The Tinderbox

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The Tinderbox
by Hans Christian Andersen
The Tinderbox - Painting by Elena Ringo.jpg
The Tinderbox - Illustration by Elena Ringo
Original titleFyrtøiet
TranslatorCharles Boner
Genre(s)Literary fairy tale
Published inFairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. First Booklet. 1835.
Publication typeFairy tale collection
PublisherC. A. Reitzel
Media typePrint
Publication date8 May 1835
Published in English1846
Preceded by"The Improvisatore"
Followed by"Little Claus and Big Claus"

"The Tinderbox" (Danish: Fyrtøjet) is a literary fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen about a soldier who acquires a magic tinderbox capable of summoning three powerful dogs to do his bidding. When the soldier has one of the dogs transport a sleeping princess to his room, he is sentenced to death but cunningly summons the dogs to save his life.

In the Aarne-Thompson tale index, The Tinderbox is type 562: The Spirit in the Blue Light.[1] Other tales of this type include The Three Dogs and The Blue Light.[2]

The tale has its source in a Scandinavian folk tale Andersen learned in his childhood, but similarities with "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp" and other tales have been noted. The story was one of Andersen's first fairy tales, and was published by C. A. Reitzel in Copenhagen, Denmark on 8 May 1835 in an inexpensive booklet with three other tales by Andersen. The four tales were not favorably received by Danish critics who disliked their informal, chatty style and lack of morals. In 1946, "The Tinderbox" was the source material for Denmark's first animated film, and, in 2007, a ballet with costumes and scenery designed by Queen Margrethe II.


The story opens with a poor soldier returning home from war. He meets a witch, who asks him to climb into a hollow tree to retrieve a magic tinderbox. The witch gives the man permission to take anything he finds inside the chambers, but he must return the tinderbox. In the tree, he finds three chambers filled with precious coins guarded by three monstrous dogs, "one with eyes the size of teacups", who guards a vault filled with pennies, one with "eyes the size of water wheels", who guards a vault filled with silver, and one with eyes "the size of Round Tower", who guards a vault filled with gold. He fills his pockets with money, finds the tinderbox, and returns to the witch. When she demands the tinderbox without giving a reason, the soldier lops off her head with his sword.

In the following scene, the soldier enters a large city and buys himself splendid clothing and lives in a magnificent apartment. He makes many friends. He learns of a princess kept in a tower after a prophecy foretold her marriage to a common soldier; his interest is piqued and he wants to see her but realizes his whim cannot be satisfied. Eventually, the soldier's money is depleted and he is forced to live in a dark attic. He strikes the tinderbox to light the room, and one of the dogs appears before him. The soldier then discovers he can summon all three dogs and order them to bring him money from their subterranean dwelling. Again, he lives splendidly.

One night, he recalls the story of the princess in the locked tower, and desires to see her. He strikes the tinderbox and sends the dog with eyes the size of teacups to bring her to his apartment. The soldier is overwhelmed with her beauty, kisses her and orders the dog to return her to the tower. The following morning, the princess tells her parents she has had a strange dream and relates the night's adventure. The royal couple then watch her closely. When the princess is carried away again, they unsuccessfully use a trail of flour and chalk marks on neighborhood doors to find where she spends her nights. Eventually, her whereabouts are discovered and the soldier is clapped in prison and sentenced to death. The tinderbox got left behind, so he cannot summon its help.

On the day of execution, the soldier sends a boy for his tinderbox, and, at the scaffold, asks to have a last smoke. He then strikes the tinderbox and the three monstrous dogs appear. They toss the judge and the councillors, the King and Queen into the air. All are dashed to pieces when they fall to earth. The soldier and the princess are united, and the dogs join the wedding feast.

Sources and influences[edit]

Andersen based “The Tinderbox" on the Scandinavian folk tale "The Spirit in the Candle".[3] In the folk tale, a soldier acquires a magic candle which has the power to summon an iron man to do his bidding. The soldier uses the candle to visit a princess, and summons the iron man to save his life when he is sent to the stake for doing so. In the preface to the second volume of Fairy Tales and Stories (1863), Andersen indicates he heard the tale as a child "in the spinning room, and during the harvesting of the hops."[note 1][4]

Andersen knew The Arabian Nights, and "The Tinderbox” bears some similarities with "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp". Both tales feature a supernatural being inveigling a mortal to enter an enchanted area on promise of rich reward; both tales feature three chambers filled with riches; both tales have heroes refusing to part with a magic luminant and then winning a princess through its use.[5]

The story of Aladdin had a special emotional significance for Andersen. As a poor grammar school student in Copenhagen, he was invited to stay with a prominent Copenhagen family in the Amalienborg Palace. There, he was given a Danish translation of Shakespeare, and wrote in his diary on 12 December 1825:

"It's going for me as it did for Aladdin, who says at the close of the work[note 2] as he stands at a window of the palace:

Down there I walked when just a lad
Each Sunday, if I was but allowed
And gazed with wonder at the Sultan's palace.

