The Missing Leg and the Melted Heart

A Reading of Andersen's Stedfast Tin Soldier

I feel both embarrassed and excited to speak about Andersen before a group of distinguished Andersen scholars.[1] I am unable to read Andersen in the original – in faet, he is quite remote from my usual fields of expertise. Still, I have several arguments in my defense. Hardly any writer other than Andersen has been with me throughout my entire lifetime, in almost all its phases: from early childhood, when I heard Andersen’s tales in German, my parents’ language, tolater childhood, when I read them in various Hebrew translations. Down the years of my engagement in literature, as both scholar and writer, I met Andersen again and again at several junetures – sametimes in really surprising locations. And so I met him again recently, while dealing with Homer and Sophocles. That encounter impelled me to some reflections, which I would like toshare with you today.

“The Steadfast Tin Soldier”. Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, ca. 1847. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum.

These reflections concern the tale ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’, published in 1838. It is Andersen’s first fairy tale about inanimate objects and one of the his first not based on a folklore source, that is, a Kunstmarchen. Indeed there are some affinities to Hoffman’s ‘Nutcracker and the King of Mice’ (1816), which is a prototype of Kunstmarchen for children. But this affinity is mainly in background details; there is no specific affinity in the plot line. Hoffman’s tale is very long and has a complicated and twisted plot; Andersen’s is shorter, and on the face of it simpier and probably meant for smaller children. But both tales – each for its own reasons – are highly enigmatic, sametimes really perplexing.

In Andersen’s tale the plot is exceptionally gloomy and dark. But beyond that pessimism, the plot is very strangely structured. Hardly any event is the result of a character’s action: everything happens to the hero without his initiative; at least in some passages this passive standpoint is presented as his own choice, although his options for free choice are most questionable. But in faet, the problem concerns not only the main character’s choices: all the events arebasedon coincidences, some very improbable, and in most cases with extremely ambiguous causality.

The only eausallink explicitly discussed is the troll’s hostility. He foretells the soldier’s misfertunes when he shouts, “Just wait until tomorrow!”[2], so when suddenly the window flies open and the soldier falls out the narrator asks: “Was it the troll, or was it just a gust of wind?” He displays the same uncertainty at the end when one of the boys throws the soldier into the fire: “That old troll in the snuffbox must have put him up to do so”. And when the soldier is washed into the gutter he thinks: “I wonder where I’ll finally end up. This must be the troll’s revenge”. The notion that the troll has caused the soldier’s trouble is mentioned by the narrator as well as the characters, but always as an assumption, as something more or less questionable, – never as a plain faet. But really there is no major difference since the troll’s hostility and ill will are no less arbitrary than all other coincidences leading to the soldier’s misfortunes.

This allegedly loose eausal concatenation urged some readers to look for a kind of hidden causality, usually psychological. The tale has been interpreted as expressing Andersen’s feeling that he was stiff, dumband defective, therefore unable to express his feelings toward women and love in generaP Perhaps also his alienation from, and basic unfamiliarity with social codes made him experience the surrounding world as a chain of arbitrary events, befalling him uncontrolled.

This reading explains the tale through a single assumption which eannot be refuted, at least from the biographical viewpoint; however, it eannot exhaust the tale, or even answer all the questions it raises. For instance, even the link between the soldier’s missing leg and his feeling of paralysis is unclear. No hardship the soldier undergoes is caused by the absence of the leg. A whole soldier, with two legs, could also have undergone the same troubles.

So there must be a further structure explaining the story beyond the psychological. Viewing the tale as a comic epic[4] seems to me much more convincing, and my assumption – which I wish to present here – is that a mythical structure undedies the tale.

The soldier’s life story moves between two acts of melting: it begins when he is cast from an old tin spoon, and at the end he melts again when he is thrown into the fire. In both melting acts there is a failure. With the easting “there hadn’t been enough tin for the whole soldier, and so he had only one leg”; with the melting all the circumstances were worse: “Just then one of the littie boys snatched up the soldier and, for no reason at all, threw him right into the stove”. But precisely the casting, ordered and professional, leads to a deformed body, while the violent and capricious aet at the end metamorphoses the metal into “the shape of a littie tin heart”. True, it means the death of the soldier, but at the same time it is a kind of spiritual revival, separate from the deformed physical entity.

All the movements in the tale take place between these two phases: the missing leg and its circumstances, and the heart created by the melting of the soldier. Besides being two narrative ends, determining the start and finish of the soldier’s life story, the deformed leg and the heart are two simultaneous motifs, representing two aspects of the soldier, which co-exist throughout the story. This pair of motifs goes back to a mythic structure well known from other sources too.

