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Nothing is written that hasn't been told before, or so it's said. And when you begin reading the oldest fairy tales you can find, those firstborns sired by folkloric fathers and mythical mothers, you realize it must be true. There is always something older, something that came before. Even the gods and goddesses of myth have parents; even they have some unfathomable beginning. So it shouldn't surprise us when we find a Beauty in the Beast in the story of Persephone and Hades, or that East of the Sun, West of the Moon is so like the tale of Cupid and Psyche. Ever wondered if Pandora was really married to Bluebeard, or if Snow White's vain stepmother had any relation to Aphrodite?
As I began to reacquaint myself with Greek mythology, I kept finding scattered seeds of fairy tales within the fruit of their stories. Even the infamous Hans Christian Andersen and Charles Perrault, who are celebrated as fathers of many well-known fairy tales, gained inspiration from older folklore. But how much mythology did they know, and did it play any part in the creation of their fairy tales? Here I explore two of their fairy tales that have quite striking mythological equivalents, which may or may not be coincidental.
1) Hephaestus pounds out a Steadfast Tin Soldier
Biographer Jackie Wullschlager tells us that Hans Christian Andersen's Steadfast Tin Soldier “is the first tale he wrote which has neither a folk tale source nor a literary model, but comes straight out of his imagination…" Now that I have begun reading Wullschlager's stunning biography of Andersen, I cannot help but see a bit of his own life story in this beloved tale of a little soldier who is pushed along on many a journey by fate, and who never quite fits in or finds an equal in love, but sacrifices himself wholly to his art, being ultimately steadfast in the vision of his future. So I think the connection I've made between The Steadfast Tin Soldier and the Greek god of metallurgy is really one of my own imagining.
Still, the resemblance is remarkable between the disfigured godling who is cast from his mother, Hera, at the sight of his ugly, twisted, and useless leg, and that of the tin soldier whose maker ran out of tin and left him with but a single leg to stand on. Whether Hera exiled Hephaestus from Olympus due to his birth defect, or Zeus exiled him for coming between he and Hera (and his throwing Hephaestus down from Olympus caused his leg to become injured and lame), Hephaestus was the only exiled god to return to Olympus, where he worked (steadfastly!) hammering out the powerful weapons and armor of the gods. He was an outcast who was literally cast out, just as the tin soldier was blown, or thrown, from his place out the window. And Hephaestus journeyed to earth, just as the soldier journeyed through many realms, and yet both returned to serve; Hephaestus at work in his special place in Olympus, and the soldier at the side of his love, the little paper dancer, even as she fell into the fire.
Though it is doubtful that Hephaestus had any influence on the tale of the Steadfast Tin Soldier, his ability to create animistic statues, as those that guard the gates of Olympus, and his steady dedication to his work despite all that debilitated him, is very like Hans Christian Andersen himself, who was one of the first children's authors to give animation to toys and voices to everyday objects, in order to tell in some small way the greater story of his life.
Tune in Thursday for Part Two, Featuring Perrault, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cronus!