Story time: The Tinderbox

adapted from the story by Hans Christian Anderson

There was once a soldier who had returned from the wars.  He was marching along the high road when he was met by a witch, he could tell because her lower lip hung right down to her chest.

“Good day, soldier,” she said, smiling strangely at him, “You look very brave with your fine uniform and your sword at your side and your knapsack on your back.  It’s obvious that you’re a real soldier, so you shall have as much money as you want.”

“Thank you, old witch,” said the soldier.

“You’re quite welcome,” she responded, “Do you see that tree over there?  You climb that tree until you come to a hole.  Let yourself down that hole until you come to a tunnel lit by a hundred candles.  In the tunnel you will see three doors.  Behind the first door you’ll see a chest, which you’ll find is full of copper coins.  Seated on top of the chest is a dog with eyes as big as teacups.  You don’t need to fear him, though, because you’ll have my blue checkered apron.  Just lay the apron on the floor and put the dog on top of it and you have nothing to fear.  Then you can take all the copper you want.  If it’s silver you like, just go to the second door.  You’ll find things the same, save that the dog on the chest has eyes as big as wagon wheels and the chest is full of silver coins.  If it’s gold you prefer, the third door is for you.  The dog on that chest has eyes as big as millwheels.  But you need’nt fear him.  Just put him on my apron and take all that you want.  I’ll tie a rope around your middle and pull you up when you’re finished.”

“And what do you want, witch?” asked the soldier, “Obviously, you’re not offering me all this money out of the goodness of your heart.”

“Oh, it’s nothing much,” the witch replied, “Just an old tinderbox my mother left down there.  Retrieve it for me and the money is yours.”

“All right, I promise,” said the soldier.  So the witch tied her rope around his waist and handed him her blue-checked apron.  Once it was tied, the soldier climbed the tree and let himself down the hole.  When he came to the bottom he found everything just as the witch had described.  Entering by the first door, he saw the dog with eyes as big as teacups and, beneath him, a great big chest.

“What a handsome dog you are,” the soldier said, placing him on the apron.  He then opened the chest and, sure enough, found it filled to the very top with copper coins.  Without hesitation, the soldier filled his purse, pockets and knapsack, then closed the chest and replaced the dog.  Next he went to the second door and saw the dog with eyes as big as wagon wheels seated on an even bigger chest.

“You probably shouldn’t look at me that way,” said the soldier, placing him on the apron, “You’ll make your eyes water.”  Then he opened the chest and found such a great quantity of silver coins that he threw out all the copper coins he’d taken and filled his purse, pockets, knapsack and hat with all the silver they would hold.  Finally he opened the last door and there he saw the dog with eyes as big as mill wheels seated on an enormous chest.

“Good morning,” was all he could think to say before putting him, with difficulty, onto the apron.  Opening the chest, he saw so much gold that he immediately threw away all the silver he’d taken and filled his purse, pockets, knapsack, hat and boots with nothing but gold.  When he had all he could carry, he returned quickly to the hole and called up, “All right, pull me up, you old witch.”

“Do you have the tinderbox?” she asked.

“Good lord,” said the soldier, “in all the excitement, I forgot it.”  He quickly went and got the tinderbox and then the witch pulled him up and he stood on the high road with more gold than he’d ever had before in his life.

“What are you going to do with the tinderbox?” the soldier asked, once he was on the road again.

“That’s none of your business,” the witch declared, “You have your money, now give me the tinderbox.”

“Look,” said the soldier, “either you tell me what you’re going to do with the tinderbox, or I’m going to draw my sword and cut your head off.”

“No,” said the witch.

So the soldier drew his sword and cut the witch’s head clean off.  Then he tied all his money up in her apron, slung it on his back like a bundle and, putting the tinderbox in his pocket, left her body there in the road and made his way to the nearest town.  It was a really nice town and, without hesitation, the soldier went and rented the best set of rooms at the finest inn and ordered a dinner comprised of all his most favorite dishes, since he was rich now and had lots of cash.

The next day, he went out and bought himself some new clothes and boots and began to be known throughout the town as a fine gentleman, and the people visited him and told him all about the wonderful things that he could see in the town, not to mention about the king’s beautiful daughter, the princess.

“Where can I see her?” the soldier asked.

“You can’t,” they said, “She lives in a large copper castle surrounded by high walls and towers.  Only the king himself can pass in or out, because there has been a prophecy that she will marry a common soldier and the king can’t bear to think of such a marriage.”

“I sure wish I could see her,” the soldier sighed, but, try as he might, he couldn’t get permission.  Still, he had lots of fun.  He went to the theater, drove through the king’s gardens, and gave lots of money to the poor, which was good of him; he remembered what it was like to have nothing.  Now, though, he was rich and had lots of friends who all said he was a great guy and a real gentleman, which really made him feel good.

Unfortunately, when money is spent and not replaced, it has a habit of eventually running out.  So it was with the soldier’s money.  Eventually, the time came when he only had two gold coins left and was obliged to move out of his fine rooms and into an attic room upstairs, where his friends claimed there were too many stairs to climb for them to think of visiting him and he had to clean his own boots and mend his own clothing.  Finally, one evening, he didn’t even have a penny to buy a single candle.  Then, all at once, he remembered seeing a small piece of candle in the tinderbox that he’d brought from the tree that the witch had helped him into.  Quickly he dug it out.  But no sooner had he struck a few sparks with the flint and steel when the door flew open and standing there was the dog with eyes as big as teacups, which had been guarding the copper money.

“What are your orders, master?” the dog asked.

“May I have anything I wish, then?” the soldier exclaimed, “Bring me some money.”

