In A Nutshell
Everyone knows the stories of Hans Christian Andersen, but few know of his earliest found work. “The Tallow Candle,” found in the bottom of some old boxes in the Plum family archives, tells the story of a candle soiled by hands, whose true beauty is only really, finally recognized by the flame from a tinder box. The new story, while it’s certainly not his best, shows early themes that would shape his life as an adult writer.
The Whole Bushel
There are few people who can claim a childhood that wasn’t in some way shaped by the stories of Hans Christian Andersen. He wrote somewhere around 160 fairy tales, including stories that are still popular today—“The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Suit,” and “The Ugly Duckling.” For a long time, it was thought that the Danish writer’s first story was published in 1829, when he was 24 years old.
Now, an even earlier fairy tale has been found.
It was buried in the personal archives of the Plum family, only found when the amazing amount of papers and books were taken to the National Archive for Funen and put in the hands of a historian named Esben Brage. Lying at the bottom of a box and written on a now-yellow piece of paper was the story “The Tallow Candle,” which has officially been confirmed as having been penned by Denmark’s most famous writer.
The story isn’t anywhere near as detailed or as well-written as some of his later work, and it’s thought that this one was written when he was still a teenager. It tells the story of a tallow candle, born white and pure, that grows darker and blacker the more that it’s handled by people who not only don’t see its beauty, but tarnish it. The candle grows more and more despondent and more and more lonely, until it meets a bit of flame from a tinder box. When the flame touches it, it doesn’t leave more black, greasy fingerprints—instead, it envelops it in light and sees the candle for what’s inside.
It’s a weird, oddly sentimental story with several telltale hallmarks of Andersen’s work, specifically, giving voice and feeling to inanimate objects. Critics have said the story itself isn’t very good, but that it was also more dated than a lot of Andersen’s stories are. We no longer rely on candles the way he would have, and the image of a lost, unlit candle, unable to shine its light into the world, to push back the darkness and fulfill it’s purpose in life . . . that would have been a pretty heartbreaking image in the 1820s.
Along with the story is a handwritten note. The story was a gift, written for a Madam Bunkeflod, a widow who lived across the street from Andersen and his family when he was growing up. Later, the story was re-gifted to the Plum family from the Bunkeflods.
The story is interesting for a couple of different reasons, aside from just being the earliest writings we have of Andersen. It shows his development as a writer, from creating stories that today are pretty widely panned by critics to becoming one of the most well-known childrens’ authors of all time. It also shows that his interest in fairy tales and folklore was a lifelong obsession that he was ultimately able to turn into a collection for generations and generations of children.
The Tallow Candle was the start of a prolific career. According to other stories told about him, writing wasn’t the only thing that he was prolific in.