Thursday, December 31, 2009

Black Dog, Black Turning Eyes

Do you remember the fairy tale "The Tinderbox"? I read the story as a child. I had no idea what a Tinderbox was, but I imagined a wooden box full of twigs. In reality it was a box with a flint and some sort of slow-burning material – what they used before they had matches. (I can see some sort of examination of the rise of industrialization that then resulted in "Little Matchstick Girl," also written by Hans Christian Anderson. That is one sad story. When I was 7 or so our ballet recital was "The Little Matchstick Girl." I was an angel who danced around the dying girl. My costume was blue with itchy feathers around the bodice.)

If you don’t know "The Tinderbox," you should go read it, because ol’ Hans was a rather humorous writer, even when talking about lopping off a witch’s head. To summarize, a young soldier meets a witch who asks him to chimmy down into a hollow tree and fetch her tinderbox. While he’s there he’s free to help himself to all the copper, silver and gold coins, which are guarded by three dogs with enormous eyes. When he gets out, he wants to know why the witch is so keen to get an old tinderbox. She’s snippy and he responds by slicing her head off. Those were the days before anger management.

He’s got tons of gold, so he heads off to live large in town, until he’s broke and has to live in a garret (but doesn’t write poetry) and all his friends abandon him. He’s hanging out in the dark and remembers there’s a candle in the tinderbox. He strikes the flint and who should appear but one of the dogs, ready to do his bidding. Of course he sends him out after more gold. Then the story goes on to an unapproachable princess, a narrow escape from death and the destruction of all the pesky people standing in his way. Basically, we have a parable about corporate America.

Or not. Fairytales are wonderfully adaptable. One of my favorite books of poetry is Anne Sexton’s Transformations, reinterpretations of classic fairytales. And then there’s Angela Carter’s sinister The Bloody Chamber. They are chock o' block with sex, despair, brutality, misogyny, injustice, revenge, depravity. Fairy tales are dark and mean. Just tonight Firecracker woke up from a bad dream about getting lost and a witch locking her in a cage. The world of fairy tales is sicker than Saw. Well, I haven’t seen Saw, but you know what I mean.

I had forgotten about "The Tinderbox" until I ran across a Patrick Wolf (yes, I’m on about him again) song of that title. It’s perfectly done – if ever a song sounded like a fairy tale, this is it. His lyrics eventually land on the desire for lasting love and, I think, for some inner spark of vitality. Which is probably why I'm thinking about it. The flint has to be struck over and over.


  1. One of my favourite fairytales, thanks for sharing this Alice. My best wishes for 2010 to you and the family.

  2. I loved the Hans Christian Andersen fairy stories when I was a child, but then I got onto the Andrew Lang stories. He had the most wonderful "coloured" set of books that I have ever read! Unfortunately, I only have The Red Fairy Book, but I do intend to collect the whole set!
    Each book has a different colour, and the stories are just fantastic!
    A real MUST read for big kids, like me!
    Have a great New Year!

  3. Haven't read a fairy tale for a long time...but feel like I'm living one of those tragic ones, wondering what the ending will be...happy? or not?

    Hope you have a blessed year ahead.

  4. The matchbox girl is such a sad story. Hans Christian was a master of horror, no doubt. Hansel & Gretel having their fingers checked to see if they were meaty enough for the witch's stew is scary stuff.

  5. My wife is always surprising me with interesting stuff to read. I should have skipped 4 years of college and just asked her to be my teachers. Are you guys jealous?

  6. Speaking of the fabulous HCA and children's books that scare, when I was a kid, I got a big kick out of Edward Gorey's The Gashlycrumb Tinies. I said to myself one day, "If I had to die one of those deaths, I would choose being consumed by a fire. To go out with a blaze."

    Actually, I wouldn't, but I do love the song. Patrick Wolf is my new love. Thanks for introducing us, BA.

  7. JQ, I'm glad you like Patrick. I think he's pretty amazing.