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Literature / The Shadow

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"The Shadow" ("Skyggen" in original Danish) is a short Fairy Tale by Danish poet and author Hans Christian Andersen, first published in 1847.

The story follows a Learned Man on a voyage south from northern Europe. One evening as he sits by a fire, he amused observes his shadow dancing and imitating his movements in the light of the flames, thinking that it would be funny if it was a creature with a will of its own. The next morning, he awakes and finds to his surprise that his shadow has disappeared overnight. But as a new shadow slowly grows back from the tip of his toes, the Learned Man does not give the incident another thought, and soon thereafter goes home to northern Europe. One evening several years later, however, he hears a knock on his door. It is his shadow, the one he lost years before during his journey, now standing upon his doorstep, almost completely human in appearance. Intrigued, the Learned Man invites the Shadow inside, where the two sit down and talk about the Shadow's experiences during its travels and how it came to take the form of a human.


During the conversation, the subject turns to the Learned Man's rather unsuccessful writing career. The Learned Man values the good, the true, and the beautiful in the world, and writes about it often, but his writing seems to garner little to no interest with the public. The Shadow declares that the Learned Man is too much of an idealist, and his view of the world is flawed. The Shadow claims that he, unlike his master, understands the world, that he has seen it as truly is, and knows how evil some men really can be. They soon part ways once again.

The Shadow goes on to make itself quite wealthy, even as the Learned Man barely manages to survive. He eventually grows very ill, and so the Shadow proposes they travel to a health resort. The Shadow will fund the trip, on the condition that the Learned Man pretend to be its shadow instead of the other way around. Absurd as the suggestion sounds, the Learned Man ultimately agrees and they undertake the trip, with the Shadow as his master.


On the trip, the Shadow meets and woos a Princess. When the pair are about to be married, the Shadow asks the Learned Man to remain as its shadow permanently, in exchange for a good life with them. The Learned Man refuses and threatens to reveal the truth to the Princess. Thus, the Shadow has him arrested and ultimately executed, and goes on to live a happy life with the Princess.

"The Shadow" is a decidedly dark Fairy Tale, said by Andersen to be an example about how the righteous and well-intentioned do not always come out on top, as is true in real life.

If you came here for the cackling pulp character who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men, you'll want The Shadow instead.


Tropes found in "The Shadow":

  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The Learned Man jokingly asks his shadow to investigate Poetry's house for him. That careless request costs him his life.
  • The Bad Guy Wins
  • Blackmail: The Shadow implies that he won his fortunes through stalking, gaining knowledge of "dirty secrets". At the moment he started writing to people about those secrets, everyone suddenly became his friend, and gave him lots of wealth, just to shut him up.
  • Casts No Shadow: The Shadow, ironically enough. The Learned Man as well, after it abandones him, although he eventually grows a new one.
  • Crapsack World: The Shadow lampshades it, and openly exploits it. When he eventually gets control of a country...hoo boy.
  • Dark Is Evil
  • Downer Ending
  • Dumb Is Good: Deconstructed. The naïveté of the Learned Man and the Princess does nothing except make them easily manipulated.
  • Foreshadowing: When the Shadow seeks out the Learned Man and greets him for the first time, it tells him that it wished to see his former master before he dies. "You will die, of course..."
  • He Knows Too Much: The Shadow has its former master killed because of this.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The Shadow is not entirely human, and the Princess calls it out on this at once. It has the knack of stalking in a manner of which no ordinary human is capable.
  • Karma Houdini: The Shadow has the Learned Man killed off, when he threatens to expose him, and goes on to live a rich and happy life with the Princess, never facing any comeuppance for all the many crimes he is implied to have committed.
  • Living Shadow
  • Manipulative Bastard: The Shadow, of course.
  • Mercy Kill: The Shadow manipulates the Princess into believing that she is doing this when she orders the execution of the Learned Man, telling her that he has gone incurably insane and had to be locked up, while also strongly implying that someone really ought to put him out of his misery.
  • The Muse: The beautiful girl on the other side of the street. The Shadow states that she is poetry incarnate, but could not go near her, because she was bathed in light. Shame that the Learned Man never got to meet her himself.
  • Shadow Archetype: Guess. Who.
  • Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!: The Shadow's opinion on the Learned Man's worldview.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In Evgeny Schwartz's play, the Learned Man is resurrected.
  • Take Our Word for It: The Shadow never exactly tells what he saw in Poetry's house. He just convinces the Learned Man that he saw and learned what was to be learned. But he is clearly bluffing.
  • Take That!: The story is a dark jab at journalism vs. poetry, where the paparazzo clearly gets the upper hand over the truth-seeking philosopher, until the one effectively gains power and eliminates the other.
  • Truth in Television: Good doesn't always win.


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