Saturday, December 22, 2012

Guest post: Christie from Spinning Straw Into Gold on Little Match Girl

Tales of Faerie is proud to bring you its first ever guest post! I have been an admirer of Spinning Straw Into Gold for a while now; Christie's posts always give me lots of food for thought, and her blog is on my list of regular must-reads. I was absolutely thrilled when she agreed to write a guest post for us here! Please enjoy reading her thoughts on "The Little Match Girl".


The Little Match Girl was first told to me by my own grandmother during Christmastime.  An exquisitely tragic tale, even beyond what is customary for Hans Christian Anderson, it gripped me with its unusual straightforwardness—almost brutality—in describing suffering, as well as its bittersweet ending.

You’re probably familiar with it; if not, do a little detective work here on Tales of Faerie and you’ll find it. 

As the story goes, a poor little match girl, shoeless in the freezing cold on the eve of the new year, receives three visions when she strikes three matches, each one so real, she is utterly disappointed when the visions vanish into the icy night.  After experiencing, each in their turn, the fulfillment of her earthly needs—sustenance, shelter, and beauty—the little match girl dares to strike a fourth match.  In the blaze, her deceased grandmother, the only one who ever been kind to her, appears.  The little match girl begs her grandmother not to leave her as the other visions did and strikes all the remaining matches.  So the old woman lifts her granddaughter up with her into the light of eternity.
Rachel Isador

The Christian tradition of the beatific vision goes back as far as the Old Testament: the belief that should one witness God in true form, as one speaks face to face with a friend, he should die (think Zeus and Semele, the mother of Dionysus).

I don’t claim Anderson was thinking of this very theology when he wrote The Little Match Girl, but it does give one pause for thought.  The three visions lit from three matches are preludes to or glimpses of the fourth beatific vision, that of the grandmother who “had never looked so big or so beautiful.”  It is in the final vision that the little girl is taken up with her grandmother to be “where there was no more cold, no hunger, no pain, for they were with God.”

Janet and Anne Graham Johnstone

Another theme very strong in all of Anderson’s work is that of suffering.  The glorious visions of the little match girl do not come by nothing.  Rather, they are granted to one who has endured no small amount of mental and physical anguish.  But for the match girl, as for others in Anderson’s tales, suffering is redemptive—that is, it is not useless suffering.

The little match girl’s suffering has led her to light the matches and summon her grandmother, an obvious emissary of the divine.  And in addition to her own beatification, the child’s frozen body is witnessed the following morning on New Year’s Day, and onlookers and readers alike internalize the puzzle of why the dead little girl smiles so peacefully.

The theme has not escaped notice.  Composer David Lang won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for music with The Little Match Girl Passion.

In another example, the namesake character of The Little Mermaid experiences the daily passion of the sensation of walking on knives.  When she finally sees her beloved find happiness with another, her acceptance of this suffering is transformative.  It gives her a lease-to-own soul of sorts, something she wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Lastly, the matches lit by the little girl are reminiscent of the four candles of the Advent wreath, each lit during one of the four weeks leading up to Christmas, in anticipation of the solstice holiday (holy day).  The candles are symbols to remind observers of the light of the Christ child and the guiding star, the halo of eternity at the end of the earthly journey, and the season of new life to come in spring.  The worst is almost over.

On the first day of the new year, when we find the tranquil but dead little match girl in the snow, we find also this important truth, which Anderson has presented to us without fancy wrapping paper or softened edges: that suffering is only to be endured for a time.  That “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

Or perhaps, a word from fairy tale grandfather J.R.R. Tolkien is more fitting: “in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (The Return of the King, “The Land of Shadow”).


  1. I love this! Although poignant The Little Match Girl remains one of my favourite stories passed down generations. This is a wonderful view of it, and a fine tribute to the magic that Hans Christian Anderson wove when he wrote it. Thank you for sharing!

  2. That illustration by Rachel Isador is on the cover of the very book my grandmother gave me! How neat.

    A very merry Christmas to you!