Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Tallow Candle: Thoughts and Facts

A Long Lost Fairy Tale

Since its discovery in October 2012, ‘The Tallow Candle’ has been accepted by leading experts as a tale genuinely penned by none other than Hans Christian Andersen.

For nearly two hundred years, the handwritten copy had lain forgotten inside a filing box packed with other documents. It had been donated to the Danish National Archives in Funen, which happens to be the region of Denmark where Andersen was born. Historian Esben Brage had requested the files for a couple who was interested in genealogical research.

The couple may had been the first people to set eyes on the manuscript in more than a century, but they credit Brage for the discovery – he was the one who observed the signature and suspected they had found something special.

The Fledgling Writer

The general consensus is that whilst ‘The Tallow Candle’ treads themes that Andersen is famous for, it lacks the engaging and witty narrative voice that has endured the test of time. Andersen attended grammar school from 1822 to 1827 (from the age of 17 to 22); the experts agree that these are the most likely years in which he’d written the tale. This was also the period he wrote ‘The Dying Child’, a poem that became his first published work in September 1827.

A dedication on the manuscript had offered a clue: “To Mme Bunkeflod, from her devoted HC Andersen”. Andersen may have been an awkward oddity, but he had a curious spark that attracted many charitable individuals to his aid. Marie Bunkeflod was one of the benefactors who funded his education and had shown Andersen (and his mother) great kindness since he was a child. She was widowed shortly before Andersen was born and died in 1833, aged 45.

There was a second dedication: “To P Plum from his friend Bunkeflod”. The documents that had been stored with the manuscript originally belonged to the Plum family, who were said to be good friends with the Bunkeflods.

Andersen and ‘The Tallow Candle’

A fourteen year old Andersen is reputed to have said that suffering must come before greatness; it’s a belief that has shaped his most memorable fairy tales and is very much present in ‘The Tallow Candle’.

He often channeled his inner self and dreams into his stories, so the theory that Andersen wrote ‘The Tallow Candle’ during his studies in Slagelse is a logical one, because he hated grammar school. The teachers and headmaster actively discouraged his creative writing and he felt bullied, stifled and misunderstood. The poor candle in his story is abused, despised and plunged into black depression, because nobody could see its true value.

It’s interesting to note that Andersen picked a happy ending for the candle. He declared that he was miserable in school, but as a mark of thankfulness and respect, he’d written a fairy tale for one of the supporters who put him there in the first place; someone who had been able to see his true value.

Could it be true?

The story’s a fanciful one. I hadn’t heard the news when it was first publicised; I learnt about it in Jean Hersholt’s 2014 edition of Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales. The info was in a hardback book, so not the tiniest part of me doubted its authenticity.

I found it interesting to learn that there are skeptics who question ‘The Tallow Candle’ and I can’t say I blame them; it’s important not to embrace everything the media chooses to spew out. There’s talk about Andersen’s signature, the location of the papers and “the experts”, but nothing explaining the weight behind the claims.

Of course, it's worth remembering that nothing's debunked them.

Personally, I want a revealing documentary that follows these nameless “experts” around as they scrutinise and agonise over the handwritten manuscript and subject it to hard-hitting forensic analysis and chemical testing… because I love stuff like that. And I want it in English, please.

For now, it feels better to trust “the experts”.

The following publications were consulted to write this post:

BBC News, Tallow Candle: Hans Christian Andersen's 'first work' (

H.C. Andersen Information Odense, Hans Christian Andersen and the Bunkeflod family ( - with Google Translate.

Mondschein, Ken, 'Introduction' in Jean Hersholt (ed.) Hans Christian Andersen: The Complete Fairy Tales (San Diego: Canterbury Classics, 2014).

Politiken, Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Tallow Candle' (

Politiken, Married couple find new Andersen fairytale: "We had no idea what it was" ( - with Google Translate.

Wikipedia, The Tallow Candle (