unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through illus-100illus-100-title When they had walked for two hours,
they came to a great piece of
water.

“We cannot get over,” said Hansel,
“I see no foot-plank, and no bridge.”

“And no boat crosses either,” answered Grethel,
“but a white duck is swimming there;
if I ask her, she will help us over.”

illus-100n

ow here is a tale that should have been better told. This, too, is one of the Great Tales, told and retold time and again, to be told and retold again. The Grimms struggled with this tale, trying to soften its harshness and make it, somehow, a ‘proper’ story for children. They did not want to believe that such cruelty as it records could be—well, possible.

Two world wars, a Holocaust, and a half-century of unremitted genocides later, the barbarism of the tale is somehow more believable. Is it a commentary of bleak despair, the collapse and dysfunction of family and social structure? Is it a weirdly subversive message of hope? Is it, simply, a cry of pain, rage against a broken world? Or is it a nice little tale for children?

The answer to all these questions is yes.

Today’s post is a taster. In many ways, this will offer a timely aperitif to the much anticipated fourth issue of Enchanted Conversation, and their deconstructions and retellings of “Hansel and Grethel.” I’ll be saying a lot more about this issue later on; I’ve had the privilege of getting a sneak preview of at least one of the stories, and if that’s anything to go by, Issue Four will be a zinger. Look for a full review or two later in the month.

In preparation, then, it’s fitting that “unsettling wonder” has arrived at this tales. I’m naturally eager to experience the reimaginings of this tale through EC, but at the same time I’m pleased to give my own thoughts with just my mediating imagination.

I tried writing a submission for EC. I got about a third of a way into before I realized that my Grethel was Tiffany Aching, and my Wicked Witch was the Other Mother. Which made for a really neat dynamic, but crossover fanfic wasn’t what I was going for. I tried my hand at another rewrite, but never submitted it. A coming-of-age origins folktale about the ancient rivalries of the gods and gift of shamanic fire seemed a but far-fetched for a Grimm adaptation, no matter what story inspired it.

So I reread the tale with interest. And was disappointed.

The story is simple. The parents are starving, and decide they need to kill their children—and possibly eat them—to survive. So they abandon them in the forest. In the dark woods of the imagination, domestic abuse becomes personified in the form of a horrible old witch who devours children while pretending to their friend, feeding them sweets and mixing them into pies. In a stinging moral, the big brother who blustered he get them out of the mess is stuck in a cage and stuffed with sweets; the little sister, so trembling and emotional before, has the guts to kill the witch and save her brother and herself.

The Grimms ruin this story on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to start complaining. It wasn’t as stepmother. It was the children’s mother. So much has been written about this shift from birth-parent to adoptive-parent, I’ll just say it and move on.

Also, the heavy sighing and ‘Ah me, feel sorry for the little tykes’ from the father is unconscionable. Why, if he feels so reluctant, does he let his wife throw out his kids? The father, like so many impotent father-figures and kings in the Grimms tales, is reduced the a silent accessory to domestic abuse. He feels bad and does nothing. Writing as a father myself, I have issues with this. A father being complicit in the stepmother’s murder of his children is as horrible as the birth-mother suggesting they eat the children. I don’t know what the Grimms thought they gained by this change. It doesn’t ease anything.

The little patter at the end about ‘They got home safely and all lived happily’ is just nauseating. Of course, an apron full of pearls makes up for almost getting eaten—especially if you’re only eight! Money solves everything! Our stepmother happened to die and of course our dear father who tried to murder us is happy to see us again. It doesn’t work. In many tales it does but in this tale it just—doesn’t—work.

The tale is a scream of rage and pain against a broken and wounded world. It’s an act of solidarity and defiance, giving victimization and cruelty and abuse a face in the person of the witch, then shoving her into the oven and listening to her howl. It’s also an exploration of how oppression makes the oppressed cruel. Grethel is nearly murdered twice; in the end, she murders an old woman.  And, as I said, it inverts the stereotypes and shows how Hansel’s cleverness and masculine bluster are rendered powerless through the tale. Grethel emerges as the hero.

So, is this a tale for children?

Yes, I think it is.

And that for two reasons. First, I read it myself when I was a small child, and wasn’t harmed by it. I was scared by the frowning faces in my Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer book, but not troubled a whit by this tale. Children are not always scared of the same things that scare adults—witches in gingerbread houses and wolves in the forest included.

Second, there’s a duck.

There is one—count it, one—act of kindness and compassion in the story. Fleeing from the ghastly death of the witch, Hansel and Grethel come to the river. There is no bridge. There is no stepping stone.

There’s just a white duck.

Society has made no provision for lost travellers or outcasts. No hand up, no assistance, no compassion. Society has abused, shattered, cast aside these children, forcing them to become murderers just to survive. Society will not provide them with a way out, and leaves them stuck on the waters edge, unable to go forward or back.

But there’s a duck.

The duck helps them across.

And that’s the moral of the story. The world, society, even your own parents may turn against you and try to destroy you. But there will still be friendly ducks. There is something in the world that tells this tale, something in the natural order of things that cries out against the cruel fate of Hansel and Grethel that ‘This should not be!’ There is a compassion and a dignity buried deep in the fabric of the world that can still be found, even by rejects and outcasts. When humanity has forgotten its children, a duck—a simple, white duck—comes to their aid.

For a child at home or a child who’s lost, that is a message of hope. You will never be ever quite abandoned. Kindness and compassion appear at the darkest of moments, in the oddest of places.

Never stop hoping you’ll find a duck.

“Little duck, little duck, dost thou see,
Hansel and Grethel are waiting for thee?
There’s never a plank, or bridge in sight,
Take us across on thy back so white.”

The duck came to them.

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One thought on “unsettling wonder

  1. Ashliman’s comparison of the changes between the Grimm’s editions is fascinating– the word “stepmother” was added later, but so was the duck. Hmm…

    I very much wanted to include the duck in my retelling of it– the bird’s color will give you a clue–but found that my story ended before then.

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