The Story Behind the Story
Composer David Lang wanted to write a passion that could stand as a universal story of suffering and transcendence. At the suggestion of his wife, he decided that Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” would be perfect for his purpose. It was a story of suffering and ultimately transcendence.
Danish author Hans Christian Andersen (1804-1875) published Den Lille Pige med Svovlstikkerne, meaning “The little girl with the matchsticks” in 1845. It has been called “one of the saddest, most beautiful stories about loneliness and magic of memories.” Many consider Andersen the modern “Grimm having written hundreds of what many call, “fairy tales”. Among his tales are “The Princess and the Pea”, “Thumbelina”, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”, “The Little Mermaid”, and “The Ugly Duckling”. They’ve been translated into dozens of languages and illustrated by the most notable illustrators. “The Little Match Girl” is one of the most popular and we often tell it at Christmas time because it events take place during the holiday season.
Usually authors commission illustrators after they’ve finished their work but in this case an image by illustrator Johan Thomas Lundbye came first. In his diary Andersen wrote, “While I was at [an opulent manor in Denmark], in this time of luxury and plenty, a publisher sent three woodcuts asking me to pick one and write a little story around it. I chose a scene that depicted poverty and deprivation, a ragged little girl with a handful of matches—‘The Little Match-girl’—the contrast between our life…and her world.’ Underneath Lundbye’s wood of the “ragged little girl” were the words, “Do good when you give.”
Andersen may have also been influenced by his mother’s childhood memories of the poverty she suffered. It was until his mother passed away that he finally had the money she wood have needed to be more comfortable.
Like most fairy tales, the match girl’s story is rather dark but this particular tale ends with a message of love and transcendence. The small girl is cast out to sell matches by her father whom she fears. It was illegal to beg on the streets in Andersen’s time and so as a front, the poor would make matches and hope to sell them for money. As the girl strives to stay warm, she lights match after match. With each flame comes a vision of fond memories or imagined joy until the match girl finally succumbs and joyfully joins her grandmother.
“Thousands of lights were burning on the green branches, and gaily-colored pictures, such as she had seen in the shop-windows, looked down upon her. The little maiden stretched out her hands towards them when–the match went out. The lights of the Christmas tree rose higher and higher, she saw them now as stars in heaven; one fell down and formed a long trail of fire.”
It was common in the mid and late 19thcentury for authors to write stories about children and death. Many people today find them difficult to read but Charles Dickens (A Christmas Carol), Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Kate Douglas Wiggin (A Bird’s Christmas Carol), Frances Hodgson Burnett (A Little Princess) found much success with the readership of their day and have earned a spot in the literary canon.
Authors choose Christmas as a setting for their tales. It provides an opportunity to focus on the contrasts of the often abundant celebrations compared to the plight of those who have nothing.
Anderson’s story serves a good purpose says writer Heidi Heiner, “reminding people to be charitable and help the poor during the holidays, and hopefully year round, to keep young children from suffering with poverty and death.” [“The Little Match Girl”] isn’t so much of a fairytale as a “folk tale for adults.”