Thursday, March 29, 2007

Obscure Fairy Tale: The Tinderbox

Today's fairy tale is not incredibly obscure. Well, OK, it hasn't been done by Disney, but it is one of the very first fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen so that's got to give it some clout.

One geeky sidenote before we begin: unlike the Grimm brothers and Asbjornsen and Moe, HCA didn't collect folktales. He created them, and he did it so well that many of them entered the canon with the same cultural status as tales born from the oral tradition. I think that's cool. A thousand storytellers made Cinderella, but a single writer made the Ugly Duckling. And a single writer created the story that I'm going paraphrase below...

The Tinderbox (by Hans Christian Andersen)

On his way home from war, a soldier meets an old witch. The witch asks him to climb down into a hollow tree. Inside, she says, he'll find three rooms: one filled with copper, one with silver, and one with gold. Each room will be guarded by a dog. In the first room, the dog will have eyes the size of teacups. In the second, it will have eyes the size of mill wheels. The third dog will have eyes each the size of the Round Tower.

If I were the soldier, I'd be edging away real slowly now. Rooms inside a tree? Dogs with oversized eyes? The old witch sounds a few bristles short of a broomstick, if you know what I mean. But he doesn't leave.

She gives him an apron and instructs him to pick up each dog and lay it on the apron and then help himself to as many coins as he wishes. In exchange, she merely wants a tinderbox, which (she claims) her sister left last time she was down there.

Why do I suddenly think of the Nigeria email? You know, the one that says if you send your bank account info, you'll be able to help a poor widow and also make millions of dollars for yourself...

The soldier agrees and climbs into the tree.

Apparently, he had nothing better to do.

He finds the three rooms with the three dogs with enormous eyes, exactly as the witch said, and he fills his pockets with coins.

I love these dogs. I picture them as big, fluffy St. Bernards with sweet anime eyes.

He leaves the tree and asks the witch what she wants with the tinderbox. She says it's none of his business. He says, "Tell me, or I'll chop your head off." She says, "No." And he chops her head off.

What? Excuse me, he did what?!?

He takes the best room at the best inn in the nearest city -- a city which is home to a beautiful princess who lives in a copper palace and is never allowed to see anyone but the king because it has been foretold that she will marry a simple soldier -- and he spends every coin he has on food and entertainment.

I'm sorry, but can we rewind a bit? Did he seriously just chop that nice little old lady's head off for telling him to mind his own business?

He has to move to a tiny garrett room, and none of his friends will visit him because, they say, "There are too many stairs to climb."

Nice friends.

One night, he uses the witch's tinderbox to light a candle, and the dog with eyes as big as teacups appears and says, "What is my master's command?"

Told you the dogs were cool.

He promptly asks for more money, and the dog fetches him a sack of coins. After some experimentation, he learns that if he strikes the tinderbox once, the dog with copper coins comes. If he strikes twice, the dog with silver comes. And if he strikes three times, the dog with gold coins comes. He returns to his nice rooms, and his friends start visiting him once again.

One night, the soldier decides he wants to see the princess who no one ever sees, so he summons the dog with eyes as big as teacups and commands him to bring him the princess. In seconds, he returns with the princess on his back, asleep. The soldier kisses her, and the dog carries her home.

What is it with fairy-tale heroes and sleeping girls? For one thing, it's definitely not kosher to kiss a sleeping stranger. All sorts of assault issues there. For one thing, how romantic is it really to kiss someone who most likely snoring and/or drooling?

In the morning, the princess wakes and tells her parents about her strange dream with a dog and a soldier. The next night, her parents instruct a lady-in-waiting to guard her.

Very sensible. Yes, keeping the princess cooped up in the copper palace is a total overreaction, but at least the parents show some sense here.

Again, the soldier instructs a dog to fetch the princess. The lady-in-waiting chases after the dog and marks an X on the soldier's door with white chalk so that she can find it in the morning.

Why doesn't she alert the guard? Hello, kidnapped princess here. Call 9-1-1, please.

The soldier sees the chalk X on his door and marks all the other doors in the neighborhood with chalk Xs. When the lady-in-waiting brings the king and queen and all their guards to arrest the soldier, she can't identify the correct door.

Clever. Nice to see a fairy-tale protagonist showing a bit of sense. Often their finest quality is obedience or politeness.