Let us examine the missing leg first. Why does Andersen need it, when its role in motivating the plot is so restricted? Structurally he needs it first and foremost to individualize the soldier. After all, he is manufactured together with 24 entirely identical comrades. In light of the tin soldiers’ uniformity, the hero must carry a specific identification mark.

This consideration, which on the face of it seems purely technical, is in faet based on a mythological structure. The identifying mark of the mythic hero is very often a deformation in his leg, sametimes even clearly related to his proper name.

Oedipus is of course the obvious example. When he is horn his father deforms his leg for a technically unclear reason: What can he gain by doing this to a new born baby whom he intends to kill anyway? This deformation may be understandable only through its relation to the bahy’s proper name – Oedipus, which means “swollen leg”. lt is a substitute, quite violent, for the aet of naming.

The swollen leg is the clearest and most salient sign affirming that the baby deported from Laius’s house is identical to the king of Thebes who is married to Jocasta, and to the wanderer who killed Laius on the road. Also the Sphinx’s riddle, which Oedipus solves successfully, is about legs: who has a single voice and f our, two and three legs? The answer is, a human being, who goes on four legs as a baby, on two legs as an adult, and in old age he uses a stick as a third leg. This image points of course to Oedipus himself, and to the link between the phases of early childhood, maturity and late adulthood. The link between the separate phases, both in the riddie and in Oedipus’ life, is expressed by a certain anomaly concerrung the leg.

A similar case can be found in the story of the return of Odysseus. He comes home incognito, disguised as an old beggar. But the old house servant washes his legs and recognizes him through the scar on one of them. Now comes a detailed digression about the source of the scar (Odyssey 19) – it was a hunting accident which occurred when Odysseus, as a boy, joined his grandfather and uneles when they hunted the wild boar on Mt. Parnassus. But this section also contains another story about an earlier event, which, on the face of it is unnecessary for understanding the source of the scar: when Odysseus was horn his grandfather, Autolycus, came for a visit. He was a quarrelsome person, and on his way from Parnassus to Ithaca he had quarrels with several people. He is still hot and in a rage when he arrives, so when he is asked to choose a name for his newhorn grandson he suggests Odysseus, which means “the angry one”. Thus he becomes especially related with the child, and promises that when he is old enough, Odysseus will be invited to his home and get many presents. The hunting accident occurs during that visit. So the story about his naming is combined with the story about the scar. As in the Oedipus tale, a relation is created between the proper name and the deformed leg, and it becomes a kind of identity card when Odysseus uses his scar to prove his identity befare his friends (Odyssey 21) and his father (ibid. 24).

In the biblical story too there is a similar connection:Jacob struggles with the angel on the Jabbok pass. Foliowing that struggle he is narned Israel, and this new identity is symbolized by harm sustained in his thigh muscle (Genesis 32).[5] But the deformedlegis not a meansfor mere identification: it is also an expression of identity in its deeper sense. In our tale it is expressed in the soldier’s romance with the dancer: “one leg was Iifted so high in the air that the tin soldier couldn’t see it at all, and he imagined that she had only one leg, just as he did. ‘Now there’s a wife forme’, he thought”.

Here the missing leg explains his attraction to the dancer. There is of course an ironic touch behind this choice, since it is basedon a misperception, but this misperception concerns the dancer only; it does not change the faet that the soldier’s own inner identity is defined by the missing leg. So here the leg is much more than a mere identifying mark.

In mythological tales the deformed leg is always somehow related to the hero’s qualities or personality. Dsually it is opposed to another quality, which makes the hero better than his surrounding, and so a kind of polar opposition is created between the hero’s low and failed aspect and the high and strong one:

Oedipus is indeed swollen-legged, but he surpasses all others in his capacity to solve riddles; Odysseus has a scar, but he outdoes everyone in his shrewdness and courage; Achilles has indeed a vulnerable point on his heel, but he is the greatest hero among the Greeks; Hephaestus is indeed lame, but he has golden hands and exceeds all men and gods in his artistic talent; the man in the sphinx’s riddie is unstable and indeterminate as to his legs, but he is determinate and constant as to his voice; Jacob is indeed limping on his thigh, but he is chosen as the forefather of a nation; Philoctetes, the Greek warrior, has indeed a mysterious tormenting wound on his leg, but at the same time he is the greatest areher in the Greek army, and he owns Heracles’ sacred bow with which he is supposed to end the Trojan War.

Being the lowest part of the body which touches the ground, the leg also carrieshuman weakness and defects, which are opposed to human merits, located in other parts, such as hands, heart, mind or voice. This opposition is perhaps a mythical way to express what was later defined as the psycho-physic duality. Anyway it is variously repeated in mythology and history of culture, and when we examine our story we can see that it is constructed on the same pattern. Our soldier is indeed defective because of his missing leg, but he surpasses all his comrades in his courageous and virtuous heart.

