By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In some ways Scandinavia’s answer to the tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, ‘The Tinder Box’ was one of Hans Christian Andersen’s first fairy tales. ‘The Tinder Box’ contains a number of common fairy-tale tropes: the magic helper with the ability to grant wishes, the ‘rags to riches’ motif, a witch, and a beautiful princess trapped in a castle.
You can read (or reread) the tale of ‘The Tinder Box’ in full here, although we also provide a summary below, before proceeding to an analysis of the story’s themes and origins.
‘The Tinder Box’: summary
A soldier is returning from the wars one day when he meets a witch. She tells him that she can give him riches, if he will do a favour for him. There is a hole at the top of a nearby tree. If the soldier climbs the tree, the witch tells him, and slides down the inside of the hollow trunk, he will find himself in a great hall in the inside of the tree. Three doors come off the hall, leading through to three chambers containing treasure.
Each chamber contains a money-chest: the first chamber contains coins, the second contains silver, and the third contains gold. Each chamber, however, is guarded by a dog, with the first chamber guarded by a fairly big dog, the silver one by a bigger dog, and the gold one by a huge dog of monstrous size.
But the witch tells the soldier that she will give him her coloured apron, which he can spread upon the ground. The dog will then do him no harm, and he will be able to carry off all the treasure he can hold.
The only thing the witch asks from the soldier in return is that, while he’s down there, he retrieves the old tinder box which the witch’s grandmother forgot the last time she was down in the tree. She will tie a rope around him so that she can pull him back up out of the tree.
The soldier agrees, and once lowered down into the tree, sure enough he finds three chambers, and confronts the three dogs in each, pocketing as many copper coins from the first chamber, and as much silver from the second, and gold from the third, as he can carry.
When he signals to the witch to pull him up, she reminds him about her tinder box, and he confesses he’d forgotten it! So he goes and finds it. When he’s back out of the tree and standing before the witch, she tells him to hand over the tinder box. But before he does so, he demands to know what she wants with it, and threatens to cut off her head with his sword if she refuses. She says she won’t tell him and, true to his word, the soldier cuts her head off. He then continues on his way towards town, with all his treasure – and with the tinder box.
With his new-found wealth, he turns himself into a fine-looking gentleman, wearing the best clothes. When the soldier hears of a beautiful princess who is kept locked away in a brazen castle (i.e., a castle made of brass) by her father, the king, because the king had heard a prophecy that his daughter would marry a common soldier (and there’s nothing kings want less than for their daughters to marry ordinary soldiers), the soldier longs to see the princess, but he’s told it’s no good: nobody can see her.
The soldier becomes well-liked about town, not least because he gives a fair amount of his money away. Unfortunately, he keeps spending, and because he has no job, he is eventually penniless again. Living in rags and in squalid digs, he has nothing but the tinder box he had fetched for the witch. He strikes a match to light the tinder box so he can look around his room, when lo and behold! The dog from the first chamber in the tree appears before him.
When the dog asks the soldier how he can be of service, the soldier demands some money, and the dog quickly vanishes, only to return shortly after with a bag of copper coins. The soldier soon learns that if he strikes the tinder box once, the first dog will appear; if he strikes it twice, the dog from the second chamber with the silver coins will appear; and three times will summon the large dog from the ‘gold’ chamber. In no time at all, he is living back in the grand hotel where he was living before he lost all his money, with all his fine clothes again.
But what, he wonders, if I requested something other than money from the dog? He tries his luck, requesting to see the beautiful princess locked away in a brazen castle. The dog disappears and returns with the princess on his back. The soldier is so awe-struck by her beauty that he kisses her before the dog returns her to the castle.
The next day, the princess tells the king and queen about the dream she had, in which she rode on a dog’s back and a soldier kissed her. The king isn’t happy about this, so he tells one of the waiting-women to watch over the princess the next night.
When the soldier summons the dog with the tinder box that night, and asks to see the princess again, the waiting-woman observes the dog come and take the princess out of her bed, and she follows them both to the soldier’s hotel room. The woman is cunning, and marks the door of the house with a big cross so she can remember where it is.
However, the dog is equally clever, and when he sees the cross on the door, he duly marks all of the doors in the neighbourhood, so the woman won’t know which house is the soldier’s. Sure enough, when the woman leads the king and queen to the soldier’s hotel the next morning, so they can arrest the man who had carried off their daughter, they can’t find the house.
