Can we really, confidently, claim that the man behind The Ugly Duckling was neurodivergent, that he had ADHD/ADD or ASD? To answer this question, I am going to take you on a tour of Hans Christian Andersen’s work, and intermittently share some remarks, observations and facts about his life.
If you would like to read about Andersen and his life in more detail, I can recommend the following two books:
1. Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller by Jackie Wullschläger (2000).
2. Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller by Jack Zipes (2005).
How do we know he is one of us?
Let us start by looking at what is claimed to be his very first fairy tale, which was only uncovered in 2012: The Tallow Candle. This 700-word short story has been under scrutiny since it was discovered in the archive of Funen, the island on which Andersen’s childhood town of Odense is situated. It tells the story of a candle, of how it came into being and how it got very dirty. Until a tinderbox decided to light it, who saw the good in the little candle. It is suspected that this short story was written during Andersen’s school years, as experts claim that it is not written in the same style as his mature works. It is also a probable copy and the original manuscript lost to time.
It is not very long, but a very powerful story. Note the similarity of The Tallow Candle to the storyline of The Ugly Duckling. The theme of otherness, not belonging, not feeling appreciated or loved, is a strong thread that weaves its way through Andersen’s works.
We know from the two biographies I have mentioned that Andersen had a very difficult childhood. He did not play with other children of his age; he was a sensitive child and was upset easily. He struggled with basic tasks and instructions and was considered dreamy and a distracted child. Does this maybe sound familiar? Perhaps too familiar – Andersen probably felt the same way.
Therefore, forgive me if I don’t use Andersen’s autobiographies as reference points, but his words are fairy tales against himself. By saying this, I do not claim these autobiographies are not worthwhile reading. They are in their essence all works of fiction but obscure the boundary between fairy tale and historical fact. His true self can and should be found as reflected in his fairy tales.
Andersen within his fairy tales
It is important to note that Andersen did not intentionally write for children. Even though in modern day literature we consider fairy tales belonging to the genres for children. Andersen explicitly titled his tales as "told for children". Which means that he wrote for an adult audience, who he hoped would tell these stories to children. He hoped that there would be someone that would use his stories in the same way that his father, the cobbler, told him fairy tales and stories from the Arabian Nights.
Hans Christian Andersen’s thoughts about his fairy tales are revealed in a letter to the writer B. S. Ingemann, in February of 1835. He (Andersen) states: “Next, I’ve started on several ‘fairy tales told for children,’ and I think I’ve made them a success. I’ve presented a couple of the tales that I myself liked as a child, but which I don’t think are known. I’ve written them exactly as I would tell them to a child” (Zipes, 2005: 226).
The mention of his intention to write as if speaking to a child, but claiming that his stories were not written for children, leads to an interesting remark made by the 20-year-old Andersen in a letter to his patron Jonas Collin, in 1825: “I certainly feel that I am childlike... for just a smile or sympathetic word makes me overjoyed instantly, while a cold face can cause profound unhappiness in my soul” (Wullschläger, 2000: 66).
Does this description of Andersen’s emotions not describe what the DREAD pirates stand for? Difficulty Regulating Emotion and Attention Divergence. A good place to learn more about this description and experience can be found here.
Andersen’s feelings of being “childlike” resonate strongly with the experiences of us ADHD/ASD individuals who are told we are “being immature”. Personally, I have been told multiple times to “stop being such a child” or to “grow up”. Never mind that I still prefer to read children’s literature.
The Duckling and the Emperor
A key feature in his fairy tales is the style of narration. His narration was one of the first texts to include sounds and noises while still using the traditional third person narration. For example: “…and from each egg came a living creature that lifted its head and cried, ‘Peep, peep,’ ‘Quack, quack,’ said the mother, and then they all quacked as well as they could…”(Andersen, 1993: 386). This may have also been a way for Andersen’s personal narrative – the way he tells stories and uses language – to have infiltrated his writing style.
It is a very noticeable characteristic of ADHD folk that we tend to add sound effects to our everyday activities, stories and narratives.
The Ugly Duckling
As famous as The Ugly Duckling is, it is very likely that Andersen projected his childhood experiences of being “othered” in his home village onto the little duckling, whom we know is really a swan. Hans Christian Andersen was seen as useless and a burden at home, his dreams seen as unfit for a cobbler’s son. Interestingly, he became the metaphorical swan, after a fair amount of failure as a writer.
After Andersen left for Copenhagen, he was bold in his search for acclaim as an actor, dancer, singer and writer, despite lacking talent in most of the authorities on the matter’s eyes. The wealthy citizens enjoyed his random citations of entire Shakespeare plays and lectures on odd topics, about which he read in books. He was quite a clumsy child and had very limited social skills.
For some time, he managed to get a foot in the door at the Royal Theatre and choir due to his beautiful singing voice. He also posed for some artist friends of his singing instructor.
At the age of 17, he got a break by means of his patron Jonas Collin, who pleaded with prominent figures at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. Upon consulting with the figures – acting gate keepers more likely – it was agreed that on the condition that he complete school first, he may be accepted into university for further study in the arts. This was the prescribed path for the profession he wanted to follow – writer and creative professional. The years he spent at the grammar school in Slagelse, Zeeland, were under the supervision of Simon Meisling, a very strict and sometimes cruel principal. This was the most difficult time of Andersen’s adolescent life. He was taunted, made fun of, and brutally embarrassed by teachers. Ironically, he never finished the university degree he needed, for which he was required to go back to grammar school.
He had multiple failed attempts to publish poems and short stories while at school, and was told at one point that his work would only be good to wrap fish at the market. However, in 1834 his luck turned when he started to publish the first of his fairy tales.
The Emperor’s New Clothes
When looking at what The Emperor’s New Clothes presents, it is possible that in a very metaphorical way Andersen explains RSD (Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria). Many of the characters ask themselves “Could I possibly be stupid? I never thought so. No one must know. Am I incompetent?” (Brown, 2010 :44). As the reader of this short tale, you know that the tailors are swindlers, but as every character is asked about the fabric and clothes, when they can’t see it, they immediately doubt themselves. Sound familiar? Imposter syndrome at its best, no doubt… all pun intended here. Brown also notes that the build up of the story reflects the repetition of these thoughts as they would in a person with ASD or Aspergers.
For the neurotypical, this fairy tale might signify not to trust strangers and to be suspicious of things you can’t see. For us neurodivergent folk, this should perhaps signify that RSD is real and that we should be wary of it and seek help, even if it comes from an unlikely source. As it was possibly an ADHD boy who cried out that the Emperor was naked – we tend not to filter our thoughts.
Some of Andersen’s unique characteristics in his fairy tales are that the proverbial happy ending is either different, sad, or absent altogether. He tends to kill off characters at the end, by having them going to heaven – as in The Red Shoes tale. He does lean towards a fairy tale that uses elements of the classical tragedy together with the magical and structural elements of the traditional fairy tale.
In an eggshell…
A case can be made that some of Hans Christian Andersen’s character traits may have been part of ADHD/ASD symptoms and behaviours. He channelled then through the stories and used them in the creation of the characters and plots of his fairy tales, most of which are universally famous. These seeds I have discussed in his fairy tales can be read to indicate he is one of us. Especially when biographical facts are taken into consideration.
In the next part of this series, I will pay special attention to one of Andersen’s most well-known fairy tales – The Snow Queen.
Brown, J. 2010. Writers on the Spectrum: How Autism and Asperger Syndrome Have Influenced Literary writing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Andersen, H.C. 1993. Andersen’s Fairy Tales: complete and unabridged. Wordsworth Editions: Great Britain
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.