Immediately, the dog vanished and, a few moments later, returned carrying a large bag of coppers.  It was in this way that the soldier discovered the true value of the tinderbox.  If he struck it once, there appeared the first dog that guarded the copper.  If he struck it twice, the dog came that guarded the silver.  If he struck it thrice, the dog who sat on the gold made his appearance.  Soon the soldier, once again, had plenty of money and was able to return to his elegant rooms and wear his fine clothes again, so that all his friends knew and visited him again, making just as big a deal out of him as before.

After a while, though, the soldier began to think it was weird that no one could get a look at the princess.  After all, everyone in town said she was beautiful, “But what good is that if she’s shut up all day and night in that copper castle of hers surrounded by so many towers?” he said to himself, “Isn’t there any way that I can get to see her?  Wait a minute!  Where’s my tinderbox?”  Quickly, he found the tinderbox and struck a light.  Instantly, the dog with eyes as big as teacups stood before him.

“It’s midnight,” the soldier said, “But I’d really like to have a look at the princess, if only for a moment.”

Immediately, the dog disappeared, and before the soldier could look around, it had returned with the princess.  She was lying, asleep, on the dog’s back and she looked so beautiful that anyone who saw her would know right away that she was a princess.  The soldier couldn’t help but kiss her, true soldier that he was. Then the dog ran back to the copper castle with the princess.  In the morning, at breakfast, the princess confided to her parents what a singular dream she’d had the previous night.

“I dreamed,” said she, “that a large dog took me from my bed and carried me to a soldier, who kissed me.”

“What an interesting story,” the queen said.  Nevertheless, the next night, a lady’s maid was assigned to watch the princess all night to be certain it had only been a dream.

Meanwhile, the soldier longed very much to see the princess once more.  He did everything he could during the day to forget about her, to no avail.  Finally, the next night, he summoned the dog with eyes as big as teacups and sent it to fetch the princess again and to run with her as fast as he could.  But the lady’s maid had put on water boots and ran after him just as quickly as he did and found the house where the princess had been carried.  Taking out a large piece of chalk, she marked the door with a large white cross, thinking that this would help her to remember where the place was, and went home to bed.  Eventually, the dog returned with the princess, but when it saw that the door of its master’s house was marked with a cross, it took another piece of chalk and marked all the other doors in the town with crosses.

Early the next morning, the king and queen accompanied the ladies maid and all the officers of the court into town to see where the princess had been.

“Here it is,” said the king, when he came to a door with a cross on it.

“No, dear, it must be that one,” said the queen, pointing to another door with a cross on it.

“And here’s one and here’s another one,” everyone said, because there were large white crosses on all the doors in every direction.

Finally, they decided that it would be useless to search any more and went back home again.  Now the queen was a very clever woman, with brains in her head.  She could do much more than just ride around in a golden carriage all day long.  She took a pair of scissors and cut a piece of silk into squares, and with one of these she made a little pouch that she filled with buckwheat flour and hung around the princess’ neck.  Then she cut a tiny hole in the bottom of the pouch so that the flour would run out and show where the princess had gone.  The next night the dog came again and carried the princess to the soldier, who loved her very much and had begun to wish he were a prince so that he could have her for his wife.  Unfortunately for the soldier, the dog didn’t notice the bag of flour leaving a trail behind it wherever it went and even up to the window where the soldier was.  Therefore, in the morning, when the king and queen went to find the place where the princess had been, they found it easily and the soldier was taken and put into prison.  The frustrating thing about that was that people constantly told him, “You’re going to be hanged tomorrow.”  That wasn’t pleasant news, not to mention that he’d left the tinderbox back at the inn.  The next morning, he was watching out his tiny window while all the people in town hurried to the town square to see him hanged and the drums were beating and the soldiers were marching and, as he watched, he saw a shoemaker’s boy, with his leather apron and slippers on, running past him so fast that one of his slippers fell off and landed next to the soldier’s little window.

“Hey, you!” he called out. “Shoemaker’s boy!  Don’t be in such a rush.  The exciting part won’t happen until after I get there, but if you’ll just run to the inn where I was staying and bring me my tinderbox, I’ll give you four gold coins, but you’ll have to hurry.”

Eager to earn four whole pieces of gold, the shoemaker’s boy ran off at full tilt and soon returned with the tinderbox, which the soldier put carefully into his pocket.   Soon, the soldier was brought to the town square to be hanged and, before they could put the noose around his neck, the soldier cried out, “Wait!  Isn’t it a reasonable thing to grant a condemned man one last request before he dies?  All I want is to smoke one last pipe of tobacco.”  Well the king couldn’t see a reason to refuse a request like that, so the soldier took out his tinderbox and struck it once, twice, thrice and immediately all three dogs stood before him.

“Save me!” cried the soldier to them, “I don’t want to be hanged!”

So the dogs grabbed the judges and the councillors, one by his leg, another by his nose and threw them so far up into the air that when they came down they were dead.

“These dogs will leave me alone,” the king said to himself.  But the largest dog, with the eyes as big as mill wheels, seized him and the queen and tossed them up as well.  Finally, the people were so frightened that they cried out, “Good soldier, please be our king and marry the beautiful princess.”

Well, the soldier agreed and the people put him in the king’s carriage and the princess got to come out of her copper castle and became queen, which was very pleasing to her.  Finally, the two were married and the wedding festivities lasted for a week, during which the three dogs sat at the table and stared at everyone with their big eyes.

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2 thoughts on “Story time: The Tinderbox

  1. I always love how you follow the old storyteller tradition of making a story your own.Please, do consider making some audio recordings of you recounting a story from memory– you ARE very good at this, and I think the Neighborhood would enjoy them. They will likely have to be short, however.

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