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Literature / The Tinder Box

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A Hans Christian Andersen Fairy Tale published in May 1835 about a soldier who comes upon a witch who tells him how to obtain lots and lots of money, if only he will bring her a tinderbox that got left down inside a passageway under an old oak tree by mistake. The soldier goes down and finds three enormous dogs, guarding in turn a chest of copper coins, a chest of silver coins, and a chest of gold coins. When he brings up some gold, he is reminded of the tinderbox and goes to get it. But the witch won't tell him what is so special about the tinderbox, even upon threat of beheading. So the soldier beheads the witch. It isn't until later that he discovers by accident that the tinder-box can be used to summon the dogs, who can bring him more money.

Eventually the soldier finds that he's fallen in love with a princess, but the King and Queen have heard a prophecy that she will marry a mere common soldier and are having none of that, so they keep the Princess locked away in a Copper Palace all the time. He utilizes the summoning tinderbox to get a dog to bring the princess to him. Eventually the King and Queen figure out that someone has been spiriting the Princess away overnight, and have someone follow the dog. When they find the house, they mark it with chalk. The dog sees the chalk mark and marks all the doors on that street. Eventually the Queen fashions a bag that she fills with flour, out of which there has been cut a small hole, and ties it to the princess so that there will be a flour trail that they can follow. The dog doesn't notice the flour trail, and the soldier is arrested and sentenced to hanging.

He doesn't have his tinderbox, so he gets a boy to go to his apartment and bring him the tinder-box. When he's to be hanged, he asks to be allowed one last smoke, and uses the tinderbox to summon all three dogs. The dogs throw the judges and councillors so high into the air that they are killed when they hit the ground. The King is unmoved by this, so the dogs do the same to him and the Queen. The people proclaim the soldier to be the king, and he marries the princess and gets her out of that Copper Castle.

This story is available online here.


  • Bowdlerized: Some versions don't mention that after the dogs toss the King and Queen and Judges into the air that they not only die after they hit the ground, but they're also broken into pieces.
  • Canis Major: The three dogs. The smallest has eyes the size of teacups, the middle one has eyes the size of millstones, and the largest has eyes as big as the circumference of a tower. Now think about the size of a dog proportional to the size of its eyes.
  • Character Witness: While in prison, the soldier catches the attention of a boy and recruits him to retrieve the tinderbox from his room at the inn, which he later uses to escape. The boy does this for him, because he remembers the soldier buying food for his family when they were impoverished.
  • Fair-Weather Friend: When he becames rich by the first time, the soldier gets many "friends" which quickly abandon him after his money is depleted.
  • Follow the Leader: In a way. The story is traditional, and is a Danish take on Aladdin. The tinderbox replaces the lamp, the dogs replace the djinni, and the old hag replaces the old wizard.
  • Gonk: The witch is described as a very ugly woman, with her "lower lip dangled right down on her chest".
  • Hell Hound: Three of them. Not explicitly demonic, but certainly supernatural.
  • Summon Magic: Strike the tinderbox once for the dog that guards copper pennies, twice for the dog that guards silver coins, and three times for the guardian of the gold.
  • Nameless Narrative: We never find out the soldier's name. Or anybody's name, for that matter...
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: The chalk on the door trick, which is a Shout-Out to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
  • One Last Smoke: Exploited. The Soldier banks on the King probably not denying a man about to be executed his last smoke. It allows him to turn the tables on the King.
  • Pet the Dog: The tale mentions the soldier shared his money with poor people when he became rich.
  • Sociopathic Hero:
    • The soldier murders the witch for not telling him how the box works, kidnaps a princess, and certainly doesn't seem too bothered when his dogs tear apart an entire courtroom and two monarchs.
    • While the witch is debatable, the monarchs and the courtroom were most definitely Jerkass Victims as they tried to hang him for secretly meeting and courting the princess. Except in one version, where the king cheated the soldier out of his pay and he retaliates by beating the princess and making her do maid service each night.
  • Trail of Bread Crumbs: The leaking sack of flour or grain used to find the soldier's apartment.
  • Treasure Room: The rooms under the tree where the chests of coins are kept.