Talking Trees and Unsettling Sensibilities

whole firimages

I came across Lars Ostenfeld’s unsettling adaptation of Han’s Andersen’s The Fir Tree (Danish: Grantræet) on the BBC iPlayer today. The tale was first published with ‘The Snow Queen’ on 21st December 1844. The story is narrated by the tree itself (which appeals to my botanical sensibilities) and like all of Andersen’s tales there is an emphasis on physical pain and suffering. The tree is vain and so impatient to grow up that it cannot live in the moment because it expects a greater glory. When it is pulled up for a Christmas tree its life is subject to the whim of the humans whose admiration it craves. They profess to love it dressing it with candles before depriving it of light and discarding it on a fire. The tree is sentient and like the tale’s creator is afflicted with a trembling sensitivity and a limitless pining (pun intended). Andersen had written tales with unhappy endings before (The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Steadfast Tin Soldier’, for example) but a new darker note is struck with ‘The Fir Tree’. It suggests not only the mercilessness of fate but the futility of life itself, only the moment is worth embracing. For the first time in his fairy tales, Andersen expresses an existential doubt that his Christian beliefs cannot allay.

If you like a winter’s tale (and a sad tale is best for winter) you will enjoy the beauty of this. The forest is deeply lush and the Danish speaking tree is extremely uncanny. Thankfully I had already returned my little Christmas tree to the garden when I watched this (as I could see its needles starting to drop). The story does make you question the beauty of something that is dying from the moment it is brought into the house. Andersen’s Nordic sensibilities are very eco gothic here and the tale is wonderfully dark of course. The tree is both tragic and narcissistic. Still time to be unsettled by its narration on the iplayer.

About Lucy Northenra

Senior Lecturer in Literature, University of Hertfordshire
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