The Beetle by Hans Christian Andersen

Story type: Literature

The emperor’s favourite horse was shod with gold. It had a golden shoe on each of its feet.

And why was this?

He was a beautiful creature, with delicate legs, bright intelligent eyes, and a mane that hung down over his neck like a veil. He had carried his master through the fire and smoke of battle, and heard the bullets whistling around him, had kicked, bitten, and taken part in the fight when the enemy advanced, and had sprung with his master on his back over the fallen foe, and had saved the crown of red gold, and the life of the emperor, which was more valuable than the red gold; and that is why the emperor’s horse had golden shoes.

And a beetle came creeping forth.

“First the great ones,” said he, “and then the little ones; but greatness is not the only thing that does it.” And so saying, he stretched out his thin legs.

“And pray what do you want?” asked the smith.

“Golden shoes, to be sure,” replied the beetle.

“Why, you must be out of your senses,” cried the smith. “Do you want to have golden shoes too?”

“Golden shoes? certainly,” replied the beetle. “Am I not just as good as that big creature yonder, that is waited on, and brushed, and has meat and drink put before him? Don’t I belong to the imperial stable?”

“But why is the horse to have golden shoes? Don’t you understand that?” asked the smith.

“Understand? I understand that it is a personal slight offered to myself,” cried the beetle. “It is done to annoy me, and therefore I am going into the world to seek my fortune.”

“Go along!” said the smith.

“You’re a rude fellow!” cried the beetle; and then he went out of the stable, flew a little way, and soon afterwards found himself in a beautiful flower garden, all fragrant with roses and lavender.

“Is it not beautiful here?” asked one of the little lady-birds that flew about, with their delicate wings and their red-and-black shields on their backs. “How sweet it is here–how beautiful it is!”

“I’m accustomed to better things,” said the beetle. “Do you call this beautiful? Why, there is not so much as a dung-heap.”

Then he went on, under the shadow of a great stack, and found a caterpillar crawling along.

“How beautiful the world is!” said the caterpillar: “the sun is so warm, and everything so enjoyable! And when I go to sleep, and die, as they call it, I shall wake up as a butterfly, with beautiful wings to fly with.”

“How conceited you are!” exclaimed the stag-beetle. “Fly about as a butterfly, indeed! I’ve come out of the stable of the emperor, and no one there, not even the emperor’s favourite horse–that by the way wears my cast-off golden shoes–has any such idea. To have wings to fly! why, we can fly now;” and he spread his wings and flew away. “I don’t want to be annoyed, and yet I am annoyed,” he said, as he flew off.

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Soon afterwards he fell down upon a great lawn. For awhile he lay there and feigned slumber; at last he fell asleep in earnest.

Suddenly a heavy shower of rain came falling from the clouds. The beetle woke up at the noise, and wanted to escape into the earth, but could not. He was tumbled over and over; sometimes he was swimming on his stomach, sometimes on his back, and as for flying, that was out of the question; he doubted whether he should escape from the place with his life. He therefore remained lying where he was.

When the weather had moderated a little, and the beetle had rubbed the water out of his eyes, he saw something gleaming. It was linen that had been placed there to bleach. He managed to make his way up to it, and crept into a fold of the damp linen. Certainly the place was not so comfortable to lie in as the warm stable; but there was no better to be had, and therefore he remained lying there for a whole day and a whole night, and the rain kept on during all the time. Towards morning he crept forth: he was very much out of temper about the climate.

On the linen two frogs were sitting. Their bright eyes absolutely gleamed with pleasure.

“Wonderful weather this!” one of them cried. “How refreshing! And the linen keeps the water together so beautifully. My hind legs seem to quiver as if I were going to swim.”

“I should like to know,” said the second, “if the swallow, who flies so far round, in her many journeys in foreign lands ever meets with a better climate than this. What delicious dampness! It is really as if one were lying in a wet ditch. Whoever does not rejoice in this, certainly does not love his fatherland.”

“Have you been in the emperor’s stable?” asked the beetle: “there the dampness is warm and refreshing. That’s the climate for me; but I cannot take it with me on my journey. Is there never a muck-heap, here in the garden, where a person of rank, like myself, can feel himself at home, and take up his quarters?”

But the frogs either did not or would not understand him.

“I never ask a question twice!” said the beetle, after he had already asked this one three times without receiving any answer.

