Hansel and Gretel Reconsidered

Fairy tales are the gateways to our collective consciousness. My mother viewed them as too violent and disturbing, so I was exposed to only the most sanitized Golden Book versions. But perhaps we do children a disservice by not exposing them to parables of the ugly and extreme. Take Hansel and Gretel, for instance. Various sources suggest it grew out of Germany’s Thirty Years War, when the power struggles of that day laid waste to the land. The backdrop of that fairy tale is one of violence, famine and the threat of extinction.  It is a rock and hard place survival tale that resonates with current events.

The arc of the fairytale begins with traumatic circumstances not of a parent’s agency. Here it is famine, but you could insert any rock and hard place scenario where survival is the outcome sought. There is parental dispute that results in a strategy of child abandonment as the best of the worst options.  The children are lured by a gingerbread house promising sweet somethings (rather like the City on the Hill.) They are kidnapped, the boy caged and the girl impressed into domestic service. Cannibalism is just on the horizon.  But the children outwit their captor and are reunited with the more sympathetic of the parents.

Our collective unconscious tells us that we have been here before in our latest Hansel and Gretel moment. We have parents facing all sorts of rock and hard place circumstances not of their creation – famine, gangland, state-sponsored or domestic violence. The children are set apart from their parents and are, in that age-old metaphor for wilderness and danger, wandering in the woods. But today’s children, like Hansel and Gretel, probably already know just how wild and violent the supposedly civilised world can be.

Possibly, the collective unconsciousness will also castigate parents who cannot keep children safe. In various versions, the poor woodcutter father is weak, the mother/stepmother consumed by wanting to survive at any costs; in some versions, she is driven insane by the hunger. To judge the parents from a viewpoint of comfort and safety is to miss the wisdom of the parable. The ideal is for parents to keep their children safe and place their welfare above all others. The reality is the rock, the hard place, and what seems the inevitable horrific outcome.

As the fairytale progresses there is a kidnapping, once the children have been lured by the promise of sweet sustenance. One of the children in caged; the other enslaved. The hag/witch is a wonderfully worked out piece of malevolence in aid of self-preservation.

But the children prove to be both quick-witted and brave. The witch is blind – both naturally near-sighted and being hampered by the butter Gretel smears on her spectacles. The boy extends a femur through the cage, convincing the witch he is not fat enough for feasting on just yet. They play for time. And then it is Gretel who acts. She tricks the witch to poke her head in the oven to check the temperature, pushing her in and slamming the door on her fate.

Replete on gingerbread bricks and mortar, the children make their way back to their remorseful father.

The mother/step-mother is dead. The crone/hag is dead. Long live the maiden who has survived.

The fairytale Hansel and Gretel makes for an interesting feminist consideration. The father is weak and indecisive, ultimately passive. The son has lots of strategies – pebble and bread crumb paths – that are ultimately useless. It is the women in the story who act. The mother/stepmother knows something must be done to ensure she survives (although she doesn’t by the end of the tale). The hag/witch knows how to lure her supper, but she also comes to a bad ending. It is the  maiden who resorts to homicide, albeit with mitigating  circumstances, who frees herself and her caged brother. Not a classic happy ending, more Quentin Tarantino.

Nor is it the classic view of woman as passive. Here, women act and violently. Some might argue it is biology driving the survival of the species. But we also see the seeds of how women are viewed as the ultimate dangerous destroyers.  In every aspect – maiden, mother, crone – women are the engines of the plot. The maiden triumphs – like Spring – and survives for her to enact the wheel of life. One can only hope that she will meet less traumatic events as mother and wise woman/crone.

One interpretation of David Cameron’s parliamentary ‘Calm down’ to a woman MP might be that riled women, when up against the wall, are not going to face the firing squad without lobbing a few salvos first. Similarly, one calls to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren being silenced with “nonetheless, she persisted.”    Both male politicians were patronising, but that may also mask the unconscious fear that the progenators/creators can also destroy.  Fear drives patriarchy. But for women with an active ‘good enough’ mother psychological archetype, you mess with kids at your peril.

The denouement of Hansel and Gretel has the passive father showing remorse for his giving in to (his now deceased) wife.  He is forgiven.

We like to think that parents are in charge, that they will protect and cherish their children always. Many can blissfully bypass the rock and hard place decisions, but not all. Would that we could all be a happy species, living peacefully, treating one another always respectfully.

We are now in an upended reality where high-school students are lecturing their elders in Congress to change the law to stop random gun violence. We are seeing children forcibly separated from their parents and detained in cages.

The adults have let the kids badly down. We have not wisely negotiated the rocks and often run aground on the hard places. Let us hope with a show of remorse and shame that they will find the grace to forgive us.

It seems that that, and the children, are our best hope.

Copyright © 2018 Bee Smith

 

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