For whatever reason I keep encountering media that references the fairytale Hansel and Gretel. So, inevitably I got to thinking about the tale. We commonly consider the witch to be the villain in the story. But, what we commonly forget is how they ended up in the forest in the first place.
“By a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife: “What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?” “I’11 tell you what, husband,” answered the woman, “early to-morrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest; there we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.” “No, wife,” said the man, “I will not do that; how can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest–the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.” “0, you fool!” said she, “then we must all four die of hunger, you may as well plane the planks for our coffins,” and she left him no peace until he consented.” (Source:here)
Their stepmother suggested dumping them in the forest and their father gave in. Realistically the witch is just being opportunistic. Being a literary sort I started thinking about some other fairytales.
We all remember the general story of Rapunzel, but do you remember how she ended up in the tower?
“There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child. At length the woman hoped that God was about to grant her desire. These people had a little window at the back of their house from which a splendid garden could be seen, which was full of the most beautiful flowers and herbs. It was, however, surrounded by a high wall, and no one dared to go into it because it belonged to an enchantress, who had great power and was dreaded by all the world. One day the woman was standing by this window and looking down into the garden, when she saw a bed which was planted with the most beautiful rampion (rapunzel), and it looked so fresh and green that she longed for it, she quite pined away, and began to look pale and miserable. Then her husband was alarmed, and asked: ‘What ails you, dear wife?’ ‘Ah,’ she replied, ‘if I can’t eat some of the rampion, which is in the garden behind our house, I shall die.’ The man, who loved her, thought: ‘Sooner than let your wife die, bring her some of the rampion yourself, let it cost what it will.’ At twilight, he clambered down over the wall into the garden of the enchantress, hastily clutched a handful of rampion, and took it to his wife. She at once made herself a salad of it, and ate it greedily. It tasted so good to her—so very good, that the next day she longed for it three times as much as before. If he was to have any rest, her husband must once more descend into the garden. In the gloom of evening therefore, he let himself down again; but when he had clambered down the wall he was terribly afraid, for he saw the enchantress standing before him. ‘How can you dare,’ said she with angry look, ‘descend into my garden and steal my rampion like a thief? You shall suffer for it!’ ‘Ah,’ answered he, ‘let mercy take the place of justice, I only made up my mind to do it out of necessity. My wife saw your rampion from the window, and felt such a longing for it that she would have died if she had not got some to eat.’ Then the enchantress allowed her anger to be softened, and said to him: ‘If the case be as you say, I will allow you to take away with you as much rampion as you will, only I make one condition, you must give me the child which your wife will bring into the world; it shall be well treated, and I will care for it like a mother.’ The man in his terror consented to everything, and when the woman was brought to bed, the enchantress appeared at once, gave the child the name of Rapunzel, and took it away with her.” (Source: here)
A woman starts pining to death over some salad greens, forcing her husband to risk his life and give away their unborn child.
Donkeyskin is a slightly more obscure tale, but again we see a major fault in the parents.
“Once upon a time there was a king who was the most powerful ruler in the whole world. Kind and just in peace and terrifying in war, his enemies feared him while his subjects were happy and content. His wife and faithful companion was both charming and beautiful. From their union a daughter had been born. Their large and magnificent palace was filled with courtiers, and their stables boasted steeds large and small, of every description. But what surprised everyone on entering these stables was that the place of honor was held by a donkey with two big ears. However, it was quite worthy of this position, for every morning, instead of dung, it dropped a great load of gold coins upon the litter. Now heaven, which seems to mingle good with evil, suddenly permitted a bitter illness to attack the queen. Help was sought on all sides, but neither the learned physicians nor the charlatans were able to arrest the fever which increased daily. Finally, her last hour having come, the queen said to her husband: “Promise me that if, when I am gone, you find a woman wiser and more beautiful than I, you will marry her and so provide an heir for throne.” Confident that it would be impossible to find such a woman, the queen thus believed that her husband would never remarry. The king accepted his wife’s conditions, and shortly thereafter she died in his arms. For a time the king was inconsolable in his grief, both day and night. Some months later, however, on the urging of his courtiers, he agreed to marry again, but this was not an easy matter, for he had to keep his promise to his wife and search as he might, he could not find a new wife with all the attractions he sought. Only his daughter had a charm and beauty which even the queen had not possessed. Thus only by marrying his daughter could he satisfy the promise he had made to his dying wife, and so he forthwith proposed marriage to her. This frightened and saddened the princess, and she tried to show her father the mistake he was making.” (Source: here)
The dying queen selfishly demands that her husband remarry only if he can find a woman more beautiful than her, he agrees, and then proposes to his daughter.
