Sunday, February 3, 2013

The Tinder-Box, by Hans Christian Anderson

I love old fairy tales.  They're amazing.  They're nothing like modern fairy tales, because old, original fairy tales are delightfully dark.  One of my favourites is Hans Christian Anderson's story of the tinder box.  The "hero" is just so gleefully evil and the story doesn't seem to realize at all.  It serves as an example of how fairy tales don't necessarily need a moral, or if they do have one it tends to be a moral for terrible, terrible people.  Shall I tell it to you?  I think you'd like it.

The Tinder-Box

One day a soldier was marching along a road.  He was all alone, because soldiers march alone, I guess.  He had a pack on his back and a sword on his hip, because "he had been to the wars, and was now returning home."  I love how that's phrased.  "Oh, I'm just gonna pop off to the wars for a bit, I'll pick up some milk on the way back!"

The soldier meets a witch on the road.  Supposedly.  What actually happens is he meets an ugly old woman, and assumes she's a witch because she's old and ugly.  She stops him as he passes and says, “Good evening, soldier; you have a very fine sword, and a large knapsack, and you are a real soldier; so you shall have as much money as ever you like.” 

“Thank you, old witch,” said the soldier.  So some old woman stops him and goes, "Hey, you're a soldier: I'm gonna give you money!" and he replies with "Thanks, hag."  Not only does he just agree, like he thinks everybody should give him as much money as he wants and she would be weird not to offer, but he doesn't even hesitate to call her a witch right to her face.  Classy guy!

But the "witch" doesn't seem to mind that the soldier is a giant cock, so she explains how he will get the money.  She tells him to go up to the top of a nearby tree, because it's actually hollow and at the top there is a hole that will get him down deep into the tree.  She'll tie a rope around him so he can get down and she'll pull him up.  In the ground under the hollow tree there is a vast hall lit by three hundred lamps (the lamps are not important to the story, nor is the vastness of the hall; it seems a little improbable to have a giant room lit by hundreds of lamps underneath a tree.  Fairy tales do not always make sense.) with three doors.  They are locked, but the keys are in the locks, so they can be easily opened.  It's almost as if they have no locks to begin with.  How convenient!

The no-proof-that-she-is-a-witch woman explains that behind the first door, there is a room with a large chest sitting in the middle of the floor.  On top of that chest sits a dog with eyes the size of teacups, but the soldier need not fear it for the not-witch will give him her apron to spread upon the floor.  Then he must grab the dog and place it on her apron.  The dog will stay there, and the soldier can then open the chest and take as many copper pennies as he wants, for the chest only has copper pennies.  If he does not want the copper pennies, though, he can proceed to the next room.  It is the same, except the dog sitting on the chest has eyes the size of millwheels, and the chest is filled with silver.  And again in the third room, where the chest has gold coins and the dog is "very dreadful; his eyes are as big as a tower," but agian, just grabbing it and putting it on the old lady's apron will keep him from being a bother.

Is it just me, or are the dog descriptions really weird?  I mean, I guess the first two, with eyes as big as teacups and millwheels -- okay, those are both round, I guess.  So either the dog is of a size to match the eyes, or they just have bizarrely odd heads.  Whatever.  But the last one is just...what?  "As big as a tower" is a terrible description. What does that even mean?  How big of a tower?  Do you mean the diameter of its eyes is the same as the height of the mysterious tower?  Or does it mean like, around the tower, not the height?  Are his eyes the shape of towers?  Damn, I want to see this dog.

Anyway, back to the story.  The soldier says, “This is not a bad story, but what am I to give you, you old witch? for, of course, you do not mean to tell me all this for nothing.”  Yeah, you ancient hag?  You're so suspicious, what with being old and ugly and probably evil because of how old and ugly you are.

“No,” said the accused witch, who is being very patient with the shitty guy she's talking to, because I would have said to hell with him ages ago. “But I do not ask for a single penny. Only promise to bring me an old tinder-box, which my grandmother left behind the last time she went down there.”  The soldier agrees, and the old woman gives him her apron and ties the rope around him, and he climbs up the tree and lowers himself through the hole, deep down beneath the tree into the great hall.  He goes through the first door.

It was just as the witch had described.  There was a dog with eyes like teacups, sitting on top of a large chest.  "You're a pretty fellow," said the soldier, seizing the dog and placing him on the old woman's apron.  He then filled his pockets with the copper coins from the chest, because I guess he forgot that there was silver and gold in the next two rooms.  Hey, maybe he's just a really nice, selfless guy who never takes more than he needs to survive!

