Review: Tinder by Sally Gardner (text only, Carnegie Medal)
By Julie Mills
Sally Gardner’s Tinder is inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Tinderbox. It is an illustrated novel for older readers – not a graphic novel but very graphic in descriptive text and illustrations.
Building on the bones of the taut form of some re-tellings of the fairy tale – (the returning soldier has a chance meeting with an old woman who asks him to retrieve a tinder box, guarded by three dogs each one bigger than the last, and his reward is as much gold silver or copper as he can carry, but the soldier, naturally, keeps the magical tinder box and achieves his wishes of riches and a beautiful bride) this story expands on the plot to fill in the back story of principal characters, also providing motivation for actions, descriptions of the setting and landscape, portraying emotions such as grief and in particular the reality of the consequences of war. So the actions of the soldier – such as the killing of the “witch” who sets him to fetch the tinderbox – are no longer apparently random and motiveless – but interwoven within the plot; the simple hollow tree trunk containing the tinderbox becomes an elaborate castle of trees, roots and branches. Far from being set in an imprecise fairy tale past the setting and date is given from the start as 2nd November 1642 Battle of Breitenfeld. The protagonists name is Otto Hunderbiss – a name meaning dog bite which has reverberations throughout the unfolding tale. As the plot is driven on, the motivations of the characters are revealed as passion, greed, revenge, lust for power.
The writing style is lyrical and descriptive and has an archaic quality without being at all obscure. Alliteration is used frequently – p 102 The hall hummed with the buzz of bluebottles ……. whirring wings. P32 the young lad is described as “ fast on his feet” and having a “feminine façade”. The font is faintly gothic.
The story is told in a dual narrative with “dream” sections cleverly filling in flashbacks of events from Otto’s life. These sequences are in reverse white on black text, echoing the use of monochrome illustration and themes of dark and light in the story. These dreams start out as memories of events- (thus are they more real than the story of enchantment?) and they become increasingly gothic and nightmarish in style culminating in the depiction of characters with animal head masks. One of the early dream memories where Otto remembers the murder of his family refers to the soldiers taking on the forms of dogs with “eyes as big as plates”, “carts” and “millstones”, referring to the traditional imagery of this tale.
The telling of the tale seems episodic at times but as the threads of the plot are pulled together connections are made and mysteries and hints throughout the text are fully revealed – the identity of the werewolves, the spider web spell put upon the King by his evil wife, the metal nose of one of the Duchesses men which turns up some time after we first meet it. Even though we might think we know this story and the outcome, we are kept guessing and suspense is maintained by the dropping of these hints. At the same time we have the familiar themes of the fairy tale form – the rule of three, good v. evil, chance and destiny
and stock characters– the soldier of fortune, a witch or two, a king and a dead queen, a wicked stepmother, a princess, shape shifters, wolves/werewolves.
The book lures you in from the image on the opening page of a bony beckoning finger followed by dark and gruesome battle scenes, and on through the treacherous forest to a slightly surprising ending – not the happily ever after version at all.
The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at the University of Roehampton to discuss the shortlists, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.