Then he went a little farther, and stumbled against a fragment of pottery, that certainly ought not to have been lying there; but as it was once there, it gave a good shelter against wind and weather. Here dwelt several families of earwigs; and these did not require much, only sociality. The female members of the community were full of the purest maternal affection, and accordingly each one considered her own child the most beautiful and cleverest of all.

“Our son has engaged himself,” said one mother. “Dear, innocent boy! His greatest hope is that he may creep one day into a clergyman’s ear. It’s very artless and loveable, that; and being engaged will keep him steady. What joy for a mother!”

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“Our son,” said another mother, “had scarcely crept out of the egg, when he was already off on his travels. He’s all life and spirits; he’ll run his horns off! What joy that is for a mother! Is it not so, Mr. Beetle?” for she knew the stranger by his horny coat.

“You are both quite right,” said he; so they begged him to walk in; that is to say, to come as far as he could under the bit of pottery.

“Now, you also see my little earwig,” observed a third mother and a fourth; “they are lovely little things, and highly amusing. They are never ill-behaved, except when they are uncomfortable in their inside; but, unfortunately, one is very subject to that at their age.”

Thus each mother spoke of her baby; and the babies talked among themselves, and made use of the little nippers they have in their tails to nip the beard of the beetle.

“Yes, they are always busy about something, the little rogues!” said the mothers; and they quite beamed with maternal pride; but the beetle felt bored by that, and therefore he inquired how far it was to the nearest muck-heap.

“That is quite out in the big world, on the other side of the ditch,” answered an earwig. “I hope none of my children will go so far, for it would be the death of me.”

“But I shall try to get so far,” said the beetle; and he went off without taking formal leave; for that is considered the polite thing to do. And by the ditch he met several friends; beetles, all of them.

“Here we live,” they said. “We are very comfortable here. Might we ask you to step down into this rich mud? You must be fatigued after your journey.”

“Certainly,” replied the beetle. “I have been exposed to the rain, and have had to lie upon linen, and cleanliness is a thing that greatly exhausts me. I have also pains in one of my wings, from standing in a draught under a fragment of pottery. It is really quite refreshing to be among one’s companions once more.”

“Perhaps you come from some muck-heap?” observed the oldest of them.

“Indeed, I come from a much higher place,” replied the beetle. “I came from the emperor’s stable, where I was born with golden shoes on my feet. I am travelling on a secret embassy. You must not ask me any questions, for I can’t betray my secret.”

With this the beetle stepped down into the rich mud. There sat three young maiden beetles; and they tittered, because they did not know what to say.

“Not one of them is engaged yet,” said their mother; and the beetle maidens tittered again, this time from embarrassment.

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“I have never seen greater beauties in the royal stables,” exclaimed the beetle, who was now resting himself.

“Don’t spoil my girls,” said the mother; “and don’t talk to them, please, unless you have serious intentions. But of course your intentions are serious, and therefore I give you my blessing.”

“Hurrah!” cried all the other beetles together; and our friend was engaged. Immediately after the betrothal came the marriage, for there was no reason for delay.

The following day passed very pleasantly, and the next in tolerable comfort; but on the third it was time to think of food for the wife, and perhaps also for children.

“I have allowed myself to be taken in,” said our beetle to himself. “And now there’s nothing for it but to take them in, in turn.”

So said, so done. Away he went, and he stayed away all day, and stayed away all night; and his wife sat there, a forsaken widow.

“Oh,” said the other beetles, “this fellow whom we received into our family is nothing more than a thorough vagabond. He has gone away, and has left his wife a burden upon our hands.”

“Well, then, she shall be unmarried again, and sit here among my daughters,” said the mother. “Fie on the villain who forsook her!”

In the meantime the beetle had been journeying on, and had sailed across the ditch on a cabbage leaf. In the morning two persons came to the ditch. When they saw him, they took him up, and turned him over and over, and looked very learned, especially one of them–a boy.

“Allah sees the black beetle in the black stone and in the black rock. Is not that written in the Koran?” Then he translated the beetle’s name into Latin, and enlarged upon the creature’s nature and history. The second person, an older scholar, voted for carrying him home. He said they wanted just such good specimens; and this seemed an uncivil speech to our beetle, and in consequence he flew suddenly out of the speaker’s hand. As he had now dry wings, he flew a tolerable distance, and reached a hot-bed, where a sash of the glass roof was partly open, so he quietly slipped in and buried himself in the warm earth.

“Very comfortable it is here,” said he.

Soon after he went to sleep, and dreamed that the emperor’s favourite horse had fallen, and had given him his golden shoes, with the promise that he should have two more.

