Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Grandma, what a deep forest you have!

Jack and Jill with pail - English Chapbook, 1800s

Tonight's post be Lit Crit, if quasi-so (don't look for any old footnotes or other socks under the bed): my take on some of our classic folk-tales and fables. Starting out with the shortest of them all, complete in just four lines,

Jack and Jill went up the hill
To fetch a pail of water,
Jack fell down and broke his crown
And Jill came tumbling after.

Built-in metaphors underscore this cautionary tale, the mother of all sexploitation: the hill, the pail, the fall, the broken crown and all the tumbling after. The verb “to jack off” (personally, I don't bag “jilling off”) suggests a tract against self abuse. Alliteration of the names hints at sibling love in the couple's list of follies. And that the kids are immature is all in their pail, a fire bucket too heavy for one child to carry. The well, located uphill and above any water table, must needs be deep; hence the struggle to get into position and the effort to dangle the old rope. Jack's fall is head over heels - downhill rather than into the well - for should he fall in, the breaking of his crown would pale against him drowning. Likewise, for Jill to come tumbling after seems wrong if it is into the pit that she rolls, rather than downside. Despite these, the danger of the well's deep stays menacing in the background. A further slant on Jill's “tumbling after” is sheer fun, coming on top of Jack's mischance. Well children do love a tumble (see below, when she laughs at his broken crown). The idea of a condom breaking after “Jack fell down” presages an era somewhat later than the original, which wasn't published until 1765. Although Shakespeare, writing a century earlier in LLL and AMND, cites Jack and Jill as archetypal sweethearts. One reason for the poem's survival into the modern age is its continuous adaptation to the new. For example, when King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette are guillotined during the French Revolution, the poem is used to explain The Terror to British children. Supplementary verses added from the early nineteenth century onwards, attempt to play up the narrative as idyllic-pastoral and play down the metaphoric. In one popular version, a second verse runs,

Up Jack got and home did trot
As fast as he could caper
To old Dame Dob who patched his nob
With vinegar and brown paper

Appended quatrains, too often taken for originals, lack the simplicity and oomph of the single stanza. Despite themselves, they prolong the exploitation. Nob, in the above, is slang both for human head and male member; moreover, old Dame Dob is as dubious a character as ever there was. Adding more verses has Jack and Jill endure a daisy-chain of pricks and kicks: she is whipped by her mother for laughing at his broken head, he is knocked down by a goat for laughing at her whipping – until the happy ending where they ride the see-saw together: a plank laid across a gate.

Jack and Jill on see-saw - English Chapbook, 1800s

Jack and Jill are characters of fun that sport a hint of social aspiration. Their difficulties belie them as true bumpkins; at least, these kids are no farm workers' brats. The offspring of hireling swain and shepherdess, themselves archetypes of pastoral love, would not struggle with pails from wells.

Holman Hunt - Swain and Shepherdess, detail

Repetition of the single verse ”Jack and Jill”, to a long preserved folk tune, emphasises the pair's inseparability. Their names are synonyms for Everyman and Everywoman. Come what may, they endure. Sexual love may be a folly, a hole sunk into a bulge. The Fall it leads to, from Eden, ascribes religious significance to the narrative. Yet love, even in its crudest sense, always prevails.

In one of the story's many codas, Jack appears again on the see-saw,

See-saw, Margery Daw
Jack shall have a new master
He shall have but a penny a day
Because he can't work any faster

Condemned to do poorly paid, sawyer's work for a new master and now bound to Margery, a slovenly or “sluttish” woman (see “Cinderslut” and other anti-woman tropes below). Marriage transforms Jill into a lazy drudge, and leaves Jack fit only for the lowest paid manual labour. A great fall, indeed.


Referencing Jack and Jill's roll down the hill to the Fall of Adam and Eve is one example of how folk tales are Christianised and bathed in morality as a consequence of their writing down and publishing. In contrast, more overtly sexual episodes of the non-Christian Thousand And One Nights provide us with side-glances into a less censored tradition. To return to the oral core of European fable is to strip out the interpolations of moralising parsers such as the Grimms. In their Hansel & Gretel, the background to the story is a famine. This natural calamity morphs the tale away from the holocaust these particular children face: that is, betrayal by their parents. The image of parenthood gone wrong is further ameliorated in later editions by presenting the demented mother as a second wife. To understand how a mother, natural or surrogate, can be driven to such an abhorrent expediency as abandoning children to die in a forest – twice – we focus on the psychological as well as the socio-economic drives behind such a pathology.

Wenceslas and Varlet - source unknown (lost link - apologies!)

