The Steadfast Tin Soldier

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Basic Plot Summary: A tin soldier missing a leg falls in love with a paper ballerina, who is balancing on one leg. A jack-in-the-box goblin jealously warns the soldier to stay away from her and then pushes the soldier from the nursery window. Two boys find him and place him in a paper boat and he sails into a sewer drain, where he meets a rat who tries to make him pay a toll. The sewer runs into a canal, where the soldier is eaten by a fish. The fish is caught and sold to the cook in the house where the soldier lived, where the boy throws him into the fire and a gust of wind blows the ballerina into the fire with him. She burns away except for the spangle on her dress and the soldier melts down into a tin heart.

This story was published in 1838 and was notable for being the first fully original story from Hans Christian Andersen, as it had no roots in folklore of any kind. There is a lot of speculation that the story is symbolic of Mr. Andersen’s feelings of unrequited love and inability to do anything about it. However it was intended, it’s a particularly dismal story in my estimation, with the tin soldier having no agency over anything that happens to him. I assume that we’re supposed to feel that the two characters are united in death and that the spangle and tin heart signify their tokens of love, but mostly it just feels like a big downer ending to me. The story has been adapted for film, television and ballet and is referenced in lots of literary works.

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The Steadfast Tin Soldier – Newbery award winning author Cynthia Rylant imagines a very different ending for these characters in her version. Instead of a wind blowing the ballerina into the fire, the wind actually does the reverse and whisks the tin soldier out of the flames and back to her, where his intense heat fuses them together. (Aw.)  Illustrator Jen Corace uses watercolor, gouache, acrylics and pen and ink to create the brightly colored playroom, which contrasts nicely with the dark worlds of the sewer and the canal. Recommended for those who like the story, but are not fans of the original ending. (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013)

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The Steadfast Tin Soldier – This version keeps the original ending, but has the whole thing happen at Christmastime. Tor Seidler follows the original story very closely, including having the boy inexplicably throw the soldier in the fire when he comes back. He even adds the words, ‘for no apparent reason,’ showing that he’s just as confused by this action as we are. The illustrations, from Fred Marcellino, are beautifully detailed and poignant. They really excel at showing the passive stoicism of the soldier, which gives a lot of these images a haunting look. It’s a lovely version and the added Christmas details make it seem more classic and nostalgic.  (HarperCollins, 1992)

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The Steadfast Tin Soldier – Simon Lewin retells the story and the artwork comes from the Disney archives in the form of very pretty concept art from an animated short that seemed (at the time) destined to never get made. It took less than a decade after the book’s publication for this artwork to go from concept to reality, when this story was chosen for inclusion in Fantasia 2000, accompanied by Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 2. In the animated short, the soldier battles the jack-in-the-box and emerges victorious, with the villain ending up in the fire and the soldier and ballerina happily ending up together. This book version, however, keeps to the original story ending, with one small change. Her tinsel rose and his tin heart merge into one piece in the fire, signifying their eternal togetherness in a more symbolic way. As a fan of the movie version, I really enjoyed seeing this artwork and reading the way it might have been. (Disney Press, 1991)

And what did we learn? What I take away from The Steadfast Tin Soldier is that steadfastness is an admirable trait, but you can’t let it stop you from taking control when things are going off the rail.

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