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Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales: Redefining Good and Evil
We all think we know good and evil when it comes to stories. The good guy wins. The bad guy loses. But in Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales, it’s the opposite. In these fantastical stories, sometimes being the good guy isn’t the way to get ahead.
Let’s look a little closer.
Anderson published his collection of fairy tales in the early 1800s. Over the decades since, they have been retold, reedited, and re-imagined in a variety of mediums, from movies, to comics, to Disney theme parks. The latest collection, translated by Tina Nunnally, puts the prose into a contemporary style, which allows for an easy read. There are twelve stories in this volume and includes such memorable classics as: the princess and the pea, the snow queen, the ugly duckling, and more.
In the opening story, “The Tinder-Box,” a soldier stumbles upon a witch in the woods, who asks him to fetch her tinder-box inside a hollow tree. In return for getting the box, the soldier is told he can take all the copper coins he sees. The soldier agrees, and goes inside the tree trunk. Not long into his search, just as the witch reported, he finds the tinder-box and plenty of copper coins, which he fills his pockets with. As he’s about to leave, he comes upon an area with silver coins, and then later, gold coins. It is the gold coins he loads up on, then returns to the witch.
Once outside, the soldier hands over the tinder-box to the witch. But a small argument ensues, and he kills the witch and takes the tinder-box. With his newfound wealth, he travels, gives alms to the poor, and soon runs out of money. It is around then that he opens the tinder-box and learns that it controls two dogs that will bring him whatever he wants. Over the course of the story, the soldier plots and schemes to restore his wealth, using the dogs; he also murders again. In the end, the soldier is granted the kingship, where he rules with the princess, and those loyal dogs to help keep it.
Initially, I was lulled into feeling pleased with the soldier’s success, until I realized he really wasn’t the archetypal “good” hero winning the day. He makes a deal with the witch, and rather than keep his end of the bargain, even with immense riches in his pockets, he kills her in cold blood. Moving on, he is a spendthrift, and while he makes good with the poor—perhaps momentarily restoring his misdeed of murder—he continues to manipulate those around him, (including the king to win his daughter). Ultimately, he uses dishonorable means to get what he wants, and in the end there are no consequences for him. His unscrupulous ways allow him to win the day.
But this isn’t the only fairy tale that plays out like this.
In “Little Claus and Big Claus,” the main character, Little Claus, resorts to devilish tactics to restore his wealth, and bring the demise of Big Claus, the one responsible for killing his horse. He starts out as the innocent party, but quickly slides into treachery that ultimately leads to the death of Big Claus. It’s this type of trickery that enforces the idea that doing “bad” things pays off—contrary to most stories that emphasize that good usually wins the day.
In the end, readers seeking to explore a different dimension, where bad and good are hard to determine, should find Anderson’s book a delightful read. What's your take on fairy tales? How do you perceive the good vs. evil roles that are played out?
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