The Little Match Girl - A New Year's Eve tale

I've always wondered why Hans Christian Andersen set this story on New Year's Eve. Probably as a stark reminder, which is just as timely today, that while we look forward to better things and happier moments with the arrival of a new year, the world's injustice and misery won't vanish just because the date changes.

The Little Match Girl

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Evening came on, the last evening of the year. In the cold and gloom a poor little girl, bareheaded and barefoot, was walking through the streets. Of course when she had left her house she'd had slippers on, but what good had they been? They were very big slippers, way too big for her, for they belonged to her mother. The little girl had lost them running across the road, where two carriages had rattled by terribly fast. One slipper she'd not been able to find again, and a boy had run off with the other, saying he could use it very well as a cradle some day when he had children of his own. And so the little girl walked on her naked feet, which were quite red and blue with the cold. In an old apron she carried several packages of matches, and she held a box of them in her hand. No one had bought any from her all day long, and no one had given her a cent.

Shivering with cold and hunger, she crept along, a picture of misery, poor little girl! The snowflakes fell on her long fair hair, which hung in pretty curls over her neck. In all the windows lights were shining, and there was a wonderful smell of roast goose, for it was New Year's eve. Yes, she thought of that!

In a corner formed by two houses, one of which projected farther out into the street than the other, she sat down and drew up her little feet under her. She was getting colder and colder, but did not dare to go home, for she had sold no matches, nor earned a single cent, and her father would surely beat her. Besides, it was cold at home, for they had nothing over them but a roof through which the wind whistled even though the biggest cracks had been stuffed with straw and rags.

Her hands were almost dead with cold. Oh, how much one little match might warm her! If she could only take one from the box and rub it against the wall and warm her hands. She drew one out. R-r-ratch! How it sputtered and burned! It made a warm, bright flame, like a little candle, as she held her hands over it; but it gave a strange light! It really seemed to the little girl as if she were sitting before a great iron stove with shining brass knobs and a brass cover. How wonderfully the fire burned! How comfortable it was! The youngster stretched out her feet to warm them too; then the little flame went out, the stove vanished, and she had only the remains of the burnt match in her hand.

She struck another match against the wall. It burned brightly, and when the light fell upon the wall it became transparent like a thin veil, and she could see through it into a room. On the table a snow-white cloth was spread, and on it stood a shining dinner service. The roast goose steamed gloriously, stuffed with apples and prunes. And what was still better, the goose jumped down from the dish and waddled along the floor with a knife and fork in its breast, right over to the little girl. Then the match went out, and she could see only the thick, cold wall. She lighted another match. Then she was sitting under the most beautiful Christmas tree. It was much larger and much more beautiful than the one she had seen last Christmas through the glass door at the rich merchant's home. Thousands of candles burned on the green branches, and colored pictures like those in the printshops looked down at her. The little girl reached both her hands toward them. Then the match went out. But the Christmas lights mounted higher. She saw them now as bright stars in the sky. One of them fell down, forming a long line of fire.

"Now someone is dying," thought the little girl, for her old grandmother, the only person who had loved her, and who was now dead, had told her that when a star fell down a soul went up to God.

She rubbed another match against the wall. It became bright again, and in the glow the old grandmother stood clear and shining, kind and lovely.

"Grandmother!" cried the child. "Oh, take me with you! I know you will disappear when the match is burned out. You will vanish like the warm stove, the wonderful roast goose and the beautiful big Christmas tree!"

And she quickly struck the whole bundle of matches, for she wished to keep her grandmother with her. And the matches burned with such a glow that it became brighter than daylight. Grandmother had never been so grand and beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and both of them flew in brightness and joy above the earth, very, very high, and up there was neither cold, nor hunger, nor fear-they were with God.

But in the corner, leaning against the wall, sat the little girl with red cheeks and smiling mouth, frozen to death on the last evening of the old year. The New Year's sun rose upon a little pathetic figure. The child sat there, stiff and cold, holding the matches, of which one bundle was almost burned.

"She wanted to warm herself," the people said. No one imagined what beautiful things she had seen, and how happily she had gone with her old grandmother into the bright New Year.

-- Translation by Jean Hersholt
-- Image: from the 1928 film La Petite Marchande d'Alumettes by Jean Renoir 

Ice dragons part 2

Due to the popularity of my 2009 post on ice dragons, I thought it would be a good idea to provide some more information on these magnificent and terrifying creatures.

