The Steadfast Tin Soldier (Standhaftige Tinsoldat) by Hans Christian Andersen, 1838
THE STEADFAST TIN SOLDIER (Standhaftige tinsoldat)
by Hans Christian Andersen, 1838
"The Steadfast Tin Soldier,"("Standhaftige tinsoldat"; also translated into English as "The Constant Tin Soldier") was published in Hans Christian Andersen's Eventyr)(Fairy Tales), which appeared from 1835 to 1842. In the nineteenth century the strong impetus for imaginative literature for children, encouraged by the works in folklore of the brothers Grimm, gained strength through the efforts of Andersen. Andersen did not collect folklore but used its powers creatively with a special sympathetic touch for the lonely child who endows inanimate objects with life.
Although deemed a fairy tale "The Steadfast Tin Soldier" is actually more of an adventure story. In a setting of childhood play it presents the ideals of the life history of a tin soldier who remains constant in duty. Though a pawn to "higher powers" in the form of a little boy, the toy soldier is willing to die in uniform as a soldier should. Conscious of his place and his training he does not move his eyes, nor does he shout or change his position when distracted or threatened; he never winces with pain.
He is, however, odd man out, the rare exception. Cloned with 24 others from the same old tin spoon, his origin as number 25 in a box that should end—one would suppose—with two dozen, leaves him minus a leg; there was not enough tin to make him like the others. Unlike "The Ugly Duckling," however, he cannot grow out of his deformity.
Never despairing of his shortcoming he proceeds with a singular life denied to the common lot. He alone among them finds a ladylove, a paper dancer standing on one leg in the doorway of a paper castle. She, too, is disproportioned in that the spangle that adorns her scarf is larger than her face. The soldier—possibly because he does not fit—is left to lie beside a snuffbox where he can gaze at her indefinitely.
Resistance to confinement characterizes all the tin soldiers, who become animated when the lid is taken off the box and they find themselves placed on a table with other toys, chief of which is the paper castle with realistic setting and the dancer in the doorway. The soldier assumes she must be one-legged like himself and desires her for his wife.
A blending of rigidity befitting a toy and consciousness resembling living beings characterizes the telling. The tin soldier's concern for propriety enters the scene; the dancer lives in a palace and he only in a box, but he must try to make her acquaintance. The toy soldier does not remove his gaze from the lady, and behind the snuffbox he watches her continue to stand without losing her balance.
At evening when the 24 soldiers are returned to the box, the other toys play their own games—except for the dancer and the one-legged soldier, who do not move. At the stroke of midnight the lid of the snuffbox flies open to disclose the soldier's enemy, a jack-in-the-box type of goblin who requests that the soldier remove his gaze; as soldiers on parade must do, he "feigned not to hear." From this point on he suffers the vicissitudes of nature and the goblin's curse. "You just wait till tomorrow," the goblin threatens.
The children next day place the one-legged soldier on the window sill, from whence a puff of wind blows him from the third story to the ground where the owner, searching, cannot find him. The soldier does not think it proper to shout when in uniform. Other children find him and make a paper boat to sail him in the gutter. Amid much danger as he floats, he holds his position as a soldier should and looks straight before him.
Entering the darkness of a sewer, his soldier life continues when a rat demands a pass and payment of a toll, but he only holds tighter to his gun and floats faster than the rat can swim to the end of the "tunnel," where he is emptied into the canal. Floating swiftly and dangerously he holds himself stiff and does not wince. As the paper gives way and the boat sinks he remembers the refrain "Onward! Onward! Soldier!/For death thou canst not shun." Knowing a soldier's supreme duty is to die, as the paper gives way he is swallowed by a fish.
With magical coincidence, sometime after the awareness of intense darkness comes a piercing flash of light. The fish had been caught, sold, purchased, and carried to a cook, who lifts out the toy soldier. Miraculously he finds himself placed among the toys on the same table as before, where he can resume watching the dancer, who also is steadfast. The soldier cannot yield to tears, which are not proper to his calling. The two gaze at each other.
The goblin's curse returns; a boy flings the soldier into the fire, and as he melts he keeps himself erect. A gust of wind catches up the little dancer and floats her also into the fire. The next morning among the ashes the soldier is a lump in the shape of a small tin heart and nothing is left of the dancer but her blackened spangle.
The soldier's destiny is completely realized: adventures that no one else can equal; a series of opportunities that enable him to prove himself able and loyal; and the traditional journey of the hero delineated by Joseph Campbell, complete with departure (the "belly of the whale" initiation), return (the "meeting with the goddess"), and the dramatic transformation in fire. With the dross of the mortal body burned away, the immortal part, the heart that has made him steadfast, remains with the spangle—both symbols of immortality.