Jina Kalogirou & Sofia Chatzidimitriou-Paraschou

The Collateral Damages of War: Radical Transformations of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl in Contemporary Children’s Literature.


It is certainly true that the magnificent tales of Hans Christian Andersen, with their fine perception of life’s ironies, have had a pervasive influence on the contemporary children’s literature of the world. Many well known contemporary writers or artists (Ungerer, Lemoin, Aranitsis, Trivizas, Boulotis) break, shift or debunk the traditional motifs of Andersen’s tale. The Little Match Girl, by showing how a different aesthetic and social setting relativizes or even subverts all the values of this famous tale. In their dialogue with Andersen, the contemporary writers/artists are converging with history and with the present-day disasters of war, and not only with the despairing discourse which emanates from the tale of the great Danish author.
To the horror which we have lived through (seeing innocent children in war, bombings, sieges, impoverishment etc.), other horrors will de added, and constantly are being added, drowning the palimpsest of our saturated memory.


The Little Match Girl (Den lille pige med svovlstikkerne, 1846) of Hans Christian Andersen is undoubtedly the tale par excellence of festive Christmas literature that holds a prominent position in the canon of Andersen’s work. It is a widely recognizable text that has fed the dreams and the cogitations of millions of readers  all over the world and enjoys catholic acceptance.

A poor and defenseless little girl nestles in the street corner. She clenches in her cold hands the little matches and tries to warm herself up, as the snowflakes fall on her long, blonde hair. It is New Year’s Eve and the poor little girl, through the hallucinatory light of the matches, looks for homeliness and Christmas euphoria.

The Little Match Girl (just as generally Christmas literature does) takes advantage, to the outmost, of the atmosphere of the sumptuous feast and the general happiness, in order to heighten the tragedy of the lonely and persecuted people, particularly the children. Some binary oppositions orchestrate the story by adding tension and emotional vibration to Andersen’s tale and facilitate the reader’s sentimental communion with the text: the frozen  road and the warmth of the kindled fireplace; the abundance of the Christmas table, the starvation and the indigence of the little girl; the illuminated homes and the tenebrous lofts in which the lame ducks live.

Nonetheless, within the intensely Christian and eschatological universe of Andersen, the hope of the metaphysical redemption is always present. Catharsis comes about through posthumous justification, when his angel-like heroine returns to Heaven and therefore is elevated above the harsh and unworthy reality, leaving behind the earthly difficulties and the insolvable social adversities. When the immaculate New Year’s sun rises, the little girl has already escaped towards the Garden of Eden, “where it is no longer cold and there is neither hunger nor fear” (The Annotated Andersen, 2008: 222).

It is doubtless very difficult for a contemporary writer to resort to a classic text, like the genuinely touching tale of Andersen, in an authorial field of post-modern suspiciousness, as well as in an era of doubt and miscellaneous barbarity. So one would plausibly question the meanings that the adaptation of The Little Match Girl have today, since the modern writer refuses, right from the beginning, to accept or cite the precursor text, without question or critique. Every adaptation has more or less the recognized ability to respond to the original text, from a new or revised political and cultural position, in order to highlight troubling gaps, silences or anachronistic ideas within the canonical text to which it refers.

Andersen’s tale is certainly a classic text with unsurpassable beauty and we as readers usually recollect it with a lyric diffusion, or perhaps, with a romantic élan. It is a text that delivers the bourgeois festive decoration of Christmas but at the same time  in the foreground, there is the very figure of the child, innocent, celestial, fragile and affectionate. Made from angel stuff, the little girl reminds us of the eighth psalm of David: “Thou madest him a little lower than the angels;” (cf. Letters of St Paul, Hebrews 2.7). Andersen is deeply religious and his child focusing vision places it in mid air, between Heaven and Earth.

