Snowballs for Angels by Priya Sridhar
Editor's Note: Today's essay, by Priya Sridhar, takes Hans Christian Andersen's tale of "The Little Match Girl," and looks at it through a modern literary interpretation. Enjoy!
Modern takes on classic fairy tales can prove fascinating when they subvert the original narrative. Whether it's differing values, updated understanding of gender and economics, and plain wanting to add a new message, you can always find a new spin on older tales.
Hans Christian-Andersen (HCA) earned fame in Denmark for his fairy tales. While a few had happy endings, the more infamous ones went to the downer conclusions. HCA believed that true love was hard to find and that sometimes death is the only happiness someone can find in their quest for dignity, or for a warm bed at night. Then modern writers like Terry Pratchett would lovingly mock this, and affirm that everyone may live, getting some comfort.
Matches In The Snow
"The Little Match Girl" is one of the most depressing HCA tales, and that is saying something. Even the first line warns us about the depression to come: "It was so freezing."
We see the title character attempt to sell matches during a cold wintry night. She has a few coverings, and while she left the house with oversized slippers, a boy stole one of them and a horse carriage accidentally knocked off the other. If she doesn't sell any matches, then her father will beat her for bringing no coins home. Rather than go home after no customer comes to help, the girl crouches between two sumptuous houses and starts lighting matches to keep warm. They show her visions of loveliness to help her cope with the cold. People ignore her while going about their commute to work, or doing the shopping.
As the night gets cold, the matches show different scenes: warmth from a stove, a good Christmas meal, and a shooting star. When she sees her grandmother in heaven, the girl asks for her grandmother to take her there.
HCA was not in a happy state of mind when he wrote this. You can tell that he knew how to get into the mindset of someone facing a bitter cold in winter.
Hogfather Says No To This Ending
In Discworld, the fantasy parody series by the late Terry Pratchett, the little match girl story plays out during a segment in both the novel and television special Hogfather. Albert and Death encounter her still body in the snow, while Death is filling in for the world's Santa Claus, the Hogfather. Death says that a little girl should not freeze in the night. He says that it is not fair, and this is a chance to right a wrong.
Albert, a retired wizard, and overall cynic, tells Death that it's how the winter stories go. Going against the status quo should find disruption. Everyone romanticizes a girl freezing to death in the snow while thanking their stars that it wasn't them. Normal folks have enough food and coal to get through the night and if they don't, then at least they aren't a child freezing in the snow. They can tell stories to make up for the drafty holes in the wall.
If Death weren't the Hogfather, and if not for events in previous books, he would have accepted this state of affairs. Death is not fair, and he comes for everyone. An earlier book had him chide an apprentice for saving a princess from a pre-appointed assassination, complete with smacking him on the face for insubordination. But here, Death says no. He gives life, rather than reaps it. The match girl is not a fictional character, but an actual child that he can carry in the snow.
You may not see this in the film because it would have broken the budget, but the "affronted" angels show up to collect the match girl's soul and take her to heaven. Albert responds by tossing snowballs at them so they will go away. Even though Albert tells Death to let the story play out as is, he listens to his master.
Unlike the original fairy tale, we see the angels attempt to complete the tale. Death asked why didn’t they come earlier, to give the child a hot drink and a blanket. He has a point and shows that he puts his money where his mouth is by picking up the child and asking several constables to give her a place to sleep for the night, and a meal. Angels are supposed to be protectors. Yet they did not protect an innocent kid.
Why is it important that Albert toss snowballs at the angels? He shows them how humans feel about the cold, and how an object traditionally used for child's play can prove annoying and disruptive to a formal occasion. This is not a time to be civil, but to show anger.
Add A Level Of Disruption
Sometimes we cannot accept children freezing in the snow. We can't tell a crying kid, "There are starving children in Somalia, cheer up." You can't let the little match girl serve as your cautionary tale against parental abuse and thieves that steal slippers from the vulnerable.
Pick up that child if you can, and change the story. Show that happiness is possible, even if difficult to reach. Instead of waiting for the angels, shoo them away, and use your powers for a new ending.
Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years, and counting. Capstone published the Powered series, and Alban Lake published her works, Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family.
Illustration: The Little Match Girl by Arthur Rackham