One of Copenhagen’s best known landmarks is the Little Mermaid. Paying homage to Hans Christian Andersen’s character the bronze statue was made by Edvard Eriksen in 1913, and was paid for by the Carlsberg Brewery.
Unfortunately it’s not so well loved as known. There have been various successful missions to chop off the mermaid’s arms and head, the last in 1998. The Danish Government responded by filling the statue with concrete to dull any future attempts. It seems to have done the trick.
But why? In Denmark, Hans Christian Andersen is Shakespeare, Dickens and Wordsworth all rolled into one. Born in Odense, in 1805 the writer is perhaps best known for writing fairy tales – or eventyr – but was also a prolific writer of plays, travelogues, novels and poems.
To list some of Andersen’s tales goes to demonstrate their familiarity: The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, Thumbelina, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
The fairy stories transcend western culture and have achieved almost mythical status. Made into pantomimes, ballets and animated films they are easily accessible for children; perhaps a hint towards the motives behind the vandalism.
At the end of November, I spent a long weekend in Copenhagen and of course went to see the Little Mermaid. Andersen’s story was originally published in 1837 and my guide told me there was a lack of truth behind Eriksen’s later representation that some Danes objected to.
The sculptor’s muse was his wife, a ballerina. It is beautiful and poised and maybe a little sad but indicates nothing of the torment Andersen’s Little Mermaid faced. The character is a very far cry from Disney’s aquatic beauty.
In the eventy the Little Mermaid visits a sea witch for a potion to transform her being. Drinking the potion means she will lose her tongue, and so her exquisite voice, but will be able to walk with humans. She longs for the handsome prince she saved in a storm to love her. If he accepts her, she will be blessed with eternal life.
“… your tail will divide and shrink until it becomes what the people on earth call a pair of shapely legs. But it will hurt; it will feel as if a sharp sword slashed through you. Everyone who sees you will say that you are the most graceful human being they have ever laid eyes on, for you will keep your gliding movement and no dancer will be able to tread as lightly as you. But every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow. I am willing to help you, but are you willing to suffer all this?”
“Yes,” the little mermaid said in a trembling voice, as she thought of the Prince and of gaining a human soul.
Den lille Havfrue, Hans Christian Anderson
In 2006 Danish artist Bjorn Norgaard was commissioned again by Carlsberg (among others) to create a new Little Mermaid. His vision is broken and defeated; there is a fragility in the creature, despite not being a readily recognisable form. It may be closer to the original bleak and twisted tale.
A short distance, across water, is the restaurant Noma – in its original tongue the name is an abbreviation of Nordic Food. It has two Michelin stars and, in the years immediately before 2013, was three times winner of the best restaurant in the world. (I would love to have gone but unfortunately with a week’s notice no table for me!)
Chef René Redzepi’s menu is traditional nordic food, reinvented. It celebrates local and seasonal produce, taking advantage of climate and landscape. Redzepi and co-owner Claus Meyer pioneered New Nordic Cuisine and a programme across Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and dependent territories. There is a fierce pride in national identity and authenticity.
Throughout the city the old and the new compliment each other. The nouveau Noma is in an old warehouse where dry fish, salted herring, whale oil and skins were stored before being sold off in the adjacent Greenlandic Trading Square, the old centre of overseas trade for 200 years.
Royal residence, Amalienborg Palace is a stones throw from the ultra modern Royal Theatre (which opened with Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark in 2008); the seventeenth century old stock exchange’s spire made up of four entwined dragons’ tails shares the skyline with the glistening Black Diamond – the new extension of the Royal Library.
Perhaps the balance can continue and there is now a place for both Eriksen’s traditional statue and Norgaard’s modern mermaid interpretation in today’s Copenhagen.
Hans Christian Andersen’s personal fairy tale began when, at 14, he left an impoverished upbringing in Odense to make his fortune in the city. He lived in a number of locations around Copenhagen including Hotel d’Angleterre and the attic of what is now Magasin du Nord – the oldest department store in Scandinavia. You can visit the rooms, preserved in the writer’s memory.
When choosing where to go don’t be fooled by the name Nyhavn, translated as new harbour. It is in fact one of the oldest areas of Copenhagen and Andersen lived for many years in various apartments along the beautiful, brightly coloured street.
The author was a keen traveller, journeying as far as North Africa and Istanbul, writing his experiences in A Poet’s Bazaar. Wooden boats are still moored in Nyhavn and it’s easy to imagine why the hustle and bustle of a busy port was such a draw for him with his wanderlust.
When I visited Christmas Markets lined the harbour. Nissen, the goblins Andersen described in his tales, were popular decorations for sale. I would have liked to have traded my gluhwein for jam, to see if I could coax a Nisse home with me.
One for lone travellers
I’m happy to travel to most places on my own but did enjoy the welcome in Copenhagen; people are particularly friendly and open. Danish culture includes something called hygge, often translated as “cosy” or “cosiness” it means so much more in terms of companionship, warmth and friendship.
Often best enjoyed with good food and something to drink, Copenhagen’s cafes and bars do their utmost to create a hyggelige atmosphere. And happily, for the lone traveller, a group may only just have met – wherever there is an open fire and conversation you can find hygge.
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