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  • 47. The Fir-Tree

    By Hans Christian Andersen • with Illustrations by Lilli Carré

    How are we to read this melancholy little post-Christmas story from the venerable Hans Christian Andersen? Far from the familiar sentiments we associate with the Victorian age, this 1844 story feels more like a proto-existentialist parable about purpose, loss, and
    the flight of time.

    And yet all this while the tree grew a notch or joint taller every year; for by the number of joints in the stem of a fir-tree we can discover its age.

    Still, as it grew, it complained.

    “Oh, how I wish I were as tall as the other trees, then I would spread out my branches on every side, and my top would overlook the wide world. I should have the birds building their nests on my boughs, and when the wind blew, I should bow with stately dignity like my tall companions.”

    After the branches were lopped off, the trunks looked so slender and bare that they could scarcely be recognized. Then they were placed upon wagons, and drawn by horses out of the forest. Where were they going? What would become of them?

    “Oh, how I wish I were tall enough to go on the sea. What is the sea, and what does it look like?”

    “It would take too much time to explain.”

    “Rejoice in thy youth,” said the sunbeam. “Rejoice in thy fresh growth, and the young life that is in there.”

    And the wind kissed the tree, and the dew watered it with tears, but the fir-tree regarded them not.

    Christmastime grew near, and many young trees were cut down, some even smaller than the fir-tree, who enjoyed neither rest nor peace with longing to leave its forest home.

    These young trees, which were chosen for their beauty, kept their branches, and were also laid on wagons and drawn by horses out of the forest.

    “Where are they going?” asked the fir-tree. “They are not taller than I am; indeed, one is much less; and why are the branches not cut off? Where are they going?”

    “We know, we know. We have looked in at the windows of the houses in the town, and we know what is done with them.

    “We did not see any more but this was enough for us.”

    “I wonder whether anything so brilliant will ever happen to me. It would be much better than crossing the sea. I long for it almost with pain. Oh! When will Christmas be here? I am now as tall and well grown as those which were taken away last year.

    “Oh! that I were now laid on the wagon or standing in the warm room, with all that brightness and splendor around me! Something better and more beautiful is to come after, or the trees would not be so decked out. Yes, what follows will be grander and more splendid. What can it be? I am weary with longing. I scarcely know how I feel.”

    “Rejoice with us,” said the air and the sunlight. “Enjoy thine own bright life in the fresh air.”

    But the tree would not rejoice, though it grew taller every day, winter and summer, its dark-green foliage might be seen in the forest, while passersby would say, “What a beautiful tree.”

    It knew that it should never again see its dear old companions, the trees, nor the little bushes and many-colored flowers that had grown by its side; perhaps not even the birds.

    Neither was the journey at all pleasant. The tree first recovered itself while being unpacked in the courtyard of a house, with several other trees; and it heard a man say, “We only want one, and this is the prettiest.”

    Then the fir-tree was placed in a large tub, full of sand, but green baize hung all around it, so that no one could see it was a tub, and it stood on a very handsome carpet.

    How the fir-tree trembled!

    What was going to happen to it now?

    Some young ladies came, and the servants helped them to adorn the tree.

    On one branch they hung little bags cut out of colored paper, and each bag was filled with sweetmeats; from other branches hung gilded apples and walnuts, as if they had grown there; and above, and all round, were hundreds of red, blue, and white tapers, which were fastened on the branches.

    Dolls, exactly like real babies, were placed under the green leaves—the tree had never seen such things before—and at the very top was fastened a glittering star, made of tinsel. Oh, it was very beautiful!

    “This evening,” they all exclaimed, “how bright it will be!”

    “Oh, that evening were come and the tapers lighted! Then I shall know what else is going to happen. Will the trees of the forest come to see me? I wonder if the sparrows will peep in at the windows as they fly? Shall I grow faster ehre, and keep on all these ornaments summer and winter?”

    But guessing was of very little use; it made its bark ache, and this pain is as bad for a slender fir-tree as a headache is for us.

    At last the tapers were lighted, and what a glistening blaze of light the tree presented!

    And now the folding doors were thrown open, and a troop of children rushed in as if they intended to upset the tree; they were followed more silently by their elders.

    “What are they doing? What will happen next?” thought the fir.

    At last the candles burnt down to the branches and were put out. Then the children received permission to plunder the tree.

    Oh, how they rushed upon it, till the branches cracked, and had it not been fastened with the glistening star to the ceiling, it might have been thrown down.

    The children then danced about with their pretty toys, and no one noticed the tree, except the children’s maid, who came and peeped among the branches to see if an apple or a fig had been forgotten.

    “Ivede-Avede,” cried some. “Humpty Dumpty,” cried others, and there was a fine shouting and crying out. But the fir-tree remained quite still and thought to itself, “Shall I have anything to do with all this?” but it had already amused them as much as they wished.

    Then the old man told them the story of Humpty Dumpty, how he fell down stairs, and was raised up again, and married a princess. And the children clapped their hands and cried, “Tell another!” “Tell another!” for they wanted to hear the story of Ivede-Avede, but they only had Humpty Dumpty.