Nevertheless the contemporary authors have the advantage to rework, a well known text that serves as a cultural treasure, to which we endlessly return.The relationship between Andersen’s tale and its modern adaptations, could be described, according to Genette’s terminology, as an adaptive relationship between a “hypotext” (original text) and a “hypertext” (recreation) (Genette, 1997 : ix). The hypertext is allusive to the founding original text, so a good knowledge of the hypotext (of the source) is crucial for the reader, to fully appreciate the twists and the turns of the adaptation. As Genette says: “The hypertext invites us to engage in a relational reading” (Genette, 1997 : 399).

The basic aim of all modern adaptations of The Little Match Girl, is to relocate the source text in cultural, historical, temporal or geographical terms. Genette could describe this as a movement of proximation (1997 : 304) which brings the source tale closer to the frame of reference of  today’s audience.

Zipes  uses the term “transfiguration” to describe the reworking procedure of this kind. “Transfiguration does not obliterate the recognizable features or values of the classical fairy tale, but cancels their negativity by showing how a different aesthetic and social setting  relativizes all values” (Zipes, 1991 : 180).

A quintessential adaptation of The Little Match Girl is the story of Allumette (1975) written and illustrated by the Alsatian writer Tomi Ungerer, who is well-known for his “irreverent, sly and anarchistic” (Zipes, 1991:182) revisions of some classic fairy-tales. Ungerer is undoubtedly a radical author of modern children’s literature who uses irony and clever plot’s reversals in order to break the sexual taboos of the old tales and to scrutinize some of the ideological clishés of the traditional narratives.

In his Allumette he chooses a simple and fluent, a rhythmic and cumulative narrating style that reminds us of the Bible as well as of the folktales. Allumette is an orphaned, homeless girl who lives in rags. It is Christmas and the little girl sells matches that nobody wants. The writer describes the festive atmosphere in a highly ironical way in order to demonstrate the reification and the commercialization of Christmas. The text as well as the illustration is full of ironic details such as the musician angel (a frequent iconographic motif of religious painting) which is decontextualized in the industrial setting of a modern metropolis.

Further on, Ungerer illustrates the urban setting in gloomy shades of black and grey. The city is a dystopian, infernal place inhabited by hostile people, hypocritical politicians and ferocious soldiers. Everywhere there are signs of destruction, over-industrialization and war: burnt trees, weapons, tanks, gas masks and military equipment, fire-rockets and even an active and destructive volcano. Of course in the foreground of this horrific setting there is the “endless procession of the miserables”.

The writer mocks and ridicules the sybaritic habits and the sensuality of the upper class and the bourgeoisie. Their luxurious way of living is opposed to the impoverishment and the starvation of the poor people.

Ungerer twists the plot of the original tale using a magic realism device. Allumette casts a wishing spell and all her wishes come true: Everything, everything Allumette had ever wished for, in her wildest dreams, came pouring down. Ironically the things that poured down were not only food or warm clothes but also items such as furniture, television, bicycles, teddy bears etc. associated with the consumerist and leisured society. Allumete decides to distribute the goodies to the poor. Soon an increasing number of volunteers (even the greedy baker Lacroute) came to help her. So the little match girl became the head of a charity foundation which offers help wherever there is famine, fire, floods or war.

Ungerer undermines also, in a very discreet way, the religious aspects of the original tale. The God is absent from this bleak modern world. The narrator says very cunningly that the flying cornucopia which was sent (by somebody-whom?) to the little girl was “possibly” a miracle or “a stunt, staged by the mayor to make himself popular”. But “most people thought it was Santa Claus. The real one”. In a materialistic society such as ours only the Coca-Cola saint with the rosy cheeks has a real existence, since people more easily believe in him than in God.

Ungerer chooses a highly ambivalent ending or even a self consciously naïve utopian ending which has not the meaning of “all’s well that ends well”, although the little girl escapes death by a miraculous incident. The author knows very well that all the philanthropic deeds or even the benevolent action of some individuals will never give rise to a really better world and will never change the status quo of society or the mechanisms that constitute social injustice and exploitation. Besides, how philanthropic is charity? Of course the author wants us to notice one more ironic picture of him: an ugly and kitsch wealthy lady offers to the poor people not only money but also a totally useless (and also very kitsch) decorative statue.

