Question of the Week: Hansel and Gretel

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?

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6 Responses to Question of the Week: Hansel and Gretel

  1. corbet says:

    I think my childhood favourite was either Bluebeard or The Six Swans. The former seems to warn about the dangers of being too nosy, but the latter…to me it’s always seemed less a cautionary tale and more a story about love and loyalty and self-sacrifice. Admittedly I haven’t read any versions of the originals in years.

    Have you read any of the Chinese versions of Red Riding Hood? Very sexual.

  2. drui_en says:

    The Little Mermaid (thinking that we want to be something we’re not for reasons other than following our true nature, to disastrous consequences).

  3. It’s a subject that’s very interesting to me and I’ve written a few essays about F-Tales:
    the blog puts newest-first so it makes the most sense if you read the bottom one first and then upwards, if you care to.

    I found and still find Hans Christian Anderson a little grim (whoops, unintentional pun) although I liked ‘The Snow Queen’. “Favourite” would be hard– I liked ‘Peter Pan’ and the subsequent Oz books; I wanted to go to a different world than the one I lived in.

    ‘Puss in Boots’ perhaps– if you give out help unselfishly you will get help back, plus things aren’t what they seem.

  4. Wow, really neat to actually read the Grimms’ version. I’ve read/heard/watched variations on the more famous ones but not read their versions of those – well, not that I can recall with any clarity anyway.

    I didn’t realize until now but I must have had a book with some of the original versions. I had completely forgotten about King Grisly-Beard until reading it just now. But in reading it now, I recognize the exact wording of it.

    I also new “Sleeping Beauty” as “Briar Rose”. And “The Valiant Little Tailor” as “the Brave Little Tailor”. But reading those two doesn’t sound identical to my recollection of King Grisly-Beard. I’ll have to ask Da what book those were in because I’m drawing a blank and it’s bugging me. He’ll probably pull it off the self in less than 2 seconds… Da never forgets a book.

    One I didn’t realize was Grimms’ was The Story of the Youth Who Went forth to Learn What Fear Was. Or more simply “Fearnot”. I didn’t know this story until a few years ago when I got my hands on a DVD of Jim Henson’s Storyteller Series. His version, called Fearnot (also the boy’s name), was quite different but the same basic outcome. That DVD is well worth the $12. In fact, I’m gonna put it in and watch it right now!

    I also highly recommend the Muppets Classic Theatre version of the fairly tales. In my Muppet-crazed opinion, NO ONE will ever play Rumplestilskin quite like The Great Gonzo. Then again, no one will ever do anything quite like The Great Gonzo, but I digress.

    Of course, I also love the Anne Rice version of Sleeping Beauty. Talk about adult themes – Whoa!!! If you’re not familiar, well… let’s just say that weren’t no kiss what woke her up, eh. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!

    I always like seeing how people re-write the stories. That usually tells the better tale.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Fairy Tales

    Someone once said that whatever is missing at the beginning of a fairytale is the point of the fairytale.

    Hecate Demetersdatter

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m thinking back to my childhood and realizing that all of the Grimm’s tales that I can remember really freaked me out. Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, Rapunzel, Hansel and Gretel – all bring back really bad feelings.

    What I remember fondly were the modern tales of my childhood: Julie and the Wolves, The Boxcar Children, The Mouse and the Motorcycle …

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

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