But as we said before – this duality of aspects exist not only simultaneously; either aspect is separately expressed in a plot situation which reflects a single phase in the soldier’s development. Histask is to make his way from the initial situation of being cast as a one-legged soldier to the final one of being melted into the shape of a heart.

This way too has a mythical structure: it is the journey, as in the Odyssey, Aeneid, or the Divine Comedy, in the course of which the hero passes from a situation of distress and want to one of fulfillment and exhaustion. This mythical journey contains many symbols of death and rebirth, themost salient being the visit to the underworld. The heroes of all three epics mentioned above have to visit that place, and meet some of its inhabitants to receive instructions for the continuation of the journey and fulfillment of their task. The soldier in our tale undergoes a series of hardships, and the voyage moves to the rhythm of falling into an abyss and a miraculous rescue, which are likewise symbolic deaths and rebirths. The tale contains three such stations: falling from the window onto the cobblestones and rescue by two street urchins; sinking into the water and rescue by a fish; being thrown into a stove and rescue or rebirth by melting into the shape of a heart. These stations are structured around the mythical division into the four elements. The first station is linked to air and earth; the second to water, and the third to fire.[6]

So the soldier’s first confrontation is with the element of air. He stands at the window when a sudden gust of wind opens it and he falls out. This same gust that starts the chain of sorrows also ends it when it throws the paper dancer into the flames.

The soldier falls into the street and is stuck, head down, between two cobblestones, so the element of earth joins the tale. The boy who owns him and the housemaid go out to look for him. He hears them, “but he felt it was beneath his dignity to shout while in uniform”, and so he is not found. Here the soldier displays self-respect and decorum quite beyond what is reasonable/ His role in the entire story is a dumb one, so his silence in this case too is nothing outstanding, and does not need an explanation. But precisely here the tale gives a specific explanation, that of self-respect.

The soldier’s restraint from calling for help recalls a well-known scene from the Chanson de Roland. Rolandlies wounded by the Saracensand is counseled to appeal to his king, Charlemagne, for help, but he does not do so because of his knightly honor. Here in faet the soldier embraces a medieval chivalrous norm and applies it to the 19th-century bourgeoisie world, an anachronism in the style of Don Quixote. He repeats the heroic gesture of Roland’s death, and his silence and his being stuck between the cobblestones en.act an interment.

From that symbolic death he is rescued by the two urchins who put him in a paper boat and let him sail in the ditch. Thus he confronts the two harder tests with the elements of water and fire. He is sailing in the paper boat, and when it starts raining the two boys abandon him and he drifts downstream, through the gutter, until he reaches the lake. The boat disintegrates and he sinks in the water where he is swallowed by a big fish. A fisherman catches it, and sells it on the market – to no other than the boy’s family cook. Thus he returns miraculously to the home he had left a few days earlier.

Again there are symbols of death and rebirth, and now they are much more explicit and overt: there is real drowning and being swallowed by a fish. Also, the foliowing rescue and rebirth are thus much more dramatic than in the previous foray, when he was rescued by the two boys.

But here there is something more: sinking in water is not only drowning but also sinking into the womb. No wonder then that the move occurs in the fish’s belly, which makes the rescue almost a real birth.

The motif of being swallowed by a fish is contained in several folktales, but first and foremost it brings to mind the account of the prophet Jonah. True enough, neither the soldier’s character nor circumstances recall the story of Jonah, who tries to escape from his mission; however the drowning itself, and stay in the fish’s belly, undoubtedly recall Jonah: The soldier hears in his mind the tune:

Flee the water, warrior brave,
Here below is thy shadowy grave.
And Jonah’s prays:
You hurled me into the depth,
into the very heart of the seas,
The engulfing water threatened me,
the deep surrounded me; (Jonah 2).

Like Jonah, the soldier is rescued from the fish’s belly and returns to the place he came from. And now he is again in the situation he was in before: facing the dancer with whom he is unable to converse, facing his feeling of alienation from the other toys, and facing the troll’s inexplicable hostility.

In this entire event the eausal system, again, is extraordinarily loose. The tale relates a coincidence- far-fetched to the point of improbability, but is reticent in stressing its miraculous quality. The soldier does not wonder at all: he “was feeling everything but pride”. The family seems to wonder for a short while: “Everyone wanted to see the remarkable traveler who has taken a voyage in the belly of a fish”, but a few moments later, when one of the boys throws him into the fire, no one seems especially alarmed.[8]

Had the tale stressed the miraculous quality of the soldier’s return, the scene would have been suitable for a closure, and the plot would have turned to be ane of return, like the Odyssey. But more troubles still await the soldier, so that the tale eannot make tao great an issue of his homecoming.