That was all very charming. When the beetle woke up, he crept forth and looked around him. What splendour was in the hothouse! In the background great palm trees growing up on high; the sun made them look transparent; and beneath them what a luxuriance of green, and of beaming flowers, red as fire, yellow as amber, or white as fresh-fallen snow.

“This is an incomparable plenty of plants,” cried the beetle. “How good they will taste when they are decayed! A capital store-room this! There must certainly be relations of mine living here. I will just see if I can find any one with whom I may associate. I’m proud, certainly, and I’m proud of being so.” And so he prowled about in the earth, and thought what a pleasant dream that was about the dying horse, and the golden shoes he had inherited.

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Suddenly a hand seized the beetle, and pressed him, and turned him round and round.

The gardener’s little son and a companion had come to the hot-bed, had espied the beetle, and wanted to have their fun with him. First he was wrapped in a vine leaf, and then put into warm trousers-pocket. He cribbled and crabbled about there with all his might; but he got a good pressing from the boy’s hand for this, which served as a hint to him to keep quiet. Then the boy went rapidly towards the great lake that lay at the end of the garden. Here the beetle was put in an old broken wooden shoe, on which a little stick was placed upright for a mast, and to this mast the beetle was bound with a woollen thread. Now he was a sailor, and had to sail away.

The lake was not very large, but to the beetle it seemed an ocean; and he was so astonished at its extent, that he fell over on his back and kicked out with his legs.

The little ship sailed away. The current of the water seized it; but whenever it went too far from the shore, one of the boys turned up his trousers and went in after it, and brought it back to the land. But at length, just as it went merrily out again, the two boys were called away, and very harshly, so that they hurried to obey the summons, ran away from the lake, and left the little ship to its fate. Thus it drove away from the shore, farther and farther into the open sea: it was terrible work for the beetle, for he could not get away in consequence of being bound to the mast.

Then a fly came and paid him a visit.

“What beautiful weather!” said the fly. “I’ll rest here, and sun myself. You have an agreeable time of it.”

“You speak without knowing the facts,” replied the beetle. “Don’t you see that I’m a prisoner?”

“Ah! but I’m not a prisoner,” observed the fly; and he flew away accordingly.

“Well, now I know the world,” said the beetle to himself. “It is an abominable world. I’m the only honest person in it. First, they refuse me my golden shoes; then I have to lie on wet linen, and to stand in the draught; and, to crown all, they fasten a wife upon me. Then, when I’ve taken a quick step out into the world, and found out how one can have it there, and how I wished to have it, one of those human boys comes and ties me up, and leaves me to the mercy of the wild waves, while the emperor’s favourite horse prances about proudly in golden shoes. That is what annoys me more than all. But one must not look for sympathy in this world! My career has been very interesting; but what’s the use of that, if nobody knows it? The world does not deserve to be made acquainted with my history, for it ought to have given me golden shoes, when the emperor’s horse was shod, and I stretched out my feet to be shod too. If I had received golden shoes, I should have become an ornament to the stable. Now the stable has lost me, and the world has lost me. It is all over!”

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But all was not over yet. A boat, in which there were a few young girls, came rowing up.

“Look, yonder is an old wooden shoe sailing along,” said one of the girls.

“There’s a little creature bound fast to it,” said another.

The boat came quite close to our beetle’s ship, and the young girls fished him out of the water. One of them drew a small pair of scissors from her pocket, and cut the woollen thread, without hurting the beetle; and when she stepped on shore, she put him down on the grass.

“Creep, creep–fly, fly–if thou canst,” she said. “Liberty is a splendid thing.”

And the beetle flew up, and straight through the open window of a great building; there he sank down, tired and exhausted, exactly on the mane of the emperor’s favourite horse, who stood in the stable when he was at home, and the beetle also. The beetle clung fast to the mane, and sat there a short time to recover himself.

“Here I’m sitting on the emperor’s favourite horse–sitting on him just like the emperor himself!” he cried. “But what was I saying? Yes, now I remember. That’s a good thought, and quite correct. The smith asked me why the golden shoes were given to the horse. Now I’m quite clear about the answer. They were given to the horse on my account.”

And now the beetle was in a good temper again.

“Travelling expands the mind rarely,” said he.

The sun’s rays came streaming into the stable, and shone upon him, and made the place lively and bright.

“The world is not so bad, upon the whole,” said the beetle; “but one must know how to take things as they come.”

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