“I wait for no one,” said Death.
“You’ve feasted well today,” I said. “What difference would my soul make?”
Tinder opens with Otto, a young injured soldier, cheating Death of a rightful soul: his own. Nursed back to health by a mysterious beast-man and given magical dice that once thrown, help him decide which way to go, Otto starts a journey that will lead him away from the war he is so tired of fighting. Plagued by nightmares and terrible visions of his past, he is moved by the promise that love will be a great source of comfort and relief. When Otto meets Safire, a young, beautiful princess on the run from an unwanted marriage, he is moved to do anything to save her. Throughout the tale, he meets other magical creatures, including the witch and the werewolves connected to a tinderbox with wish-granting powers.
Tinder is a dark, intricate retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Tinderbox." The original fairy tale can be read as a socio-economic story of a poor soldier who succeeds in acquiring all of his heart’s desires (wealth, power and The Girl). It is also an amoral tale in which the “hero” gets everything without much of an effort and wins the princess by being a kidnapping creep.
Gardner’s retelling subverts certain aspects of the original, introduces changes that reshape the story into something altogether different: a tale of war and peace, and a tale of love, but above all, a tale of unwavering Horror. Taking place during the Thirty Year’s War, the story shows a country devastated by war, and the conflict reaching vast and wide aspects of everyday life. Otto, the hero of the story, has seen nothing but death in his short life from the day his family was murdered, to joining the army, to his own actions during the war. He is clearly suffering PTSD and it’s no wonder that the prospect of finding love and peace are so dear to him.
The story also presents an interesting take on the werewolf lore: By wearing a belt made of the skin of a hanged man, a person can turn into a werewolf. The examination of power and agency connected to the specific stories within Tinder are really thought-provoking, especially when in contrast to the main character himself. For the vast majority of the story, things happen to Otto: war, violence and even love. It is as though he has no voice or choice. When he finally chooses to act, it might already be too late. This, of course, is part of what makes this story such an effective Horror story: It shows, among other things, the lack of agency that one has when fighting a war one has not signed up for, for example.
It is very interesting, then, that one of the main differences between this retelling and the original is the portrayal of the princess. Here, Safire has an actual story independent from Otto’s—every time we see Safire, she is actively fighting her way out of a situation she doesn’t want to be in. This makes the love story way less problematic than the original by not only giving Safire an actual voice but also by not giving Otto a free “He Is The Hero” pass when he does do something that removes her choice. If their love feels implausible at times, it is only to reinforce the idea that theirs is a crappy existence and they’d take comfort any way they can.
The ending, though, is where the story really diverges from the original: It is raw, sad and horrible but still ultimately beautiful. It shows there is really no defying death and no easy way out. Tinder is brilliant and the incredible illustrations by David Roberts in black, white and occasionally red are haunting and unforgettable.
In Book Smugglerish, a treasured 8 out of 10.
Otto and Saffire © David Roberts