Updated: Mar 24
This is not the kind of blog where I am going to tell you, “Andersen was a genius and he had ADHD – you can all be tragic heroes.” There are enough clichés on this subject.
But what if I told you: Hans Christian Andersen, the original author of The Ugly Duckling, had moods just as big as yours…
I would like to show you that in whatever way you are experiencing your Neurodiversity — be that ADHD, ADD, ASD, Asperger’s or any other section of the spectrum — you are not alone, and you are not the first. We have been around for a long time.
I would like to be upfront with you. When I mention ADHD, ASD, ADD or Asperger’s in this blog post, it refers to all the conditions that, according to recent research, are best described on a spectrum. Sometimes with overlapping presentations, behaviours, and symptoms in people of all walks of life.
Hans Christian Andersen (1802-1875) lived in a time where conditions like ADHD, ADD, ASD and Asperger’s did not exist. I’ll be honest: they did exist, but they were not yet known or discovered.
Almost 200 years later, we can make some calculated guesses and deductions that Andersen may have been somewhere on the ASD spectrum, with some overlapping ADHD behaviours and symptoms.
Jackie Wullschläger notes the following observations in her book Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller (2010):
1https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6434933-the-ugly-duckling Repeating routines to cope with anxiety and trauma
Speech and language inconsistences and difficulties as well as non-verbal communication problems.
He was also dyslexic, which explains in retrospect why he struggled with Latin, Greek, Geometry, and grammar in general when he returned to school at 17.
He also had what is called Hyperlexia, which is where someone can read from a very young age (4-6 years) but they don’t understand what they have read. This, together with his eidetic memory, would explain why he did reasonably well in history and religious studies.
He was never interested in anything other than becoming a writer, writing poetry, novels, dramas, etc. Even though his mother enrolled him in many apprenticeships with various artisans, he usually ended up just leaving.
He never made friends, except for one close friend, Jonas Collin, who was his patron and benefactor in Copenhagen. Collin was his only friend until his death.
Who was Hans Christian Andersen?
Hans Christian Andersen was born in 1802 into a very poor family. His father was a cobbler who joined the army to fight in The Napoleonic Wars. He came back from the war without seeing a single battle and died a few years after returning. Hans was only 12 years old. Hans’ father was one of the most influential people in his life. He read him stories, told him fairy tales, and they took walks in the forests together. They also built cardboard theatres and Hans did little plays for the family.
His mother had a much older daughter from a previous marriage and worked as a washer woman. She also worked in the kitchens of the rich landowners and was, at times, a prostitute to put food on the table. She was also a heavy drinker. Hans did not attend school for very long in his village of Odese. At the young age of 14, Hans left his village to make a name for himself as a singer, actor, and writer in Copenhagen, much to the disdain of his mother, who thought his dreams and plans were farfetched.
Remember the surge of enthusiasm that comes with the novelty of a new project? Hans had the same optimistic view of his new life in Copenhagen. His experiences in Copenhagen had a great influence on his fairy tales, but more on that in the next blog post.
Have you wished something could be different about you or your life?
Well here is an idea for you – write an autobiography and make changes where you want! That is what Hans Christian Andersen did. As a matter of fact, he wrote a few. It looks like that worked out well for him. It would certainly get you published.
In 1832 he wrote H. C. Andersens Levnedsbog 1805-1831, which was not discovered until 1926. He then wrote a 2nd version titled Das Märchen meines Lebens ohne Dichtung in German, published in 1847. This version was then translated into English as The True Story of My Life. His 3rd and final version was titled Mit Livs Eventyr, published in 1855, which was translated into The Fairy Tale of My Life in 1868. In all three of these versions of his autobiography, he lied about many aspects of his life: how his mother supported his endeavours in Copenhagen, his success in various theatres, softening his own failures. He reconstructed his life by means of his autobiography, and who of us wouldn’t have done the same if we were in his shoes? Is this not just a very elaborate way of masking the symptoms and behaviours of a condition which he did not know he had? That nobody knew existed at the time?
You could also view this as a very extreme manifestation of wish fulfilment. Many Neurodiverse people can identify with trying to fit in, and how many of us just wish(ed) we could change parts of our behaviour and symptoms, just so we could be part of something?
Why is Hans Christian Andersen so famous anyway?
Maybe I am presumptuous, but you have probably heard his most famous fairy tales many times as a child. It is probably not the version he wrote nor his name on the book you read. The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina, The Snow Queen and The Emperor’s New Clothes are some of his most prominent fairy tales. And his fame lies in the fact that there are myriad commercial texts, films, books, and series that use his original work as an important intertext. To name a few: Frozen, Frozen 2, the Shrek movies, Once Upon a Time (the ABC-produced series), and even C.S. Lewis borrowed a little from The Snow Queen in his Narnia book series, which also have their own movies.
I will not bore you by discussing every fairy tale Andersen wrote, because there were many and not all of them were, or are, universally famous. However, if you found what you have read so far interesting, fascinating, or enticing, and want to know more about this famous, but still relatively unknown, author – join me in Part 2 where I will discuss a selection of Andersen’s fairy tales in more detail, and dig deeper into how we can potentially assume that he is part of our Neurodivergent ADHD community.
Links to free copy of H.C. Andersen’s Fairy Tales:
Bahr Bentley, S. 2014. “A Modern View of Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales”. Brigham Young University. Available online: http://humanities.byu.edu/a-modern-view-of-hans-christian-andersensfairy-tales/ [Downloaded on 28 April 2015]
Bom, A.K. & Aarenstrup, A. 2010. “A Short Chronology of HCA’s Life”. The Hans Christian Andersen Centre. Available online: http://www.adersen.sdu.dk/liv/chronoly/index_e.html [Downloaded on 27 April 2015]
Brown, J. 2010. Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary writing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Hans Christian Andersen’s Travel Album. Available online: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.uct.ac.za/stable/pdf/23508397.pdf [Downloaded on 4 May 2015]
Wullschläger, J. 2000. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller. England: Penguin Books.
Zipes, J. 2005. Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller. London: Routledge.
Zipes, J. 2006. “Critical Reflection about Hans Christian Andersen, the Failed Revolutionary”, In Marvels and Tales. Vol.20. bl. 224-237. Available online: http://muse.jhu.edu.ezproxy.uct.ac.za/journals/mat/summary/v020/20.2zipes.html [Downloaded on 28 April 2015].