Folktales have been told and retold for centuries, and often criticized as too harsh and cruel for children unless rewritten and “sanitized.” “NO!“ I say. For example, let’s look at Hansel & Gretel and see why.
Hansel & Gretel is great (as is)!
Let’s briefly define theme as “idea, point, moral, or value that permeates a story and helps hold it together,” and motif as “a type of character, an object, behavior, description, or familiar words or concepts within a genre (type of story) or the individual story itself that helps hold it together. Now if you want to see how themes and motifs appear and work in this story, go through the DOOR.
Let me add to what I’ve just said. Themes and motifs are often used almost interchangeably with slightly different meanings, so don’t worry. Here I will consider a theme to be something that could be put in a sentence. Sometimes people identify “major” (or “overall”) and “minor” themes. Don’t worry about that either. Motifs can be expressed as words or phrases.
SYNOPSIS (only if you’re unfamiliar with the story): A young boy and girl are led out into a dark forest and abandoned by their weak father because their new stepmother insists there isn’t enough food for everyone. After failing to find their way back home (birds eat the bread crumbs that Hansel uses as trail markers) the two wander and stumble upon a witch’s cottage made out of food delicacies. They eat without permission, after which a witch befriends them, then suddenly puts Hansel in a cage to fatten to eat; and Gretel is put to work. After failing to get away, as a last-ditch effort Gretel encourages the witch to inspect the temperature of her oven (into which Hansel is intended to go), and Gretel pushes the witch inside and slams the door shut. The witch is no more, they discover her golden treasure, and (surprisingly) find their way back home with the help of an enormous duck who helps both of them to cross a river (that wasn’t there before!). The stepmother has died in the meantime, and Hansel and Gretel and their father, now with the treasure, live happily ever after.
THEMES & MOTIFS:
1. Poverty hurts.
2. Home circumstances can be very difficult, even terrible. (And yes, here’s a difficult stepmother image!)
3. People who seem eager to help may have a hidden agenda. (the witch)
4. The solution to your problem is often your deciding what to do and taking action. (pushing the witch into the oven)
5. Things are often not what they first seem. (The witch is good, then bad. The first birds are not really bad because they know best.)
6. When all else fails, unknown and unlikely sources of help may be nearby. (Notice the “birds.” The large duck helps the two get across a deep river that they couldn’t cross otherwise. But what about the birds who ate the trail markers the second time the children were left? But things aren’t as they first seem. The children had gotten home successfully the first time they were left because Hansel dropped pebbles. But there was trouble at home and it was time for the kids to “move out” and become independent (there’s symbolism here and the kids “age,” so to speak as the minutes tick on–in this obvious fantasy adventure). There comes a time, of course, for children to move out and be on their own, and this often isn’t easy. (And that part is very real!) The kids return at the end, with new wealth, really coming to “visit” because they’re now “older,” on their own, so to speak. And the first birds? They’re wise enough to know that this time has come, so they help out by making impossible an early retreat. The birds may be looked at as a motif–a supernatural effect stepping in.)
7. Please note also: Women are resourceful and can “win,” often when the males in charge fail. (Gretel “steps in” and is the hero here. She dispatched the witch, and in a minor event, suggested that the duck take the two of them one-at-a-time across the water so as to not harm the duck. There’s symbolism here that underlines the need, at a point in life, for people to act independently in order to succeed and mature.)
The witch, the weak, or hen-pecked husband, the dark forest being a place of danger and opportunity, the “supernatural assistance,” the young coming of age through their resourcefulness, and the happy ending may all be considered motifs.
Folktales that have survived for centuries of oral retellings (winnowing out lesser stories) have done so for some reason, probably in part because they address deep, often subconscious, problems of human need. In these stories there is often great horror, trouble usually greater than what’s found in everyday life. But to meet these troubles often great resources that are larger than life become available to underdogs who are willing to do the right things the right way at the right time. An adult and child sharing such wild “fantasy facts,” at night in a cozy living room with hot chocolate nearby can actually prevent, or minimize, nightmares–where the worst part is often a child feeling all alone–and lead to lifetime bonding and happy memories “ever after.”
A word of caution to adults: Never read stories to children that truly terrify you.
As to the evil and horror: Kids know soon enough that the world is wild and sometimes dangerous outside the front door (and, sadly, often inside). But such stories, rich in their symbolism, help prepare them for what’s out there, and plants in them the important idea that if you face bad things, in time and with persistence you can win.
And with fairytales, there’s almost always the happy ending.
For more on the usefulness of old “dark” traditional stories see Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment. See also my post on “Daughters,” published on Feb. 24, 2013.
[♠] Hmsch: (1) Identify themes and motifs in stories you know. (2) How do folktales reinforce Christian values? And how in places do they contradict them?