Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A New Year's fairy tale - The Little Match Girl

Fairy tales are, despite their sometimes grim content and often alarming messages, always for children. They're distinctly unsatisfying for adults. Their brevity makes them unsettling. Their action makes them downright scary. They are written as if by children, with that brutal, direct and virtually amoral style that sends a sensible grown-up running away to the relative comforts of Stephen King and Margaret Atwood.

First, a comparison. Charles Dickens' 1843 novella A Christmas Carol is a seasonal staple at this time of year. The tale of an embittered miser who becomes the most generous of men through having his eyes opened to the need and potential of others, particularly the poor, is eternally popular in a world which likes to focus on redemption and positive change. The mid-19th century produced many stories of wealth and poverty, love and indifference, as it was a time when the ruthless attitude that poverty was a) inevitable and b) a judgement on the poor was starting to meet resistance.

Two years later, Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen added to the criticism with a very short story about a loveless urchin who curls up on a wintry street corner on New Year's Eve. The Little Match Girl is one the darkest of Andersen's often sad stories. When I first read it as a child, it was my first experience of a fiction in which the hero is not saved, the world is not righted, and despite the warmth and love of the religious message, what lingers is the tragedy.

Despite my fondness for Scrooge, I'm fascinated by Andersen's darker story. Dickens, ever a bully with his paper pulpit, crams redemption down our throats so forcefully that the part of the story most remember with fondness isn't Scrooge the redeemed, but Scrooge the - well, Scrooge. Dickens' story fails on what had to have been the most basic level; he's a portrait of a very particular miser, not a representative of all the harsh, indifferent rich men who turn their backs on their fellow humans. Dickens adored making a point, but he loved writing zany, memorable characters more.

Andersen's story, on the other hand, is of a small child dying in the snow at the Christmas season, dreaming of a stove, food, holiday decorations. Nobody has bought her matches, another urchin has stolen her shoes, her own father will beat her for not bringing home money. It doesn't get more relentless than this. No time-travelling look at the influences of a rich man's poverty of soul, no change of the fate of a poor man's son, no warmth but the promise of fantasy and death. The mood in this short, short story is almost unbearable. And in an entirely different way than A Christmas Carol, it's also succeeded worldwide as a recurring, eternal tale.

It's available online at Online-Literature.com and at HCA.Gilead.org, which also contains a lot of information about Andersen.

Some truly alarming pop culture trivia from Wikipedia

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