A subversive adaptation of Andersen’s tale is suggested by the famous illustrator George Lemoin in H.C. Andersen’s La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes (1999). Without changing the original text and through his illustration, Lemoin transmits the tale to the war in Bosnia and specifically to Sarajevo’s siege. For the accomplishment of the illustration he relied upon the work of two important press photographers, namely Jean-Claude Courtausse and Gérard Rondeau, who both covered this period providing the world with devastating photographic evidence of the sufferings and the hardships of the civilians.

The little match girl paces a landscape of Apocalypsis. The city appears besieged: it is illustrated as a field of ruin on the day after an enormous disaster. The girl, dressed in rags, encounters desperate children, debris, toppled statues (symbols of past glory) and graves. The illustrator approaches the source text with intentional objectiveness and with deliberate absence of sentimentalism, holding the strong subjective stance that tends towards dramatization. His pictures raises spectres of violence and monstrousness that might be seen as the stuff nightmares are made on. The overall impression which is conveyed is of cold and suffocating. Lemoin uses cold colours - that means colours with a low degree of brightness (greyish, greenish, brown etc.) - in order to depict the gloominess of the environment and symbolically the loneliness and the desperation of the meandering existence. In Lemoin’s La Petite Marchande d’ Allumettes, the illustrator takes the position of an eye-witness or a press-photographer who registers his direct testimony about the mere facts. The illustrator functions as a documentation that aims at activating a dialogue with the reader, revisiting the well-known and touching Andersen’s tale. It is also a denunciation of the “collateral damages” of war and an expression of the moral revulsion of the artist in front of such atrocities. Keeping an ironic distance between the text and its illustration, Lemoin suggests a diachronic interpretation of war as absurd and  savage destruction.

In Lemoin’s book, we can also detect some other forms of dialogue with the Andersen’s tale. By keeping this ironic distance between text and its pictures, the illustrator succeed in eliminating the metaphysical aspects of the tale diminishing the Christian faith in a posthumous life in which the little angel will eventually find happiness. The illustrator does not hesitate to show the dead body of the girl lying in the morgue. Of course, it is not accidental that the last picture of the book is that of the snowy cemetery, where the girl and the numerous victims of the war are laid to rest. The referentiality of the picture contradicts with the metaphysical fictionality of the original text: the picture of cemetery accompanies Andersen’s particular scene where the little girl, already disembodied, flies like an angel-like spirit to Heaven. The documentary and realistic character of the illustration undermines the fictional illusion.

Lemoin, revisiting as illustrator the tale of the Danish writer, challenges us to realize the eternal virtues of this text and at the same time to consider all the contemporary versions of “the little match child”, which, famished and persecuted, increases our feelings of disgrace for all the rigours of our “civilized” life.

Eugenios Aranitsis, a well known contemporary Greek author and journalist, updates the initial text, keeping its structural frame and aims at manifesting how artificial and clownish the contemporary social reality is, the extravagant, yet ephemerally glowing reality. With  narrating fluency and a discourse, full of rhetorical devices, Aranitsis slates the behaviours and morals of our time, organizing an extremely subversive narrative with an intense satirical character. His short story entitled “Katia, the little girl with the lighters”, was published in the newspaper Kyriakatiki  Eleftherotypia, dated 28-12-2003. Today’s little girl, Katia, who is an orphan and freezes selling cheap cigarette lighters at a crossroad, sinks into the illusory world that the dream-like reflections of the lighters’ flames create around her.

