Monday, July 2, 2012

The Tinderbox, by Hans Christian Andersen

The Tinderbox
by Hans Christian Andersen
retold by Stephen Mitchell
illustrated by Bagram Ibatoulline
48 pages
Cambridge, MA: Candlewick
ISBN 9780763620783

A dark and creepy fairytale in which fantastic creatures do the bidding of one opportunistic soldier.

At the beginning of the tale, a strapping young soldier meets with a witch, who offers him riches in exchange for a small favor: retrieving a tinderbox that used to belong to her mother. She lowers him down a large hollow tree to a sort of Aladdin's cave, where he faces a strange giant dog with enormous eyes in each of three rooms -- one filled with copper coins, the next with silver, and the last with gold. Her detailed instructions keep the soldier safe while he plunders the loot, but when she pulls him back up he lops her head off with his sword and runs off, taking her tinderbox with him. Luxuriating in his wealth for a time is enjoyable, but when the gold coins run out, the soldier (never named) discovers that striking the flint and steel from the tinderbox will summon the giant dogs to do his bidding. Of course he wants more money, but then his curiosity demands that he see the princess of the land that "no one but the king is allowed to see" (and kiss her in her sleep, the rogue!). His curiosity in this manner is nearly his undoing, as the king and queen track him down and sentence him to death. However, with a clever strike of the flint to light his pipe -- a last wish for the condemned -- the soldier summons the three dogs to rescue him. They grab the king and queen, and all their judges and councilors, and "tossed them into the air so high that when they came down, their bones broke into many pieces and they all died". Gruesome! The soldier then makes himself king and marries the princess, who doesn't seem to mind, and they and the dogs live happily in the castle.

The intricate crosshatchings of the ink sketches lend a rustic feel to the illustrations, almost like woodcut images stamped into an old leather-bound book of tales. Subtle washes of color prettify the scenes of wealth and festivity, while the shadows of the night come out in black and white and the yellow glow of lamplight. The front and back covers are patterned in the gnarled branches of trees, which only underscores the "spooky forest" environment familiar from many fairytales.

This story left me feeling rather unsettled. It's definitely not for the younger reader who would be put off by casual violence and greed without consequences, but could be a valuable tool in discussing shades of morality. It would be good for a Halloween treat, and I'd expect few students to be familiar with the story, although they might recognize the author's other works. In a classroom setting, it might be used to discuss narrative structure -- particularly the treatment of the three dogs, very similar to Goldilocks and the three bears in repetition and comparison. The repeated use of "eyes as big as ______" (clocks, dinner plates, and wagon wheels, respectively) will remind readers of Little Red Riding Hood, while providing an example of simile.

Author Info
No Illustrator Info
Media: watercolor, pen and ink

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