Fairy Tale Tuesday No.114 – The Shadow

This is such an obscure Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that I’d never heard of it before now. The protagonist is a scholar who has recently relocated to a very hot country and is not coping well; he shuts himself up inside the house all day and loses an unhealthy amount of weight. It’s only when the sun goes down that he feels like himself.

He spends the evenings sitting on his balcony, listening to the city nightlife, and speculating about the inhabitants of the house across the street. He’s never seen anyone living there and the ground floor is entirely occupied by shops, but there are flowers flourishing on the balcony and sometimes the scholar hears music drifting from the windows. One night he wakes to see the mysterious house bright with lights, and a beautiful girl standing amongst the flowers. By the time he goes to the balcony for a better look, however, the illumination is gone and the girl too. The only sign of life is the distant sound of music.

After that the scholar becomes a little obsessed. Another night, while he’s on self-appointed stakeout, the angle of light in his own house casts his shadow against the balcony opposite, so it looks to be standing among the flowers. The scholar jokes aloud that it should seize the opportunity to sneak inside and look around. He then stands up, and the shadow stands up too – but when the scholar goes inside his house, the shadow goes into the house across the street.

When the scholar wakes the next morning and realises his shadow is gone, he’s really annoyed, because this would make a fantastic story but someone else wrote it down first. Is this a reference to Peter Pan? Anyway, he tries to lure his shadow back with cunningly arranged lights, but no dice, it’s disappeared. It’s not the end of the world – within a few weeks the scholar has grown a new shadow and when he goes back to his home in the north no one can tell the difference. He writes a number of philosophical books and keeps the story of the shadow to himself.

Years pass. Then one day, a soft knock sounds at the scholar’s door and he opens it to find a strangely thin man standing on the step. “Whom have I the honour of addressing?” the scholar enquires politely. “Ah, that is just what I expected!” exclaims the stranger, “that you would not know me. I have become so thoroughly flesh and blood, and covered with clothes too, and, no doubt, you never expected to see me so well off. Do you not know your old shadow?” Since they parted ways all those years ago, the shadow has become a very wealthy man, and has come to discharge debts with his…twin? Of sorts?

The scholar is somewhat taken aback by all the weirdness and asks for more explanation. “Well, it is not commonplace,” the shadow admits. “But then you are something out of the common yourself, and you know that from your childhood up I have always trodden in your footsteps. As soon as I found that I could make my way alone in the world, I started for myself, and a brilliant position I have gained; but then an irresistible longing came over me to see you once more before you die, for you know that die you must. I wanted to see this country again as well, for one always must love the land of one’s birth. I know that you have another shadow; and if I have to pay it or you anything, pray have the goodness to tell me so.”

The scholar waves away any suggestion of a debt and welcomes the shadow inside as an old friend, eagerly asking for his life story. The shadow is willing to tell him all on one condition: that he reveal to no one the truth of their association. This agreed upon, the shadow settles into a chair. He’s quite an impressive sight, dressed all in black with leather boots and diamond rings – and turns out he has some fancy names to drop as well. Their old neighbour, the one whose house he moved into after he left the scholar, was actually Poetry. As in, the goddess thereof. TARDIS-like, her house was bigger on the inside, and full of strange marvels. Under her influence, the shadow transformed into flesh and discovered ambition.

He became a creature of the night, running through the streets and spying on the unwary to learn what being human meant. “It is a bad world,” he remarks, “and I would not be a man were it not that it is a position of accepted importance.” Using his unique set of talents, he became a master blackmailer and won everything he now has that way.

The two men don’t exactly become friends – the shadow is not that kind of person – but he returns a year later to check up on the scholar. Life is going less well for him: his philosophical books aren’t selling and humanity is disappointing him. The shadow suggests they go travelling together. “Will you go as my shadow?” he asks. “I shall be very happy to take you with me, and will pay your expenses.”

The scholar is freaked out and refuses. Things don’t improve for him, though. He loses weight again and people begin to say he looks…like a shadow. Well, that’s not alarming at all.

His rich friend returns, this time advising a trip to the baths (meaning hot springs). “I pay the expenses, and you can write the description of our journey, and can amuse me a little on the way,” he says airily. “I want to go to the baths, for my beard does not grow as it should, which is an illness too, and one must have a beard. Now be sensible, and accept my offer; we shall travel as friends.” The scholar accepts, and if his former shadow insists on positioning himself according to the sun, so that the scholar falls behind as his shadow – it’s nothing more than an eccentricity, right?

At the baths they meet a lovely and perspicacious princess, who does not believe the rich man’s story about his beard for a minute, because she sees he casts no shadow. Curious, she confronts him about the matter. “I know that your illness was seeing too clearly,” he replies, “but that defect has evidently left you, and you are cured. I have not only a shadow, but a most extraordinary one. Other people have only a common shadow, but I do not like what is common. People give their servants finer clothes than they wear themselves, and I have made my shadow human.” With that, he gestures to the scholar.

Thoroughly intrigued, the princess continues the acquaintance. That night she discovers him to be a superb dancer, an extensive traveller and surprisingly well informed about everything. By now quite charmed and willing to fall in love with him, she asks him the most difficult question she can think of, so as to test his intelligence. The shadow can’t answer, but calmly deflects by saying even his shadow can tell her what she wants to know. So the princess goes over to the scholar and is very impressed by the content of his conversation. “What an extraordinary man that must be,” she muses, “to have so learned a shadow! It would be a real blessing for my subjects if I chose him as a husband.”

She makes swift arrangements, and the shadow does likewise. He offers the scholar a generous living allowance and a place at court on the condition that he pretend their roles are reversed, and have always been so. “You must allow yourself to be called shadow by every one, and not say that you have ever been a man; besides which, once a year, when I sit on the balcony and show myself to the people, you must lie at my feet, as it becomes a shadow to do.” The scholar is appalled and flat out refuses. He tries to warn the princess, but the shadow has him arrested and imprisoned. He then goes to the princess himself to tell her his ‘shadow’ has gone mad.

“Poor shadow!” the princess exclaims. “He is very unhappy, and it would be a real blessing to release him from his sufferings.” The shadow sighs at dreadful necessity and agrees with all speed. That night he weds the princess, and the scholar is executed. This kingdom is in a lot of trouble.

While not strictly a ghost story, I think this counts as Halloween appropriate, by virtue of just being so disturbing. Hans Christian Andersen had a remarkable, if morbid, imagination. Right up until the end you assume the scholar will escape – but it’s the shadow who gets a happy ending. Perhaps. The princess is, after all, quick to notice strange things. Hopefully she’s more than a match for her murderous magical husband.


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