Fairy-tale artist Hans Christian Anderson died on this day in 1875. He once wrote: “Every man's life is a fairy tale written by God's fingers.”
Andersen was born in Denmark in 1805. He was a poet, playwright and novelist, but he gained international fame for his fairy tales. Many of these were variations of stories he had heard as a child; Andersen added his own dark humor to make them completely original.
One of his tales, written in 1848, is called “The Story of a Mother.” The mother is alone with her sick child in a house in the forest in the middle of winter. She fears the child will die. A “poor old man” knocks at the door and enters. It is Death. He is shivering from the cold, and the woman goes and warms a mug of beer on the stove to give to him. She asks him if he thinks God will take the child.
“The old man…nodded his head in a peculiar manner, which might have signified either Yes, or No,” Andersen writes.
The mother, exhausted, falls asleep, and when she wakes up the old man and her child are gone. She rushes outside, where a woman in long black garments tells her it was Death who visited her, and that she has seen him running away with her child. This woman is Night, and she tells the mother which way to go, after making her first sing to her all the songs she has sung to her child.
She runs through the forest, and is helped along the way by a thorn-bush, which she presses to her and causes to bloom, “so warm is the heart of a sorrowing mother.” She is wafted across a great ice-covered lake by the lake itself, but she has to give up her eyes, which are wept away in tears and turned into pearls. There, she reaches the hothouse where Death dwells. A gray-haired woman tells her that Death’s hothouse is where every human being has a life-tree or a life-flower. “They look like other plants, but they have hearts that beat,” she says.
She tells the mother that Death is on his way back, in order to transplant the trees and flowers that have faded that night. She lets the mother go in and try to find her child, in exchange for her long black hair, which the mother gladly gives her. The mother “recognized the beatings of her child’s heart among millions of others,” and stretches out her hand to a little crocus-flower. The woman tells her not to touch it, but to sit down beside it, and when Death should arrive, to threaten him that if he pulls up that plant she will do likewise to the other flowers.
“This will make him afraid,” she says, “for he must account to God for each of them.”
I won’t spoil the end of the story. Andersen’s tales were without morals, but full of such splendid sentiments as this one: No one’s death goes unnoticed.