This story is taken from the Priory Classics Andersen’s Fairy Tales, published by Peter Haddock Ltd. Something people often forget about Hans Christian Andersen is how incredibly depressing his work can be. ‘The Rose Elf’ is a pithy little reminder.
The story opens in a beautiful garden where an elf so small no human eye can discern him lives in a rose tree. When he is accidentally stranded outside the roses one cold night, he takes shelter in a honeysuckle arbour where a young couple are bidding each other goodbye. The girl kisses a rose to give to her lover, inadvertently opening its petals and allowing the rose elf to fly inside. The young man takes the flower with him as he sets off and kisses it over and over like he is kissing the girl he loves. If you’re assuming this charming couple will reunite, sorry, that is so not going to happen. The young man has barely left the garden when the girl’s evil brother turns up, stabs him through the heart and hacks off his head. He then buries the body under a lime tree. He doesn’t realise that the rose-elf was a horrified witness to the whole thing. Hidden in a leaf in the psycho brother’s hair, the elf returns home with him and sneaks up to the sleeping sister’s ear to reveal what happened. The girl wakes up thinking it’s a dream, but when she finds the lime leaf on her bed she knows it’s true. The next night she goes to find her lover’s corpse. Not daring to confront the murderer she happens to live with, she takes the severed head home with her and buries it in a flower pot. She then plants a bough of jasmine on top and waters it, in true fairy tale fashion, with her tears. The sympathetic rose elf visits to offer her sweet dreams, and she dies in her sleep.
So far, so horrible, but it gets better. The murderous brother takes the beautiful potted jasmine for his own and puts it beside his bed, unaware it has the head of the man he killed inside. The rose elf isn’t going to let that one pass. He wakes up the flower spirits of the jasmine plant and tells them about the murder, only they already know. The rose elf, believing they don’t intend to do anything about it, takes his outrage to the bees instead and they arrange to go sting the man to death. The jasmine elves, however, have plans of their own. In the night they stab his tongue with poisoned arrows as punishment for the grief from which they were grown, and when the bees come by morning’s light they think this was such a great idea they buzz around the plant pot in a kind of victory lap. When the body is discovered someone tries to make the bees leave by removing the jasmine, but is stung and drops the pot. It cracks – the head rolls out, miraculously recognisable, and everybody immediately jumps to the (correct) conclusion that the dead brother is in fact a murderer and deserved what he got.
And that’s…it. As stories go, it’s less uplifting, more scar-your-children-for-life territory and makes The Little Mermaid look positively cheerful by comparison. It also proves some fairy tales ditch the happy ending for morbid moralising. There is a reason this one has fallen into obscurity. I do not advise introducing it to kids who have jasmine growing outside their windows.