Painting of Andersen, 1836, by Christian Albrecht Jensen

“The Philosopher’s Stone” by Hans Christian Andersen

This was a new fairy tale to me, one that I’ve never heard before. The version I read, available at SurLaLune is from Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales. Mrs. Henry H. B. Paull, translator. [1872, 1883]. It tells of the wisest man in the world who lives in a crystal castle at the top of the Tree of the Sun in India. He knows everything there is to know, including has happened and what will happen. In a secret chamber in the castle is his most treasure possession, the Book of Truth, which he had read through, page by page, except the section titled “Life after Death” whose pages appeared blank.

This man had five intelligent children, four sons and one blind daughter.

He spoke to them of the true, the beautiful, and the good, and told them that these three held together in the world, and by that union they became crystallized into a precious jewel, clearer than a diamond of the first water—a jewel, whose splendor had a value even in the sight of God, in whose brightness all things are dim. This jewel was called the philosopher’s stone. He told them that, by searching, man could attain to a knowledge of the existence of God, and that it was in the power of every man to discover the certainty that such a jewel as the philosopher’s stone really existed.

In turn each of the sons venture out into the world in search of this jewel. And each, in turn, is defeated in his quest and doesn’t return home. Finally the daughter sets out on her own. She experiences all she can, but eventually returns home with only dust. The dust is blown onto the Book of Truth, illuminating one word.

But this was not poor, insignificant, common dust, which the blind girl had brought; even the rainbow’s colors are dim when compared with the beauty which shone from the page on which it had fallen. The beaming word BELIEVE, from every grain of truth, had the brightness of the beautiful and the good, more bright than the mighty pillar of flame that led Moses and the children of Israel to the land of Canaan, and from the word BELIEVE arose the bridge of hope, reaching even to the unmeasurable Love in the realms of the infinite.

The brothers too find their way home in the end, resolving the fairy tale happily for all involved.

As is often the case, it seems, the weakest of the people in the story turns out to be the true hero. The daughter is blind and fragile, but she is the only one who spirit is not dulled by the world or the evil one, who returns home as full of hope and faith as she left.

The aspect that really stood out for me, that made this fairy tale unique in my opinion, is how its major questions and themes are not hidden behind fantastical creatures or unusual events. Well, discounting the whole castle at the top of the tree bit. It comes right out and asks what the point of life is. How do religion and rationality fit together? Can truth and beauty and good be found in the world?

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there to see what she has to say today and to share your own thoughts. Next week, we’ll be looking at “The Twelve Brothers” by the Brothers Grimm.