Monday, December 14, 2015

The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Andersen

Cover image © Penguin.
Last year in Copenhagen, sat outside a restaurant on Ryesgade in the cold, I asked a local literature graduate what the Danish version of Charles Dickens might be. The one name that came up, after a few minutes deliberation, was Hans Christian Andersen. The whole group of Danes agreed.

To me, the idea of someone who writes fairy stories, being comparable with someone like Charles Dickens, seemed ludicrous. One year later, upon returning to Copenhagen, I decided to bring a copy of Andersen’s The Tinder Box, released by Penguin as part of the recent 80th anniversary collection of short texts.

In the eponymous tale, a soldier, on his way back from war, meets a witch who asks him to go into a tree to find a magic tinderbox. Whilst in there, he enters three rooms all guarded by dogs of increasing size; the final dog having “eyes the size of the rundetaarn”, a famous landmark in Copenhagen. Each dog is guards coins of increasing value and so, eventually, the Soldier fills his pockets with as many gold coins as possible.

Upon leaving the hollow tree, the witch asks for the tinderbox to be handed over. The soldier, naturally inquisitive about why she is so desperate for it, decides to decapitate her when she doesn’t give him an answer.

The Soldier then heads into the city where he adorns himself with fine clothes and new lodgings, becoming a popular character in social circles. He learns of a myth that says that there is a Princess, locked in a tower, who it is said will marry a common soldier. 

Eventually his money runs out and, in desperation, he strikes the tinderbox into life and discovers that he is able to call upon the three dogs to do his bidding. He sets about wining the Princess' heart. It isn't long before the King and Queen learn that the things are not what they seem with the Princess, and set about finding the man intent on capturing their daughter's heart.

H.C. Andersen's former residence at Nyhavn 67, Copenhagen.
The fairytale, although short, is an interesting piece of work. It has a conversational style that is capable of speaking to young children, but undertones of class conflict that talk directly to a more socially conscious adult. Indeed, it is thought that the story shows Han Christian Andersen as feeling torn between classes; at once having the desire to cut himself off from the poverty of his own past, whilst wanting to eliminate those who ruled over him.

This moral and class-conscious subtext continues in the other tales included in this collection. In Little Claus you have two morally flawed characters, but a overriding sense of the little guy overcoming the big guy; The Princess and the Pea seems to be a comment on refinement and sensitivity; and then The Tin Soldier, as Joan G. Haarh puts it, “symbolising Andersen's feelings of inadequacy with women, [and] his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes.”

Taking a few minutes to read a couple of these stories brings the history of Copenhagen’s narrow streets to life. In the same way Dickens’ characters, in some ways, narrate a period of London’s social development, Andersen’s tales tell a tale of the tensions of social mobility during the Danish Golden Age.

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