In her latest book Tinder, Sally Gardner rewrites Hans Christian Anderson’s first story The Tinderbox. A symbolic, often horrifying account of a child-soldier’s inability to turn his back on the ghosts of war, she recasts the action during the events of the Hundred Years War to tells the story of a young soldier – himself both a victim and perpetrator of terrible violence – who turns his back on death to pursue a life of wealth and romance, only to realise that all of his actions lead him inevitably back to death and violence. Hans Christian Anderson’s original story (itself based on older folk tales) of a soldier who comes into possession of a magic tinderbox that allows him to summon three monstrous dogs remains largely intact, but is turned into a series of powerful symbols which explore the soldier’s realisation that violence is both a power he can wield and a curse that he can never escape from.
Gardner’s previous Carnegie winner Maggot Moon divided readers by absolutely refusing to talk down to its audience by delivering the usual, safe exposition – readers who weren’t willing and able to read between the lines were often left complaining that it “made no sense” or was too simplistic – and she continues this with Tinder. The story is told with the fractured, dream-like dislocation of both fairy-tales and fever dreams, the power being more in the subtext than the narrative itself, and readers unable to follow that may find the story dislocated or nonsensical.
The content and tone may also discourage some readers – Tinder sets out to comment on the damage done to child soldiers and those forced at a young age into violence, and she doesn’t shrink away from this. The mundane elements of the story contain frank (and no less chilling for their lack of graphic detail) accounts of war-rape, murder and children being forced into violence as indoctrination, while the fairy-tale aspects use mutilated ghosts, werewolves and witches to create an atmosphere of the uncanny and horrific which supports and strengthens the real-world horrors. It’s a merciless story, where any glimmer of light the main character experiences only serves to lead him back to death, violence and the ghosts of his own past.
The combination of a fairy-tale story structure, deep subtext and horrific content will narrow the audience for Tinder – some older readers will dismiss it out of hand as “childish”, while younger readers may be confused by the largely symbolic story and disturbing images (supported by the excellent, frequently horrifying artwork of David Roberts). For others, a lack of familiarity with The Tinderbox may make some aspects of the story seem arbitrary or hard to follow. For those who are willing and able to engage with Tinder on its own level, however, Gardner has written a savage, horrifying and utterly real meditation on war, damage and the unbreakable cycle of violence that will stick with them for years to come, and a book that treats young readers with the respect they are so often denied by absolutely refusing to talk down to them.