Criticism of Hans Christian Andersen
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Criticism of Hans Christian Andersen

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The reception of Hans Christian Andersen is a vast and fascinating subject, which deserves a much fuller treatment than it has been given here. In the following, I shall examine briefly some of the most interesting examples of criticism which cannot be classified under the concept of reviews, but which nonetheless constitute exciting and important parts of the history of the reception of Hans Christian Andersen's works by the Danish public: These examples are Henrik Hertz's and later Johan Ludvig Heiberg's satire in their own literary works, and, subsequently, superordinate conceptions of Hans Christian Andersen's writing in treatises by Søren Kierkegaard, Carsten Hauch and Georg Brandes.


The relationship between Hans Christian Andersen and his critics was fraught with tension. He was very sensitive to criticism, both negative and positive. Reviews and other forms of criticism, such as literary satire and the comments of friends, meant (too) much to him.

Hans Christian Andersen felt misunderstood in Denmark, where he was labelled a naive writer from the beginning, particularly after the publication of the early collections of tales: these were influenced to a great extent by the folktale and were supposed to be 'told to the children'. Andersen's route to these tales, however, progressed via witty, ironic and in part sombre works, like the Journey on Foot (1829) and Skyggebilleder (Rambles in the Romantic Regions of the Hartz Mountains ... ,1831, English ed. 1848), but the predicate of 'naive' was attached to him, perhaps in order to 'explain' by means of this label his unique understanding of (children's) language and thought processes, and his colourful and effervescent imagination.

To Andersen, the criticism sometimes seemed heartless and unsympathetic. He retaliated in various texts, (for instance in "A Good Humour', 'The Fir Tree', 'Something', 'Soup on a Sausage Peg', 'The Nightingale', "Ole the Tower Keeper"). Andersen approached his subject with unique humour, but also with seriousness and feeling. Think, for instance, of the story about 'The Fir Tree', which pours out the most beautiful and enchanting memories of its life one Christmas night to the mice (the public) and the rats (the critics) in the loft. As the tree's story includes neither roast pork nor candles, it holds no interest for the rats. These critics close their hearts and minds to a story which does not correspond to their expectations.

Hans Christian Andersen's caricatures of the reviewers are legion. Georg Brandes even wrote to Andersen that: 'he was of all writers [the one] who had wronged criticism most and supported all vulgar forms of prejudice against it, brought it into disrespect and disrepute'. (Letter dated 10 July 1869, the day before the first instalment of Brandes' three part article on Andersen's tales appeared in Illustreret Tidende. Quoted from Elias Bredsdorff: H. C. Andersen og Georg Brandes, Aschehoug, Copenhagen 1994, p. 24).

Hertz and Heiberg

Henrik Hertz's Gjengangerbreve (Letters from a Ghost), which, among other things, ridiculed Andersen, appeared (anonymously) in December 1830. The book pleased Johan Ludvig Heiberg and thus the literary élite of the time, and, to the annoyance of Andersen, the satire was a success. This anonymous satirical attack was the first indication of the antagonism developing between Andersen on the one hand and the ideals of the Heibergs and the Copenhagen literary parnassus on the other regarding a kind of writing that was polished and intellectual. Andersen's somewhat immature literary debut, The "Journey on Foot", published in 1829, had corresponded to this taste and had been well reviewed by Heiberg, thus helping to secure its success. Nevertheless, in the travel book Rambles in the Romantic Regions of the Hartz Mountains ... (1831) Andersen chose a freer language of the heart in preference to the irony and sophistication of the narrow Heiberg circle in Copenhagen.

Hans Christian Andersen and Hertz were reconciled during their visit to Rome in November 1833, while Andersen was making a grand tour of Italy. The relationship with Heiberg and his circle, however, developed into one of opposition. Heiberg teased Andersen in Nye Digte (New Poems, 1841, issued December 1840) by describing Andersen's plays Mulatten (The Mulatto) and Maurerpigen (The Moorish Girl) as works to be viewed in Hell. (Johan Ludvig Heiberg: Poetiske Skrifter, ed. by Carl S. Petersen, Copenhagen 1932, pp. 63f, can be seen (in Danish) at and

Søren Kierkegaard: From the Papers of a Person Still Alive

A particularly sensational, indeed almost grotesque example of the unsympathetic attitude to Andersen and his works sometimes shown in his own day is Søren Kierkegaard's first appearance in print in 1838 with Af en Endnu Levendes Papirer (From the Papers of a Person Still Alive). This work is an extended review of Andersen's novel Only a Fiddler, published in 1837. Kierkegaard's book appeared on 7 September 1838. Andersen received a copy the day before.

