Strike a match, spark a conversation, have a lightbulb moment. There are so many ways to describe the lightning flash of inspiration, and most of them are about fire and light. But in the end, all that really matters is what we do after our world has been so suddenly and brilliantly illuminated.
My feelings with regards to ‘The Little Match Girl’ have gone so severely into so many directions over the years that — for a long time now — I haven’t known exactly what lesson I should pull from the tale to share with you. Should this be a discourse on prizing your inner/spiritual successes over the failure perceived by others, or a diatribe on how society trains us to be self-defeating victims doing the work of spirit-breaking for them? Do I go to the older version of the tale in search of the old wisdom, or do I look to something seemingly unrelated for a completely fresh perspective.
Given my personal history with the story, I’m not sure of myself here. And yet that is exactly why it feels so important to share this particular tale. So I have decided to pull from sources beyond the story itself, three matches with which to light our way.
Maria Tatar’s notes-in-the-margins style annotations are really quite something, filled with all sorts of goodies regarding the stories. For instance, “the attribute ‘little’ before the name of a girl in a story for children often spells the character’s doom” as it spells out they are “never destined to become big.” Important to note here that this is specifically in reference to female youths being written about by Andersen and his contemporaries (such as Charles Dickens, who did the same thing to Little Nell whose very nickname doubled-down on that foreshadowing).
But Tatar’s annotations go on to explain the fabulist’s penchant for “lovingly embellished” suffering, making all suffering the fault of society, and creating characters so tragic in their spiritual nobility that readers are essentially stripped of permission to be annoyed with said characters’ inaction. Which is all well and good considering he was purposefully critiquing the age of child labor and the general social unrest which validated it even as it tried to be rid of it.
Yet he is so very clearly pulling from his own sense of injustice, that feeling of being always the underdog and of always fighting to keep his head above water. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with pulling from your own experiences to breathe life into something you’re creating. It’s that in reading Tatar’s annotations I at least am able to start seeing what about this story drives me nuts!
In chapter 10 of her seminal work, Clarissa Pinkola Estés seems to give my natural frustration with this story voice when she quotes her Hungarian aunt Katerina, “Soft dreams under hard conditions are no good … in tough times we must have tough dreams, real dreams, those that, if we will work diligently and drink our milk to the health of the Virgin, will come true.” While Andersen’s telling of this story is directed at shaming the society which allows for child poverty, simpler or simply older versions of the tale turn their focus to the impoverished anti-hero’s faulty dreaming.
I’d like to note that there are in fact older versions of the tale, but that these are often ignored in discussing this tale because they usually involved a man toward the end of his life and sometimes the matches are similarly replaced with an alternative symbol for inspiration and or life itself. But the story is the same, impoverished individual fails to sell off collection of items that could instead be used to create their own means for survival, and — dreaming of what might have been but can never be — passes into eternal sleep. Estés brings us back to the root in order to remind us that what we need to survive (no matter what the survival instincts) is warmth — protection from the cold, nurturing relationships, and creative fire — and that the search for such should be our life’s primary pursuit.
It is not the lack of a happy ending that makes me growl at Andersen’s version, there are so many fairy tales (my own wonder tales included) which do not have happy endings and are perfectly satisfying. What is frustrating is that he takes the satisfying story and wants very much for it to teach society to be better to the individual rather than teach the individual to seek warmth. My question to him, were he alive today, would be: With all your skill and talent as a storyteller, why did you not seek to write a tale with a lesson for both society and the individual?
In Part II Enchantment, Elizabeth Gilbert describes in magical detail her theory of inspiration; that it is a living entity of pure energy, that it has consciousness, that its sole purpose is to find a way to be made manifest via some collaboration with a willing/human participant. She goes on to describe two ways to interact with inspiration, the way of the suffering artist and the other way where you get to lay off the booze-or-what-have-you and actually enjoy the work. Yet there’s a third way which she does not point out as being a way of doing things, she instead shares her lived example seemingly unaware of what she has stumbled onto.
She was well on her way to writing a novel set in the Amazon when … life happened. She packed up the project in order to do what needed doing, and when she came back all her papers and notes and things were there but the spirit of the thing had flown. To her mind the spirit of inspiration behind the novel had grown tired of waiting for her to come back and play and had gone looking for manifestation elsewhere, much like Andersen’s waif surrendering her soul unto God and leaving behind her cold body with its frozen smile.
We can torture ourselves while we work with inspiration, or we can enter into a happy partnership wherein both participants give as they are able, or we can fail to uphold our side of the relationship and utterly neglect inspiration itself. Gilbert says the inspiration, and thus the book, was right to leave her after she left it alone for two years, but her attempting to come back to the work shows that a spark was still there. I think she misunderstood what to do with that spark, and that by jumping right back to working on the book she was throwing a log on a dying fire that was in need of rekindling, effectively smothering the poor mite.
The Light of Three Matchsticks
What frustrates me about Andersen is that, pulling from his own experiences and hurt to write the story as Tatar tells us, he makes it society’s responsibility to ensure every individual’s happiness without pointing out the individual’s responsibility to seek or create a better society. What I appreciate about Estés’s analysis is that it illustrates that it is never too early in life to begin this process of seeking or creating spaces of nurturing for the body and relationships and ideas. Gilbert, meanwhile, has me shaking my head to myself because she says that ideas can wait for years or abandon you forever, and believes the Amazonian idea left her in the dust, but if that were really true it never would have made it into her book on creativity.
Society, as a human construct, does have a responsibility to nurture the very human beings who comprise it. Individuals have a responsibility to seek warmth in every aspect of their lives, and — within reason — to share their warmth for the betterment of society. This conclusion, this idea, is not new to me.
Like Gilbert’s novel about a construction site swallowed whole by the Amazon becoming a chapter in a semi-memoir of creative process, what is new are the directions in which I will be taking the idea as I move forward into this year well-aware of my responsibility and yours and ours.