Simone Weil, a noted Jewish philosopher, remarked, “Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.”
Whereas many Hollywood films offer this imaginary glamour of evil and dullness of virtue, Hans Christian Andersen’s genius as a storyteller captures the glorious, adventurous drama of a real life of goodness that is filled with wonder and marvels. In stories like “The Little Mermaid,” “The Snow Queen,” and “The Traveling Companion,” Andersen captures the essence of goodness as a small seed buried in the earth—a seed that in time produces a bountiful harvest that surpasses all expectations. The doer of a good deed should forget it, but it is not forgotten because it accompanies him like a best friend.
In “The Traveling Companion” John suffers the loss of his beloved father and finds himself alone in the world with only $50. Unsure of his future, he begins to seek his fortune and sets off on a journey, promising “I will always try to be good! … Then I shall go to heaven, too, and be with father.”
In his travels, he visits a churchyard with many graves in a state of neglect covered by the long grass. Alone in the graveyard he voluntarily pulls the grass, places the fallen crosses in a proper position, and rearranges the wreaths with the hope that someone would care for his own father’s grave during his absence. In other words, John does good quietly and anonymously, loving goodness for its own sake without any thought of reward or recognition. In the words of the proverb, “Do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.”
When John takes shelter in a church during a rainstorm in the night, he finds an open coffin with a body awaiting burial. Two men enter the church to desecrate the body out of revenge. Because the dead man failed to pay his debts to the two rogues, they will wreak their vengeance: “So we intend to get our own back on him—he shall lie like a dog outside the church door.”
Remembering his promise always to do good, John parts with his last $50 to pay the dead man’s debts and satisfy the anger of his creditors. Once again, poor John gives without expecting to receive as he performs his good deed in the silence of the night and in the darkness of the church, offering money to two strangers who will never even express gratitude. Poor John always acts with a pure heart and has no ulterior motives.
When his journey resumes, poor John encounters a fellow traveler—”the traveling companion”—and the two of them together perform more of these good deeds along the way for strangers they do not ever expect to see again, good deeds that carry with them no reward. Together they heal the broken leg of an old woman with a magical ointment and accept only three bundles of sticks she carries in her apron. At an inn, they repair with the ointment a puppet attacked by a dog that bit off the head, and the two travelers accept from the puppet master a great saber. As they climb up high mountains, they witness a swan falling to its death, and the traveling companion cuts off the wings.
With the sticks, the saber, and the wings—none of them prizes of great value—the two travelers enter a city and behold the king’s daughter passing, a princess notorious for her wickedness who betrays her suitors in a guessing game: “From every tree hung three or four king’s sons who had wooed the princess but had not been able to guess the things she had asked them.” When John sees the beautiful princess, he remembers her from a dream: “for the princess looked exactly like the lovely girl with the golden crown he had dreamt of the night his father died.”
Determined to win his bride by playing the dangerous guessing game despite the dead bodies of other suitors who failed in the contest hanging from the trees, poor John—with the help of his traveling companion using the sticks, saber, and wings—answers correctly each time the princess asks her suitor to guess her thoughts. The traveling companion provides supernatural assistance (grace) that provides the right answers and disenchants the spell of the troll that has transformed the princess into an evil woman. When poor John decides to win the hand of the princess or die, he entrusts his life to Divine Providence: “For I’ve always believed Our Lord would help me.”
When poor John and the Traveling Companion say farewell and go their separate ways, John offers his heartfelt gratitude, but his friend only replies: “I have only paid my debt. Do you remember the dead man those wicked men wanted to harm? You gave all you had so that he could lie quietly in his grave. I am that dead man.” A good deed is a traveling companion. A good deed is like a buried seed. If it appears to go unnoticed or forgotten, if a good deed is done in stealth at night or in a graveyard, or if it happened a long time ago in the past, it is never dead, unacknowledged, or lost. A good deed accompanies a person wherever he goes. A good deed is always fruitful. John’s simple good deed in a lonely church produced the bountiful harvest of a happy marriage to the beautiful princess.
The life of goodness is a glorious adventure filled with surprises and mysteries that make it “new, marvelous, intoxicating” as Simone Weil noted—not boring.