housemate with hours of hands-free entertainment.

Cheerble's board game, which is currently raising money on Kickstarter, is designed to keep even the most restless cats stimulated. The first component of the game is the electronic Cheerble ball, which rolls on its own when your cat touches it with their paw or nose—no remote control required. And on days when your cat is especially energetic, you can adjust the ball's settings to roll and bounce in a way that matches their stamina.

Cheerable cat toy on Kickstarter.
Cheerble

The Cheerble balls are meant to pair with the Cheerble game board, which consists of a box that has plenty of room for balls to roll around. The board is also covered on one side with a platform that has holes big enough for your cat to fit their paws through, so they can hunt the balls like a game of Whack-a-Mole. And if your cat ever loses interest in chasing the ball, the board also includes a built-in scratch pad and fluffy wand toy to slap around. A simplified version of the board game includes the scratch pad without the wand or hole maze, so you can tailor your purchase for your cat's interests.

Cheerble cat board game.
Cheerble

Since launching its campaign on Kickstarter on April 23, Cheerble has raised over $128,000, already blowing past its initial goal of $6416. You can back the Kickstarter today to claim a Cheerble product, with $32 getting you a ball and $58 getting you the board game. You can make your pledge here, with shipping estimated for July 2020.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

9 Outdoor Accessories for the Perfect Backyard Party

Amazon/OtterBox
Amazon/OtterBox

Hosting the perfect party in the great outdoors doesn't have to involve you moving any further than your own backyard. Whether you’re looking for games to play with friends, chairs to keep you comfortable, or tents to turn your yard into your own personal campsite, check out some of these essential products that will transform your own patch of nature into a true outdoor oasis.

1. Wine Tumbler; $20

Tumblers from Otterbox
OtterBox

These wine tumblers from Otterbox will make your backyard the toast of the summer. Made from 100 percent stainless steel and lined with copper, these 10-ounce cups will keep your wine at the perfect temperature until the last s’more is eaten and the fire is put out. Each tumbler holds two standard wine pours and has a sweat-resistant design so you can leave your coasters inside. And each tumbler is fitted with a press-in lid, keeping your drink secure whether you’re taking a walk or playing a game with friends.

Buy it: Otterbox

2. Wood-Burning Fire Pit; $300

Wood-burning fire pit from Wayfair.
Martha Stewart/Wayfair

This steel wood-burning fire pit is exactly what you need to create a little ambiance once the moon is out and friends and family are ready to unwind with some roasted marshmallows. The pit itself is only a few feet across, so you'll be able to build a cozy fire for a handful of people, and the mesh screen that secures over it will keep the sparks away from you and your party. 

Buy it: Wayfair

3. Kabob Grilling Baskets; $17

Kebob grilling baskets on UncommonGoods.
UncommonGoods

No backyard adventure is complete without a tasty meal, and these kabob grilling baskets will help you spend less time on the grill and more time enjoying the beauty of nature. These baskets can be packed with all the ingredients you could ever want for kabobs, and without wooden skewers involved, you’ll avoid any unwanted splinters in your meal. With the ability to customize each basket, you’ll have the flexibility to create the perfect portable dinner for guests (or just for yourself).

Buy it: UncommonGoods

4. Beer Caddy; $25

A beer caddy on Amazon.
LEGACY/Amazon

Beer lovers won’t have to worry about foregoing a cold one while spending some time outside. This soft cotton canvas caddy can hold up to six bottles or cans, and it comes with a removable inner divider, so you have the flexibility of mixing and matching different-sized beverages. Its attached bottle opener—which is hooked to the caddy via a retractable cord— can be stowed in a side pocket for quick access, allowing you to open your drinks with ease.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Outdoor Jenga; $119

A large outdoor Jenga game
Jenga/Amazon

Mix up the usual ghost stories and campfire singalongs with this giant game of outdoor Jenga. Fifteen times larger than the size of a standard Jenga game, these extra-large Jenga blocks can stack up to over 5 feet high and are the perfect size for a deck or beach towel. This set comes with a portable bag for all the blocks so you can easily transport the game from one spot in the backyard to another.

Buy it: Amazon

6. and 7. Camping Chair; $30 and Loveseat Camping Chair; $73

A Colman outdoor chair on Amazon.
Coleman/Amazon

If you’re not a fan of sitting on wet grass or getting bugs on your clothes, this camping chair from Coleman will help you kick back in style. The chair has a cushioned seat and back for maximum outdoor comfort, and it also has a built-in four-can cooler pouch to keep cold beverages handy. It even comes with a nifty side pocket for books, magazines, and newspapers.

An outdoor loveseat that's available on Amazon.
Goplus/Amazon

For anyone who hates toting multiple chairs outside, check out this loveseat-style camping chair! Its ergonomic design seats two people with ease, and it’s supported by a rust-resistant steel frame and weather-resistant fabric for withstanding the elements (or just a shower from a nearby sprinkler). Even though it can hold up to 400 pounds of weight, the chair itself weighs only 11 pounds, making it an ideal choice for anyone who wants to avoid making extra trips to the garage for gear.

Buy itAmazon (camping chair); Amazon (loveseat)

8. Camping Hammock; $29-$40

A hammock that's available on Amazon.
Wise Owl Outfitters/Amazon

If you're one to go a bit horizontal toward the end of a party, take a look at this hammock from Wise Owl Outfitters. Made from heavy-duty parachute nylon, this hammock is incredibly durable and can be secured to trees with a simple set of straps. The hammock comes in two different sizes, a twin and a full, so you can choose the size that's right for you. And best of all? The largest one weighs only 26 ounces, making it easy to take comfort on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Magnetic Door House Tent; $172

A magnetic door house tent on Wayfair.
Wayfair

Mosquitos, flies, and other outdoor pests don’t stand a chance against this portable screened-in porch from Wayfair. This outdoor sanctuary is big enough to fit a picnic table (and all of your friends) inside, and it features two magnetic-close front and back doors. This tent even comes with a 10-year warranty, so you can rest easy knowing that it will provide you with backyard adventures—and zero bug bites—for years to come.

Buy it: Wayfair

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.