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Food and Fairy Tales

Nibble nibble mousekin

Why would Hansel and Gretel let the evil witch tempt them and what role does food play in general in fairy tales? Dr Martin Beyer, an expert on fairy tales, has the answer.

Snow white and the fateful apple. Photo: © Fotolia - nicoletaionescu

"Hansel, who found that the roof tasted very nice, took down a great piece of it, and Gretel pulled out a large round windowpane, and sat her down and began upon it," as told in the story Hansel and Gretel recorded by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale was published for the first time in a collection titled "Children's and Household Tales" (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) in 1812. Food is not only the core element in Nagel-Group's day-to-day business, in fairy tales it is always used as reference to physical well-being. Snow White and the fateful apple, Red Riding Hood and her basket full of bread or the Princess and the Pea, food is a central theme in many fairy tales. "Food is more than a decorative and narrative add-on, it carries significant meaning," says fairy tale expert Dr Martin Beyer.

Many fairy tales were collected for the first time in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Brothers Grimm are among the best known writers. "The fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm were aimed directly at the average person who was suffering, more often than not, from famine, poverty, and the general misery faced by the rural population at the beginning of the 19th century. In a pre-industrial world, the infrastructure was poor and sufficient food a luxury. "If the fairy tale depicts abundance, or if bread becomes scarce, this was a reflection of the circumstances existing at the time when the Brothers Grimm recorded their fairy tales."

The illusion of abundance

What the two storytellers achieved remains unrivalled. They collected the best stories and wrote them down in books for people to read. To this day, the fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm are part of every childhood in central Europe. One of the most famous fairy tales is that of Hansel and Gretel: two children who are abandoned by their parents in the forest and then get lost. A witch's cottage made out of gingerbread becomes their refuge. Tempted by the many sweets, they start to enjoy themselves thoroughly. The witch also invites the children for a meal. The only problem: Hansel is to be the main course. Before the witch can make a meal of Hansel, Gretel pushes the witch in the oven and both children escape back to their home.

"The witch lures the children and gains power over them, by promising to overcome food shortage, the children's weak point. Overcoming the witch and defeating the illusion of abundance lets the children resolve their conflict and return to their parents. The fairy tale's relevance remains intact even today. However these texts are neither ancient nor modern, they are human," says Beyer.

The sweet porridge

Another Brothers Grimm fairy tale that focuses on food is the Sweet Porridge (Vom süßen Brei in German). Once again the theme is clearly defined: the fight against hunger and poverty. The fairy tale tells the story of a child who lives with her mother in poverty. One day while begging a woman gives her a magic pot that cooks millet porridge if you say the words "pot cook" and stops cooking when you say the words "pot stop". Once when the child is away, the mother asks the pot to cook the porridge but forgets to tell the pot to stop cooking by saying "pot stop". The child returns home to find the whole city buried under porridge before she can say the magic words and get the pot to stop cooking.

Jack and the Beanstalk. Photo: © Fotolia - Orlando Florin Rosu

"We learn at a profound level about values and social cohesion."

Fairy tales awaken hidden potentials in us and explain the world in which we live. Against this background, one can explain the presence of food in many fairy tales. "We learn at a profound level about values and social cohesion in these stories. Food, particularly when it is scarce, has been a central topic that affects people, as it did in the 19th century. A fairy tale conveys important messages. If we would stop telling stories, our world would be very different," says Martin Beyer.

The message in the 19th century was clear: we can survive this, we can fight poverty and hunger, and become heroes of our own story. Fairy tales aimed above all at giving people new hope and courage. Heroes who escape poverty and obtain food in abundance were the best bearers of this message. One of them was Jack (Hans).

Poverty is heroic

Jack and the Beanstalk (in German Hans und die Bohnenranke) tells the story of a poor boy who lives with his widowed mother. The milk from a cow is their only source of income. One day, the cow stops giving milk and the two decide that Jack should go to the market and sell the cow. On his way to the market he meets a man who offers him five magic beans for the cow. Jack accepts the offer. However, his mother is not very happy with his decision and throws the beans out of the window. The next day, they find an enormous beanstalk in front of their house. This beanstalk is so high it touches the sky. Jack climbs the beanstalk and finds a house which belongs to a giant. He visits the house at numerous occasions and steals gold, a hen that lays golden eggs, and a singing harp. Initially, the giant's wife hides Jack to protect him from the giant. For the giant, no surprises here, likes to eat humans for breakfast. The giant is killed as he tries to stop Jack from stealing the golden harp. Jack is faster and he cuts the beanstalk before the giant can catch him. This fairy tale appeared in print for the first time in a book by Benjamin Tabart in 1807. The fairy tale became popular in a collection titled "English Fairy Tales" published by Joseph Jacobs in 1890.

"Petty criminals, rogues, and mafia bosses can make excellent heroes, the only question is whether or not they can be presented in ways that causes something more than aversion in us," says Beyer. The criticism directed at the fairy tale: Jack is just a thief and a murderer. This accusation continues to persist stubbornly. Therefore, often in later versions the giant is depicted as the cause of Jack's poverty and as an evil tyrant who has needs to be overthrown. Thus, Jack becomes a hero who is morally more agreeable. Dr Martin Beyer considers Jack and the Beanstalk to be a special fairy tale, "It is quite unusual that theft is not punished in a fairy tale."

About Dr Martin Beyer

Dr Martin Beyer was born in Frankfurt am Main in 1976. He studied German philology, psychology, and philosophy. Dr Beyer has received several awards for his literary achievements, including the Walter Kempowski Literature Prize and the Bavarian state award for the advancement of arts. As children's author and a passionate storyteller, Martin Beyer has founded a fairy tale academy. He trains children, teachers, and parents to become experts on fairy tales. He also gives workshops in schools, foundations, and companies. Beyer also advises companies who want to tell a good story.

Headerphoto: © st-fotograf - Fotolia.com

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