Aranitsis’s short story is an artful parody of the festive Christmas literature and the stereotyped descriptions that accompany it. In Aranitsis’s tale, the Christmas tree is not decorated with candies, lights and bric-a-brac, but with money cheques. Death appears dressed in the red disguise of a hoary Santa Claus. Snowflakes do not flutter like ballerinas, but fall like leaflets of the Republican Party: it is snowing like on a television screen: snow is just a scenery, a literary cliché or a sugary simile, since the very reality is already transformed into a simulation, a post-modern simulacrum.
Aranitsis basic aim is to manifest the iniquity and the hysteria of today’s life style.

Consequently, the theme of the defenseless childhood is overshadowed by the theme of the consumerist and evanescent high society.

Nevertheless, the most interesting point of Aranitsis’s short story is its very ending, that is the way in which the author chooses to finish the narration. As we can easily remember, in the end of the original tale, gracious and merciful God intervenes and sends the figure of the beloved grandmother to accompany the little girl to the timeless Kingdom of Heaven. In Aranitsis’s text the appearance of God is replaced by the intervention of the author himself in the proceedings. Using a clearly metafictional device, Aranitsis himself, intrudes in the story with the attribute of the intrusive author. The reader understands that the first – person narrator is the author himself, who had appeared earlier in the story (from the early beginning) as one of the fictional characters – he was the drunk student who bought from Katia the first lighter.

The revelation of his true identity poses the subject of the ontological connection of the writer with his creations and at the same time makes the borders between the two “worlds”, the fictional and the real, the invented and the objectively existing, quite confused. The author enters the sphere of fiction and communicates directly with his heroine dissolving the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. The tale lends itself to self-conscious narration, alerting the reader to the artifice of fiction. The author is a god, a creator of figures, who has total authority over the life and death of his heroes. As some other metafictional writers do (such as John Barth, Flann O’Brien, Muriel Spark etc.), Eugenios Aranitsis reveals that the little heroine has limited potential of self-defining since, she has an existence overdetermined by the creative imagination of someone else, that is the Author. From this metafictional point of view, the story of Aranitsis could be seen as an allegory of the adaptive process itself. The young writer has the will and the ability to adapt and appropriate the initial text - that means he has the power to change the plots of the previous author. We shall discuss later on this topic in the context of Boulotis’s intuitive adaptation.

Eugenios Trivizas, the prolific modern Greek writer of children’s books, makes a story about “The little girl with the lighters” (2005) using the same device as Aranitsis – he substitutes the matches with cheap lighters. Trivizas’s aim is (also as Ungerer’s and Aranitsis’s) to convey through his own adaptation complex layers of social critique.

The fatigued girl, is dreaming under the hallucinatory light of her three last lighters, which are a yellow, a green and a red one. Trivizas, very shrewdly, uses three primary colours that have strong symbolic significance particularly in Greece, as the colours of some political parties and also of some very popular football teams. The common reader invests these colours with connotations of political intolerance and football bigotry of a stultified or even fanaticized mob.      

When the little girl is ready to spark her last red lighter (also the colour commonly associated with fire) she decides to light a fire in order to destroy the indifferent and hostile people of her neighbourhood. The narrator informs us that she became an arsonist out of anger, despair and loneliness – oppressed  feelings that very often lead people to criminal actions.   Anarchism or even nihilistic terrorism have their roots to the deficiencies of society – the same society that persecute anonymous poor people.

Trivizas’s story is an uncompromising one with an uncomfortable ending. The author eschews sentimentality and assumes a pragmatic, even cynical attitude towards his little heroine:

Nobody knew what happened afterwards. Some said that she was arrested for arson, was convicted and rotted in prison. Others said that she was put away in an asylum, where certain staff members abused her systematically and others said that she escaped from it and organized a fanatical terrorist group, taking part in arson attacks. Others said that she deeply regretted what she has done and became a nun in a remote monastery. Who knows? One thing is certain though, that this catastrophic fire started from lighting a cheap, red lighter!

Trivizas highlights the total corruption of the institutions and the moral disintegration of society. The social tensions remain unresolved. There is no solution to the circumstances of poverty and injustice and at the same time there is no salvation for the poor little girl.

