Thursday, 27 January 2022

The Tinder Box as Ur-D&D

Can there be anyone alive who does not know the plot of Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Tinder Box'? Well, I'm going to spoil it, so if you haven't ever encountered it, I recommend giving it a read. It's short. If you are feeling lazy or want your memory refreshing, here's a brief precis:

Our hero is a soldier. Returning home from war, he encounters a witch, who asks him to climb into a nearby hollow tree and go down into the bowels of the earth to recover a magic tinder box. In return he can keep whatever he finds. But the witch warns him about three giant dogs who live down there, and gives him her apron to use to deprive them of their power. 

He does as she asks, climbs down inside the tree, and finds a hall with rooms leading off it. In each he encounters one of the giant dogs, guarding treasure, and uses the apron to pacify them and steal the treasure they are guarding. Then he gets the magic tinder-box and climbs out, but before giving it to the witch, asks her what she wants it for. She refuses to tell him, so he chops her head off. 

He then goes the nearby town and spends all his ill-gotten gains in an excess of generosity. Reduced to penury, in desperation he uses the tinder-box to try to light a fire, and discovers it allows him to summon the giant dogs to perform tasks for him. He uses them to get rich again and win the love of a beautiful princess. Eventually imprisoned by the king for seduction of the princess, he is sentenced to death, but uses his cunning to recover the tinder-box. He then summons the giant dogs to rescue him and make him king instead (with the princess as his wife, natch; she seems remarkably unperturbed that the soldier's escape involves the dogs throwing the king and queen, her parents, into the air and 'dashing them to pieces', but that's fairy tales for you). The End.

No doubt there is something about stories involving heroes going underground to defeat monsters and win treasure and glory which resonates deeply with human beings. And no doubt there is also something about  amoral heroes tricking their way to fame and fortune which does too. 'The Tinder Box' is in this sense unremarkable, except for the clarity and charm with which all of the tropes of these kinds of stories are painted. A few years ago I wrote a post about the heroes of 19th century adventure books, in which I observed that they:

are active and energetic sorts who believe in action and making the best of things - that where there's a will there's a way, and that to a certain extent one makes one's own luck in life. They get on with it.

The soldier in 'The Tinder Box' is very much of that ilk. Impetuous and thoughtless, for all his cunning, he sort of blunders through life, making and losing fortunes, and getting by largely on what in old books they would have called 'pluck'. For all his amorality, violence and caprice, we like him. He is a Gilgamesh, a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk, a Brer Rabbit, a knave. And we are happy for him when he comes good in the end. 

I am hardly making a novel observation in pointing out that D&D, at least in its 'old school' mode, works very well when taking its cues from this kind of story. It is not badwrongfun to play D&D however one wishes. But the game is predicated on the existence of those resonances which a story like 'The Tinder Box' also activates within us. Delving into the chthonic realm to brave its dangers and bring forth its hidden treasures so as to make one's name. Surviving by one's wits. Acting rather than thinking - succeeding by accident over design. Living life as one encounters it, rather than through the implementation of carefully thought-out plans. Winning the girl in the end not because of one's intrinsic attributes, but because one is imbued with more vitality than anyone around.

In short, the soldier in 'The Tinder Box' sounds like he is having a great time, and perhaps a big part of old school D&D's appeal is that it allows us to tap into some of that brand of carefree enjoyment ourselves. To live from moment to moment, owing nothing to anyone, and embracing danger as the natural corollary of doing what one wishes. Is it any wonder that D&D PCs so often end up resembling this archetype so definitively? Is it at all remarkable that they should be as impetuous, thoughtless and amoral as they almost always are? And is it so surprising that this kind of game should be so popular given the deep thematic roots this kind of story attempts to bring to the surface? 


  1. Yes!

    I've been thinking about that story quite a lot recently, though I'd forgotten its name (not for the first time) and remembered it chiefly through the successively larger sizes of the dogs' eyes. I remember a striking illustration of the biggest dog from a book I had as a child.

    The two things that have long resonated with me, in an RPG context, are the rootless soldier (on his way home from an unnamed war) and the cheerful squandering of his gains!

  2. Wow, I can't believe I've never encountered that tinderbox story before. Awesome, thanks!

  3. Must be at least 160 years since I read that story. I remembered none of it but the dogs with the bizarrely large eyes.

  4. The Tinder-box story must have been a really early fairy tale I read when I was a kid.
    One of the reasons why I think people have these days have problems with D&D is that most of the population these days are culturally illiterate, especially illiterate on the stuff that inspired D&D, such as fairy tales and picaresque fiction (One can say that picaresque didn't directly influence D&D, but it did influence Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber). It's not population's fault that it is culturally illiterate, but it saddens me that young DMs mostly just know about self-aware media that doesn't share anything with reality or historic works, but rather that media informed by tangential knowledge of other self-aware media and cookie-cutter "How to make plot" formulas half baked and ripped off from Joseph Campbell. See J.J. Abrams for what I am talking about.