Last but not least, The Juniper Tree.
“Long, long ago, some two thousand years or so, there lived a rich man with a good and beautiful wife. They loved each other dearly, but sorrowed much that they had no children. So greatly did they desire to have one, that the wife prayed for it day and night, but still they remained childless…the wife stood under the juniper-tree, and it was so full of sweet scent that her heart leaped for joy, and she was so overcome with her happiness, that she fell on her knees. Presently the fruit became round and firm, and she was glad and at peace; but when they were fully ripe she picked the berries and ate eagerly of them, and then she grew sad and ill. A little while later she called her husband, and said to him, weeping. ‘If I die, bury me under the juniper-tree.’ Then she felt comforted and happy again, and before another month had passed she had a little child, and when she saw that it was as white as snow and as red as blood, her joy was so great that she died. Her husband buried her under the juniper-tree, and wept bitterly for her. By degrees, however, his sorrow grew less, and although at times he still grieved over his loss, he was able to go about as usual, and later on he married again. He now had a little daughter born to him; the child of his first wife was a boy, who was as red as blood and as white as snow. The mother loved her daughter very much, and when she looked at her and then looked at the boy, it pierced her heart to think that he would always stand in the way of her own child, and she was continually thinking how she could get the whole of the property for her. This evil thought took possession of her more and more, and made her behave very unkindly to the boy.” (Source: here)
The second wife ends up lopping off the boys head, blames her daughter and makes him into pudding, then feeds him to his father.
When you take a look at these, there is a very consistent pattern in how the parents behave and what faults they have.
Faults of the Women/(Step)Mothers:
- Cruelty, often resulting from the previous two.
Faults of the Men/Fathers:
- Poor wife selection
- Lack of self control (This appears more in tales I don’t address here.)
Now, we all know that fairytales exist for the purposes of teaching children. Boys are taught to be brave and resourceful, girls are taught be kind and gentle (except when you need to shove witches into ovens). However, I’ve heard it said that if you want to reach adults with a certain message, write a children’s story. Why? Because if they end up telling/reading it to the child over and over the adult has no real choice but to realize what the story is trying to say. In this case, do you really think these patterns of behavior emerged by accident? For the women it is obviously a reinforcement of what the fairytales told them as children, being vain, obnoxious, lazy etc. gets you dead (or at least covered in tar for the rest of your life). The men are clearly receiving a different set of messages though. What messages do they seem to be?
Be careful who you marry and don’t entertain her ridiculous requests.
Don’t marry the woman who will suggest leaving your children in the forest to starve.
Don’t risk your life to bring her salad greens, definitely don’t do it twice.
Don’t bow to your dying wife’s vanity or marry your own daughter.
Don’t marry a woman that will kill your child and feed him to you.
Cinderella? Don’t marry a single mother.
Snow white? Don’t marry a woman so vain she’ll try to kill your daughter when she grows up.
These are fairytales, so obviously they have a (hopefully) unrealistic, slightly over the top take on things. Still, that doesn’t invalidate the message that they are trying to tell. Self-interested women and the weak-willed men that bow to them are not a new phenomenon, the problem is we’ve changed the vocabulary and the fairytales so that they are admirable. Self-interested women are called strong go-getters. Weak-willed men are called sensitive and caring (though they aren’t praised much past that, if they are praised at all). And at the end of the day, it is the children who suffer. Take heed of the messages, protect yourselves, protect your children. You’re the one that will have to realize the truth and act accordingly, because, sadly, evildoers don’t get millstones dropped on their heads.