Reading this shortened children’s edition once again along with the full version in The Complete Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen. The only real difference is the violence. Here, the old witch is ‘killed’ by the soldier with his sword, the soldier is imprisoned for periodically kidnapping the sleeping princess each night before summoning the three dogs for help who scare the king’s men into fleeing, and the king and queen are ‘seized’ by the dogs who then run away with them, the royals never to be seen again. Whereas in the full version, the witch is beheaded by the soldier with his sword, he’s about to be hanged before summoning help, and the King and Queen – along with the judge and all the council members – are tossed many feet into the air by the dogs, dying when all of their bones are broken upon landing.
As for my thoughts on the tale itself, well, the lesson appears to be: Murder and selfish greed can get you everything you could ever want, if you have an Ace up your sleeve.
Killing the witch for simply refusing to tell the soldier what she was going to do with the tinder box is extremely petty and immoral since he was paid handsomely to retrieve it. We’re not told whether greed played a part in his life-ending decision – it’s not implied, and for some reason when the soldier ran out of gold he never thought to return to the three treasure chests full of coin – one gold, one silver, and one copper – guarded by the dogs. Perhaps he didn’t have the witch’s apron to place and placate the large dogs anymore and evading them was too dangerous to contemplate. Anyway, as he’s a soldier returning home from the wars the price of life may have been cheapened in his eyes having probably seen many lives extinguished on the battlefield and by his own sword – what’s one more, and an old witch’s life at that. Christianity’s ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ springs to mind.
Alhough the soldier’s now a murderer of a seemingly innocent and exceptionally generous witch (though when she got her hands on the tinderbox she could’ve ordered the dogs to kill him and take the riches back), he may not be responsible for the royal and judicial deaths, for all he asks of the dogs is help: “Help me now, so that I may not be hanged.” He never explicitly orders murder, however this show of power clears the way to kinghood and marriage to the princess.
Ah, the princess.
‘And so the soldier married the princess, which pleased her very much.’ (children’s version)
“The princess came out of the copper castle, and became queen, and she liked that well enough.” (full edition)
These outcomes imply different things. The children’s version says the princess is happy she married the murderer of her parents. Why? Is she pleased they’re dead? Were they not good parents? Is she simply attracted to her new husband, forgiving him his sins against her? The castle is made of copper and not gold, was her family not as rich as the soldier now?
Or, is she pleased/content that she’s now queen, as the full edition suggests? Women didn’t always inherit the throne even if they were the first-born child and they didn’t always marry first-born princes of other kingdoms. Has she meekly accepted her fate or is she plotting revenge? We’re not told how old the princess is, whether she’s an only child, nor anything of her personality, although it’s safe to assume she’s under 21 as she’s unmarried.
These deaths also result in the death of the old regime, the destruction of the ruling elite, getting rid of the exclusivity of the blue-blooded monarchy in which no commoner can infiltrate by marrying a princess, the demolition of a judicial system with the power to snuff out a man’s life, and the soldier’s transition from riches to rags when he runs out of money exposes the superficial and conditional nature of friendship with members of the aristocracy who flock to him when he’s monied and fall away the poorer he becomes.
The soldier kills everyone – directly and indirectly – who tries to order him around. Killing them returns control of his fate to him. As of the end, he’s free to do as he likes just as the king before him did.
As a child, I remember enjoying the first part of the story, the adventuresome quest-like nature of seeking the tinder box in a cavern under a tree, carefully handling three increasingly large dogs each guarding three chests full of gold, silver and copper by placing them on the old witch’s apron so you fill your pockets with their treasure.
*I read this as part of The Dead Writers Society’s Around the World challenge for Northern Europe authors – Hans Christian Andersen is from Denmark.