Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Reader, The Goblin and The Grocer

My husband gave me The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen (edited by Maria Tartar, W.W. Norton, New York, 2007) for Christmas. It was a surprisingly inspired mistake; I'd originally asked for The Annotated Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Even so, as I have dipped into this over-sized volume of literary fairy tales, I've been returned to some part of my self. This edition features not just new translations of the stories included, but full annotations by Tatar, a noted expert in the field of fairy tales and folklore, and illustrations from a wide variety of artists such as Kay Nielsen, Arthur Rackham and Honor C. Appleton. Further the stories are divided between those intended for children and those intended for adults. Remember that I wrote of how Neil Gaiman spoke in the foreword to Stardust about that being a revelation for him -- that fairy tales could be for adults?

What do you remember from reading Hans Christian Andersen? Personally, I recall vividly from his original Little Mermaid that the mermaid pays for her new legs by the experience of pain in every step she takes in pursuit of the prince she loves. (Sorry, Disney Corporation, your version doesn't convey anything nearly as pointed. Close, but no cigar.) I remember the Rackham illustrations that accompanied the version of The Little Match Girl I read at the age of 7 or 8. The angel who carries her away to Heaven upon her death was one of the more masculine angels I've ever seen (unlike your average Renaissance angel) and I have retained the image ever since. The Steadfast Tin Solder maintains his love for the dancer outside the castle he guards, but ultimately dies in the flame of a winter hearth. Fairly strong images to carry around with one in the journey of life, but also fairly honest in presentation of life's vissiscitudes. Hans Christian Andersen had his problems as a writer certainly, but the man synthesized the poetry of life's experience.

The story I read today was the unfamiliar tale of The Goblin and The Grocer. Imagine if you will a Scandinavian house troll, a little spirit who lives with you who can make your life happy or woeful depending upon how well you treat him. This particular troll is is well-fed by the grocer in whose house he dwells. The grocer provides him with porridge every Christmas complete with a pat of butter in it. Others living in the house are the grocer's wife, a servant or two and a student who lives at the top of the house in the harsh cold garret (your basic starving Ph.D. candidate). The student sees the grocer wrapping left-over cheese from a page ripped from a book of poetry that the grocer has accepted in barter from an old woman. He is enchanted by the poetry and persuades the grocer to give him the remaining pages, suggesting that the grocer is a practical man but not a man with a particular appreciation of poetry. The goblin is somewhat incensed by the student's attitude towards the grocer and decides he will torment the student for his de-valuing of the good man. When he creeps to the attic, he finds the student reading the book which Tartar's translation describes as "A dazzling ray of light rose up from the book and transformed itself into a tree trunk that spread its branches over the student. Each leaf on the tree was a fresh green color and every flower was a face of a beautiful maiden..." The goblin is captivated and instead of tormenting the student as he thought to do, he creeps up the stairs each night to witness the astounding transformation and is moved to tears by the experience. Eventually one night there is a fire in a nearby house and the inhabitants each race about to rescue that they care for most from the flames -- the servant girl who cherishes a black silk mantilla and the grocer, his business records. However, the goblin races to the attic of the house to rescue the book. He flies with it up the chimney to the rooftop and comes to the realization that this book of poetry is the most meaningful thing in his life. It is then that the goblin understands that he will have to divide his life between the grocer's pragmatism and the student's ecstatic embrace of literature. The treasure of the book is as important to him as to the student, but the grocer - well, the grocer has the porridge.

I like this story. It's entirely in keeping with the realities of modern existence. We may have been born to do one thing, but the grocer has the porridge. The division in our lives is to be expected. I continue to divide my life between doing that which I love here and the daily (metaphorical) porridge. Which is my way of saying I appreciate any comments left and your patient readership!