Though the children's father is said to be a poor wood cutter, a wood gatherer is more likely his calling. Conjure the poor man King Wenceslas sees, gathering winter fuel while the snow lies thick and even. Such a varlet sets up home in the poor lands where the town ends and the forest begins. He even finds a wife to join him; and at first life is bearable, even idyllic. The forest is plenty stocked with food and fuel, while they are content together in the hut he builds with the free lumber. They sell bundles of firewood, and with their pennies buy furniture, cloth and - most importantly - bread, the manna of daily life. His wife, who comes with a modest dowry of bedding, cooking pots and the like, believes her choice of man is good. For he is strong, faithful, loves her dearly; even his dull wit is charming, at first. Time is their Eden, which only ends as the children come along. Whereupon, with four mouths to feed, the family gradually slips into poverty. There is no longer any surplus income from collecting wood, demand is seasonal and payment too dependent on the town's prosperity. For weeks on end they live from hand-to-mouth, surviving as hunter-gatherers. It is all they can do to feed and clothe little Hansel and Gretel to the very lowest standard. Meantime, town folks may be suffering, too. If famine does ensue, the wood gatherer's family are left with less than most. The husband carries on regardless, dully building up their wood stocks. The wife, possessed of imagination, frets herself into a state. A general famine, though, need not be the cause of her mad scheme. Just as likely is the poisoning of their bread with ergotamine. A natural hallucinogenic fungus, it grows on the local wheat and induces mania in those whose diet is mostly bread.

Unlike Jack and Jill, whose love for each other is the source of their predicament, Hansel and Gretel are saved by love. In later versions of Jack and Jill, the kids make fun of each other, worsening their plight. They are only permitted to play on the see-saw to stop their mutual taunts. Hansel and Gretel, by contrast, save each other by loyalty and filial love. This is why their affection must be asexual; they cannot be corrupted, as Jack and Jill are. However, the plot of their story is still driven by sex, or at least by sex-distinction. In the first half of the tale, their mother wishes to stay with her husband at the expense of sacrificing the children. In the second half, the Gingerbread Woman must fatten up a boy – a male – to eat. Gretel is only of use to help feed up her brother.

Hansel & Gretel follow pebbles by moonlight - source unknown (probably German, 19th C.)

What makes Hansel & Gretel universal and appealing, especially for children, is that all young people must eventually leave home and learn to fend for themselves. The forest, then, represents the big bad world of adulthood. This brother and sister already live on the borderline between safety of town, and dangers of the forest. They have survival skills, Hansel is able to lead them out the first time they are abandoned. He is thwarted the second time and bread plays a cruel trick. The trail of crumbs they leave, to be followed the next morning, is eaten up by birds.

It is sometimes suggested that the Gingerbread Woman is the mother/stepmother in another guise, and her death at Gretel's hands explains why their father is alone when the children return. Such a piece of magic ascribes an Oedipal thrust to the tale, albeit where a daughter commits matricide. But where does this anti-woman or woman-blame trope come from? One answer is that tales such as Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Cinderella, nearly always contain child abandonment. Mother death in childbirth features prominently in the pre-modern era, leaving many children to be brought up by surrogates or siblings. The horror is that even good parents cannot be relied on. So who can? A parallel between the wife's selfish need of the husband and the Gingerbread Woman's sick need for Hansel strongly contrasts with Gretel and Hansel's pure and selfless reliance on each other. Although it is Hansel who saves them in the first part of the story by leading them home from the forest, it is Gretel who saves Hansel from being eaten. First the girl uses cunning to prolong fattening her brother up; fooling the Gingerbread Woman, who is half-blind, with a bone in place of his finger. Gretel shows physical as well as mental strength, pushing their tormentor into the oven. In the Grimms' version, Gretel's early tears give way to a steely determination to save their lives. Her heroic fidelity makes up for their betrayal.

Hansel caged, Gretel fools the Gingerbread Hag - Richard Brend'Amour, 19th C.

Overcoming the Gingerbread Woman, the children's bond matures and they are rewarded with fabulous riches. Their love is mutual as well as filial, and their partnership is ideal. Gretel, eschewing the opportunity to escape from the visually-impaired Gingerbread Woman, bides her time to save Hansel. Thus again the couple must be brother and sister; for if they weren't, the bond between them would become sexual. The incest taboo keeps their relationship pure in a Christian sense; while the captivity theme appeals strongly to children, and survives into adulthood as less innocent forms of role-play.

In Little Red Riding Hood the forest setting remains similar; but here the supernatural element, which is all but absent from the above, plays a significant part. Another important factor is how this centuries-old story continues to evolve. There follows a typical, non-Disney summary of the plot:

Little Red is a town girl, sent by her parents to take food to Grandma. Bringing up their daughter in town, Mother and Father are struggling to improve their lot; the “riding hood” she wears is a hooded cloak normally worn on horseback, but Little Red goes off into the forest on foot. Children want to know why Grandma lives so deep in the forest. We say, her cottage is the old family homestead. But Grandma's seclusion is a metaphor for the pre-nuptial world of danger, opportunity and choice.

