photos of Flax flowers and seeds


Ask Questions

The Flax
by Hans Christian Anderson
Translated from the Danish by Erik Christian Haugaard

The flax was blooming. It had the most beautiful blue flowers; their petals were as soft as the wings of a moth and even more delicate. The sun shone on the flax, and the rain clouds watered it, which is just as pleasant to the flax and just as good for it as it is for a child to be washed by his mother and given a kiss. Both flax and children thrive on such treatment.

"People say that this year's crop will be the best for many a year," said the flax. "They say that we are taller than our parents were, and that fine linen can be woven from our stalks. Oh, how happy I am! None can be happier than I am. I am well and strong and I know I shall become something. The sunshine's kisses make me cheerful, the rain refreshes me. I am the most fortunate of all plants."

"Take it easy," mumbled the old fence. " You don't know the world as I do. I am filled with knots and that is as good as having a memory." Then the old wooden fence creaked a doleful song:

"Crack and break,
Snap and bend,
A song must end."

"No, no!" shouted the flax. "The sun will shine tomorrow as well, and the dew will fall. I can hear myself growing, I can feel every flower. I am happy!"

But one day the farmer and the hired hands came and pulled the flax up, roots and all; and that hurt! Then it was thrown into a tub filled with water, as if they meant to drown it. And when the poor flax was finally taken out, it was only to be toasted over a fire. It was most terrifying.

"One cannot always be fortunate," sighed the flax. "Suffering is a form of experience, and one can learn from it."

But the suffering, the pains and aches grew worse. The flax was beaten and bruised, hacked and hackled, and then finally put on the spinning wheel. That was almost the worst of all: around and around it went, getting dizzier and dizzier, till it was not able to think at all.

"I was happy once," moaned the flax amid all the tortures. "One must learn to appreciate the happy childhood and youth one has had, an be happy! Happy! . . . "Oh!"

The flax had now been spun; and the farmer's wife set the loom and wove a lovely large piece of linen out of it.

"Oh, this is truly marvelous! I never imagined that this could happen to me," said the flax. "I am always fortunate! The fence was just talking nonsense with its

"Crack and break,
Snap and bend,
A song must end."

"A song is never over. I think mine is just beginning now. I have suffered but I have also been rewarded for my suffering. I am most fortunate. . . . I am strong yet soft, white and ever so long. This is much superior to being merely an herb, even a flowering one. Then I wasn't taken care of as I am now, I only got water to drink if it rained. Now the maid turns me over each morning so the sun can bleach me on both sides; and she sprinkles me with water when I get too dry. The minister's wife has declared that I am the finest piece of linen in the whole county. I cannot become any happier."

Now the linen was ready to be cut and sewn. Again it hurt; the scissors cut and the needle pricked, it was no pleasure! Well, what did it become? Something that all of us have use for but we never mention: twelve pairs of them.

"Now I have become something," thought the linen. "Now I know what I was meant for. It is a blessing to be useful in this world; it is a true pleasure. Out of one we have become twelve, all alike, a whole dozen. Again how fortunate I am!"

Years went by; and even the strongest linen can't last forever.

"Sooner or later the end must come," said each of the twelve pieces on linen. "I would like to have lasted just a little bit longer, but one must not make impossible demands."

The linen, that had become rags, was torn into tiny pieces, and now it thought that all was over, for it was chopped and hacked and finally boiled. It hardly was aware, itself, of all that it went through, and then it became fine white paper!

"Now that was a surprise. . . a most happy surprise," exclaimed the paper. "Why, now I am whiter and more elegant than I was before! This is too marvelous, I wonder what is going to be written on me?"

A very excellent story was written on the paper, and everyone who heard it or read it become both better and cleverer because of it. They were a real blessing: the words that had been written down on that paper.

"That is more than I ever dreamed possible when I was a little blue flower in the fields. How could I imagine then that I would ever become the messenger of happiness and knowledge to human beings? I can't even understand it now. But it was so, even though God knows I have done little to deserve it; I have only lived. Yet each time that I have though, 'Now the song is over,' it hasn't been. It has merely started all over again; finer, better, more beautiful than before. I wonder if I shall travel now, be sent all over the world so that everyone can read me? I think it is very probable. For every flower that I used to have, I now have a thought that is equally beautiful. I am the most fortunate, the happiest thing in the whole world."

But the paper was never sent on any journey, except a very short one, down to the printers. Every word written on the paper was set in type and then printed; hundreds of books were made and in each of them you could read exactly the same words as had been written down on the paper. This, after all, was much more sensible. Many more people could read it, while the poor paper would have worn itself out before it had got halfway around the world.

"Yes, I agree," thought the paper, which now had become a manuscript. "It is far more sensible, I never thought about it. I will stay home like an old grandfather who is respected and honored, and the books will run about and do the work. After all, I am the original, it was on me that the words first were written. The ink flew from the pen down on me and penetrated me. I am most happy, most fortunate."

Once the book was printed, the manuscript was put away on a shelf. "It is good to rest after such an achievement," said the paper. "It is well to contemplate what one is and what one has inside one. It is as if I only realize now what is written on me. I am getting to know myself and that is half the way to wisdom. I wonder what will happen to me now? Something even better I am sure, even more wonderful."

One day the manuscript was taken from its shelf to be burned, for the printer was not allowed to sell it to the grocer so that he could use it to wrap his wares in. It made quite a pile next to the fireplace. All the children in the house were there, they wanted to watch, see it flare up high and then slowly die until only a few embers, a few sparks, hopped out of the gray ashes, like school children hurrying home; then when it was over, a single last spark would fly past and that was the schoolteacher running after the children.

All the paper was thrown into the fire. Whish! the flames shot up, high up into the chimney. Never had the flax been as tall as it was now and never had it shone so brightly--not even when it had been white linen. All the black written letters became for a moment--as thought and words were burned--firey red.

"Now I will become on with the sun," said a thousand voices within the flame that shot up high above the chimney stack. Lighter even than the flames, too tiny to be seen, flew the little beings. There were as many as there once had been flowers on the flax. As the paper become black ashes, they ran across it, and their footsteps were those last sparks that the children said were "school children going home." The last spark flared; it was the schoolmaster running after his pupils. The children clapped their hands and chanted:

"Crack and break,
Snap and bend,
A song must end."

But the little ones did not agree, they said: "No, the song never ends. That is the most wonderful part of it. We know it and that is why we are the happiest of all."

But the children didn't hear then, nor would they have understood if they had. And that is just as well, for children shouldn't know everything.


Anderson, H.C. (1974). The flax in The complete fairy tales and stories. (Erik Christian Haugaard, Trans.). New York: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group. 1983.



Kathie Richardson
NDSU Library
Fargo, ND 58105

Last updated: 12.03.2008

© 2007 NDSU All rights reserved.

The NDSU Library Agriculture Network Information Center Flax Institute of the United States

Flax Institute of the United States