The queen is a match for the dog, though, in terms of her quick thinking. She gets a small bag and fills it with flour, and then ties this around the princess’s neck, cutting a small hole into the bag so that, when the princess moves, flour will fall to the ground wherever the princess goes. The following night, when the soldier once again tells the dog to bring the princess to him, he is found out, and the next morning he’s arrested and thrown into jail.
He is to be hanged the next morning, and what’s more, he’s left his tinder box back in his hotel room! But he pays a boy passing his cell to go to the hotel room and get the tinder box for him. The boy does so, passing it through the grated window of the soldier’s prison cell.
When the time comes for the soldier to be hanged, he requests one last wish, which is to be granted the right to one last smoke before he is executed. Taking out the tinder box, he strikes it three times, and all three dogs appear. He calls upon them to save his life, and the dogs fall upon the judge, and then the king and queen, throwing them into the air until they are dashed to pieces.
The crowd who have gathered to watch the execution are terrified by the dogs, but they tell the soldier to be their king, now the old one is dead. He agrees, the princess is liberated from the castle and marries the soldier, and the dogs live with them, in what has to be one of the strangest military coups in all of literature.
‘The Tinder Box’: analysis
‘The Tinder Box’ shares a number of elements with two stories from the Arabian Nights, a fact which need hardly surprise us given the 1,001 Nights were favourite reading for the young Hans Christian Andersen.
The chalking of a cross upon the door of the soldier’s hotel, and subsequent chalking of other doors in the neighbourhood to confuse the king and queen, recalls the same device in ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’, in which Ali Baba’s clever and sharp-witted servant, a girl named Morgiana, spots the white chalk mark made by the thief and suspects something’s going on.
So she goes and marks all of the neighbouring doors with similar white chalk marks. Sure enough, when the thieves turn up to sneak into Ali Baba’s house and kill him, they cannot work out which house is his, since all houses in the area bear the same chalk mark.
Meanwhile, the tinder box, with its summoning of a helpful spirit with the ability to grant wishes, clearly recalls the tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp. However, the idea of the genie or spirit able to grant wishes to the hero is hardly unique to the Aladdin story, either, and Andersen, as Iona and Peter Opie observe in their excellent edition, The Classic Fairy Tales, was also recalling a Danish folk tale, ‘Aanden i Lyset’, or ‘The Spirit in the Candle’.
The ‘rule of three’ or ‘pattern of three’ motif is common across fairy tales – three wishes, three bears, three heads in the well, and so on – and ‘The Tinder Box’ has more ‘threes’ than you can shake an oversize dog’s paw at. There are three chambers at the bottom of the tree, and three dogs guarding the treasure; the soldier has the dog abduct the princess for three nights before he is caught.
But of course, the soldier has more than three wishes, and can call upon the dogs from the tinder box a seemingly endless number of times. The story takes the idea of wish-fulfilment and really runs with it – perhaps even overdoing it somewhat.
We say that Andersen overdoes things because something about ‘The Tinder Box’ leaves a bitter taste. The hero is not altogether likeable. This does make him more interesting, and is something that helps to distinguish Andersen’s tales from many earlier fairy tales, the Perrault ones if not the Grimm tales. But he is morally questionable. He cuts the witch’s head off just because she refuses to divulge the secrets of the tinder box to him; he wants it for himself as soon as he suspects it’s worth something.
By the same token, he gives away some of the money he took from the tree, and shows signs of being a charitable fellow. Then he goes and abducts the princess three times – with the dog’s help – from her bedchamber (and what more might he have given her than a kiss, we wonder, if this hadn’t been a children’s story?), and it’s only thanks to the cleverness of the queen that he is caught and brought to justice.
And yet, at the same time, the princess is being smothered by an overprotective father, who forbids her to see anyone else for fear of the prophecy coming true and his daughter marrying ‘beneath her’. This leaves a sour taste, too, especially to modern readers. Does the princess truly love the soldier or does she merely agree to marry him because he becomes the king, taking the place of her father (whom the soldier had had killed)? And do the people demand the soldier become their king because they go in fear of him and his powerful dogs?
In the last analysis, there are aspects of ‘The Tinder Box’ which invite us to approach the story, and its central characters, with a critical mind, rather than assuming we are entering a world of whiter-than-white heroes and out-and-out evil villains. There are no wicked stepmothers and goody-two-shoes men here, but far more shades of grey than they usually encounter in classic fairy stories.