Archive for December 13th, 2012

Hans Christian Andersen’s first fairy tale found

Thursday, December 13th, 2012

A local historian has discovered a previously unknown fairy tale written by Hans Christian Andersen when he was a student in the 1820s, years before his first fairy tales were published. The work has been examined by Andersen experts who confirm that it was written by the author of such classics as The Little Mermaid and The Emperor’s New Clothes in his school days before he acquired the polish and elegance of his later works.

Early this October, historian and genealogist Esben Brage was doing some research in the reading room of a branch of the State Archives in Odense, the main city on the large central Denmark island of Funen. His work had nothing to do with Hans Christian Andersen. He was exploring the history of a small nearby island and of the Plum family. He had ordered the Plum family archives from the Central State Archives in Copenhagen and they arrived in four heavy boxes holding a thousand documents each. At the bottom of one of the boxes, he came across a yellowed booklet that caught his eye.

The front page had a dedication “To Mme Bunkeflod from her devoted H.C. Andersen.” What followed was a 700-word fairly tale called The Tallow Candle about a pure white candle that over the years becomes dirtied and discarded by uncaring people until finally it is recognized for its flame-giving purity of purpose by a tinder box. The tinderbox lights the candle and it burns with renewed joy for many years after. You can read the entire story translated into English here.

Realizing this could be something significant, Brage brought the manuscript to archive manager Mads Peter Christensen’s attention. Christensen, a Hans Christian Andersen buff in his own right, saw that the manuscript did not appear to be in Andersen’s handwriting and so was probably a copy. However, when he combed through a database of the author’s works he couldn’t find any reference to a story entitled The Tallow Candle.

Christensen enlisted the aid of Ejnar Stig Askgaard, one of the country’s leading Andersen experts and senior curator of the Odense City Museums’ Hans Christian Andersen Childhood Home. Askgaard studied the language, themes and historical clues in the booklet for two months before pronouncing himself confident that the story was indeed written by Andersen. “The Tallow Candle is classic Hans Christian Andersen. The red thread that goes through his fairy tales is also reflected here with themes of the ‘internal real’ in relation to the ‘outer perishable’.”

The history of the manuscript also points to Hans’ authorship. Madame Bunkeflod, to whom the story is dedicated, played a formative role in the life of young Hans Christian Andersen. Her husband, a Lutheran Church of Denmark priest and hymn writer, had died in 1805, the same year Hans was born, after which she and her children moved into a house across the street from the modest home in Odense that Hans Christian Andersen lived in between the ages of two and 14. Hans visited her as a child, becoming especially close to her after his shoemaker father died when he was just 11 years old. Her son had died a few years earlier, so they formed a deep bond over their shared loss.

After his father’s death, Han’s mother supported the family by working as a washerwoman. The work was hard and she took to drink. Madame Bunkeflod’s home was a refuge for Hans, a second home. She introduced him to classic literature, letting him borrow books. He would read them to her along with poetry written by Madame Bunkeflod’s late husband. It was at the Bunkeflod home where he decided to become a poet. It’s particularly fitting, then, that his first fairy tale would be dedicated to the woman who had played a crucial role developing his love of language and literature.

Madame Bunkeflod died in 1833. Askgaard and Christensen think it was probably her son Hans who sent the copy to the Plum family after her death. A second inscription in the top right hand corner of the dedication page says: “To S. Plum from his friend Bunkeflod.” The Plum and Bunkeflod families were both priestly families and had been friends since the days when Hans Bunkeflod’s father was still alive. The fact that the story was found in the Plum archives makes the ownership record a very clean and sparse one and supports the authenticity of its authorship.

Judging from the language used, the experts believe The Tallow Candle was written between 1819, when he left Odense to seek his fortune in Copenhagen, and 1825. He published his first book, Youthful Attempts, under a pseudonym in 1822. It was mainly poetry with one short story, The Ghost at Palnatoke’s Grave which was influenced by Sir Walter Scott. It wasn’t a fairy tale, though. He didn’t start writing those until the 1830s, publishing the first of them in 1835’s Fairy Tales. One of them was a story that also featured a tinder box, albeit no tallow candle was involved. I have dearly loved that story since I was child, all because of the three dogs that guard the treasure, the first with eyes the size of saucers, the second with eyes the size of mill wheels and the third with eyes the size of the towers of Copenhagen.

See high resolution pictures of each page of The Tallow Candle on the Danish State Archives’ Flickr page.





December 2012


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