Christos Boulotis has a remarkable contribution to the adaptation of The Little Match Girl. Andersen’s little heroine is a recurrent motif in Boulotis’s work. The Greek writer of numerous children’s books is a keen reader of the traditional and folklore fairy-tales and a master in innovating the cultural treasury of fairy-tale tradition. Boulotis is a genuine storyteller and an inventive writer of stories exquisite for the beauty and the lyricism of its prose.

As Boulotis himself has already confessed, he had a strong autobiographical bond with this particular tale of Andersen which is the saddest and most sentimental tale he had ever read. The author recollects the little match girl along with the nostalgia of his own childhood’s memories:

Apart from the little match girl, who is perishing in a freezing Danish town, it is not difficult for someone to notice that other children, all over the world and throughout the year, are suffering too from poverty, malnutrition, diseases and lack of water.

Nevertheless, all this suffering is mentioned only briefly during the daily news reports. Personally, I owe to this little girl my first challenge as an author.

During the 50’s and 60’s, when the signs of poverty were perhaps more obvious, we children adopted the little match girl as one of us, feeling a great sympathy for her.
When I was in the first year of primary school, I refused to accept the little girl’s unfair death, especially at New Year when everyone was celebrating and having a good time. As a child, I remember thinking that death was a concern of adults and not children; but I was overwhelmed by contradictory feelings. As I grew up, I became dissatisfied with the author’s Christian gloss on the story; that somehow the little match girl was up in Heaven with her loved ones and away from all the fear and ugliness of this world. I was angry with the little boy who had stolen her slipper and angry too with his heartless father; but above all I was angry with the author for allowing the little girl to die in his story. He could have saved her so easily, by writing a different ending.

I wanted her to be happy, glittering like a Christmas ornament, playing with us here on Earth, not in Heaven with her dead grandmother. So, I started to imagine other happier endings to the story; but none of them satisfied me, because I always wished something better for her.

Boulotis revises The Little Match Girl in a metafictional and self-conscious style full of overt intertextual references. The first appearance of the little match girl is in his story: Tell me about your toys (2000). The girl holds her own prominent position among the vast panorama of Boulotis’s childhood memories. He day-dreams that he is the saviour of the little girl and in the miniature picture of V. Papatsarouchas, that illustrates the page, the girl finds shelter inside of a vintage greek match-box.

In his poetic volume entitled On Love and Fairy-Tales-Songs (2004a) Boulotis includes a beautiful poem (The Little Match Girl) dedicated to the wretched heroine of Andersen. The same poem first appeared to a Christmas story of Boulotis entitled: The boy who was drawing gnomes (2003). The reader is informed that the “real” author of the poem is Asterios Skoteinos, a writer of joyous and optimistic stories, who is profoundly a literary persona of Boulotis himself. The writer meets the girl not in Denmark but in Athens, in Constitution Square.

In his poem Boulotis expresses his wish for a brand new happy ending of Andersen’s tale. He rescues the girl from death and launches her into his own fictional universe, a blissful Boulotis-land full of fancy and make-believe. The author gives away a number of gifts to the little girl, a whole cornucopia of childish things: sandals, cherries, ice-creams, a kite and a golden lotus (the fruit usually associated with oblivion) – objects that metonymically represent the lost Eden of Childhood.

As we have seen modern authors re-imagine, in various ways, the famous tale of Andersen, viewing it from new, refreshing angles. In doing this, as Zipes reminds us (1994:157) they alter our reading of the tale as a stable, canonical text of Western literature, envisioning radical twists and ramifications of its plot in order to make us aware that there are always different ways to shape and view stories.

