To celebrate LGBT History Month, 2013, Polari is publishing a daily series of LGBT Heroes, selected by the magazine’s team of writers and special contributors.
Hans Christian Andersen – Writer
by Bryon Fear
Fairytales are important. These fantastic stories of giants and witches set in landscapes hewn out of ice or citadels sunk beneath tempestuous seas tap into the kindred and rich imaginations we all possess as children. It’s somewhat ironic, that in our early development, it is through tales of fantasy that we come to understand the very real world around us. The stories, and the relationships played out in them, are for many of us our first introduction to the notions of character and narrative and therefore our first introduction to the great infinite world of literature.
Before Hans Christian Andersen, fairytales existed in the archetype, passed on through oral traditions. The tales had no ‘authors’ and the characters were reductive: princesses, hunters and woodsmen. Andersen made fairytales personal. He didn’t merely adapt stories that existed in the oral traditions but wrote new tales with startlingly original characters that were so full of the aches and joys of humanity that they buried themselves into the psyches of those that read about them. I remember as a boy reading (or being read) The Ugly Duckling, and I still carry to this day the resonance I felt at that time. Andersen’s stories often scratch away beneath the surface and reveal our insecurities. The story wasn’t for me (and still isn’t) about beauty, but about being an outsider, about being the person who doesn’t fit in, something Andersen knew all too well in his lifetime.
Growing up in the slums of Odense, Denmark, he was the only child of a shoemaker and illiterate washerwoman. His grandmother claimed she was from a much higher social class than Andersen found himself as a child and there were rumours (that persist to this day) that he was the illegitimate son of King Christian VII, a rumour later fuelled when King Frederick VI funded (in part) Andersen’s education. Only child. Illegitimate. These are things that define us when we are young and when you add fluid sexuality into the mix, a queer identity is perhaps only a matter of time. Throughout his life Andersen fell in love numerous times with both men and women, and declared his love on those occasions only to find that each time it was unrequited. He remained an outsider to real love and affection. Even when his art brought him great fame and fortune, he was still unable to find his place. He was socially awkward and was famously asked to leave Charles Dickens’ home after a weekend visit had become a five week residency. He had clearly outstayed his welcome yet was left genuinely confused when Dickens ceased communication after the disastrous visit.
Hans Christian Andersen’s legacy is very much defined by his life as an ‘other’. He took the tradition of folk tales and elevated them into literature that has inspired a wealth of art, theatre, ballet and many many films, one of which saved the Disney empire from bankruptcy. The Ugly Duckling was a sign post that pointed me towards a path of understanding my own queer identity. I think Andersen’s life was often filled with great sadness, but I can reconcile his loveless and awkward existence with the knowledge that his stories have become a intrinsic part of Western consciousness. The stories, which are as numerous as they are famous, are steeped in and informed by the sensibility of a queer outsider.