In 1929, a Danish physician identifies a new strain of smallpox that is capable of infecting and killing even those individuals who have previously been vaccinated against the disease. Before this incurable plague reaches them, the citizens of Vaden, a prosperous town renowned for their fanatical love of children, unanimously agree to barricade the city from the rest of the world.

Only once during this time when Vaden has quarantined all of Denmark does the town make an exception. A traveling European circus is allowed into the city because the mayor cannot bring himself to refuse its sick children. Unbeknownst to the villagers, a dwarf clown who is the featured performer of the circus has just died from the virulent strain of smallpox, but not before introducing it to Vaden. A 12 year old member of the circus successfully impersonates the dead clown. One night, the imposter with his wooden flute leads the children out of Vaden through a gate in the wall.


Like other tales of people and plagues, the characters in this story ultimately learn that death cannot be turned away. Isolation is depicted as destructive as disease. The story functions like a fable and illustrates the ambiguity of truth. Neither its characters nor the reader can be certain what is real and what is imaginary.

Despite loving their children, the parents of Vaden never fully understand them. While the youngsters may not comprehend what feelings exist deep within them, the grown-ups fear to unearth and release the child inside the adult. The story suggests that compassion is a particular form of love whereas parental love is yet another type characterized by the urge to protect.

The main characters form a rather odd trinity: Nikolaj Holmer, the wealthy merchant and mayor of Vaden; his son Kristoffer, a gifted but sullen lad; and Monsieur Andress, a child disguised as the talented but deceased clown. The author has constructed a world that highlights the frailty of childhood and the requirements of love. The inhabitants of Vaden struggle to grasp love and finally realize it is beyond control.


Translated by Barbara Haveland. Originally published in 1990 in Danish.

Primary Source

Tales of the Night


Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Place Published

New York



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