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What Happened to the Thistle
Grimm Märchen

What Happened to the Thistle - Fairy Tale by Hans Christian Andersen

Reading time for children: 11 min

Adjoining the rich estate was a lovely and beautifully kept garden of rare trees and flowers. Guests at the estate enjoyed this fine garden and praised it. People from the countryside all round about and townspeople as well would come every Sunday and holiday to ask if they might see the garden. Even whole schools made excursions to it.

Just outside the fence that separated the garden from a country lane, there grew a very large thistle. It was so unusually big with such vigorous, full-foliaged branches rising from the root that it well deserved to be called a thistle bush. No one paid any attention to her except one old donkey that pulled the dairymaid’s cart. He would stretch his old neck toward the thistle and say, „You’re a beauty. I’d like to eat you!“ But his tether was not long enough to let him reach the thistle and eat her.

There was a big party at the manor house. Among the guests were fine aristocratic relations from the capital – charming young girls, and among them was a young lady who had come from a foreign land, all the way from Scotland. Her family was old, and noble, and rich in lands and gold. She was a bride well worth winning, thought more than one young man, and their mothers thought so too.

The young people amused themselves on the lawn, where they played croquet. As they strolled about in the garden, each young lady plucked a flower and put in a young man’s buttonhole. The young lady from Scotland looked all around her for a flower. But none of them suited her until she happened to look over the fence and saw the big, flourishing thistle bush, full of deep purple, healthy-looking flowers. When she saw them she smiled, and asked the young heir of the household to pick one of them for her.

„That is Scotland’s flower,“ she said. „It blooms on my country’s coat of arms. That’s the flower for me.“ He plucked the best flower of the thistle, and pricked his finger in the process as much as if he had torn the blossom from the thorniest rose bush. When she put it in his buttonhole, he considered it a great honor. Every other young man would gladly have given his lovely garden flower for any blossom from the slender fingers of the girl from Scotland.

If the heir of the household felt himself highly honored, how much more so the thistle! She felt as full as if the sunshine and dew went through her. „I must be more important than I thought,“ she said to herself. „I really belong inside, not outside the fence. One gets misplaced in the world, but I now have one of my offspring not only over the fence but actually in a buttonhole!“ To every one of her buds that bloomed, the thistle bush told what had happened. Not many days went by before she heard important news.

She heard it not from passers-by, nor from the chirping of little birds, but from the air itself, which collects sounds and carries them far and wide – from the shadiest walks of the garden and from the furthest rooms of the manor, where doors stood ajar and windows were left open. She heard that the young man who got the thistle flower from the slender fingers of the girl from Scotland, now had won her heart and hand. They made a fine couple, and it was a good match.

„I brought that about,“ the thistle believed, thinking of how her flower had been chosen for the gentleman’s buttonhole. Each new bud that opened was told of this wonderful happening. „Undoubtedly I shall now be transplanted into the garden,“ thought the thistle. „Perhaps they will even pinch me into a flowerpot, which is the highest honor of all.“ She thought about this so long that at length she said with full and firm conviction, „I am to be planted in a flowerpot.“

Every little thistle bud which opened was promised that it too would be put in a pot, perhaps even in a buttonhole, which was the highest it could hope to go. But not one of them reached a flowerpot, much less a buttonhole. They lived upon light and air. By day they drank sunshine, by night they drank dew, and were visited by bees and wasps who came in search of a dowry – the honey of the flower. And they took away the honey, but left the flowers behind.

„Such a gang of robbers!“ said the thistle bush. „I’d like to stick a thorn through them, but I can’t.“ Her flowers faded and fell away, but new ones came in their place. „You have come as if you were called for,“ the thistle bush told them. „I expect to cross the fence any minute now.“ A couple of innocent daisies and some tall, narrow-leaved canary grass listened with deepest admiration, and believed everything that they heard. The old donkey, who had to pull the milk cart, looked longingly at the blooming thistle bush and reached out for it, but his tether was too short.

The thistle thought so hard and so long about the Scotch thistle, whom she considered akin to her, that she began to believe that she herself had come from Scotland and that it was her own ancestors who had grown on the Scottish arms. This was toplofty thinking, but then tall thistles are apt to think tall thought. „Sometimes one is of more illustrious ancestry than he ventures to suppose,“ said a nettle which grew near-by. It had a notion that it could be transformed into fine muslin if properly handled.

Summer went by, and fall went by, and the leaves fell from the trees. The flowers were more colorful, but less fragrant. On the other side of the fence the gardener’s boy sang:

„Up the hill and down the hill,
That’s the way the world goes still.“

And the young fir trees in the woods began to look forward to Christmas, though Christmas was a long time off. „Here I still stay,“ said the thistle. „It is as if nobody thinks of me any more, yet it was I who made the match. They were engaged, and now they have been married. That was eight days ago. But I haven’t progressed a single step – how can I?“ Several weeks went by. The thistle had one last, lonely flower. Large and full, it grew low, near the root.

