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Once upon a time, in a land not very far away, a wise and wizened man had to go for an x-ray at the local hospital. Now this chap, who incidentally was clever, handsome and strong and could quite possibly be mistaken for a prince of the charming variety...or a troll, was not a good waiter. Granted, he could carry a multitude of pint tumblers without spilling a valuable drop, but that's not the sort of waiter I meant. He wasn't good at sitting around doing nothing. So he looked about and he looked around and he looked up and he looked down and what do you think he saw? Well, not much of a queue for one thing, but also a scattered collection of reading materials. Mostly and most unfortunately, reading matter of the NOW, HELLO, OK and SCREAM variety, but swimming its way to the surface of all this flotsam and jetsam was a little book. A little book of a mere 32 pages which our hero quickly realised he could probably read in the time he had before was called.
THE STEADFAST TIN SOLDIER
This book is a re-working of the Hans Christian Andersen tale first published in Copenhagen (1838) in Fairy Tales Told to Children. Apparently, it was the first tale Andersen wrote that doesn't have a literary model or is sourced from a folk tale, rather it marks his move towards 19th century nursery tales with toy dancers, castles etc.
This edition is edited by Naomi Lewis and illustrated by Patrick Lynch.
**This contains spoilers so if you don't want to know how it all ends, look away now.**
For his birthday, a little boy receives a set of 25 toy soldiers and lays them out on a table. Unfortunately, when the soldiers were cast from an old tin spoon, there wasn't enough material and the last soldier had only one leg. Undeterred, he stands tall and proud as he looks around his new surroundings. He sees a castle, which is impressive, but even more impressive is the paper ballerina standing in the doorway of the castle. Best of all, because of the way she is dancing, it looks like she only has one leg too. He immediately falls in love.
Things don't go too well though.
Next day, the soldier falls (or was he pushed) from the widowsill onto the street. Two boys find him, put him in a paper boat, and set him sailing in the gutter. The boat and its reluctant skipper fall into a storm drain, where a rat demands he pay a toll. On he goes, into a canal, where the tin soldier is swallowed by a fish. Soon, the fish is caught and cut open and the tin soldier is astonished to find himself back in the house where he started from (what are the chances?)
And there, still standing in the castle doorway is the dancer. Oh Joy.
Suddenly, for some strange reason the little boy throws the tin soldier in the fire then a feak gust of wind blows the ballerina into the fire where, being made of paper, her chances don't look too good. Indeed, she is instant ash and all that remains is a little 'gem' from her sash. The soldier lasts a little longer, but tin's not asbestos and soon he melts into the shape of a heart.
NOT THE PLOT
This, as you might hazard a guess, is not my usual reading matter but needs must as the devil makes work for light hands etc. It filled the few minutes I had to wait to be seen and it filled it quite magically.
I remember reading this as a child but knowing the outcome wasn't really an issue in a tale like this - you know it's going to have a happy ending...or NOT in this case. Unless a multiple homicide and instant cremation is your idea of happiness.
The book is beautifully illustrated by Patrick Lynch and these illustrations really help to bring the story to life. The language is easy enough for 4-8 year olds to grasp (which is the market it's aimed at) but not too simplistic either and even as a slightly older person, I didn't feel it was too childish.
It's also a book that could be read to younger children but perhaps the ending is a little gloomy for the more sensitive.
It's been noted, by more luminary critics than I, that this story is unusual among HC Andersen's earlier tales, most especially in its emphasis on sensual desire and ambiguities. Fate determines the pace and outcome of events while the tale seems to criticise the very ideals it praises. The tin soldier humbly accepts all the situations he finds himself in, never crying out for help as that would be 'unsoldierly'. If only he would speak out, he could gain the love of the ballerina and probably save his life, but his passive acceptance only leads to a tragic death.
Its also been written that this tale is somewhat autobiographical relating to Andersen's inadequacies with women and his feelings of being a bit of an outsider.
Me? I just thought it was a fairy tale albeit with no fairies. I mean, come on. It's a little bit pretentious to delve so deep into a tale like this surely? Sensual desire, ambiguities? All fairy tales are ambiguous but sensual? I hope not.
No. As far as I'm concerned this is just a short story and if there is any hidden meaning it's probably just carpe diem.