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TinderBox1876Bertall

The witch asks the soldier for help. Illustration by Bertail for an 1876 French translation of The Tinderbox.

"The Tinderbox" (Danish: "Fyrtøiet") is a fantasy short story for children by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. It was first published on May 8, 1835, in an inexpensive booklet without a cover which also contained "The Princess and the Pea", "Little Claus and Big Claus" and "Little Ida's Flowers". It was published again in 1837, in the first volume of Andersen's Fairy Tales Told to Children, which also contained "The Little Mermaid", "The Emperor's New Clothes" and "Thumbelina".

The main character in the story, a soldier, is sent by a witch to visit an underground treasure trove. The witch tells him that he can bring back as much money as he can carry and keep that for himself but he must give her an old tinderbox[1] which he will also find down there. When the witch refuses to tell him why she wants the tinderbox, the soldier keeps it for himself. He later discovers that the tinderbox has the power to make all his wishes come true. The soldier finds that he does not have to worry about money again and also gets to see the princess, kept locked away from view by the king who is afraid that she will marry a common soldier.

Similar stories are to be found in European and North American folklore. There are also several similarities between "The Tinderbox" and the stories "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" from The Thousand and One Nights, a work with which Andersen had been familiar since childhood.

"The Tinderbox" was the subject of the first Danish animated film, released in 1946. A ballet based on "The Tinderbox" premiered at the Pantomime Theater of Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens in July 2007.

Plot

The Tinder Box - Anne Anderson

Illustration for "The Tinderbox" by Anne Anderson (1874-1930).

A witch asks a soldier to descend into a hollow tree. Beneath the tree he will find an underground building which contains three rooms. There is a chest full of copper coins in the first room, a chest full of silver coins in the second and chest full of gold coins in the third. Sitting on top of each chest is a large dog. The first dog has eyes as big as teacups, the second has eyes as big as mill-stones and the third has eyes as big as the round tower of Copenhagen. However, the soldier is told that if he quickly places each dog upon the apron that the witch gives him, it will not give him any trouble. The witch tells the soldier that he can keep as many coins as he can carry and that all she wants is an old tinderbox which he will also find in the underground building.

The soldier returns with a huge amount of gold coins and the old tinderbox. When he asks the witch why she wants it, she refuses to answer. The soldier threatens to behead the witch if she does not tell him why she wants the tinderbox but she still refuses to answer. True to his word, the soldier cuts off the witch's head with his sword.

Having arrived at the nearest city, the soldier rents a room at the best inn and lives a life of luxury for a while. He is told that a beautiful princess lives in the city but nobody ever sees her. The king keeps her locked away in a fortified castle because he has heard a prophecy that his daughter will marry a common soldier and he does not want it to come true.

The Tinder Box 2

The dog brings the princess to the soldier. 1895 illustration by Alfred Walter Bayes.

All of the gold coins that the soldier took are soon spent and he is forced to move to a small attic room. One evening, not even having enough money to buy a new candle, the soldier remembers that there is a piece of candle in the tinderbox. When he strikes the tinderbox, the first dog appears. The dog calls the soldier "master" and asks him what he desires. The soldier asks for money and the dog returns with a quantity of copper coins. The soldier soon finds out that striking the tinderbox once makes the first dog appear, striking it twice makes the second dog appear and striking it three times makes the third dog appear. The soldier no longer has to worry about money and returns to his former life of luxury.

At midnight one evening, the soldier asks the first dog to bring the princess to him. The dog does so and he kisses the sleeping princess. The next morning, the princess says that she dreamt that a dog took her to the room of a soldier who kissed her. The queen wonders if it was a dream or if it really happened.

The following evening, a servant follows the dog back to the soldier's home and puts a chalk cross on the door. Seeing it, the dog puts identical crosses on every door in town, meaning that the king and queen cannot find the soldier's home the following morning. That evening, the queen attaches a small bag of flour with a hole in the end around the neck of the princess. The following morning, the king and queen follow the trail of flour. The soldier is arrested and sentenced to death.

As a last request before he is about to be hanged, the soldier asks to use his tinderbox to light his pipe. He strikes the tinderbox three times, summons all three dogs and orders them to attack the people gathered to watch the hanging, including the king and queen. The frightened people agree that the soldier can be the new king and marry the princess.

Footnotes

Tinderbox

A tinderbox.

  1. A tinderbox is a device used for starting a fire. It contains flint, a surface to strike the flint against and a small amount of wood or straw. Tinderboxes ceased to be popular after matches were invented.

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