Skip to main content

Old flames

Bridget McKenzie looks again at Hans Christian Andersen's story of the Tin Soldier and the dancer

"A puff of wind struck the dancer. She flew like a sylph, straight into the fire with the soldier, blazed up in a flash, and was gone. The tin soldier melted, all in a lump."

In his illustration of The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen, Kay Nielsen has emphasised the romantic drama in a simple tale about two tiny toys. We see only overwhelming flames, nothing of the nursery fireplace in which they burn. Nielsen has removed banal detail, elevating the characters above the flames for maximum visibility. This small portion of the fireplace has the grandeur of a stage set in which the fabulous style of the fire and smoke is reminiscent of Mughal manuscripts and Japanese painters such as Hiroshige. Nielsen took 12 years (1912-24) to make 12 paintings for this book.

Such theatrical style suits the 1920s taste for decorative gift books, but also suits the melodrama in Andersen's stories and personality. Born 200 years ago, the Danish writer is famous for The Ugly Duckling and The Little Mermaid, as well as The Snow Queen and Thumbelina. He is seen as a fairytale writer, but his stories are actually quite modern and literary, expressive of himself rather than folk tradition. Fairytale heroes generally win, but Andersen's stories have tragic endings, more like myths.

Unlike the familiar Disney happy-ever-after version, Andersen's Little Mermaid evaporates into briny bubbles destined never to love a prince. Similarly, his Tin Soldier is extinguished, just like that, after an epic journey. He falls in love with a paper ballerina who lives in a palace on a nursery shelf, though he never speaks to her. Before he can develop the romance, a boy tosses him out the nursery window. He lands in a sinking paper boat, is chased by a rat, then gulped by a fish, which is caught and bought at market by the cook from his house. He is fortuitously restored to the nursery, but the boy suddenly throws him into the fire.

With all his ups and down, the epic has us rooting for this flawed toy. We care because he is painted as an individual. When the soldiers were cast, "the tin was short, so he had only one leg". He feels that the dancer was his soulmate because "one leg was lifted so high... he supposed she must have only one leg".

We might hope he is united with her in death but Andersen hints otherwise.

The soldier was found "in the shape of a little tin heart. But of the pretty dancer nothing was left except her spangle, and it was burned as black as a coal." She was plainly not good enough for him. The Tin Soldier is an everyman with whom all of us can identify, but there are autobiographical elements.

Andersen suffered romantically, never forming a partnership. He had a phobia of fire, travelling everywhere with a long rope for an emergency escape. Moreover, he was as steadfast as this soldier. He was raised in a slum in Odense, Denmark, and had no early schooling, yet he worked hard to produce hundreds of stories, poems and books and was ultimately celebrated all around Europe.

With The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838), Andersen was one of the first writers to bring toys to life. This device later became a staple of children's fiction, as in the film Toy Story. He spent many childhood hours inventing dramas with paper figures in a miniature theatre. Since children can imagine themselves as a princess or soldier, and as they weave grand fantasies with these archetypal players, they can identify with humble toys as lead characters in fictions.

At the time, Andersen was criticised for representing a child's animist worldview from inside, as some thinkers of the time believed that children needed "raising up" to rationality. None the less, his books were extremely popular - only the Bible has been translated into more languages. The 19th century saw an acceptance of childhood, moving away from the idea of children as adults of a lesser size, and the gradual emergence of schooling, classroom play, picture books and attempts to end the employment of children.

Andersen's stories do link to fairytales because they portray unusual, symbolic events in everyday settings. However, they are literary and are meant to be read silently or read aloud as written. Illustrations were important to Andersen; he himself was a visual artist of sorts, producing many collages and papercuts. Easy to read but deep in meaning, his tales offer rich material for young people, who may also be familiar with the stories from many published versions, films, and illustrations.

Since the stories have been so well used in education over the years, hundreds of teaching ideas are available. An online search yields resources on thinking, emotional literacy, writing dialogue, fairy tales, music, drama and more. The Steadfast Tin Soldier, caught in this image of the final scene, can stimulate questions about fate and random acts of evil, the destructiveness of nature, the relative validity of fighting or dancing, good and bad endings, or the qualities of true love.

Bridget McKenzie is head of teaching at the British Library

KAY NIELSEN (1886-1957)

Danish artist, studied in Paris. Influenced by Japanese art, Beardsley and Burne-Jones, he is known for "Twelve Dancing Princesses" and "East of the Sun and West of the Moon". He was also a theatre designer and an animator for Disney's Fantasia. He worked too slowly to be a commercial success and died in poverty. Now he is seen as equal to the illustrators Edmund Dulac and Arthur Rackham.


Art and design

KS 1

Talk about how soldiers were recycled from tinware and the scarcity of toys and materials in Andersen's day. Make one-legged soldiers from recycled materials and dancers from folded paper.

KS 2-3

Read the story then ask children to paint the scene after this one. What did the maid find in the ashes?

Challenge older children to investigate and use Nielsen's style.

Find images of Andersen's papercuts on the internet. Try to make symmetrical folded paper-cuts of the soldier and dancer, and try making a non-symmetrical papercut of the fiery scene, without copying Nielsen's image.


KS 1

Each child brings a toy, or give pupils one, and says a phrase in their toy's distinctive voice. Explore what makes characters strong or weak (snooty, cool, shy). In pairs, children devise a plot with their toys then record or write the story with dialogue, capturing the voice of each toy.

KS 2-3

Write the story from the dancer's viewpoint. What happens to her? What does she think of him?

Rewrite the Tin Soldier for today, with appropriate toys, details and language.

KS 4-5

Investigate stories in which things come alive. Andersen's the Sweethearts or the Shepherdess and the Chimneysweep offer comparisons. A contemporary novel is Tibor Fischer's The Collector. Note that Aladdin was Andersen's favourite story, with its magic carpet and lamp. Students can create their own versions and add their own captions.

* Hans Christian Andersen is a free exhibition at the British Library for all ages, designed by theatre-rites, with puppets and performances. The exhibition runs from May 20 to October 2 Tel: 020 7412 7797

For resources and activities

For books on Andersen

For Andersen bicentenary events and links to many resources

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you