22 Jan 2011

My Stepmother the Cannibal

by Jeff Counts

Fairy tales, despite our modern assumptions about their intended audience, are decidedly adult creations. Children star in them and children are supposed to learn from them but it is we, the “grown-ups,” who have always designed them and chosen their themes. Often terrifying and always intricately layered, these universal studies of good and evil now lie at the core of human culture and history. We use them to instruct our young and stimulate their budding imaginations but the secret message embedded in many of these narratives is that they, the children, might someday have to learn to fend for themselves against us.

Fear has always coexisted comfortably with wonder in our fairy tales and in “Hansel and Gretel,” the Grimm brothers provide comment on the tradition’s darkest and most elemental subjects – betrayal, abandonment, predatory parenthood and the meta-theme of intense hunger. This 1812 story belongs to an archetypal grouping known as Type 327A on the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales (yes, there really is such a thing) which pits innocents against a witch in various dangerous circumstances. It shares this grouping with the French traditional tale “The Lost Children” and many others, including “Molly Whuppie,” “Pippety Pew,” “Baba Yaga” and “The Rose Tree.”  “Hansel” also bears resemblance to earlier stories from other groupings, namely Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Hop O’ My Thumb” (Type  327B), Madame d’Aulnoy’s 1721 “Finette Cendron” (Type 510A). Clearly, the brothers had much to drawn upon when crafting their tale.

In each of these stories, young people are deliberately placed in harm’s way by the adults who are supposed to protect them. The preferred method of abuse employed by these parents in almost every case is that of abandonment. Apparently, vast and impenetrable woodlands were readily available to the peasant families of pre-modern times and these frightening wastes served nicely when burdensome offspring needed relocating. Hunger is always the cause and the justification. Little Thumbling’s father, mind made up to leave his kids to the will of the wild rather than face not being able to feed them, nobly proclaims that he “refuses to watch them die of starvation before his very eyes.” Molly Whuppie’s folks do the same. So do young Finette Cendron’s.  To be sure, young Hansel and his sister Gretel were in very good literary company when their dear old dad, a touch reluctantly to his credit, allowed his wife to lead them away.

It is important to note that the “wife” in the “Hansel and Gretel” we know today is not the children’s biological mother. This differs from the manuscript version of the tale, in which the Grimms had written her as their actual mother and made both parents equally complicit in their banishment. As revisions mounted though, the maternal character morphed into the sole aggressor with the father becoming a more hen-pecked and unenthusiastic participant in the crime. In the first official edition he does stand up to her (still the kids’ natural mother at this point) by telling her “No, wife. That I can never do” but she eventually wears him down and off go the children just the same. Throughout the revision process the maternal character’s evil nature is never in doubt and by the time the fifth edition is produced (1843) she has ceased to be “the mother” and has become simply “the wife.” With this critical change of biological perspective she takes on the most sinister of all the classic fairy tale roles – the wicked stepmother.

It is possible that the Grimm brothers wanted to soften the impact of the parental betrayal by removing the blood connection between the woman and the children but, in doing so, they created a family environment with a much greater potential for violence. Consider the actions of the stepmother in Joseph Jacobs’ “The Rose-Tree” who used an axe to “part the hair” of her husband’s daughter (from his first marriage) and then fed her to him. Grisly stuff but hardly rare in the fairy tale world. Stepmothers, and a few actual mothers too, routinely murder and consume their young in the pages of these stories and though they are usually repaid with appropriate justice in the end (like a millstone on the head for the aforementioned axe-wielder), the darkness of the original acts often shade the entire narrative.

What then are the true motives of the stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel?” If, like many modern scholars believe, she is one and the same with the witch the children later meet in the woods, than her intentions are clearly of a similar cannibalistic nature. And why not? It is, after all, hunger that drove her to cast them out in the first place, hunger that she uses to lure them into her alter ego’s lair and hunger still that requires her to devour them literally if she gets the opportunity. The entire tale seems saturated by the idea that the lack of nourishment, both real and figurative, provokes the worst in us.

That our mini-heroes will outsmart and defeat their witch/stepmother nemesis is never in question since this kind of story follows a fairly well-defined path. Resourcefulness and a certain calm under pressure are obvious in the siblings from the start of the tale, first in Hansel and then most critically in Gretel when it matters most. They are thrust into a terrifyingly confusing world in which the maternal comforts they rely on have become suddenly hostile. To be suddenly unwanted by an adult they should be able to trust and then just as unexpectedly wanted again by one they clearly shouldn’t forces Hansel and Gretel to mature in an instant.

Perhaps this is the greatest of all the possible morals the Grimm brothers hoped to impart – that children, even when faced with the most unspeakable adult selfishness, can be brave and enduring little creatures. Hansel and Gretel’s ending at least, once their pockets are filled with the dead witch’s jewels to give to their dutifully repentant father, is a happy one.