The girl is not afraid of walking alone into the dark forest, straying off the main path to gather wild flowers and take short cuts; nor is she shy of talking to strangers. This is both her undoing and her salvation. Along the way she stops and chats to the Woodsman, a man with a keen axe and a wary eye. He tells Little Red to greet Grandma for him, and to be careful how she goes. He always looks out for the girl on her way back. One day, in disguise, the big bad wolf walks along the path with Little Red and engages her in conversation. He learns her business and takes his leave, running ahead and beating the girl to Grandma's cottage. The wolf breaks into the house and swallows the helpless old lady in one gulp.

Little Red Riding Hood & Wolf - Felix Summerly, ed. English, 1845

Now disguised as Grandma, the wolf awaits Little Red's arrival. The cottage door is on the latch, so she lets herself in as usual and comes up to the bedroom. The wolf tricks her into approaching the bed where he lies. The scene that follows amounts to a rape of the innocent. Little Red can see some of the wolf's features in Grandma's demeanour, “Grandma, what big eyes you've got!” - “All the better to see you with, my child!” etc. There is playfulness in these repeated phrases, so when we come to the final lines “What big teeth you've got!” - “All the better to eat you!” Little Red's gullibility shows she is complicit in her own doom.

She and Grandma are saved by the arrival of the Woodsman, with night having fallen and the girl not gone by on her way home. He knocks the wolf out with the butt of his axe, then uses the blade to slice open its belly. Grandma and Little Red emerge still alive. With the wolf still unconscious, Little Red fills its belly with stones and sews them in. When the wolf awakes and tries to escape, it can only crawl off and die in agony.

In Jack and Jill, boys and girls are warned against falling in love too young. Hansel & Gretel's tale cautions the young about whom they can trust, warning that even their own parents may abandon them. While Jack and Jill show the consequences of growing up, Hansel & Gretel explore the need to make your own way in the world. Little Red Riding Hood, while functioning as a cautionary tale, poses more questions than it answers. It shows a girl on the brink of puberty, town-bred but in contact with her origins in the forest. There is danger there and the first part of the story sets up great tensions. Why does Grandma live in a lonely cottage, its door on the latch, surrounded by wild animals? Why do Little Red's parents send her on such a perlious task? Why does she stray from the path? After all the warnings she is given, why does she remain so gullible?

Many sanitised versions of this story exist, being one of the most developed of all fairy tales. There are extreme accounts, in which Little Red is simply eaten at the end; and even those in which the roles are reversed and the wolf makes hero. This plethora of re-workings returns the tale to its oral traditions, a mode of story telling where there is a constant dialogue between teller and audience. Everyone retells stories in their own way and each generation of tellers tailors them to their audience. Children change things by asking questions, the answers to which add details that go beyond the original. Everyone probes the depths of the forest after their own fashion, posing the questions and solving the mysteries to suit themselves.



Back in the seventeenth century, she is Cinderslut; the very lowest of servants, employed to clean the grates of merchants' homes. No longer her father's child, she is treated by step-mother and step-sisters as orphan or foundling; like some fallen girl taken in by a well-meaning family lest she die of cold and hunger on the streets. Buttons, the courier-boy, pledges to take her as wife – if and when he finds the means. The promise is in vain, though, for the chaste maid already aspires to the rank of pro-queen.

Cinderella is the orphan of urban folklore, of a Ruritanian city-state with no wild forest within its walls. The trees have become ashes; at home, there is only the filthy fireplace in which to skulk. For companions, she has lizards and mice; for toys, the pumpkin seeds of dreams. Even beneath her ashen pall, such natural beauty can scarce be concealed that her overweight and gaudy step-sisters forbid the maid to stray beyond the scullery door. No suitor shall see her and nor shall their step-father recall that mirror-image of his first wife. Meanwhile, Cordelia (by another name) is free to day-dream of her French Dauphin; so long as she sweep the grate, wash the plate and darn the underskirt and hose. Witness the power of prayer.

Giuseppe Maria Crespi - The Scullery Maid

Faith and justice transform Cinderslut's prospects from meek drudge to Queen of Hearts. The fairy godmother grants her wish, and does so with the classic test of faith. To inherit the earth, she must remain meek to the sweet end. Her glass slipper becomes the Holy Grail of beauty's invisible essence; the prince himself progressing from house to house to bathe the feet of all the maids in town.