Oh, wait, no, because then he goes to the next room and meets the dog with millwheel-eyes, and does the same thing as in the last room.  He tells the dog, "You had better not look at me in that way, you will make your eyes water," (I guess he thinks he's witty?) puts the dog on the apron, dumps all the copper coins he collected and filled his pockets and his knapsack with nothing but silver.  Then he goes to the next room with the chest of gold, because he can't plan ahead. Go to that room first, you idiot.

Third room.  This dog was really hideous; his eyes were, truly, as big as towers, and they turned round and round in his head like wheels.  SHOW ME THIS DOG.  I WANT TO SEE HIM.  What the hell does "truly as big as towers" even mean!?

“Good morning,” said the soldier, touching his cap, for he had never seen such a dog in his life. But after looking at him more closely, he thought he had been civil enough, and really?  You're a total douche to an old ugly woman on the road who's offering you all the money you can carry in exchange for a simple favour, but a big ugly dog deserves your manners.  Really, this guy is a class act.  He puts the dog on the apron, like all the others, and opens the chest.  Dumping out all the silver he got from the last room (why did he take it in the first place?) he fills his pockets, knapsack, cap, and boots with gold, so he can barely walk.  At this point when I first read this story, I had assumed that it would be working up to a moral about greed and taking more than you needed to the point where you were physically hampered.  It doesn't, though.  I thought I would tell you now, so you don't go through the story with misconceptions.

Now that he was filthy stinking rich, he goes back to the entrance and calls up the tree, "Pull me up, you old witch."  Seriously, dude, she has made you wealthy beyond your wildest dreams.  Maybe you should ask for her name or something, at the very least.

The woman asks, "Do you have the tinder box?"  The soldier replies, "No, I declare I quite forgot it," and goes back to fetch it.  Yeah, right.  Forgot it like a fox, probably.  He was hoping he could con the witch -- oh shit, now I'm doing it.  He was hoping he could con the old woman who has never actually shown any signs of being a witch other than being old and ugly, into letting him dump his cash somewhere and then come back for a second go.  Greedy fuck.

So when the woman sees through his scheme and makes sure he does the work she's paying him for, she pulls him up out of the tree.  Remember, he's loaded down with as much gold as he could get away with.  The old woman is doing more work than he is here, hauling his greedy ass up a hundred feet to the top of the hollow tree.  All he had to do was move a couple of dogs and grab a wooden box, and he barely managed to do that right.

Once out of the tree and standing safe on the road, with his pockets, backpack, hat and shoes filled with gold, the woman asks for her tinder-box.  "What are you going to do with it?" the soldier asks.

"That is nothing to do with you," she told him.  "You have the money, now give me the tinder-box."

“I tell you what,” said the soldier, “if you don’t tell me what you are going to do with it, I will draw my sword and cut off your head.”

“No,” said the witch.  So the soldier cut off her head.  That's nice.  She gives him as much money as he can carry, she only wants him to fetch her grandmother's tinder-box in return, and because she won't tell him what she's going to do with her own private personal property, he straight-up murders her and keeps it for his own.  You are loaded head-to-foot with gold coins, you lunatic.  What the hell does it matter what she wants to do with her grandmother's tinder-box?

Then he kept her apron in order to tie up all his ill-gotten gains, put her tinder-box in his pocket, and left her corpse lying in the road as he walks to the next town.  When there, he buys a feast of all his favourite dishes, and all the fine clothes he could want, so that he became known as a fine gentleman.  He is never brought to justice for the cold-blooded murder of an old woman on the road.

He became popular in the town because of his wealth, and people came and spoke to him frequently and told him of all the sights to be seen in the town, and of the king's beautiful daughter, the princess.  "Where can I see her?" he asked, but was told that she was not to be seen, ever.  She lived in a great copper castle, full of walls and towers, both of which are to be expected in a castle.  But she was not allowed to leave, and only the king was permitted entrance into her castle, for there was a prophecy that she would marry a common soldier rather than a prince or a king, and her father could not bear the thought of his daughter marrying so low.

The soldier very much wanted to see the beautiful princess, but could not get permission to enter the copper castle, so he tried to put her out of his mind.  He had a very pleasant time in the town, going to the theatre and riding in the king's gardens and giving a great deal of money to the poor, which was very good of him, for he remembered what it was like to be without a shilling before he brutally murdered the nice old lady who gave him all his money.

The soldier was quite rich now, with his fine clothes and many friends who called him a fine fellow and a real gentleman, and this made him feel very good about himself.  But even a great amount of money is not infinite, and as the soldier spent and gave away a great deal daily, and received none coming in, he found himself at last poor once more, with only two shillings to his name.  He was forced to leave his elegant rooms and live in a small poor room in the attic, where he had to clean his own boots and clothes and (gasp) even mend them with a large needle.  None of his friends came to see him, because they were as shallow as him and had no need of him now that he was poor again there were too many stairs to climb.  One dark evening he found he did not even have a penny to buy a candle.  Suddenly he remembered that there was a piece of candle stuck in the tinder-box, which he had killed the old woman for and then forgotten about completely.  Your hero, ladies and gentlemen, the man who can murder an old woman in cold blood, steal her property, and then forget about it entirely as soon as he finishes wiping the blood from his sword.

