Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | Study Guide

Hans Christian Andersen

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Fairy Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Selected) | The Tinder Box | Summary



This story begins on the open road, as a soldier is returning home from the wars. Next to an old tree by the side of the road, he finds an ugly old witch, who tells him what a fine figure he cuts, and that, if he likes, he can have as much money as he wants. All he has to do is climb up into the tree where it is hollow inside and get down into the hole. Once down there, he will find three doors, each one of which leads to a room with a chest of copper, silver, and gold, respectively. Each chest is guarded by a dog. However, if the soldier spreads the witch's apron in front of each one, the dog will be tamed and the soldier can help himself to as much money from the chests as he can carry. When the soldier asks the witch what she gets out of the deal, she replies she left a tinder box down there, and if he finds it and brings it back to her, it would be repayment enough.

The soldier climbs down into the tree and finds everything exactly as the witch described it. The dog guarding the chest of copper coins has eyes as big as saucers, while the one with the chest of silver coins has eyes as big as wagon wheels. But the dog guarding the chest of gold has eyes as big as the Round Tower of Copenhagen. Even so, each dog is placed on the witch's apron and stays quiet while the soldier crams his backpack with as much gold as it will hold. But the witch will not haul him back up until he has the tinder box. She refuses to tell him why she wants it, and he cuts off her head and pockets the tinder box before going on his way.

In town the soldier begins living the high life, with the best of everything money can buy, and it isn't very long before all his money is gone. All he has left is the tinder box. He discovers if he strikes it once, the dog from the copper chest instantly appears to do his bidding. Strike it twice, and the dog from the silver chest appears. With three strikes, the dog from the gold chest appears to grant the soldier his every wish. Before long, the soldier is back to his fine living without a care in the world.

A princess in the realm is reputed to be the most beautiful in the world. However, she's been locked up so no one can see her because it was foretold she would marry a common soldier. The soldier summons the dogs to fetch the sleeping princess to him, whereupon he falls madly in love with her. Once the king and queen find out about it, they have the soldier arrested to be hanged. Confined in prison, the soldier can't get to his tinder box, so he asks a boy to run to his rooms to fetch it. As soon as it's in his hands, he summons the dogs to toss everyone out of his way, thereby paving the way for his marriage to the princess.


The recurring motif of threes in this story is fairly common to many legends, myths, and folktales. The number suggests powerful cycles: birth, life, death and the states of past, present, and future. For instance, the answer Oedipus made to the riddle of the Sphinx was it is man who in the morning of life crawls on all fours, at noon walks on two, and in the evening walks on three (using a staff). The number three is also important in the Christian tradition's focus on the holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ), and God the Holy Spirit.

Andersen had enjoyed reading the tale of Aladdin's lamp as a child. The tale comes from The Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Middle Eastern and Indian stories with origins from the 8th century CE. In that story and in "The Tinder Box," an unwitting young man retrieves an insignificant-looking object that turns out to grant unlimited power and wealth to whoever owns it. "The Tinder Box" reframes the familiar plot from the exotic East using Danish characters Andersen's contemporaries would easily recognize. The character of the soldier is based on Andersen's father, who joined the Danish army in the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15) with high expectations of gaining a fortune, only to return as a common private, incurably ill and penniless.

This first of Andersen's tales was among those initially published in Copenhagen in Fairy Tales Told for Children (1835). Other stories included in this collection were "The Princess and the Pea" and "Little Claus and Big Claus," both of which originated in Danish folktales.

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