While many tales start with town folk venturing in the forest, Jack and The Beanstalk (also known as Jack the Giant-Slayer) bucks convention by opening with a country lad taking a cow to market. Only this Jack – yes, Jack the lad is back - doesn't get too far before he's diddled out the beast for a hat-full of beans. This be a lesson to him, but he is a smart lad; Oedipus by another name.

Hard times for him and his widowed mother bottom-out when Jack skips in through the kitchen door, convinced the beans are worth their weight. What does his mother expect of the boy, new cows for old? For his pains, he is sent up to bed without any supper, and the beans are defenestrated into where they belong - the garden. As we know, beans, like the gold or silver coins they stand for, are magic indeed. Overnight, they can transform into extraordinary things; and one of these beans is as supernatural as that lottery ticket with the magic number, 666.

An equivalent of the forest grows in the garden. Atop the beanstalk is a magic land with a giant's castle as centrepiece. Jack the lad has the gall to climb up and explore, entering the castle and beguiling the owner's wife into feeding him. He filches bags of golden eggs, laid by the eponymous hen (or goose), and returns three times before he is rumbled. The Giant's bywords for betrayal, “Fee, Fie, Fo, Fum” which were known by Shakespeare and sound like a Latin declension; and their rhyme, “I smell the blood of an Englishman!” should be Protestant in origin.

Jack chops down the Beanstalk - Felix Summerly, ed. English, 1845

Jack, knowing the true value of the beans, is no less a figure than Oedipus for solving the riddle of the sphinx. But then again Jack, who has the blood of an Englishman, goes one further than killing his father (who is already dead) or sleeping with his mother (who, like the cow, is dried up). The giant, a powerful being who lives in the sky, has already killed his father and stolen the hen which lays the golden egg. We can take this to mean that his father has been gathered back into God's fold. So what does Jack do? He steals back the hen, and when the giant follows him down to earth, he sunders the stalk with an axe and brings the monster to his death. Can it be true that an Englishman has the gall to kill God Himself? 'Fraid so. The English Oedipus is not content to bring his father's house into disrepute, he must bring the phooey Catholic Church tumbling down. We can almost hear his hum of Lillibullero (or a young George Washington whistling Yankee Doodle?) as he swings the axe.


Could it be that by telling stories to our children, we are extending our own imaginations? Goldilocks and The Three Bears takes us back to the primeval forest of the unconscious. In relatively modern times, it has gone through a remarkable transformation; and most recently, as “the Goldilocks principle” become a way for scientists to distinguish between worlds - ie, exo-planets, orbiting distant stars – which may or may not be able to support life.

First the transformation. The original story is written down by Keat's friend, the poet Southey, who has it from his nanny. An old hag intrudes on the bears' cottage, stealing their porridge and defiling their beds. As a result, they kill and eat her. It's a cautionary tale with brute nature, i.e. the bears, playing revenger against a social transgressor. When the thief and usurper is a beautiful little girl, however, she must needs be deserving. How? Well, she is lost and has no Mummy or Daddy, brothers or sisters. And her crimes? Well, she is cold and hungry, tired and... at least she knocks on doors before entering. And the doors do creak open after she taps on them. The bears are charmed and take her in, to live with them “happily ever after”. Children love this tale and will demand to hear it over and over again without the least variation. They will even consent to eat the dreaded porridge because of it! And the blooming cheek of that golden-haired girl, putting her life in extreme peril - only to be embraced by the wild creatures as one of their own!

Goldilocks tries Baby Bear's porridge - Jessie Wilcox Smith, 1911

Scientists have taken to Goldilocks. That Daddy-Bear's porridge is too hot to eat and Baby-Bear's too cold, while Mummy-Bear's proves “just right” - illustrates the law of entropy. For example, how huge stars stay hot for billions of years, while the tiny masses of planets soon cool off. The Earth, then, has just the right balance of hot and cold, wet and dry, stability and variation to support life. Psychologists, too, point to the way children learn by experiment; in Goldilock's case, trying out and rejecting two sizes of bed before settling on the one that is “just right”. Also of note is Goldilocks rejecting Daddy and Baby roles before settling on Mummy's. Testing the waters before settling on motherhood as her life's role. Also remarkable is how she lives happily ever after with the bears in the woods, suggesting a “just-right” blend of domesticity and life on the wild side.


A story is a story is a story, wherein the magic of writing is to uphold belief while suspending disbelief. Our children, with deconstruction built-into their world-view, demand to be told one as a prelude to their sweet dreams. What they don't see as humorous, terrifying or just plain logical, they challenge directly and state which changes are to be made forthwith. To a child, moreover, a story is every bit as real as a dish of chocolate ice cream or the spectacles that sit on the end of your nose. And what a big nose we have!

Elis and I at bedtime

1 comment:

  1. These insights are keen.

    I'm working on fairy tale story boards now. or Facebook.


Readers' comments are welcome!