He digs out the tinder-box, but as soon as he struck flint and steel to make a spark, the door to his room flew open and there stood the dog from beneath the tree, with the eyes like teacups.  "What orders, master?" said the dog.

“Hallo,” said the soldier; “well this is a pleasant tinderbox, if it brings me all I wish for."  He tells the dog to bring him some money, and the dog left, returning in a moment carrying in his mouth a bag full of copper coins. The soldier very soon discovered after this the value of the tinder-box. If he struck the flint once, the dog who sat on the chest of copper money made his appearance; if twice, the dog came from the chest of silver; and if three times, the dog with eyes like towers, who watched over the gold. The soldier had now plenty of money; he returned to his elegant rooms, and reappeared in his fine clothes, so that his friends knew him again directly, and made as much of him as before.  Now that he was rich again, he was a man worth knowing.  In most fairy tales, you would assume that such fair-weather friends would be rejected by the righteous hero, who realizes that when they abandoned him in his time of need that they were never true friends to begin with.  But our protagonist is just as shallow and mean as his so-called friends, so they all get on quite well with no hard feelings.

After a while, the soldier remembered the beautiful princess who was never seen.  He thought it was very odd that she was kept shut up in her copper castle, because what was the point of a beautiful woman who was never seen?  Clearly a lovely woman can only exist to be put on display for other people's pleasure, and her own feelings and desires would never enter into the equation.  The soldier wondered how he could get a glimpse of the princess, for he was very curious, and felt he was entitled to anything he wanted since he had money and magic dogs at his beck and call.  So he struck a light from the tinder-box and summoned the teacup-eyed dog.  "It is midnight," he told the dog, "Yet I should very much like to see the princess, if only for a moment."  The dog disappeared instantly, off to kidnap a princess because the hero is not-so-secretly the villain of the story, and before the soldier could even turn around the dog returned with the sleeping princess on its back.  She was so lovely that no-one could think she was not a princess, because that's how princesses work in fairy tales.  If you see an unbelievably beautiful woman, better bow because she'll be a princess.  The soldier could not help but kiss her when he saw her, for he was a "true soldier" and could not help himself (here, have some statistics on rape in the military).  Then the dog ran back with the princess; but the next morning, over breakfast with her parents the king and queen, the princess told them of the odd dream she had, where she had ridden on the back of a strange dog and been kissed by a soldier.

"That is a very pretty story indeed," said the queen.  Fearing the prophecy of her daughter marrying a common soldier, she had one of the old ladies of the court sent to the princess's bedside that night, to discover whether it was truly a dream or if it was something else.

The soldier longed very much to see the beautiful princess again, so that night he summoned the dog to fetch her and to run with her as quickly as ever it could.  But the old woman pulled on "water boots," whatever they are, and ran after just as quickly as the dog could run.  Hey, this old woman is badass.  I hope the soldier doesn't behead her.  When the old woman found that the dog carried the princess to a large house, she took a piece of chalk (which she carried around in her apron for just this sort of situation!) and made a large cross on the front door, in order to remember the place.  Then she went home to bed.  Without trying to look in to spot the princess and see if she was being murdered or raped or whatever, because hey, big dog carried her off to some stranger's house, she's probably fine.  So I guess she isn't that badass.  Still though, grandma can run.

The princess was lucky though, I suppose, because she was not rapemurdered that night.  Actually I don't know what happened to her when she was passed out in the sociopath soldier's room, the fairy tale sort of skips that part.  Not really a good sign.  But the dog carries her back to the castle in one piece, and in leaving the soldier's house the dog noticed the large cross on the door.  So, being a smart magic dog, it took another piece of chalk (where the hell is all this chalk coming from?) and marked every other house with a similar cross, so the old woman could not find the right door.

The next morning, the old woman took the king and the queen and all of the officers of the household, to see where the princess had been.  "Here is the house," said the king, when he came upon the first marked door.

"No, my dear husband, it must be that one," said the queen, pointing at the next door which also had a mark.  "And here is another mark, and another!"  And they saw that there were crosses on all the doors in every direction, and knew it would be useless to search any farther.  But the queen was a very clever woman who could do much more than sit in a carriage and wave.  That night she took some silk and cut it into squares, and sewed a neat little bag.  She filled it with flour and put it around the princess's neck, and then she cut a small hole in the bag so that the flour would be scattered on the ground as the princess went along.