The troubles mechanism is set in motion again, this time much more violently. The element of air is recruited again, also the sudden gust of wind, airned thistime at the dancer; but at the same time another “gust of wind” is activated, leading the boy to throw the soldier into the fire. The motive for that action, as mentianed above, remains unclear; the function of the event, however, is quite clear:

Here the structure of the four elements is completed by the test of fire. In the first test, that of air and earth, the soldier is reborn, so to speak, as a survivor (even an unwilling survivor, since he has done nothing for his rescue); in the test of water that follows the soldier survives (is rescued and remains alive), but also returns to his starting point; in the test of fire, the last and the hardest, the soldier is again reborn, but this time not as a return to the starting point but as a transcendence. He is melted and tempered again, but in his new melting he discards his deformed body, the produet of the first casting, and becomes an entity without body: a mere heart, and in faet- a soul. So ends a mythical voyage, a voyage of liberation from the body with all its restrictions, to another mode of existence, more elevated and pure.

Behind this of course is the Christian belief in the eternity of soul and spiritual existence after death. But the religious element is not emphasized. What really characterizes the new mode of being is the union with the object of love. The fire itself is associated with love: “He could feel the terrible heat, but he was not sure whether it was coming from the fire or from love”.

But this marvelous union is not optimistically celebrated. The tale raises many doubts about it and about its possibility. Of the dancer nothing remains except a black burned spangle, and the ane who receives the remains of the soldier and the dancer is none other than the servant girl, who is about to throw both of them into the garbage.

The tale is not optimistic, and this reading too eannot make it optimistic. But it can add to it a much broader sound box than the eausal psychological, a sound box even surprising in its breadth and depth, considering that this after all is a children’s story about a world of toys.

The Steadfast Tinsoldier”. Illustration by Vilhelm Pedersen, ca. 1847. The Hans Christian Andersen Museum.


  • Bredsdorff, Elias: Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of his Life and Work, 1805-75, Scribner, New York, 1975.
  • Mishler, William, “The Tin Soldier in Freudian Perspective”, Scandinavian Studies 50, 1978, pp. 389-95.
  • Massengale, James: “A Divided World: a Structural Technique in Andersen’s Original Tales”, in: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen & Viggo Bjørnager Pedersen (red.): Andersen og Verden. Indlæg fra den første internationale H.C. Andersen-konference, 25.-31. august 1991. Udgivet af H.C. Andersen-Centret, Odense Universitet. Odense Universitetsforlag, Odense 1993.
  • Rossel, Sven Hakon: “Hans Christian Andersen Research in the United States”, in: Johan de Mylius, Aage Jørgensen & Viggo Bjørnager Pedersen (red.): Andersen og Verden. Indlæg fra den første internationale H.C. Andersen-konference, 25.-31. august 1991. Udgivet af H.C. Andersen-Centret, Odense Universitet. Odense Universitetsforlag, Odense 1993.
  • Rubow, Paul V. “Idea and Form in Andersen’s Fairy Tales”, in: A Book on the Danish Writer Hans Christian Andersen: his Life and Work, Det Berlingske Bogtrykkeri, Copenhagen, 1955, pp.97-135.
  • Tatar, Maria, The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen, Norton, New York, 2008.
  • Zipes, Jack, (ed.) The Oxford Campanion to Fairy Tales, Oxford UP, Oxford, 2000.
  • Zipes, Jack, Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller, Routledge, New York and London, 2005.


  1. ^ This artide is based on a speech held at The International Conference “Hans Christian Andersen in Portugal” in Sintra, Portugal, March 2017.
  2. ^ The quotations are translated by Maria Tatar and Julie K. Allen (Tatar 2008).
  3. ^ About psychoanalytic readings of the tale see Mishier 1978, quoted in RosseJ (n.d.).
  4. ^ “[S]o we discover the comical epic in The Staunch Tin Soldier”, (Rubow 1955, p.128).
  5. ^ It should be mentianed that also the name]acob is associated with an anomaly concerning a leg: Jacob is called after his twin brother’s heel (akev), which he grasped during his birth as if to prevent him from being the first-horn (Genesis 25).
  6. ^ About the elements in the tale see also Tatar’s note (2008, p. 229).
  7. ^ About the motif of dumbness in Andersen see also Messengie (n.d.).
  8. ^ This attitude toward marvels, as well as some other features of Andersen’s worldview may be understood by the influence of Andersen’s Mentor, the physicist and philosopher Hans Christian Ørsted. “Ørsted argued that thee laws of nature are the thoughts of God, and, as the spirit of nature becomes projected, reality assumes the form of miracle that only few talemed people can reveal”, (Zipes 2005, p. 27). See also Ru bow 1955.
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