In the end, it is the very ending of the tale that is most vociferously denied, or at least (as in the case of Boulotis) self-consciously framed, by all the revisionary versions of The Little Match Girl, proving once again that “stasis is an unreliable model for the operations of canonical texts across cultures and times,” (Sanders, 2006:93). These other versions of The Little Match Girl broaden the vision of the great Danish author, offering “not recuperation but differentiation, not the establishment of a new norm, but the questioning of all norms” (Zipes, 1994:157-8; Zipes, 1979: 177).

In their dialogue with Andersen’s tale the modern authors, break or subvert the original text, transmitting it in a different historical and temporal setting. The Little Match Girl is redeployed in contemporary instances in order to indicate those anonymous, miserable and marginalized children whose histories will never been told. Through the various palimpsestial rewritings of her story the little match girl, not only as the soul of chastity and innocence, but also as the literary icon of the victimized child par excellence, forges her path through oblivious time. She gains a contemporary existence elucidating the particular barbarity of our times. Since Andersen’s historical times, we can notice today that nothing has really changed, as far as the social injustice is concerned. Now, yet again, history itself is repeated; but not of course as farce but always as a tragedy. The present-day disasters and disparities could and should turn our minds to all the “collateral” children of this world.

The contemporary authors express moral indignation and the despair of one who sees alienation and barbarity reigning everywhere. To the horrors which we have lived through, seeing innocent children victimized, other horrors will be added, drowning the palimpsest of our saturated memory.

Jina Kalogirou and Sofia Chatzidimitriou-Paraschou, Greece

31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, September 2008

Works Cited:

Primary Texts:
The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, 2008, transl. By M. Tatar, J. K. Allen, edited with an introduction and notes by M. Tatar, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Aranitsis, E., 2003. Katia, the little girl with the lighters, in the newspaper Kyriakatiki  Eleftherotypia, 28/12/2003.

Boulotis, Chr., 2000. Tell me about your toys, illustrations by V. Papatsarouchas, Athens: Ellinika Grammata

Boulotis, Chr., 2003. The boy who was drawing gnomes, illustrations by V. Papatsarouchas, A special Christmas edition by the newspaper Kathimerini.

Boulotis, Chr., 2004a. On Love and Fairy-Tales Songs, illustrations by F. Stefanidi, Athens: Ellinika Grammata

Boulotis, Chr., 2004b. “The Little Match Girl at the Constitution Square”, in the newspaper Kathimerini, Christmas 2004 (25-26/12/2004), pp. 23-25.

Lemoin, G., 1999. H.C. Andersen’s, La Petite Marchande d’ Allumettes,  tradoit by  Danois par P.G. La Chesnais, Paris: Nathan.

Trivizas, E., 2005. The little girl with the lighters, in the newspaper Eleftherotypia (Hans Christian Andersen’s special Edition) supplement Bibliothiki (no. 354) 22/4/2005.

Ungerer, Tomi, 1975. Allumette (with due respect to Hans Christian Andersen, the Grimm Brothers and the Hon. Ambrose Bierce), London: Methuen Children’s Books.

Critical Texts:

Baudrillard, J., 1981. Simulacra and Simulation, transl. Sh. Faria-Glaser, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Damico, J. – Apol. L., 2008, Using Testimonial Response to Frame the Challenges and Possibilities of Risky Historical Texts, Children’s Literature in Education  (2008) 39: 141-158.

Genette, G., 1997. Palimpsests: Literature in The Second Degree, transl. Ch. Newman – Cl. Doubinsky, Linkoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Lathey, G., 2005, Comparative and Psychoanalytic Approaches: Personal History and Collective Memory, in Reynolds, K.(ed.), Modern Children’s Literature. An Introduction, Palgrave Macmillan.

Sanders, J., 2006. Adaptation and Appropriation, London and New York: Routledge <The New Critical Idiom>.

Zipes, J., 1979. Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, London: Heinemann.

Zipes, J., 1991. Fairy tales and the Art of Subversion, The Classical Genre for Children and the Process of Civilization, New York: Routledge.

Zipes, J., 1994. Fairy Tale as Myth. Myth as Fairy Tale, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.