And now, a slightly more lighthearted question, after the heavy and vigorously debated themes of the last few Q’s of the Week.
I presume that everyone knows the story of Hansel and Gretel, from the Brothers Grimm? If not, here’s the text itself from Grimm’s Fairy Tales. And here is a few words about Jacob and Wilhelm themselves.
Well, when I was a child the portrayal of the witch in this story used to really frighten me. This was a woman who ate people, after all! And then, a few months ago, when I bought a really beautiful illustrated edition of the Brothers Grimm and began to read them again as an adult, it occurred to me that the story of Little Red Riding Hood was not about the wrongness of disobeying parents or of venturing into strange places alone, or trusting strangers. It was actually about the vice of food-gluttony. So, my question for this week concerns adult themes in children’s storytelling.
In the tale of Hansel and Gretel, everybody is starving. Their parents are so hungry they are contemplating abandoning the children so that they don’t have to share food with them. (That part of the story was excised from the first english-language editions.) The children use flint fragments to make a trail for themselves. But one day, there are no flint scraps left, so they use breadcrumbs (food!) instead. When that trail trail was eaten by birds, the children get lost and they wind up at the doorstep of a house literally made of food – gingerbread and candy – and inhabited by a witch who eats people! Cannibalism is probably the most anti-social of all vices: it refuses to acknowledge the personhood of the other person, and instead sees the other person as that which can gratify the most basic of self-centered needs – the need to eat.
This, of course, is only one example. The story of Sleeping Beauty is really about vanity. Jack and the Beanstalk is about greed. Rumplestiltskin is about deceit and lies. Snow White is about envy. All the major ‘food groups’ on the menu of vice are represented here. One also finds gratuitous violence and graphic sexuality. Think of what the wolf did to the grandmother in the story of Little Red Riding Hood – and of what the woodcutter did to the wolf. Think of what the the spindle of a spinning wheel that ‘pricked’ Sleeping Beauty really is.
Have you a favourite story that you remember from when you were a child? What does it mean to you now?