Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales: week 2

In week two of the course, we are now looking at two stories, one written by the brothers Grimm, The Blue Light, and one by Andersen, The Tinderbox. Both are based upon the same traditional folk tale, and the examination of these two stories in parallel is a means for introducing two fairy tale frameworks: the actantial model and the home-away-home model.

In these stories, a soldier protagonist comes across a witch and obtains from her a magical item capable of summoning a magical being – the titular Blue Light and Tinderbox. He kills the witch, though each soldier has a different notive for this, and proceeds to a town. In the town he becomes aware of a princess, and uses the magical helper summoned by the light or tinderbox to have the princess brought to him, asleep, in the middle of the night. This occurs three nights in a row before the King discovers where the soldier is and has him arrested. The soldier uses his magical helper to overcome the King and his judges, and subsequently marries the princess.

We are asked to assess each tale within the models presented, and then compare them.

The Blue Light more closely conforms to the models, but not completely. The Home-away-home motif sees the soldier at “home” – or at least a seemingly stable position – while away at war. He is dismissed because an injury means he cannot fight, and then comes across the witch, obtains the blue light, and after discoving its power decides to use it to take revenge upon the king for dismissing him from the army by making the princess serve him as a servant, and later by marrying her. Settling down with the princess is therefore the second home state.

With the Tinderbox, the first home state is not shown. A soldier is marching home from war when he is sidetracked by the witch’s request for assistance, and thus begins his adventure. Unlike the Blue Light’s soldier, he is not driven by a goal he is working towards, but is more hedonistic. With the power of the tinderbox, and the money it brings him, he simply does what he feels like, and upon learning of the princess decides he wants to see her – so has her brought. There is no real indication that he even considers marrying her until the end of the story, after the king has been defeated. So the story maps poorly to the home-away-home motif, because it does not explore the first home state at all, and the second home state is almost an epilogue and never really a goal.

The actantial model looks at the roles of various characters within the tale – a giver, giving the protagonist a gift; an antagonist, presenting the protagonist with an obstacle; and a helper, giving the protagonist assistance in overcoming obstacles and achieving goals.

Neither story maps perfectly to this model, and in both cases there are blurred lines where some characters briefly occupy more than one role. But how characters occupy parallel roles in each story differs.

The Blue Light’s witch asks the soldier to fetch the blue light from the bottom of a well, but when the soldier refuses to hand it over until his feet at one solid ground again, she lets him fall back in the well with the blue light rather than get the light for herself and allow the soldier to be free. She relucantly allows the soldier to have the blue light and thus becomes a sort of giver, but also in planning on leaving him down the well once she has the light, and also in setting tasks for him prior to this, she fulfills the role of an antagonist too.

The Tinderbox’s witch also asks the soldier to fetch the tinderbox, but rather than frame this as work to earn his keep as the Blue Light witch does, she frames it as a favour for which she will pay with the wealth inside the hollow tree where the tinderbox also is. The soldier is more interested in the coins than the tinderbox, though, and almost forgets the tinderbox entirely. He obtains payment before he accomplishes the task. Once he has obtained the tinderbox and been brought out of the tree and onto solid ground again (this witch has none of the demands the other one made), the soldier asks the witch why she wants the tinderbox, and when she won’t answer he cuts off her head. So in the respect that her actions led to the soldier obtaining the tinderbox she might be considered a giver, but there is a crucial difference here.

The Tinderbox’s witch never takes the role of antagonist. She might even be seen to take the role of helper, in that she gives the soldier the means and the knowledge to obtain the coins, by giving him her apron and telling him that the dogs guarding the chests will be placated by being placed upon the apron, and that this is how the soldier can obtain money from the chests. She helps him obtain money in the process of making a deal with him, and never herself sets up obstacles against him. And yet he kills her anyway.

I find the Tinderbox’s soldier very unsympathetic. He is selfish – he determines that he wants something, whether that is an answer from the witch over what he thinks is just some trivial everyday item, or to look upon the princess’s pretty face. And then he acts upon that desire with no consideration for the desires or the rights of others. By contrast the Blue Light’s soldier is much more sympathetic. He has been wronged, first by the king, who has dismissed him from service, and then by the witch, who has used his labour and planned to leave him to die in the well once she had what she wanted. This soldier then determined to take revenge upon them both. Neither soldier care smuch for the feelings of the princess, and both kill to get what they want, but the Blue Light’s soldier has a much more relatable motive, whereas the Tinderbox’s soldier seems motivated only by hedonism.

I can’t say I’m impressed with the Tinderbox. I appreciate the relatable narrative style, but I find the protagonist distasteful and it seems that the moral is that someone who is ruthless and driven by self-interest can become rich and powerful with luck on their side. That might well be entirely true, and thus a useful lesson for children to learn from it, but it does not make for a pleasant story. But then I suppose fairy tales aren’t meant to be pleasant, they’re meant to be educational.

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One thought on “Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales: week 2

  1. I participated in this Future Learn course a few months ago — I loved it! I hope you enjoy it as well. At first I was a bit disappointed at how much it focused on folk tale structure versus fairy tale (I was eager to get into the stories), but in the end that focus on folk tales vs. fairy tales became my favorite part. And I picked up a complete HCA story collection at the end. Enjoy the course!

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