Fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Reading Hänsel and Gretel: Stepmother and witch, the ladies we love to loathe.



The fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel features two female characters that audiences love to abhor: the stepmother and wicked witch. It is the behavior of the stepmother that frequently launches the action of a fairy tale. The scheming machinations of this female, who we know from the beginning is not really the true mother, catapults the objects of her villainy into life-defining moments of distress and terror. Her evil actions speak for themselves and in this fairy tale, nothing is said (or needs to be said) about how the children feel toward the woman. She is fully human yet fully horrid and concerned only with her own welfare. We understand this type of person and perhaps even recognize elements of her character in our own acquaintances and family. Though thoroughly bad, there is nothing preternatural in her ability to make bad things happen. She does real harm to the other characters, but in the end she is usually dead or receives her just reward. In hindsight we can usually say that the evil stepmother is crucial as catalyst for transformation in the narrative.

The witch is another story. She is aligned with the forces of evil and thus her powers are stronger than the stepmother’s. Her supernatural qualities make humans appear even more frail and defenseless. In Hänsel and Gretel her unique attributes are animal-like and include recognizing creatures by their scent. Other characteristics include red eyes and indeterminable advanced age. She usually has something that people absolutely need or even worse, absolutely desire. That is the source of her power and why she can always lure the protagonists into her lair. But her powers are not without limit. Like the stepmother, she can do real harm. But fairy tale characters who look deep inside themselves can often find the resources they need to overcome the witch. The hero or heroine can always choose to take action or not. When put up against a supernatural being, he or she must develop resourcefulness and ingenuity, those qualities that have hitherto lain dormant. When these untapped qualities are finally unleashed, the witch has no power over the individual.

In fairy tales witches or sorceresses frequently have the power to reveal the future and thus they influence human destiny. They can shape-shift, disappear, do real harm to cattle and crops and also exercise control over the weather. But they usually cannot take a person’s life and thus it is up to the individual to develop strategies to overcome their evil.* This has caused some commentators to believe that witches are merely personifications or symbols of our inner struggle to become more fully human. Other writers have lamented the fact that the loathsome characters in fairy tales are mostly female. I would argue that the crucial characters in fairy tales are almost exclusively female. The male characters, such as the father in Hänsel and Gretel, are frequently weak and indecisive. Even Hänsel is not the true hero of the story for it is Gretel’s swift thinking that saves the day.

* The fairy tale Frau Trude is one exception. The witch ends up killing the girl because she is not up to the challenges of transforming her character.


To read the fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel click on the link:

 http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/fairy-tale-about-food-or-lack-of-it.html

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