In his review Kierkegaard claims that Andersen's work is haphazard and devoid of original ideas, and that he fails to distinguish between himself and the protagonists of his novels. According to Kierkegaard, the fiddler's hopeless struggle is a reflection of Hans Christian Andersen's own grudge against the world: 'Andersen's fundamental idea [is] dissatisfaction with the world' (p. 45):

(...) displeased and dissatisfied as he is with the real world, he tries to gain vicarious satisfaction in his own timid poetic creations. Like Lafontaine, therefore, he sits and cries over his unhappy heroes, who are doomed to perish, and why? because Andersen is the man he is. The same joyless fight that Andersen himself has fought in life is now repeated in his poetry.

(Niels Jørgen Cappelørn et. al. (eds.): Søren Kierkegaards Skrifter (The Writings of Søren Kierkegaard), Vol. 1, Søren Kierkegaard Forskningscenteret and G.E.C. Gad, Copenhagen 1997, pp. 30f).

Kierkegaard believes that Andersen simply does not love the world. He sees this attitude as invalid and reprehensible; it is essential to grapple with the world and either come to terms with it or combat it. Andersen (and the hero of his novel) are not such rulers of the world. This is the theme Kierkegaard constantly reiterates in his discussion of Andersen as a person and a poet, and in his treatment of the heroes of his novels: Andersen is not an untrammelled and furious genius fighting his way against all odds, but allows himself to be tamed by the vicissitudes of life. Real genius, in Kierkegaard's eyes, is not 'a tiny candle extinguished by any wind, but a fire which the wind merely challenges.' (ibid. p. 43).

In Andersen's novel Only a Fiddler, Kierkegaard misses a "philosophy of life", a superordinate idea which organizes the work and the hero's life into a meaningful whole. The "philosophy of life" in a novel will often reveal itself by means of an omniscient and manipulative narrator, who tells an elevating and coherent story. The edification need not necessarily be religious in nature, but it must at least represent a belief in a coherence, in life that can be understood and described meaningfully and coherently because it is meaningful, and the world is a well-ordered place. In this world picture the individual has a place in the world which need 'only' be found. The classic Bildungsroman, following the tradition set by Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister (1796), describes this quest and its fulfilment. Such a novel has a "philosophy of life". Kierkegaard's position, and the basis for his criticism of Andersen, is the humanist tradition influenced by Goethe, a tradition which underpinned the ideology of the Danish Golden Age. What is uncongenial to Kierkegaard about Andersen's novels is their threat to the harmony and optimistic world view associated with the Golden Age. The protagonist of Only a Fiddler has not been given a place in the world. The environment in which the fiddler finds himself combines with mere chance to play a role in his life, the scope of which was incompatible with contemporary Danish Golden Age ideology, but was in harmony with a burgeoning European modernism. Andersen was a modernist and thus Kierkegaard opposed him, at least for the moment.

Kierkegaard's first published work is not impressive, its criticism not particularly distinguished as it lacks an understanding of Andersen's work. The awe with which the philosopher of later times is regarded, and a general tendency to simplify matters, however, has led to a tradition which juxtaposes the giant figures of Kierkegaard and Andersen as the profound (and angry) poet opposed to the superficial (and happy and naive) storyteller. This limited viewpoint does a disservice to both men.

Af en Endnu Levendes Papirercan be found online (in Danish) at

Carsten Hauch: "Some Remarks on the Poetry of Hans Christian Andersen"

Carsten Hauch's criticism in his treatise Nogle Bemærkninger med Hensyn til Digteren H. C. Andersens Poesie (Some Remarks on the Poetry of Hans Christian Andersen) (Dansk Ugeskrift nr. 197, 2nd series, 30.1.1846) concerns the whole of Andersen's literary career prior to 1846.

The Story behind the Treatise

Hauch wrote this treatise as balm for a wound he had given Andersen in his novel Slottet ved Rhinen (The Castle on the Rhine, 1845), in which he had presented a caricature of Hans Christian Andersen in the person of a vain poet by the name of Eginhard, who dies a lunatic. The similarity of this portrait to Andersen was striking, sufficient at least to constitute a scandal. Andersen was cut to the quick and complained to B.S. Ingemann in a letter dated 16 September 1845:

indeed they have the right to say, "This is Andersen!" Here are all my weaknesses gathered together! I hope and trust that I have overcome this period; but all that this poet says and does I might have said and done, I felt horrorstruck at this crude picture, which showed me in all my misery.

(C. Bille and Nikolaj Bøgh: Breve fra H. C. Andersen (Letters From Hans Christian Andersen), vol. 2, Copenhagen 1878, pp. 121ff)

Ingemann spoke to Hauch and persuaded him to write a treatise about Andersen the poet. Andersen received this work on his arrival in Vienna on 6 March 1846:

Read Hauch's remarks about me as a poet; one-sided and not well done; seen me as they see me at home, he has taken pains to manipulate me in such a way that I fit the hero of his novel without really resembling him.

