The Candles
by Hans Christian Andersen

There was once a big wax candle who had the highest opinion of his merits. “I,” he said, “am made of the purest wax, cast in the best mold. I burn more brilliantly than any other candle, and I outlast them all. belong in the high chandelier or the silver candlestick.”

“What a delightful life you must lead,” the tallow candle admitted. “I am only tallow. Just a tallow dip. But it’s a comfort to think how much better off I am than the taper. He’s only dipped twice, while I am dipped eight times to make a thick and respectable candle out of me. I’m satisfied. To be sure it would be better to be born of wax than of tallow, and a lucky thing to be shaped in a mold, but one isn’t asked how one wants to be born. Your place is in the big rooms with glass chandeliers. Mine is in the kitchen. But the kitchen is a good place too. All the food in the house comes from there.”

“There are more important things in the world than food,” the wax candle boasted. “there’s the glitter of good society inn which I shine. Why, I and all my family are invited to a ball that’s being given here this very evening.”

No sooner had he said this than all the wax candles were sent for. But the tallow candle was not left behind. the mistress of the house took it in her own hand and carried it to the kitchen, where a poor boy waited with his basket full of potatoes and a few apples that she had given him.

“And here’s a candle for you, too, my little friend,” she told him. “Your mother can use it to work by when she sits up late at night.”

The lady’s small daughter stood close beside the mother, and when she heard the magic words ‘late at night,’ she forgot to be shy. ‘I’m going to stay up late at night, too!’ she exclaimed. “We are to have a ball this evening, and I’m to wear my big red ribbon.” No candle could ever shine like the eyes of a child.

“Happiness is a blessed thing to see,” the tallow candle thought to himself. “I mustn’t forget how it looks, for I certainly shan’t see it again.” They put him in the basket and closed the lid. Away the boy went with it.

“Where can he be taking me?” the candle wondered. “I may have to live with poor people who don’t even own a brass candlestick, while the wax candle sits in silver and beams at all the best people. How fine it must be to shine in good company! But this is what I get for being tallow, not wax.”

And the candle did come to live with poor people. They were a widow and her three children, who had a low-ceilinged room across the way from the well to do house.

“God bless our neighbor for all that she gave us,” the widow said. “This good candle will burn far into the night.” She struck a match to it. “Fut! fie,” sputtered the candle. “What a vile smelling match she lights me with. Would anyone offer such a kitchen match to the wax candle, in the well to do house across the way?”

There the candles were lighted, too. They made the street bright as carriages came rumbling with guests dressed in their best for the ball. The music struck up. “Now the ball’s beginning,” the tallow candle thought. He burned brighter as he remembered the happy little girl whose face was more shining than the light of all those wax candles. “I’ll never see anything like that again.”

The smallest of the poor children reached up, for she was very small, and put her arms around the necks of her brothers and sisters. What she had to tell them was so important that it had to be whispered. “Tonight we’re going to have – just think of it – war potatoes, this very night.” Her faced beamed with happiness and the candle beamed right back at her. He saw happiness again, and a gladness as great as when the little girl in the well to do house said, “We’re going to have a ball this evening, and I’m to wear my red ribbon.”

“Is it such a treat to get warm potatoes?” the candle wondered. “Little children must manage to be happy here, too.” He wept tallow tears of joy, and more than that a candle cannot do.

The table was spread and the potatoes were eaten. How good they tasted! It was a real feast. There was an apple for everyone, and the smallest child said Grace: “Now thanks dear Lord, I give to Thee, that Thou again has filled me. Amen. And didn’t I say it nicely?” she asked. “Don’t say such things,” her mother told her, “just thank the Lord for filling you up.”

The children went to bed, were kissed good night, and fell fast asleep. Their mother sat up late at night and sewed to make a living for them and for herself. From the well to do house came light and music. But the stars overhead shone on all the houses, rich or poor, with the same light, clear and kind.

“This has been a wonderful evening,’ the tallow candle thought. “Can the wax candle have had any better time of it in his silver candlestick? I’d like to know before I’m burned out.”

He remembered the two happy children, one face lighted up by the wax candle, the other shining in the tallow candle’s light. One was happy as the other. Yes, that is the whole story!

Note: Dude, its Hans Christian Andersen. Copyright = so lapsed.


There are two interesting things about this fairy tale. The first can easily be discussed by saying that its a very sweet, simple story, all about loving what one has. The second interesting thing is more complex; that is, this is the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s life.


Jack Zipes wrote a great book (thirty years ago) called “Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion.” He’s got a great chapter in there on Andersen, which deals with “the discourse of the dominated.” Here, Zipes is spot on. He recognizes the complexity of Andersen’s relationship to status and privilege (to which Andersen, originally from outside of Copenhagen’s elite social circle, always aspired). On the one hand, Andersen longs for approval from Jonas Collins, his wealthy and high-up patron. Yet on the other hand, Andersen knew that he deserved to be treated better than he was (the Collins family always looked down on him) because of his intellectual gifts. What comes out of this mix? Fairy tales like The Candles. On the one hand, the tallow candle longs to be part of the life in the well to do house. He longs to be treated like the worthy wax candle (“Would anyone offer such a kitchen match to the wax candle, in the well to do house across the way?”) and to be accepted in the great house.

Yet on the other hand, he identifies with the poor family, and asserts that there is just as much happiness in poor families as rich ones (one does not need status and wealth to be happy), and that the stars shine down on each of them equally. Yet at the same time, the tallow candle does’t identify with the poor to such a degree that he wants to better their lot. This would add a revolutionary spin to the tale, a sort of Madame Defarge-like turning of the tables, “these poor people *deserve* to have as much as the rich, and they should strive to better their lot and be rich, too.” Instead the tallow candle (and Andersen) advocate acceptance of one’s lot. The widow says: “God bless our neighbor for all that she gave us,” indicating that the poor are not to take or earn things, but be given them. The tallow candle also puts his faith in the justness of the status quo, saying: “To be sure it would be better to be born of wax than of tallow, and a lucky thing to be shaped in a mold, but one isn’t asked how one wants to be born.”

This leaves the reader in a bit of a pickle as far as messages go. To be sure, its good to teach children to be happy with what they have, or else misery and a bad case of the sulks might result. Yet it is by no means a bad thing to also teach children to go after their dreams, or that all people are created equally and should have equal access to the same things. And “The Candles” definitely imparts a mixed message where that’s concerned. I don’t know who I am to give advice about what one reads to one’s children, so I won’t. But I think that this tale is a great example of one thing that I firmly believe: even tales that look innocuous can have hidden messages that some might not agree with, and it’s always a good idea to look twice at the stories we read to kids.