The cold wind blew over it, its color faded, its splendor departed. Only the thistle-shaped cup remained, as large as an artichoke blossom, and as silvery as a sunflower. The young couple, who now were man and wife, came down the garden walk along the fence. The bride looked over the fence, and said, „Why, there still stands the big thistle, but it hasn’t a flower left.“ – „Yes, there’s the ghost of one – the very last one.“ Her husband pointed to the silvery shell of the flower – a flower itself. „Isn’t it lovely!“ she said.

„We must have one just like that carved around the frame of our picture.“ Once again the young man had to climb the fence, and pluck the silvery shell of the thistle flower. It pricked his fingers well, because he had called it a ghost. Then it was brought into the garden, to the mansion, and to the parlor. There hung a large painting – „The Newly Married Couple!“ In the groom’s buttonhole a thistle was painted.

They spoke of that thistle flower, and they spoke of this thistle shell, this last silvered, shining flower of the thistle which they had brought in with them, and which was to be copied in the carving of the frame. The air carried their words about, far and wide. „What strange things can happen to one,“ said the thistle. „My oldest child was put in a buttonhole, and my youngest in a picture frame. I wonder where I shall go.“ The old donkey by the roadside looked long and lovingly at the thistle.

„Come to me, my sweet,“ he said. „I cannot come to you because my tether is not long enough.“ But the thistle did not answer. She grew more and more thoughtful, and she thought on right up to Christmas time, when this flower came of all her thinking: „When one’s children are safe inside, a mother may be content to stand outside the fence.“ – „That’s a most honorable thought,“ said the sunbeam. „You too shall also have a good place.“ – „In a flowerpot or in a frame?“ the thistle asked. „In a fairy tale,“ said the sunbeam. And here it is.

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Backgrounds to fairy tale „What happened to the thistle“

„What Happened to the Thistle“ is a lesser-known fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. The story reflects some of Andersen’s usual themes, such as the beauty of nature, the importance of perseverance, and the transformative power of love. The backgrounds of this fairy tale are rooted in Andersen’s love for nature and his ability to find meaning and inspiration in everyday objects and occurrences. Additionally, the story may be seen as a reflection of Andersen’s own desire for recognition and appreciation in his own life, as well as a commentary on the importance of patience and perseverance in achieving one’s goals.

Born on April 2, 1805, in Odense, Denmark, Andersen was a prolific writer of plays, novels, and poems. However, he is best known for his collection of fairy tales, which have been translated into more than 125 languages and continue to be cherished by both children and adults alike. Some of his most famous fairy tales include „The Little Mermaid,“ „The Ugly Duckling,“ „The Emperor’s New Clothes,“ and „The Snow Queen.“ Andersen’s fairy tales often convey moral lessons, explore themes of beauty, love, and happiness, and reflect his deep understanding of human nature.

„What Happened to the Thistle“ is a prime example of Andersen’s ability to take a seemingly simple story about a thistle and imbue it with deeper meaning, touching on themes such as humility, self-worth, and contentment. As with many of his other works, this fairy tale conveys important life lessons through the experiences of its central character, the thistle. The story was first published in 1872 as part of Andersen’s collection of fairy tales called „New Fairy Tales. Second Volume. 1872.“ Over time, the tale has been included in various anthologies and collections of Andersen’s works, allowing it to be enjoyed by readers across the world.

Interpretations to fairy tale „What Happened to the Thistle“

There are several interpretations one can derive from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale „What Happened to the Thistle.“ Here are a few:

The Importance of Humility: The thistle’s pride in its achievements, like getting picked by the Scottish lady or having its flower carved around the picture frame, highlights the importance of remaining humble. Though the thistle believed it was responsible for the couple’s happiness, it learned that sometimes, it is enough to play a small part in someone’s life without seeking recognition or rewards.

The Power of Believing in Yourself: The thistle’s determination and belief in its worth, despite being outside the fence, demonstrates the power of self-confidence. The thistle believed it belonged in the garden and held on to this belief, even as it remained outside the fence. This confidence ultimately led to the thistle being immortalized in the fairy tale.

The Beauty in Uniqueness: The story emphasizes the beauty in things that might not seem conventionally attractive. The thistle, although considered a weed by many, was admired by the Scottish lady and the old donkey. This teaches us to appreciate the unique beauty in things that may not fit traditional norms. The story highlights the beauty of nature, even in seemingly ordinary or unremarkable elements, like a thistle. It encourages readers to appreciate and find beauty in the things that are often overlooked or dismissed by society.

The Value of Ancestry and Roots: The thistle’s belief in its connection to Scotland’s coat of arms highlights the importance of understanding and valuing one’s heritage. Knowing and taking pride in our roots can instill a sense of identity and confidence in ourselves.

The Importance of Contentment: In the end, the thistle realized that it was enough to have its „children“ safe inside and be content with its role in their lives. This teaches us that sometimes, finding happiness in our current circumstances is essential for leading a fulfilling life, even if it isn’t exactly what we imagined.

Perseverance and determination: The thistle serves as a symbol of perseverance and determination. Despite being overlooked initially, it remains steadfast in its desire to be admired and does not give up hope. This theme teaches the importance of persistence in achieving one’s goals and dreams.