(H.C. Andersens Dagbøger (Hans Christian Andersen’s Diaries), vol. III, pp. 71f. DSL/Gad, Copenhagen 1974).

Andersen rejects the idea that this affair constituted a feud in Mit Livs Eventyr (Mit Livs Eventyr I-II, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1951, vol. I, chap. 7, pp. 195f), in which he refers to the affair as a misunderstanding of Hauch's novel and of the figure Eginhard.


All in all, Hauch's criticism is positive, but his vehement attack on subjectivity as a poetic method early in the text suggests the opposite. The introduction to the treatise is of a general nature, and is meant to show Hauch's theory and method: it concerns realism as opposed to subjectivism. Hauch builds his criticism on a simple, but problematical, concept of realism which places the poet with his pen on one side and the surrounding world, distinct from the poet, on the other. According to this model it is possible for a poet to view reality and describe it objectively. But, of course, not possible for any poet, and certainly not for the one who lacks the objective and firm (masculine) grasp of his subject. This concept resembles that put forward by Kierkegaard in Af en endnu Levendes Papirer (From the papers of a person still alive) in its demand for objectivity and its linking, metaphorically but emphatically, objectivity with manliness and courage.

"Nogle Bemærkninger med Hensyn til Digteren H. C. Andersens Poesie" can be found online at

Georg Brandes: "Hans Christian Andersen As an Author of Tales"

On 11 July 1869, the first part of Georg Brandes' tripartite treatise on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, "H. C. Andersen som Æventyrdigter" (Hans Christian Andersen As an Author of Tales), appeared in Illustreret Tidende. The second part appeared on 18 July 1869, the third on 25 July.

Brandes' conception of Andersen has influenced later generations, for whom cultural radicalism, with Brandes himself as the chief exponent, has been influential, at least in Denmark. Villy Sørensen's neoclassical reading of Andersen (and Kierkegaard) in Digtere og dæmoner (Poets and Demons, 1959) can clearly be seen as an element in the tradition Brandes created with his writings about Andersen. Characteristic of both is the modernist and cultural radical view that true art brings truth (about life, man, society) and that this truth is ugly. Brandes considers "The Ugly Duckling" sentimental and inconsistent; the conclusion, where the bird is transformed into a swan, offends his taste, because the swan ends as a domestic animal among people, not as a wild bird in the open country (see Elias Bredsdorff: H. C. Andersen og Georg Brandes, Aschehoug, Copenhagen 1994, pp. 40f). The demonic tale "The Shadow", however, is perceived by Brandes (and later by Villy Sørensen) as an exemplary tale:

This tale about the shadow is a little world of its own. I do not hesitate to call it one of the greatest masterpieces in the whole of our literature (...) It is also one of the few works in which the poet, despite his soft optimism, has dared to let the ugly truth appear in all its nakedness.

(ibid. p. 65).

"H. C. Andersen som Æventyrdigter" (facsimile of Georg Brandes: Samlede Skriftervol. 2, Gyldendal, Copenhagen 1899, pp. 91-132) can be read (and still deserves to be read) (in Danish) at

Summary and Conclusion

Hans Christian Andersen's work and personality have traditionally been seen as natural, childlike, and sensitive. Many people, especially those associated with the élite, fellow writers and literati, have seen him as a kind of natural genius with the gift of sensitivity, but, on the other hand, lacking the broader and more general perspective required by those grander epic genres, the novel and the drama.

Hans Christian Andersen's greatest masterpieces are the fairytales, but this should not cause readers to overlook his work in other genres, in which he was also, and remains, an unusual and remarkable poet. The poems and travelogues, in particular, contain the same original and surprisingly modern language and thought that the world knows from Andersen's tales.

Parallel with the view of Andersen as a naive writer has been the criticism that he used, to a considerable extent, his own life as material for his art, thus producing literature which is subjective and private rather than objectivising the personal into something universal. As a consequence of this view an all but ineradicable tradition has evolved of reading Andersen's works biographically, i.e. seeing his texts in the light of his own life.

Nevertheless, to judge Andersen from a biographical point of view only is to reduce great and challenging literature to casebook notes. Thus it is a pity to regard 'The Nightingale' as simply the story of Andersen's passion for the singer Jenny Lind, when it is equally important to focus on what the tale says about art, love, nature, being, life, and death, or on the uniquely beautiful and highly original way in which these issues are treated. Andersen's works are great, but it has become customary to make them seem small.

It has been and still is the task of interpreters of Hans Christian Andersen's life and work to adjust this picture and to try to show him as a thinking poet.

Lars Bo Jensen 2003