Today, let me tell you a tale by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875), the famous Danish author and poet. I only ever read his more well know tales but I’m so fascinated by this one, that there will be undoubtly more. To begin with:
The Evil Lord
by Hans Christian Andersen
The lord looked upon his gold, saw his precious buildings and thought as did the crowd: “What a great lord but I must have more, so much more! No power can equal mine, let alone called greater than mine!” He initiated war with all his neighbors and conquered them all. He had the vanquished kings shackled to his wagon with golden chains when he drove through the streets, and when he was at table they had to be at his and his courtiers’ feet and collect all the crumbs that had been tossed to them.
Now the lord had an ornamented column erected in the city squares and in the kingly castles. Yes, he wanted it to stand, in the churches, before the Lord’s altar but the priests said: “Lord, you are great but God is greater. We do not dare!”
“Well!” said the evil lord, “then I will also vanquish God!” And in his heart’s hubris and foolishness he had a kingly ship built with which one could sail through the air. It was as colorful as a peacock’s tail and seemed to be adorned with thousands of eyes, but each eye was a rifle barrel. The lord was seated in the middle of the ship. He only needed to press a spring and thousands of bullets would fly through the air and the rifles would be immediately reloaded. Hundreds of strong eagles were put before the ship and in this way the lord flew towards the sun. The earth lay deep down below. First she appeared, with her mountains and forests, like a field plowed open where the green peeked through the turned over grass. Later she appeared like a flat map and soon she was completely cloaked by fog and clouds. Higher and higher the eagles flew.It was then that God sent a single one of his countless angels and the evil lord let thousands of bullets fly against him but all the bullets rolled like hail off the angel’s shining wings. Only one single drop of blood dripped from the white wings and fell upon the ship in which the king sat. It burned itself into the ship, it weight on it like thousand centners of lead and tore the ship towards the earth in a rush. The eagles’s strong wings broke, the wind sped past the lord’s head and the clouds around him, which had been formed by the burned down cities and which built themselves up to threatening shapes, into mile-high crabs that reached for him with their powerful claws, into rolling pieces of rock and fire spitting dragons. The king lay half-dead in his ship which at last came to rest in the forest’s thick trees.
“I want to vanquish God!” he said. “I have sworn it, my will shall be done!” And for seven years he had artificial ships built to sail through the sky, he had flashes of lightening forged into the strongest of steel as he aimed to demolish heaven’s stronghold. From all of his lands he assembled a great army which covered a space of many a mile when they stood man by man. They entered the artificial ships, the king himself approached his own when God sent a swarm of mosquitos, just one small swarm of mosquitos. It buzzed around the king stinging his face and his hands. In his wrath, he unsheathed his sword but he only met empty air, he could not strike the mosquitos. So he ordered that precious carpets be brought into which he was to be wrapped. No mosquito could penetrate the carpets with its sting and it was done as he had ordered. But a single mosquito settled onto the inside of the carpet, crawled into the king’s ear and stung him there. It burned like fire, the poison broke into his brain; like a madman he threw the carpets off of himself, tore away his cloths and danced around naked in front of the brute, wild soldiers who were now taunting the crazed lord who had wanted to besiege God and had been vanquished himself by a single, tiny mosquito.
Translation by: TaleTellerin
Copyright for the image: illustration of the wondersome air-war in Stralsund (1665)
What gets me most about this literary folktale is the contrast between the very unfolktalish beginning and the folktalish ending. The description of the lord’s rise to power is neither in motifs nor in language reminiscent of a folktale but of socially critical literature of the time. Also not fitting into a folktale is the very apparent critique of technology which in itself is, or so the text strongly hints at, a form of blasphemy.
On the other hand there is the motif of the mosquito which, of course, rings very folktalish. There are numerous parallels in folklore where tiny animals conquer their enemy by crawling into his ear or nose and knock him out from the inside.
I’m not quite sure Andersen manages to merge these two aspects, these two traditions of story-telling. Or maybe that was his idea – to have these in somewhat uncomfortably juxtaposition? What do you think?