Five or six years ago, I, too, was walking around on the streets down there, didn't know a soul here in town, and now I am gloating over my Shakespeare in the home of a kind and respected family. O Lord, I could kiss you!"[6]

Andersen was familiar with and widely read in folk and fairy lore. The princess locked in a tower in "The Tinderbox" has its counterpart in "Rapunzel"; the trail of flour mirrors the trail of grain in "Hansel and Gretel"; and the doors marked with chalk recall those from "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" – another tale from The Arabian Nights.[6]


On New Year's Day 1835, Andersen wrote his friend Henriette Hanck: "I am now starting on some 'fairy tales for children'. I am going to win over future generations, you may want to know", and, in a letter dated February 1835, he wrote the poet Bernhard Severin Ingemann: "I have started some 'Fairy Tales Told for Children' and believe I have succeeded. I have told a couple of tales which as a child I was happy about,[note 3] and which I do not believe are known, and have written them exactly the way I would tell them to a child". Andersen completed the tales by March 1835 and told Admiral Wulff's daughter, Henriette: "I have also written some fairy tales for children; Ørsted says about them that if The Improvisatore makes me famous then these will make me immortal, for they are the most perfect things I have written; but I myself do not think so". On 26 March, he observed that "they [the fairy tales] will be published in April, and people will say: the work of my immortality! Of course I shan't enjoy the experience in this world".[7]


Andersen in 1836

"The Tinderbox" is one of Andersen's first fairy tales. It was published in Copenhagen, Denmark by C. A. Reitzel on 8 May 1835 in an unbound 61-page booklet as the first installment of the first collection of Andersen's Fairy Tales Told for Children with "Little Claus and Big Claus", "The Princess and the Pea", and "Little Ida's Flowers". The booklet cost 24 shillings (the equivalent of 25 Dkr. or approximately US$5 in 2009) and the publisher paid Andersen 30 rixdollars (US$450 in 2009) for the manuscript.[8] The booklet was republished in a second edition in 1842, and a third in 1845.[9]

"The Tinderbox" was reprinted in Fairy Tales, a five volume collected edition of Andersen’s fairy tales published between August and December 1849 with 125 drawings by Vilhelm Pedersen, Andersen's favorite illustrator.[10] The tale was published again in the first volume of Fairy Tales and Stories on 15 December 1862.[11]

In his "Remarks" to the tales in the second volume of Fairy Tales and Stories in 1863, Andersen wrote, "The style should be such that one hears the narrator. Therefore, the language had to be similar to the spoken word; the stories are for children, but adults too should be able to listen in. The first three fairy tales are ones I heard during childhood, in the spinning room and during the harvesting of the hops; "Little Ida's Flowers" on the other hand, came into being one day while visiting the poet Thiele, when I was telling his daughter Ida about the flowers at the botanical gardens; I kept and adapted a few of the child's remarks when I later wrote the fairy-tale down."[9]

Danish critical responses, 1836[edit]

The first reviews of Andersen's tales appeared in 1836 and were unenthusiastic. Critics disliked the informal, chatty style of the tales and their lack of morals. The critic Carsten Hauch objected to the moral indifference of "The Tinderbox" but admired the delicate nobility of the Queen in "The Princess and the Pea".[12] Andersen was offered no encouragement from the critics. One literary journal never mentioned the tales at all while another advised Andersen not to waste his time writing fairy tales. He was told he "lacked the usual form of that kind of poetry [...]and would not study models." Andersen felt he was working against their preconceived notions about fairy tales and returned to novel-writing, believing it was his true calling.[13]

First English translation, 1846[edit]

Charles Boner was the first to translate "The Tinderbox" into English, working from a German translation rather than the Danish original. He missed the earthy, joking style of "The Tinderbox" in preference for the embellished, stilted literary diction of the period, and translated the king's, "We will not ... ", for example, to "We are not graciously pleased."[14] Boner's translation was published as "The Tinder Box" in A Danish Story-Book in 1846.[5]