During the night, the dog came again and carried the princess on his back, and ran with her to the soldier, who loved her very much having met her three times now, with the story giving no indication that she was awake for any of these visits.  He wished he were a prince so that he might have her for a wife.  The dog never noticed the flour spilling from the bag, though, leaving a white trail all the way to the soldier's apartments.  Therefore in the morning the king and queen found out where their daughter had been, and the soldier was taken up and put in prison (which is where the murderous lout rightly belongs, not that the story cares).

Oh, how dark and disagreeable it was as he sat there, and the people said to him, “To-morrow you will be hanged.”  I don't know what people.  Presumably the other prisoners, though I have no idea how they could find out the soldier's sentence without the soldier finding out at the same time.  But whoever these people were, it was not very pleasant news, and besides, he had left the tinder-box at the inn and so his situation seemed altogether hopeless.

The next morning he could see through the iron bars over his little window, how all of the people were hurrying out of the town in order to see him hanged.  The shoemaker's boy, in his leather apron and slippers, ran by so fast his slipper flew off and struck the wall where the soldier sat looking through the bars.  "Hallo, boy," he called.  "You need not be in such a hurry, for there will be nothing to see until I arrive there; but if you will run to the house where I have been living and bring me my tinder-box, you shall have four shillings.  You must run quickly though, and put your best foot forward!"  The shoemaker's boy liked the idea of four shillings, and so he ran very fast and fetched the tinder-box, which he gave to the soldier just in time; just as the boy returned and handed over the tinder-box, the king's guards came to escort the soldier to the gallows.

Outside the town a large gibbet had been erected, round which stood the king's guards and several thousands of people. The king and the queen sat on splendid thrones opposite to the judges and the whole council. The soldier stood on the ladder; but as they were about to place the rope around his neck, he said that an innocent request was often granted to a poor criminal before he suffered death. He wished very much to smoke a pipe, as it would be the last pipe he should ever smoke in the world. The king could not refuse this request, so the soldier took his tinder-box, and struck fire, once, twice, thrice,— and there in a moment stood all the dogs;—the one with eyes as big as teacups, the one with eyes as large as mill-wheels, and the third, whose eyes were like towers. “Help me now, that I may not be hanged,” cried the soldier.

At his command, the dogs fell upon the judges and councillors, seizing them by the limbs and tossing them many feet into the air so that when they fell down they were dashed to pieces.  That's right, they were thrown so high they broke into bits when they hit the ground, like glass dolls or something.

"I will not be touched," said the king.  Wishful thinking, probably.  And ineffective, because the largest dog seized him as well as the queen and threw them after the others.  Seeing this, the guards and all the people were very afraid, and cried "Good soldier, you shall be our king, and marry the beautiful princess."

So they placed the soldier in the king’s carriage, and the three dogs ran on in front and cried “Hurrah!” and the little boys whistled through their fingers, and the guards presented arms. The princess came out of the copper castle, and became queen, which was very pleasing to her. The wedding festivities lasted a whole week, and the dogs sat at the table, and stared with all their eyes.

The End.

The moral of this story: Kill everyone who opposes you in order to become rich and scare the population into giving you ultimate power, and everything will work out happily for all involved.

As delightful as this entire story is, I think my very favourite part is right at the end, with the princess.  Just imagine the story from her point of view.  She has a few odd dreams, her mom makes her wear a bag of flour to bed, and then the creepy dude from her dreams shows up at her castle and the entire town is insisting she marry him, because he's after killing the king and queen so they want him to be the new king, which can only happen if she is married to him.  Oh, and he's got three dog-monsters with freaky eyes with him too.  Well gee, why wouldn't she want to be sold off, without any input or warning, to the guy who murdered her parents and a dozen other people, and terrorized the people into naming him king in order to spare their own lives?  But her only reaction is, "Oh cool, now I'm the queen!"  Classic fairy-tale logic.  I love it.


  1. In the Danish original, the third dog's eyes are "as large as the Round Tower of Copenhagen" -- really round, and really big.

    1. You have no idea how glad I am to hear that there's a logical explanation for the tower-eyes. I could not for the life of me visualize what the dog was supposed to look like.

    2. I suppose the translator didn't know either! The Dutch translator obviously did (also, I was kind of obsessed with Denmark as a kid).

    3. Haha well I'm glad you're here to set me straight, at least! Your Denmark obsession has been put to good use. Thanks!

  2. I once watched a German film adaptation of this story for German class. It was especially unfortunate that the actress who portrayed the princess was most likely prepubescent.

    1. Oh wow, I did not realize you could make this fairy tale creepier! I was wrong. And I kind of want to see this adaptation.

  3. Remember Kids! Sociopathic douchbags always win in the end. HAPPY ENDING!!!! :D