Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Famine in Fairy Tales

A few weeks ago as we were watching the opera Hansel and Gretel, it occurred to me how often many of the old fairy tales revolve around the theme of hunger. We forget while living in a land of plenty how in other continents famine is a harsh reality. In Western Europe in the Middle Ages, famine was a dreaded but occasional part of life, which is why it crept into the stories. Eugen Weber in Peasants into Frenchmen and Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre explore the origins of many popular tales as being rooted in the anxieties of peasant existence. Fairy tales were a way of confronting very real fears, including the fear of starving. As one scholarly paper describes:
Peasants began telling each other stories as a mean of entertainment, but also as an outlet and alternative for their daily miseries. Fairy tales – folk tales when they were originally told by the peasants – were often vulgar and lacking in morality. The peasants told each other tales in the spinning room and the field while they were working. The tales were a form of entertainment enjoyed by all; they were not exclusively for children. In fact, a lot of the tales were told in the night, after the children had slept, so the peasants put little check in detailed episodes of violence and explicit sexual reference; they were the equivalent of late night TV shows for us (Tatar 23). The motif and themes of the tales were old, but since the tales followed an oral tradition, they changed every so often as the tellers modified them to reflect the living conditions of their audience (Zipes, Breaking the Magic Spell 33). The tales projected the peasant’s perceptions of reality, and even their desire (Rőhrich 191). For them, kings were happy just to have bean soup every day, and white bread, sweetened fruits, and sugared nuts made up a real feast (188). The horrors of the tale were real too. Poverty was real, hunger was real, because famine happened; stepmothers were real, because peasant women died young and men made rash remarriages, so child abuse and abandonment were real too (Weber 94).
The older the version of the fairy tale, the more lurid the details. For instance, "Hansel and Gretel" was modified a great deal over the years. According to an article by Melissa Howard:
Hansel and Gretel is part of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s collection of fairy tales originally titled Children's and Household Tales, published in 1812, but now known throughout the world as Grimm's Fairy Tales. The brothers did not collect the fairy tales alone and the discovery Hansel and Gretel’s is attributed to Dortchen Wild who heard it in the town of Cassel.
In the earliest versions of the story, it was Hansel and Gretel’s mother who suggests that they abandon the children not a stepmother. Also notable is that in the earliest versions of the tale, both parents participated in the decision. During the Middle Ages, there were many disasters such as famine, war, and plague, which would cause parents to abandon their children. It would seem that in Hansel and Gretel’s case the abandonment could have easily been due to famine, which would explain the theme of food, which runs through the entire narrative.
There are other stories besides "Hansel and Gretel" in which abandoned children are forced to shift for themselves due to lack of food. Not only must youngsters in such tales deal with potential starvation, but they must avoid being eaten by evil witches or ogres. In "Hop o' My Thumb" or "Little Thumb," six children are left in the forest by their own father and mother, who cannot bear to watch them die of hunger. The siblings must then escape a child-eating ogre. The resourcefulness of the youngest and smallest boy saves the entire family. It is not a story which appears too often in modern fairy tale books. Nevertheless, in such tales of bleak desperation, small children are able to outwit their tormentors and find a better life. For all their gruesomeness, those fairy tales imparted a gleam of hope in a hard and difficult world. May all of our children's stories do the same. Share


wendybirde said...

Something about this post was very moving Elena. As we're approaching some famine it seems even in the US's future, there is such comfort in getting down to the archtypal there. Same with illnesses and the like...going to the arcetypal level there changes something, gives "realness" back rather than the cold dry facts appraoch, and gives meaning. Anyway, i really appreciated this post...

Happy Fourth to you : ) Wendy

elena maria vidal said...

And to you, Wendy. Thanks!

Mary Sharratt said...

In Europe, as well as in many other parts of the globe, hunger is still in real, living memory. My Belgian father-in-law experienced true hunger while an inmate of a German labor camp. My mother-in-law talked about how people she knew resorted to eating dogs and rats. Even in Britain, war time rationing created an atmosphere of extreme austerity. Let's hope we never have to suffer as they did!

elena maria vidal said...

Absolutely, Mary! I grew up hearing stories of hunger during WWII from my mother and grandmother. And there are many places today where famine stalks the land.