Andersen biographer Jackie Wullschlager writes, "["The Tinderbox"] is a confident, young man's tale—jaunty, brisk, and exhilarating. It celebrates youth over age and it has the energy and hope and satisfaction of a traditional folk tale—"Aladdin", "Puss in Boots", "Jack and the Beanstalk"—whose young hero overcomes adversity and ends a contented, successful adult."[3]

Andersen grew up poor and uneducated, and was subject to many slights, snubs, and humiliations. Wullschlager notes, "[...] the fairy tale was a form in which [Andersen] could express forbidden emotions and thoughts without, as it were, being caught. It's no accident that of the first three folktales he chose to adapt, two ["The Tinderbox" and "Little Claus and Big Claus"] are fantasies of social revenge."[15]

Andersen personalizes "The Tinderbox" with humor and detail. When the soldier finds gold in a chamber beneath the hollow tree, for example, he realizes he can buy "all of the tin-soldiers and whips and rocking-horses in the world.” The author's characteristic social satire marks the moment when the soldier loses all of his riches and his fair-weather friends no longer visit because there are too many stairs to climb to his attic dwelling.[16]

For Wullschlager, "The style [of the tale ...] draws the teller and listener together, sharing jokes against the pompous and powerful, engaging the cunning tricks that allow the poor and weak to triumph, and providing an outlet for Andersen’s rage against the bourgeois society that tried to make him conform."[15]

Fairy and folk tale scholar Jack Zipes views "The Tinderbox" as Andersen's way of dealing with his anger at his superiors. In Andersen's early tales the rich and powerful are either overthrown or exposed as conceited, stupid, and arrogant. On another note, he observes, "Psychologically, Andersen’s hatred for his own class (his mother) and the Danish nobility (the king and queen) are played out bluntly when the soldier kills the witch and has the king and queen eliminated by the dogs. The wedding celebration at the end of the story is basically a celebration of the solidification of power by the bourgeois class in the nineteenth century: the unification of a middle-class soldier with a royal princess."[17]

In fashioning his tale, Andersen subconsciously touched upon the sociopolitical formula for bourgeoisie progress and success in the nineteenth century: use one’s talents to acquire money and perhaps a wife, establish a means (here, the tinderbox and dogs) to continually renew one’s money and power, and employ that money and power to maintain social and political hegemony. Zipes writes that "the soldier is justified in his use of power and money because he is essentially better than anyone else – chosen to rule. The king and queen are dethroned, and the soldier rises to assume control of society through the application of his innate talents and good fortune.”[17]

The tale can be read as the social and sexual maturation of a young man in a brutal world. The soldier has his knapsack (mind and talents) and his sword (power and phallus), and learns not to deplete them wastefully but to control them and direct them for personal happiness and success. The psychological thrust of the tale is connected to Andersen’s criticism of the artificiality, hypocrisy, and injustice of the aristocracy and its eventual overthrow by the "true nobility" of the young, lower-class soldier.[18]

The soldier in Andersen's tale shares the brutal, greedy, and impetuous traits with the many soldier-heroes of the Grimms and other European collectors. He is not much of a role model for children, but tales of returning warriors were usually directed toward adults. Andersen softens the story with enough magic and whimsy to make it appealing to both adults and children.[19]


  • "The Tinderbox" was the subject of the first Danish animated feature film in 1946 directed by Svend Methling and animated by Børge Ring.[20]
  • The Tinder Box is a 1959 film based on the story.
  • In 2007, "The Tinderbox" was adapted into a 30-minute ballet with sets and costumes designed by Queen Margrethe II. The ballet opened in the Pantomime Theatre of Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens in July 2007. It was the third time the monarch designed a ballet for Tivoli based on Andersen's works.[21]
  • Lucy Corin's "Eyes of Dogs", a version of "The Tinderbox," appeared in 2013 as a short story in her One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses.
  • Ginger's Tale is a 2020 Russian traditional animation film loosely based on the fairy tale that features a magical artifact similar to the Tinderbox that grants the ability to summon gold and only a noble friend, Ginger can help save the wielder of the artifact from its effects[22]
  • In the 1950s Sir Michael Redgrave made a recording (12 inch vinyl, 33 1/3) entitled "Tales of Hans Christian Andersen" in which he reads "The Tinderbox" and other stories. This recording was briefly reviewed in "Billboard" dated 30 June, 1958. In "Selected Lists of Children's Books and Recordings" by the American Library Association, Children's Services Division, the recording is referred to as "Caedmon TC 1073" and as "Distinguished reading, faithful to the R.P. Keigwin text". It is also available as part of an audiobook entitled "The Very Best of Hans Christian Anderson" (note this non-standard spelling of his name) and on music sites such as Spotify.

