“On an island so far North that it snowed from September to April, a boy named Frederik kept himself warm by keeping a secret.”
Gregory Maguire, the genius behind the Wicked series, delivers once again in this heartwarming retelling of another beloved children’s classic. If The Little Match Girl is the perfect Christmas story, as mentioned in Myra’s recent Yuletide review, then Matchless is the perfect counterpart to the classic Danish tale. Each year, National Public Radio asks a writer to compose a story with a Christmas theme. In 2008, Gregory Maguire offered a new twist on the Hans Christian Andersen classic.
Given the already simple format of the original tale, Gregory Maguire played around the story by adding new elements whilst modifying some. Matchless is a Christmas story told in four parts.
In Part One, we are introduced to a boy named Frederik who lived with his mother, Dame Pedersen, in a couple of rooms tacked onto a herring smokehouse on an island in the harbor. Dame Pedersen tried to make ends meet by working in the palace—as a seamstress for the Queen. When his mother would leave for work, Frederik would stay in the docks, hoping that a fisherman would drop a fish that he could take home for supper.
In Part Two, we find the actual retelling of H.C. Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. One of the modifications that Maguire made was setting the story from New Year’s to Christmas Eve. A second modification was the little match girl’s vision of her mother as opposed to being reunited with her beloved grandmother, as in the original. Maguire did not expound on the latter, but I surmise that he did this to provide a parallelism to Frederik’s story.
Somewhere in the middle of Part Two was where our two characters met. As horses dragged a carriage racing through the snowy streets, the little match girl’s slip-on shoes fell off. The carter’s donkey claimed one for its supper; while the other fell into the hands of our boy Frederik. He ran off into the darkness so quickly that he never heard her voice calling after him.
Part Three provided the “fill-in” for our reinvented tale. Here, we are introduced to another character: the little match girl’s father. We see him crying over his dead daughter, who never made it home from selling matches in the street. The father’s plight touched Dame Pedersen’s heart so dearly that she decided to take him home, along with her two baby girls. Together, they became a family.
Part Four paid homage to the classic by linking the match lights to Frederik.
“[Frederik] stood still. He couldn’t see his way forward along the causeway, nor could he retrace his steps. A false step would drown him, and no boat in the shape of a mother’s slipper would come sidling up to rescue him.
“The water lapped higher as bells began to ring in the muffling fog. He blinked, and then he saw a little light, a momentary flare held out by an invisible hand. He reached toward it and the light went out. But, look, another! — several feet beyond, so he took a step forward. A third flame winked beyond that, and then a fourth. Small brief lights, but helpful as matches struck just in time.”
Needless to say, our Frederik made it home to his mother, father, and sisters. And like all other fairy tales, they lived happily ever after.
Matchless is a story meant to be read aloud. With only 272 lines, the poignant tale of the little match girl intertwined with that of Frederik comes alive with Maguire’s illustrations in every turn of the page. In spite of the reillumination, as Maguire likes to put it, Matchless retains the sacred magic of God’s mercy to the poor and dying, as in the original story, making it perfect for the NPR’s Christmas theme.
Listen to the radio performance of Matchless by Gregory Maguire. Merry Christmas! =)