    And thus the fir-tree became quite silent and thoughtful; never had the birds in the forest told such tales as Humpty Dumpty, who fell down the stairs, and yet married a princess.

    “Ah! Yes, so it happens in the world,” thought the fir-tree; he believed it all, because it was related by such a nice man. “Ah! well, who knows? Perhaps I may fall down too, and marry a princess.”

    And he looked forward joyfully to the next evening, expecting to be again decked out with lights and playthings, gold and fruit.

    In the morning the servants and the housemaid came in. “Now,” thought the fir, “all my splendor is going to begin again.”

    But they dragged it out of the room and up stairs to the garret, and threw it on the floor, in a dark corner, where no daylight shone, and they left it.

    “What does this mean? What am I to do here? I can hear nothing in a place like this.” And it had time enough to think, for days and nights passed and no one came near it, and when at last somebody did come, it was only to put away large boxes in a corner.

    So the tree was completely hidden from sight as if it had never existed.

    “It is winter now. The ground is hard and covered with snow so that people cannot plant me. I shall be sheltered here, I daresay, until spring comes. How thoughtful and kind everybody is to me! Still I wish this place were not so dark, as well as lonely, with not even a little hare to look at. How pleasant it was out in the forest while the snow lay on the ground, when the hare would run by, yes, and jump over me too, although I did not like it there. Oh! it is terribly lonely here.”

    “Squeak squeak,” said a little mouse, creeping cautiously toward the tree; then came another; and they both sniffed at the fir-tree and crept between the branches. “Oh, it is very cold, or else we should be so comfortable here, shouldn’t we, you old fir tree?”

    “I am not old. There are many who are older than I am.”

    “Where do you come from?”

    “And what do you know?”

    “I know nothing of that place, but I know the wood where the sun shines and the birds sing.”

    And then the tree told the little mice all about its youth. They had never heard such an account in their lives; and after they had listened to it attentively, they said, “What a number of things you have seen. You must have been very happy.”

    “Happy!” exclaimed the fir-tree, and then as it reflected upon what it had been telling them, it said, “Ah, yes! After all, those were the happy days.” But then it went on and related all about Christmas Eve, and how it had been dressed up with cakes and lights.

    “How happy you must have been, you old fir-tree.”

    “I am not old at all. I only came from the forest this winter; I am now checked in my growth.”

    “What splendid stories you can relate.”

    And the next night four other mice came with them to hear what the tree had to tell.

    “Who is Humpty Dumpty?” asked the little mice. And then the fir-tree related the whole story; it could remember every single word, and the little mice were so delighted with it that they were ready to jump to the top of the tree.

    The next night a great many more mice made their appearance, and on Sunday two rats came with them; but they said it was not a pretty story at all, and the little mice were very sorry, for it made them also think less of it.

    “Do you know only one story?”

    “Only one. I heard it on the happiest evening of my life; but I did not know I was so happy at the time.”

    “We think it is a very miserable story. Don’t you know any story about bacon, or tallow in the storeroom?”

    The little mice also crept away after this, and the tree sighed, and said, “It was very pleasant when the merry little mice sat round me and listened while I talked. Now that is all passed too. However, I shall consider myself happy when someone comes to take me out of this place.”

    But would this ever happen? Yes; one morning people came to clear out the garret, the boxes were packed away, and the tree was pulled out of the corner and thrown roughly on the garret floor.

    Then the servant dragged it out upon the staircase where the daylight shone.

    “Now my life is beginning again!” said the tree, rejoicing in the sunlight and the fresh air.

    Then it was carried downstairs and taken into the courtyard so quickly that it forgot to think of itself, and could only look about, there was so much to see.

    “Now I shall live!” cried the tree, joyfully spreading out its branches.

    But alas! They were all withered and yellow, and it lay in a corner among weeds and nettles. The star of gold paper still stuck in the top of the tree and glittered in the sunshine.

    In the same courtyard were playing two of the merry children who had danced round the tree at Christmas, and had been so happy. The youngest saw the gilded star, and ran and pulled it off the tree. “Look what is sticking to the ugly old fir-tree,” said the child, treading on the branches till they crackled under his boots.

    And the tree saw all the bright flowers in the garden, and then looked at itself, and wished it had remained in the dark corner of the garret. It thought of its fresh youth in the forest, of the merry Christmas evening, and of the little mice who had listened to the story of Humpty Dumpty. “Past! Past! Oh, had I but enjoyed myself while I could have done so! But now it is too late.”

    Then a lad came and chopped the tree into small pieces, till a large bundle lay in a heap on the ground.

    But at each “pop,” which was a deep sigh, the tree was thinking of a summer day in the forest, and of Christmas evening, and of Humpty Dumpty, the only story it had ever heard or knew how to relate, till at last it was consumed.

    The boys still played in the garden, and the youngest wore the golden star on his breast, with which the tree had been adorned during the happiest evening of its existence.

    Now all was past; the tree’s life was past; and this story also—for all stories must come to an end at last.


    From The Fir-Tree by Hans Christian Andersen, with illustrations by Lilli Carré.

    Read more about Andersen here!

    See more of Lilli’s work here!

    And buy the gorgeous book here!

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