In Hans Christian Andersen’s short story, “The Bell,” its characters walk through a deep woods to find a mysterious solitary bell. In short, the plot goes something like this: a bell is heard off in the distance from a town, a bell which no one can identify. Various people attempt to locate the bell that is heard coming from deep in the nearby forest, but no one is successful. Instead, everyone becomes distracted by other enticements during their journey or get fooled into believing other things (an owl!) produce the sound. A group of newly confirmed children devote themselves to the task of finding the bell, and two of them—the king’s son and a poor son—finally locate it. The bell turns out to be invisible, ringing out in the sky where the sea, sky, and forest meet.
The depiction of lush flora and fauna as the children penetrate deeper into the forest is a metaphor for the ever deeper descent into one’s soul, as if on a spiritual journey. Lilies, deer, anemones, blackberry bushes, and more greet them along their way. The metaphor is especially true in the last paragraph where the remaining explorers reach a glorious natural spot equated with the splendor of a church. “And yonder, where sea and sky meet, stood the sun, like a large shining altar…”
The sound of the bell is likened to the voice of God himself, akin to the whispers one hears within. Searching for the beautiful, far-off bell in this tale becomes a metaphor for the spiritual journey towards God that many undertake but few actually complete. Andersen drives home the point that anyone can make the journey if they are willing, since the privileged king’s son and the humble poor son both arrived at the final destination, although the poor son had taken the darker, denser path riddled with thorn bushes.
Andersen clearly propagates the sacral connotations with bells in his fairy tale, but what interests me in particular is the invisibility of the bell. They can hear it, but they can’t see it, even when they know it’s right above them. This reminds me of one of the most intriguing aspects of bells since they were tucked away in towers in the middle ages—we can hear them, often on a daily or weekly basis, but we cannot see them in action from our usual vantage point on the ground. The sound of bells is ubiquitous, but the visual display of them in action is not. The ringing mechanism can become a source of interest for the curious. This is true today. When I tell people that I play the bells through a carillon, many people are fascinated: how does one person ring all those bells? How do you move those heavy bells? And this mystery surrounding bells, I think, is one of the advantages that bell ringers today can exploit, unlike other instrumentalists. We can use the novelty of bell ringing mechanisms to interest and draw in potential new enthusiasts.