Hans Christian Andersen's Trips to the Orient

"Treasures That Would Grace Any Hothouse in Europe"

The Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, whose 200th birthday is currently being celebrated around the world, was known for his extensive traveling. His lust for adventure led him as far away as Morocco. Christian Hauck recounts the author's impressions

Andersen's little mermaid in Copenhagen harbour (photo: dpa)
Andersen's fame throughout the world may in part be due to his numerous travels

​​Travel provided Andersen (1805-1875) with a means to escape from loneliness. He undertook long trips to various European countries and his travel logs detail impressions collected over the course of his many journeys. In contrast, these observations are rarely reflected in his fairy tales. Only occasionally did Andersen set his tales in locations that he himself had visited, such as Germany, Spain, and Switzerland.

Enticed by a "Thousand and One Nights"

Andersen did not undertake his journey to Constantinople in 1840/41 with the aim of discovering new sources of inspiration for his tales. Instead, the trip could be characterized as a return voyage to his childhood. His father had read him the Thousand and One Nights as a child, and Andersen always regarded Constantinople as "the city of tales."

Immediately after his return, he wrote "The Ugly Duckling," "The Snow Queen," and "The Swineherd." This last work featured a traditional fairy tale motif, and was composed according to Andersen's frequently used method of adopting themes from old folk tales, whereas the other two were new, original fairy tales. To what extent they were influenced by his trip to the orient remains unclear.

From Spain to Morocco

Some twenty years later, Andersen set out for another corner of the Islamic world. On November 2, 1862 at the end of an extended trip to Spain, he boarded a steam ship from Gibraltar to North Africa. He stayed in the Moroccan port city of Tangier for an entire week.

photo: dpa
Andersen's travels were motivated by a yearning for an earthly paradise

​​Full of curiosity, he spent his days observing camel caravans, orange gardens, and porcupines ("upon my return, I found one of its large quills, which now serves me as a fountain pen"), and resided with the Danish Consul, Drummond Hay. He even paid a visit to the Pasha of Tangier at the Kasbah.

The man who had become famous the world over on account of his tales observed "… a crowd of Moors that sat listening in a circle around a storyteller, who, as he told his tale, continually hit his tambourine …"

A proud Jewish father

In addition to its Muslim population, the city was home to a significant number of Jewish businessmen. One Friday, when all Muslims were at prayer and the city gates were closed, even the Medina of Tangier seemed empty. Andersen was approached by a Jew who asked to follow him down an alleyway. There was a moment of hesitation. The man led Anderson up a dead-end street and wanted to show him his house.

"I considered whether I should trust the man, as I was also carrying with me a not inconsiderable sum of gold. Yet, in his poverty, he appeared trustworthy and honest, and the whole situation bode of adventure." It eventually turned out that the man was a proud father wanting to introduce Andersen to his child. "I then had to give the child a present," said the author.

Andersen and the consul celebrated religious services among a small group of people. "It was Sunday. The population of Tangier consisted of Moors and Jews. The scattered Catholics and Protestants here, of course, have neither church nor chapel. The Sunday service has to be celebrated in the family parlor and in heart of each and every one present.

Downstairs, in a room opening onto the garden, a rug was spread out over the table and a bible and songbook were place on it. Drummond Hay read some psalms out loud, followed by the gospel passage of the day. A perfect feeling of devotion prevailed throughout this quiet, unostentatious church service."

Departure from Morocco

Deeply impressed and full of melancholy, Andersen awaited his departure back to Spain aboard a French warship. "In only a few hours, I must leave this home, which I, a stranger from another part of the world, have found here. I will have to bid farewell to people, who during our brief time together have done their utmost to ensure my pleasure. It is uncertain whether we will ever meet again in this world, as it is highly unlikely that I will once more return to the coast of Africa. (…) My stay on the Moroccan coast was the most interesting time of the whole voyage."

Quotations from "Hans Christian Andersen: In Spanien. Hamburg: Rotbuch Verlag 1998" (according to the 1863 edition, revised and abridged by Aenne Glienke)

Christian Hauck

© Qantara.de 2005

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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