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Skip to 0 minutes and 14 seconds The story line of this tale is very simple. A mother is attending to her child who is very ill. The mother has not slept for several days. However, her vigil is interrupted when an old man knocks on the door. She takes time to care for him too, but then she cannot help falling asleep for a second. When she opens her eyes again the child and the old man are gone. The old man was Death itself and he has taken the child with him. The mother then embarks on a quest in order to get her child back. Like a proper fairy tale heroine she overcomes various obstacles. She finds the greenhouse of Death and identifies her child.

Skip to 1 minute and 0 seconds It is represented by a flower which looks very sick or ill. Death appears and they start arguing. It becomes a battle of wits of sorts which Death wins. He then carries the child away to the unknown land. The mother prays to God and apologizes for not having accepted his will. Many elements of the fairy tale are intact in this story. As mentioned, the mother is a proper fairy tale heroine who embarks on a quest. In order to do so she leaves her home. She overcomes the obstacles she is faced with in the wide world. And there are three of them. She also reaches her desired destination. But there is no happy end in any traditional sense.

Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds The mother does not get her child back. So why are the basic structures and elements of the fairy tale preserved, when the mission of the mother is unsuccessful? The first passage I would like you to focus on is this one, The story of a mother A mother was sitting by her small child, she was so sorrowful, so afraid that it was going to die. It was so pale, its small eyes had closed, its breathing was so shallow, and occasionally it gave a deep heave as if sighing; and the mother looked even more mournfully at the little soul.

Skip to 2 minutes and 34 seconds There was a knock at the door, and a poor old man stood there, wrapped in something rather like a large horse blanket, for it warmed him, and warmth was what he needed in the winter’s cold.

Skip to 2 minutes and 48 seconds Everything outside was covered in ice and snow, and the wind cut like a knife in people’s faces. And since the old man was shivering with cold, and the small child had dozed off for a moment, the mother poured some beer into a small pot and placed it on the stove so it could be warmed and given him, and the old man sat there rocking and the mother sat down on the chair next to him, gazed at her sick child that was breathing so deeply and she lifted its tiny hand. Don’t you think I’ll to able to keep him? she said, surely the Good Lord won’t take him away from me?

Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds And the old man, who was Death itself, he nodded in such a strange way, it could just as easily mean yes as no. And the mother gazed down into her lap and the tears streamed down her cheeks, her head felt so heavy, she hadn’t slept a wink for three days and three nights, and now she dozed off, but only for an instant, then she

Skip to 4 minutes and 0 seconds gave a start and shivered with cold: What’s this? she said and looked around her everywhere, but the old man was gone and her little child was gone, he had taken it with him; and over in the corner the old clock whirred and whirred, the great lead clock weight slid straight down to the floor, boom! and the clock too stood silent. We find a significant fairy tale element here. The mother certainly passes a qualifying test. Even if she is deeply concerned about her child and extremely tired, she still cares for the old man. Why do you think this element is included in the story? Does it not make the final outcome seem even more unfair?

Skip to 4 minutes and 51 seconds And what is the significance of the fact that the clock stops? The second passage I would like you to consider is this one, Suddenly, an ice-cold wind went through the vast hall, and the blind mother could feel that Death had arrived. How have you been able to find your way here? he asked, how have you been able to get here faster than I have? I am a mother, she said. And Death stretched out his long hand towards the small fine flower, but she kept her hands tightly, so tightly, round it that she was afraid of touching one of the petals.

Skip to 5 minutes and 33 seconds Then Death blew on her hands and she felt it was colder than the cold wind, and her hands dropped weakly down. You can’t do anything against me! Death said. But the Lord God can! she said. I only do what he wants me to, Death said. I am his gardener! I take all his flowers and trees and plant them out in the great Paradise in the unknown land, but how they grow there and what it is like there I dare not tell you. Give me back my child! the mother said and wept and pleaded; suddenly she grasped with each hand two beautiful flowers

Skip to 6 minutes and 18 seconds close by, and cried out to Death: I will pull up all your flowers, for I am in despair! Don’t touch them!? Death said. You say that you are unhappy, and now you want to make some other mother just as unhappy! Some other mother! the poor woman said, and immediately let go of the flowers. So, how do you judge the mother’s behaviour and her arguments here? And why do you think she finally surrenders?

Skip to 6 minutes and 49 seconds The final passage I would like you to consider is this one, Here are your eyes, Death said, I have fished them up from the lake, they gleamed so brightly, I didn’t know they were yours, take them back, they are even clearer than before, look down into the deep well beside you, I will tell you the names of the two flowers you wanted to pull up and you will see all their future, their entire human life, will see what you wanted to disturb and destroy!

Skip to 7 minutes and 24 seconds And she looked down into the well and it was bliss to see how one of them became a blessing to the world, to see how much happiness and joy that unfolded around it. And she saw the other life and it was one of sorrow and need, fright and misery. Both of these are God’s will! Death said. Which of them is the flower of misery and which that of blessing? she asked. I will not tell you that, Death said, but this I will tell you, that one of the flowers was that of your child, it was your child’s destiny you saw, your own child’s future! Then the mother cried out in terror, which of them was my child! tell me!

Skip to 8 minutes and 16 seconds save the innocent one! save my child from all that misery! I’d rather you took it away! took it to God’s kingdom! forget my tears, forget my entreaties and everything that I have said and done! I don’t understand you, Death said. Do you want your child back, or shall I go with it into the place you know nothing of? Then the mother wrung her hands, fell to her knees

Skip to 8 minutes and 44 seconds and prayed to the Lord God: Do not listen to me if what I ask is against your will, which is always the best! Do not listen! Do not listen! And she bowed her head in her lap. And Death went with her child into the unknown land. The flower that the mother recognized as the one representing her child was looking very sick or ill. But the two flowers she threatens to uproot are beautiful ones. None of them can be the one which represents her child. So Death tricks her. This is how Death eventually wins their battle of wits. What is the point of that? Do you think it makes any kind of sense?

Skip to 9 minutes and 33 seconds Well, I hope you have enjoyed listening to the passages from The Story of a Mother and that you find the questions worth thinking about.

‘The Story of a Mother’ and the question of justice

‘The Story of a Mother’ touches upon themes associated with righteous behaviour and justice. To explore these, please watch the video above.

In this video, Professor Jacob Bøggild from the Hans Christian Andersen Centre will explain the main similarities and differences between Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale and the genre expectations you have already been introduced to in Weeks 2 and 3 of this course. And he will point out in what way Hans Christian Andersen manages to raise religious questions by the means of these apparent transgressions of genre conventions.

You will also hear storyteller Kari Brinch read extracts from ‘The Story of a Mother’. She will read three text passages that you might pay special attention to in your analysis and interpretation of the fairy tale.

While watching the video, you might think about the following questions:

  • Is the mother a typical fairy tale protagonist?
  • Can she overcome the obstacles she is faced with in the wide world?
  • Can her love overcome the power of Death?

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This video is from the free online course:

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Hans Christian Andersen Centre