COPENHAGEN -- In his native Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen is not just the author of beloved fairy tales like ''The Little Mermaid" and ''The Ugly Duckling," but is considered a world-class literary figure and a national icon.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of Andersen's birth and Denmark is going all out to celebrate the extraordinary life and work of its most famous son, a complex and multitalented man whom Danes believe is not fully appreciated by the rest of the world. Nearly $40 million will be spent on the nationwide celebration, officially called HCA2005, which will continue into December.
Events include special exhibitions, plays based on incidents in Andersen's life, fairy-tale-themed ballets, and an opera, ''The Secret Arias," about his unrequited love for singer Jenny Lind (''The Swedish Nightingale") composed by Elvis Costello, of all people. Also, a musical based on ''The Little Mermaid" will be presented on a floating stage in Copenhagen Harbor with a cast of more than 600 and Andersen's original sad but uplifting ending (she loses the handsome prince but gains a human soul), not the Disney cartoon's sappy happy one.
The Andersen year began April 2, his birthday, with a gala event in the city's National Stadium of Denmark. The Danish royal family was on hand along with a host of international celebrities -- among them singers Harry Belafonte and Suzanne Vega, actors Matt Dillon and Kenneth Branagh, and writer Isabel Allende -- who have been namedHans Christian Andersen ambassadors by the HCA2005 Foundation.
The ambassadors are influential people of all sorts who have agreed to work in their home countries this year to help promote literacy programs that use Anderson's fairy tales, which have been translated into more than 150 languages, as textbooks.
Andersen's life was as extraordinary and his personality as original as his writing. He was born into dire poverty in the town of Odense on the island of Funen, son of an illiterate and alcoholic washerwoman and an impoverished shoemaker. When he died in 1875, he was one the most famous men in Europe, an intimate of kings and friend of many notable writers and intellectuals. He was also a bundle of contradictions.
Awkward and self-conscious (he was tall with huge hands and feet), he compulsively sought the limelight. A hopeless romantic, he was attracted to both women and men but was a lifelong and reputedly celibate bachelor. A world traveler, he remained a Danish country boy at heart.
Andersen wrote novels, plays, travel books, and memoirs, most now largely forgotten outside Denmark. His enduring fame rests on the fact that he was the first writer to take the ancient form of the oral folk tale and transformed it into a wonderful new kind of fiction: the modern fairy tale.
Andersen titled his autobiography ''The Fairy Tale of My Life," and many of his tales are autobiographical. He saw himself as ''The Ugly Duckling" who turned into a beautiful swan, for instance, and ''The Steadfast Tin Soldier" who stayed faithful to his beloved even after she spurned him.
''The Greatest Fairy Tale" is the appropriate name of a big exhibition on Andersen's life and achievements created especially for HCA2005 in the gardens of Copenhagen's Rosenborg Castle.
The exhibition presents Andersen's life as a journey, with interactive stations at each stage and a narrator, speaking in Andersen's own words, providing the link between them. Visitors follow Andersen from his grim childhood through his courageous decision at the age of 14 to leave home and seek his fortune in Copenhagen (impressed by the eccentric, but clearly gifted youth, a wealthy man financed his education), and finally to great fame.
After December, the exhibition goes on an international tour that the HCA2005 Foundation hopes will create new interest in Andersen.
Andersen became a wealthy man but was afraid of being tied down by property -- one of his many neuroses -- and never owned a house or apartment. He lived in rented rooms or flats around the city center, most still standing and marked by a plaque.
Copenhagen was not bombed during World War II and the heart of the city looks much as it did in Andersen's day. Many landmarks, such as the City Hall building on the main square and the famous Tivoli Gardens amusement park are essentially unchanged. Tivoli will celebrate HCA2005 with ''A Tivoli Fairy Tale," a show of music, fireworks, light effects, and giant puppets. It will be on view every evening, except Fridays, mid-May through September.
A good way to get a feeling for 19th-century Copenhagen and the role Andersen played in it is to take a walking tour with the best possible guide -- the man himself.
Richard Karpen is an American who was born in the Bronx but has lived in Denmark for more than 20 years. He operates Copenhagen Walks, an English-language guide service, and offers what he calls ''Private Tours with Hans Christian Andersen." Dressed in Andersen's trademark long, black overcoat and silk top hat, Karpen takes visitors on a walk through the author's haunts, which include many of the main sites of the city, all the while telling Andersen anecdotes and quoting from his stories, letters, and diaries.
''He wasn't childlike, but he certainly understood children," Karpen says, ''and he was the first writer to give children their own voice."
The official closing event of HCA2005 will be a Dec. 6 ceremony in Odense. The museum attached to Anderson's birthplace has the world's largest collection of his artifacts, manuscripts, books, letters, diaries, and memorabilia. It also has an outdoor theater where a troupe of actors, most of them children, present versions of the fairy tales several times a day.
While preparing an exhibition for HCA2005, the museum staff discovered Andersen's change purse, which had been in the collection for 50 years but never opened.
''When we opened it, we found inside a beautiful paper cutout of a swan," says Ejnar Asgaard, museum curator. ''So, he's still revealing his secrets to us."
William Davis is a freelance writer in Cambridge.