Self-worth and validation: The thistle’s journey to recognition and admiration can be seen as a metaphor for an individual’s search for self-worth and validation. The story suggests that it is important for individuals to remain true to themselves, even when faced with rejection, and that eventually, the right person will recognize and appreciate their unique qualities.

Overall, „What Happened to the Thistle“ is a tale that encourages readers to persevere in their dreams, appreciate the beauty in everyday life, and understand the power of love, appreciation, and self-worth.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „What Happened to the Thistle“

„What Happened to the Thistle“ is a lesser-known fairy tale written by the famous Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. While there haven’t been many direct adaptations of „What Happened to the Thistle“ from Hans Christian Andersen, the story has inspired various works and references in different formats. Here are some examples:

Children’s books: Various illustrated children’s books have adapted the story of „What Happened to the Thistle“ for a younger audience, highlighting its themes of perseverance and self-worth. These adaptations often feature vibrant illustrations to engage young readers. The story has been adapted into several children’s books, including „The Ugly Vegetables“ by Grace Lin, which replaces the thistle with Asian vegetables, and „The Thorn in the King’s Foot“ by Jacqueline K. Ogburn, which retells the story in a medieval setting.

Anthologies: „What Happened to the Thistle“ has been included in numerous collections of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, such as „Hans Christian Andersen’s Complete Fairy Tales,“ introducing the story to new generations of readers.

Educational materials: The story has been used in educational materials to teach children about themes like self-worth, determination, and the beauty of nature. Lesson plans and classroom activities may be built around the story to teach these concepts.

Animated Films: The story has been adapted into several animated films, including „The Little Thistle“ by Tomasz Leśniak, which reimagines the story as a fable about environmentalism, and „The Ugly Thistle“ by PixlPit, which tells the story in a modern setting with anthropomorphic characters.

Music and Plays: The story has also been adapted into plays, such as „The Thistle and the Rose“ by Robert Gore-Langton, which tells the story of a thistle and a rose who fall in love, despite their differences. The story has even been adapted into music, such as the song „The Thistle and the Rose“ by Celtic folk band Runrig, which tells the story of the thistle as a symbol of Scottish identity.

Thematic references in other works: The themes and motifs of the story, such as perseverance and the transformative power of love and appreciation, have inspired other works of literature, film, and television. Although not direct adaptations, these works may reference or allude to the story or its themes in various ways.

The fairy tale „What Happened to the Thistle“ by Hans Christian Andersen has inspired various adaptations and retellings across different media. While „What Happened to the Thistle“ may not be as widely adapted as some of Hans Christian Andersen’s more famous stories, such as „The Little Mermaid“ or „The Ugly Duckling,“ it still holds a special place in the hearts of many readers and continues to inspire new interpretations and explorations of its themes.

Overall, the enduring appeal of „What Happened to the Thistle“ lies in its universal themes of resilience, perseverance, and the value of inner strength over external appearances. These themes continue to resonate with readers and audiences across different cultures and time periods, inspiring new adaptations and interpretations of the original story.

Summary of the plot

„What Happened to the Thistle“ is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen that tells the story of a large thistle growing outside the fence of a beautifully kept garden, which belonged to a rich estate. The garden was admired by many visitors who came to see the rare trees and flowers.

One day, a party was held at the manor house, attended by aristocratic guests from the capital, including a young lady from Scotland. As the young people played croquet and strolled through the garden, they picked flowers for each other’s buttonholes. The Scottish lady noticed the large thistle outside the fence and asked the young heir to pick a flower for her, as it was Scotland’s national flower. He did so, and the thistle felt proud and important.

Soon, the thistle learned that the young man had won the heart and hand of the Scottish lady. The thistle believed that it was responsible for the match and told all its new buds about it. The thistle hoped to be transplanted into the garden or a flowerpot but remained outside the fence, admired by an old donkey who couldn’t reach it due to its tether.

As time passed, the thistle began to believe it had connections to Scotland and that its ancestors had grown on the Scottish coat of arms. It eventually had one last, silvery flower that the married couple admired and wanted to be carved around their picture frame. The husband picked the flower and brought it inside the mansion. The thistle felt content that its children were safe inside, even if it remained outside the fence. A sunbeam promised it a good place, not in a flowerpot or frame, but in a fairy tale, and here it is.

Informations for scientific analysis

Fairy tale statistics
TranslationsDE, EN, DA, ES, FR, IT
Readability Index by Björnsson30.1
Flesch-Reading-Ease Index81.1
Flesch–Kincaid Grade-Level5.6
Gunning Fog Index7.9
Coleman–Liau Index9
SMOG Index8.2
Automated Readability Index5.7
Character Count7.985
Letter Count6.167
Sentence Count100
Word Count1.463
Average Words per Sentence14,63
Words with more than 6 letters227
Percentage of long words15.5%
Number of Syllables1.918
Average Syllables per Word1,31
Words with three Syllables76
Percentage Words with three Syllables5.2%
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