As related in the earlier post, the lands ruled by the ice dragons have dwindled considerably over the ages. And as the rivers of ice have receded with the warming of the world, so have the ice dragons become more rare, and in some cases, smaller and less powerful. Nevertheless, if you’re going to travel in the regions where these creatures dwell, it’s still important to be on your guard. Make sure you’re carrying all the necessary equipment for survival, including rope, crampons for your shoes, a first aid kit, and warm, protective clothing. The dragons are still easily roused to anger when humans or others come clambering all over the glaciers they call home.

In one case I’ve heard of, a climber fell into a crevasse which turned out to be a dragon’s mouth. The climber’s companions struggled to get him out but he was stuck fast, and only escaped when the dragon relented at last and spat the man out through a crevasse lower down on the glacier. This unfortunate (or fortunate) traveler was renowned from then on for being the only known person to survive a trip through the digestive tract of a dragon.

Few people know that Santa's workshop at the North Pole is guarded by a semi-tame ice dragon called the Yulewyrm. This creature is the reason the workshop has not yet been found: the dragon's massive body distorts compass readings and his ability to cloak the area in a thick fog have been keeping explorers from finding the real North Pole.

One of the most well-known ice dragons is Whitewing Stonegrinder, whose ancestral home is the glacier surrounding the abandoned citadel of Aran Tir, as described in The Shadow of Malabron. Some enigmatists say that Whitewing Stonegrinder is the glacier, and that all this talk about dragons is nothing but a myth or just a colourful metaphor for the power and majesty of ice. If you’ve ever hiked or climbed a glacier, you’ll have experienced the feeling that there is something alive under your feet, something powerful and fickle-tempered that has to be respected.

What is known for certain is that Whitewing Stonegrinder played an important role in the struggle against Malabron the Storyeater, as told in the three books of The Perilous Realm trilogy. 

Supposed photograph of an ice dragon on Angel Glacier in the Canadian Rockies, c. 1917.

Keep on questing

Someone stole your horse while you were down in the catacombs looking for the mystic amulet. That’s annoying. You got the stupid amulet, but your expensive Elven-made armour is cracked now, and that old battle injury to your leg is acting up.

You start out on the winding mountain path for Starhaven Keep. Lord Thrandar wants that amulet, and he’s promised you eight hundred gold pieces and a noble title. But suddenly you stop in the middle of the road. It’s getting dark. There will be wolves out soon, hunting anything that dares walk this remote path. And worse things will come crawling out of the night, too. Beasts that a level seventeen warrior-mage such as yourself might not have the skill and experience yet to handle. It might be nice if you had a healing potion or two but you used those all up in the catacombs battling the Soulless Bureaucrats of Korthrakor.

But you're just standing here because you're wondering: why keep on? What’s the point anymore? More gold? Fame? Noble titles? Experience points? Think of all those other adventurers out here right now, madly chasing after coins and amulets and greatness. Kill another monster and on we go to the next one. Fit in to someone else’s preprogrammed scenario, where they make the rules that decide who and what you are allowed to be. It’s so completely pre-scripted and pointless. The magic’s gone out of the world and everyone’s rushing toward the big conflagration like they can’t wait for it to get here. The game ends with death. No more respawning. There’s no glitch or cheat code that’s gonna get you out of this one.

Keep on. Keep on even though your heart’s not in it anymore. Keep on until you find a reason to keep on. And even if you don’t find a reason, keep on if only to find out what it’s like to be someone who keeps on through this meaningless game. There is no one else here like you. There never will be again. Keep on, with your eyes and ears and heart open. One day you may find you don’t need reasons anymore, you don't need rewards, you’re just here, and the real point of all this, the goal that nobody programmed into the game, is to help others keep on.

[Image: Screenshot from Skyrim]

Story art

Some lovely and original interpretations of famous stories in art:

See some more of Christian Jackson's work at

And here's another artist's interpretation of some famous stories:

See more of Eugenio Recuenco's work at

William Blake is one of my favourite artists, and I've often wondered what he would have come up with if he'd illustrated classic children's stories. Sometimes his illustrations to his own work suggest the possibility of stories other than those he intended. That's often the case for me with artwork: a brilliant, intense or disturbing image will seem to call out for a story to go along with it, and sometimes that's how I begin my stories, with nothing more than an image.

Surreal art in particular lends itself well with this kind of story-generating exercise, such as the work of Polish artist Rafał Olbiński, one of whose paintings was used as the cover art for the American edition of my novel Salamander.