Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre's online course, Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds Now that you have discussed the text yourselves, here are some of my thoughts on it.

Skip to 0 minutes and 22 seconds As such, the story seems perfectly consistent with the structures of the folk tale. We meet a soldier who is the subject and the receiver of the story. His initial resting point, or home if you like, is being at war for the king. But at some point a conflict arises and the soldier gets so many wounds that he becomes unfit for battle. This sends him on a journey out into the world. And here he meets his first adversary in the shape of the witch.

Skip to 1 minute and 1 second She gives him three qualifying tests - and thereby invoking the magical number three for the first time in the story. The first day the soldier has to dig her garden. The next day he has to chop wood for her, and lastly, on the third day he has to bring her a blue light from the bottom of a well. But as the witch is about to haul him up from the well, he sees through her scheme to steal the light from him and leave him down there - and so, he stays at the bottom, lights his pipe and meets his helper the gnome, who helps him to get out, get rich and kill the witch.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds Having done so, the soldier decides he wants revenge over the king by getting his daughter, thereby making the princess the object of the story and the king the sender.

Skip to 1 minute and 58 seconds The soldier then sends his helper to abduct the princess three nights in a row thus marking the second set of tests that falls in three stages. The gnome does so and the princess spends the night cleaning for the soldier in a state of trance.

Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds After the first night, the king becomes aware of the princess’ absence and devices strategies for tracing her movements through town. These strategies fail until the third morning when the soldier is caught and thrown into prison. Just before the soldier is about to be killed, you could say he passes a third and final test. In a display of cunning he asks to smoke one last pipe. And that makes his helping gnome appear, who kills all the judges and threatens the king to give the soldier his daughter - thereby turning the king into a proper giver and establishing a new stable situation, a new home.

Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds Now this would be a purely structural analysis of the elements of the folk tale and one that doesn’t take the particularities of this specific story into consideration. However, if you shift your attention to the content it might add some complexities to this purely structural analysis. To begin with, it seems a bit of a stretch to call the soldier’s initial situation a home or even a stable position. On the contrary, he is in fact at war - a situation most people would deem to be the insecure away-part of the home-away-home structure. Furthermore, the witch might be an antagonist and the gnome might also be a helper who aids our hero to overcome her. But has the soldier really deserved this help?

Skip to 3 minutes and 56 seconds In reality he doesn’t perform the qualifying tests very well. We are told that he is not at all able to dig the garden satisfactorily, which is partly the reason why he has to stay another day. This blurs the witch’s role as a proper antagonist and quest giver as the soldier gets all the benefits without fulfilling the tests properly. Even worse, the reason why he finds his helper, the gnome, to begin with is actually by refusing to complete the third test. By refusing to give the blue light to the witch.

Skip to 4 minutes and 35 seconds So rather than earning the aid he gets, you might say that he tricks his way to it, which might bring the role of the gnome into question - is he a proper fairy tale helper of the hero or is he in fact the slave of a self serving swindler? Then there is the second set of tests - the abductions of the princess. If you want to follow the structures to the letter, these aren’t actual tests set by the sender so much as they are acts of vengeance initiated by the subject-receiver, our soldier.

Skip to 5 minutes and 10 seconds And the final giving away of the princess, although it is directly stated that she is given, it only comes about because the king is threatened to be killed. So rather than being given freely because the soldier has passed a test successfully, you might say that she is surrendered by the humiliated king. These few examples don’t overthrow the actantial model as such, but they may point to the inaccuracy of such structural models in general and the way they may have a tendency to reduce the stories. They may function as guidelines, openers of the text that can highlight the central oppositions and conflicts.

Skip to 5 minutes and 55 seconds But more careful analysis is needed and you should by no means think that you have provided an exhaustive analysis of the text just by locating its structural components. However, these basic structures are very productive to keep in mind when reading Andersen’s fairy tales in particular. And this is because he frequently engages in a very deliberate and often humorous play upon them, adhering to them and digressing from them freely in his stories - as we shall see.

Educator's analysis and interpretation

Now that you have discussed the text with fellow learners, here are PhD student Torsten Bøgh Thomsen’s thoughts on it.

In the video, he will first analyse the actantial structure of ‘The Blue Light’. This means that he will identify the subject (the protagonist) and the object in the tale, as well as the receiver, the giver, the helper and the opponent (antagonist). After having done so, he will explain why this folk tale, when more closely analysed, does not entirely correspond to the typical folk tale structure.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen Centre