November 17, 2011

Hansel and Gretel and famine in Europe

"Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children", begins the Grimm brothers' tale of Hansel and Gretel.  "He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread."

You know what follows, unless your parents locked you in a closet at bedtime and never read you any stories.  But I want to linger on these opening sentences for a moment.  Quite a few fairy tales seem to involve people overcoming poverty to achieve wealth and ease.  (Side note: Humperdinck's opera glosses over the episode in Grimm following the cookie-fication of the Witch in which the kids find the old cannibal's storehouse of "pearls and jewels" and take them home to their Father.)  This storyline never gets old; we're still obsessed with it today.  It's hard to deny that part of the charm of the Harry Potter novels is the personal success story of J. K. Rowling.

I've got a theory I'm going to launch out into the blogosphere with this post.  I wouldn't bet your life savings on the accuracy of this theory if I were you, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand, either.

I think I know, within a handful of years, exactly how old the story of Hansel and Gretel is.  (Side note #2: you are aware, aren't you, that Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm didn't invent their tales?  You understand that they were the first to put them into written form following innumerable generations of existing as a purely oral tradition of folklore, right?  You are permitted to lie when responding if that will help you save face.  I didn't really want to put you on the spot here...)

I believe that Hansel and Gretel dates from the fourteenth century; possibly ca. 1325 or so.  And why is that? It seems to me stories about starvation and famine are based on embellished recountings of actual events.  Think about the stories you tell from your own personal history; your favorite personal anecdotes.  Aren't a number of them about disasters you experienced?  The time you overslept and missed an exam in college; the time you were stranded in your car in a blizzard; the time you got lost for hours in a strange city; that sort of thing.  My own repertoire includes the wild tale of the time I unwisely picked up two wholesome-looking hitch-hikers while driving from Bloomington, Indiana to Chicago and they turned out to be Charles Manson admirers with, it developed, designs on car-jacking my vehicle and possibly abducting me.  (Great story - I'd tell it now, except it contains no opera music.)

Be that as it may, it seems logical that the tale of starving children, starving parents and a witch whose sins amount to her extreme dietary choices likely arose from a time of mass famine.  A quick surfing of the Internet yielded details of the Great Famine of 1315-1322 which caused massive death from starvation in Northern European countries: the British Isles, northern France, Scandinavian countries, Poland, and Germany.

Catastrophic weather, among other factors, caused crop failure; no vegetables to consume, no grain to feed livestock.  The population of game animals and birds deteriorated.  During this period, average life-expectancy dropped by some five years.  It is estimated that, in these regions, up to 25% of the population perished.  (The image accompanying this post is a vision of the Apocalypse depicting this famine created during the period.) It was a perfect storm of horrific conditions encompassing anarchy, disease, misery, and widespread death.  It was also a time when infanticide and cannibalism were observed.

Hence my theory.

Did you really think Hansel and Gretel was just a fuzzy, cuddly bedtime story about adorable children, a trail of bread crumbs and a house made of sugar and cake?

This story happened.  It's actually Humperdinck's opera which produces much of our softened image of the story, changing the evil, murderous step-mother (who dies) into a biological mother who is merely depressed and stressed-out and adding the glow of guardian angels and hymns of thanks to the Lord.  (A future blog post will address that aspect of the opera.)
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How can we doubt that survivors of the Great Famine told and re-told anecdotes of suffering and cruelty?  Put yourself in the place of the Witch:  you're an elderly woman, driven mad by solitude and starvation.  One day, two abandoned children, obviously unloved and unwanted, nothing more to their parents than two mouths competing for non-existent food, come stumbling up to your hut.  The real "Hansel" and "Gretel" were probably half-dead, with emaciated bodies.

No wonder so much of the witch's music sounds dance-like and celebratory:  she's overjoyed:  at last, something to EAT!  Cannibalism is real; consider that film Alive, about a notorious plane crash in the Andes mountains.  The will to live dominates all other human instincts.

Yes, in the telling and re-telling as decades piled up into centuries, the details became picturesque. The house made of good things to eat; the predatory old crone became a supernatural creature with magical powers; and so on.  The libretto for Humperdinck's version is overloaded with such embellishments: the kindly Sandman; the Dew Fairy; the tableau of angels; the cookie children brought back to life.  But strip away all of this, examine the core essentials of the plot, and a certain starkness remains, based on memories of catastrophe.

Humperdinck's sweet little children's opera very well may spring from an unseemly reality, perhaps recalling the gruesome years of 1315-1322 when unspeakable conditions brought out the worst of human nature

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