x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Write your own moral

A newly discovered work by the beloved Hans Christian Andersen has morals for everyone, especially literary researchers.

Once upon a time there was a Danish lad named Hans, who worked as a tailor but yearned to be an actor. But in real life, unlike in fairy tales, dreams don't always come true. Young Hans drifted into a career as a writer. He lived fairly happily, though not ever after: he died, at age 70, in 1875. His stories however do endure - The Little Mermaid, The Emperor's New Clothes and The Little Match Girl, among others, are still beloved.

And now there is one more of them. As a teenager, Hans Christian Andersen often visited a neighbour, Madame Bunkeflod, a vicar's widow, and used her library. Researchers say he wrote a little tale as a thank-you gift for her in the early 1880s, well before his publishing debut in 1822.

This newly-discovered story, The Tallow Candle, is about a discarded little taper that finally, joyously fulfils its destiny. We don't like to think what the psychiatrists will make of the candle's "craving for the flaming fire", and by any measure this tale seems unlikely to rank with Andersen's best-loved works. But like them, it teaches something about human nature, in a form accessible to children and charming to adults.

The moral for literary researchers, we suppose, is that they should keep studying old documents.