The next night, the queen sews a pouch of grain with a hole in it into the hem of her daughter's skirt. When the dog fetches her, grain spills out in a trail leading to the soldier's door.

Glad to see the queen has stopped delegating her daughter's safety, though as a general rule I think edible trail markers are a bad idea.

In the morning, the soldier is arrested and brought to the gallows. He asks if he can have a final smoke. The king agrees, and the soldier strikes his tinderbox once, twice, and three times. All three dogs appear. "Save me!" the soldier cries, so the dogs catch and fling the guards into the air. The guards fall to their deaths.

Bad doggies.

The largest dog then grabs the king and queen and tosses them to their deaths as well.

Bad, bad doggy.

The people all shout, "You must be our king and marry the princess!"

What? OK. Let's stop right here. Soldier-boy kidnapped and assaulted the princess multiple times, murdered her parents, and now the poor girl has to marry him?!? Hasn't she had a hard enough life being kept prisoner in her own home?

The princess becomes queen, the soldier becomes king, the dogs attend the celebration feast, and everyone lives happily ever after.

OK, that's just wrong. But I am pleased that the dogs get to eat at the party. After all that coin-fetching and kidnapping and murdering, they must be rather peckish.

For other obscure fairy tales, check out The Princess in the Chest, The Juniper Tree, Molly Whuppie, Tatterhood, Jack My Hedgehog, or The Wishing Table.



At 12:44 AM, Blogger Michael M. Jones said...

Mmmmm, fairy tale logic.

It would never get by the slush readers today. Imagine John Joseph Adams, Gordon Van Gelder, or back in the day, God rest her zombie bones, Marion Zimmer Bradley, eying a story with this sort of logic. Editors today demand so much more. :>

(And in a total sideways digression, I have a quote from the musical Assassins in my head, kind of... "What is it with these editors? Why do they always have three names? Marion Zimmer Bradley, Gordon Van Gelder..." "John Joseph Adams!" Bwahaha...)

At 1:27 PM, Blogger Faith said...

Fun. You need to read my version of Prudent Hans and my sister's take on Little Red Riding Hood. for Simple Hans (as I call him), and for Little Red Riding Hood. And I was thinking of you as I was reading Jane Yolen's Briar Rose the other day. Of course, I think of you every time I read a fairy tale now, so that's par for the course.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger Erin said...

You make me LAUGH! :D

At 5:44 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

MICHAEL: Fairy tales like this remind me of that cartoon that has a man at a blackboard with equations written on either side and the text "and then a miracle happens" in the middle.

FAITH: Thanks for the links! Looking forward to reading your and your sister's tales!

ERIN: Thanks, Erin! These are fun to do.

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Susan Johnston Hamrick said...

Have you read Princess Bubble?

At 10:18 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

ELIZABETH: I don't think I've read it. It's not ringing a bell. Where can I find it?

At 7:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, the Tinderbox. Always was one of my favourites.

There is a version with pretty much the same idea, only it includes Satan and his old Mother as well.

At 11:27 PM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

ARILOU: Intriguing. What does Satan's mom do? Where can I find that version?

At 5:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't know really. Satan's mother mostly guards the Tinderbox (in this version he gets it from Satan, but Satan manages to steal it back, so he has to go to his house (yes, Satan has a house) and return it.

I've never actually read the real deal, but my library had a graphic novel-version (in swedish, alas, although i think the original variant is russian)

It also has the soldier encountering a bunch of random obstacles and using the dogs to overcome them.

At 9:06 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

ARILOU: Cool! More stage-time for the dogs! Sounds fun.

At 12:24 AM, Blogger Sarah Beth Durst said...

FAITH: Just read your and your sister's retellings. So cool! I enjoyed them both. You really hit the tone of the Simple Hans fairy tale just right. And I really like your sister's interpretation of Little Red too -- very original. Thanks for sharing the links!

At 10:32 PM, Blogger Q said...

Hey! This one was in the giantic tome of mine too!

At 4:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm planning on making a short film for chidren based on this story. Of course I will change it, like the king and queen just falling straight through the ground (like in animation), and the soldier just making the old witch-lady disappear.

At 5:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Andersen took aladdin's magic lamp(tinderbox) and ali baba and modernized it...

At 7:37 PM, Blogger Jakob Dailes said...

Have you seen "Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tales: The Tinderbox"?
They changed it a bit but I love the series and the dogs are so cute.


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