Video game[edit]

In 1985, Gremlin Graphics released a ZX Spectrum-only children's adventure game titled Tinderbox,[23] of which all profit went to the Ethiopian famine relief fund through Soft Aid.[24] In the game, written by Colin C. Chadburn, a wounded foot soldier named Tom must defeat a wicked witch and an evil king who together cruelly rule the country in order to save and marry the beautiful Princess Rowella. Tom does not kill the villains, instead he just scares the witch-queen away and banishes the king.

Tinderbox received mixed reviews, ranging from only one out of five stars from Sinclair User,[25] to the scores of 7/10 from both Crash and Your Spectrum.[26][27] According to Home Computing Weekly, "the game could have been a massive hit" if only it was written in The Quill instead of BASIC.[28]

Similar tales[edit]

Tales similar to "The Tinderbox" include "The Blue Light" from the Grimm collections; "Hagop’s Wish", an Armenian tale; "Lars, My Lad!", a Swedish tale; and "Soldier of the Blue Light", an American tale from Kentucky.[29]


  1. ^ As a child, Andersen was the favorite of the pauper women in the spinning room of an asylum where his grandmother worked. The women entertained him with tales, and he, in turn, entertained them with sketches of human anatomy on the walls. He recalled, "...the stories told by these old ladies, and the insane figures I saw around me in the asylum, operated in the mean time so powerfully upon me, that when it grew dark, I scarcely dared to go out of the house."
  2. ^ Adam Gottlob Oehlenschläger put forth the theory in his 1805 drama Aladdin that certain people are chosen by God, or the gods, or nature to achieve greatness no matter how weak, ill, or unsuited they may be. The theory had special significance in Denmark after 1814 and especially for Andersen. Oehlenschlager‘s Aladdin was based on the author‘s life, and, in the drama, the lamp symbolizes intuitive poetic genius.
  3. ^ The three tales are "The Tinderbox", "Little Claus and Big Claus" and "The Princess and the Pea". The fourth tale in the collection, "Little Ida's Flowers", is completely original with Andersen.


  1. ^ "Grimm Brothers' Children's and Household Tales (Grimms' Fairy Tales)". 2016-04-09. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  2. ^ "The Blue Light: Folktales of Type 562". 2016-04-08. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  3. ^ a b Wullschlager 152
  4. ^ quoted in Wullschlager 22-3
  5. ^ a b Opie 206
  6. ^ a b Andersen 2005 423
  7. ^ Wullschlager 149
  8. ^ Wullschlager 149-50
  9. ^ a b "The Timetable Year By Year, 1835 : The First Collection of Fairy-Tales". The Hans Christian Andersen Center. Retrieved 2009-02-08.
  10. ^ Wullschlager 334
  11. ^ "Hans Christian Andersen : The Tinder Box". Hans Christian Andersen Center. Retrieved 2009-02-05.
  12. ^ Wullschlager 165-6
  13. ^ Andersen 135
  14. ^ Wullschlager 298-9
  15. ^ a b Wullschlager 153
  16. ^ Wullschlager 152-3
  17. ^ a b Zipes 34
  18. ^ Zipes 35
  19. ^ Tatar 157
  20. ^ From the Tinder Box to the Ugly Duckling, Danish Film Institute, archived from the original on 2008-01-31, retrieved 2009-02-05
  21. ^ Danish queen lends a hand for Andersen-inspired ballet,, 2007-07-13, retrieved 2009-02-05
  22. ^ ""Анимационные Канны": российские аниматоры примут участие в фестивале в Анси". (in Russian). Retrieved 2020-11-22.
  23. ^ "Tinderbox". World of Spectrum. Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  24. ^ "CRASH 15 - News". Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  25. ^ "Sinclair User Magazine Issue 043". Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  26. ^ "Crash Magazine Issue 18". Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  27. ^ "Sinclair ZX Spectrum Reviews". Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  28. ^ "Home Computing Weekly Magazine Issue 122". Retrieved 2016-05-19.
  29. ^ "Tales Similar to "The Tinderbox"". SurLaLune Fairy Tales. Archived from the original on 2016-02-28. Retrieved 2009-02-07.


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