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Hansel and Gretal

August 8, 2010

I recently saw a wonderful opera production of “Hansel and Gretel”. I was obviously familiar with the story – although this version was considerably sanitized – but I had never before quite realized that the whole plot revolves around food.

In the beginning, the absence of food is what causes much of the conflict. (And here, in the opera version, this requires some willing suspension of disbelief. The whole family is supposedly quite hungry, yet the performers looked remarkably well-fed.) They have been subsisting on bread and water, and whatever plants they can forage, having had no money to buy anything more.

This leads to Hansel’s desperate cries, “I’m so hungry!”

Hearing that, I couldn’t help contrasting it to most of us in Western society, who have so much food that we eat more than we need, and often from some motivation other than simple hunger. What would those peasant children think if they saw us? What would we or our own children think if we were placed in that situation, with true hunger such a constant companion it is expected, becoming simply a dull ache, or a certain lethargy? Would we be tempted to follow the lead of the step-mother in the more traditional versions, convincing her husband to leave his children in the forest because they can no longer afford to feel all four family members?

And what a horrible thing that must be, to see your children go hungry and waste away before your eyes, knowing you cannot provide for them. It might be easier to abandon them, imagine some better fate somehow awaiting them in the wood. This is where the sanitation came in – in the opera version, the children were sent to pick strawberries as punishment for breaking a jug with cream. In either case, the reason for them being in the forest is food-related.

It is small wonder, then, that the children so immediately start eating the witch’s confectionary house when they find it. They know they should not consume someone’s house, yet they conveniently create excuses and reasons, and start eating. When they hear the witch ask, “Who’s nibbling on my house?” they ignore it, pretend it’s the wind. Would we be any different? Gluttony is listed as one of the seven deadly sins, but is it gluttony if you’re starving? I do wonder, though, if the house might include different foods were the story written today. Perhaps French fries, potato chips, ice cream, candy bars, or pre-packaged snack cakes. And maybe something gluten-free as a nod to those with food allergies? Whatever the case, I strongly doubt that children these days would be satisfied with almonds and raisins as treats, which is what Hansel was fed.

When the witch finally emerges, we discover why she built such a house. To attract children to use in her meals! While I don’t consider other people to be viable options for assuaging hunger, it was apparently the norm for the witch. (Brief aside – the portrayal of witches in fairy tales drives me crazy, but that’s another subject altogether.) So here again, the motivation was food. What we never learn is if the witch’s hunger could be assuaged by anything else, or if for some reason only small children would nourish her. Not that it matters to the story, exactly, but it’s interesting to consider. Again, is it gluttony, or evil, if that is what you need to eat in order to live?

The resolution of the story is also food-related. The witch, distracted by her own hunger, gets careless and is pushed into the oven by children, where she herself is cooked. The children return home, the father miraculously able to support them again. We never learn what happens to the house – do they eat it, or let it rot? – or if the experience has put Hansel and Gretel off of sweets altogether. Those weren’t important details to the fairy tale.

But it does make me think how motivated we are by food. Other fairy tales show this, too. Rapunzel’s mother craved lettuce, and because of that Rapunzel was given to the witch. Snow White wanted an apple badly enough that she accepted it from an untrustworthy source and nearly died as a result. Mortals venturing into Faerie must be careful not to eat of the beautiful displays of food; if they do, they will be trapped in that realm forever.

I know that I, too, can behave irrationally when I get too hungry. My judgment is compromised; all I can think of is wanting to eat something. I’ve decided to consider that the moral of “Hansel and Gretel”. If you get too hungry, you could end up doing something that will have dire, even deadly consequences. If you’re hungry, and have the means, then eat! Maybe then you will see sugar-coated houses, or convenient lies, for what they are and can avoid them.

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