Monday, August 6, 2012

Carl-Heinz Mallet on Hansel and Gretel

In his 1984 book Fairy Tales and Children, Carl-Heinz Mallet spends 48 pages explaining his interpretation of Hansel and Gretel (I tried to sum it up without being too long-winded...) He has some very interesting points, although sometimes he tends to either contradict himself or get too caught up in the details according to his own interpretation.

Mallet begins by defending the parents' decision to leave their children in the woods. He points out that the narration of the story never calls either parent good or bad, those judgements are assumed by the reader. This is true and also characterizes fairy tales in general-if there is any moral lesson it was inserted by a literary author and not an original part of the tale. Yet Mallet claims that the mother/stepmother is not cruel at all, simply logical, for the reasons given in the story-they are starving, and not everyone can survive. Yet, since when are cruelty and logic opposites? Oftentimes they go hand in hand. You can have a calculating and cold-blooded killer. To abondon your own children in the forest so that you can survive a little longer is simply wrong.

Yet, Mallet points out a very interesting fact: not only did the Grimms change the mother of the original story to a stepmother, but they villainized her even more. In the Grimms' notes, when the mother wakes the children to lead them into the forest, she says, "Get up, children, we are going to the forest. Here is a piece of bread for each of you. Be careful with it and save it for lunch." But the wife that appears in their collection says, "Get up, you lazybones," and gives them bread, saying, "this is all you are getting." One feels from this description that maybe the first mother really wasn't quite so cruel-she possibly suffered from watching her children go hungry and couldn't bear it any longer (although abandonment is still not the ideal solution).
Mallet points out that the parents' roles are reversed from traditional genders-the mother is the logical one who demands action and does not react with feelings and emotion; the father comes across as someone who is weak and emotional but unable to stand up for himself. In this tale we have an example of people who are "human and natural" and don't fit perfectly into stereotypes. He says, "this fairy tale pulls both figures off their unsuitable pedestals and brings them down to earth." Sure-humans are flawed and we don't always conform to gender stereotypes, I totally buy that. But to say that the mother is "in no way cruel or hard-hearted" would make me very concerned for Mallet's own children, if he had any.

And yet Mallet cannot be so unfeeling as his words would indicate-in the forward he describes how he came to be interested in what fairy tales reveal about children in the first place. He was volunteering as a teacher in a school in a German refugee camp in 1947 for a class of unruly children he couldn't control. He went to his uncle, a psychologist, for advice about dealing with children. His uncle pulled down a copy of Grimm's Fairy Tales, handed it to him, and said, "This book contains everything that anyone can know about children." Mallet goes on to share that when he read fairy tales to the class, they were quieter and more calm than during any other activity. This is a very interesting story, and as much as I love the Grimms' Fairy Tales I don't know that I totally agree with his uncle's statement-but teaching in an impovrished refugee camp is certainly not a very logical and self-serving thing to do, it is compassionate and unselfish and admirable.

Which makes the next section all the more confusing as well. In Mallet's eyes, the bread is not literal bread, it is love. He claims that since the family still has a house and other posessions they cannot really be starving, but I don't see how that logically follows. But in his view the bread is love, and this tale represents the fact that, when children are born, they take away the parents' focus from loving each other to loving the children. This is true, but again, some of his words on the topic get kind of disturbing-the mother in the story "realizes that the couple, the mutual love of the parents, constitutes the basic relationship in the family and must be preserved. This relationship is primary; being a mother or father is secondary...this is the prerequisite for a happy family life." Um...I have no personal experience being a mother, although I have done quite extensive nannying/babysitting as well as my teaching. Obviously parents need some time to take a break and focus on themselves, but if you're not aware of the immense sacrifice that it takes to raise children and not willing to let them be the new focus of your life, you should not be raising children. Period.

Of course, the strain that children puts on a marriage is an interesting point to bring up, especially when looking back at a society where a family would all live together in a one room cabin in the woods and there were no public schools or babysitters. But when Mallet says that the parents' abandoning their children in the woods is really just symbolic of the mother rightfully forcing her children to leave the nest at the right time, you're reading too much into your own interpretation and ignoring the actual details of the story. You can read many things into a fairy tale, but don't ignore the literal. Here is another example of Mallet contradicting himself-for first the children are old enough to go out into the world on their own, but then Hansel can't be old enough for masturbation (what does masturbation have to do with Hansel and Gretel, you ask? Well that is a very good question. Because Hansel throws away his bread crumbs in an attempt to find his way home again, he is really throwing away love, because Mallet sees the bread as love. And since he doens't want his parents' love, he wants to do everything by himself. Therefore...masturbation. Yeah, it's a stretch.)

Hansel and Gretel themselves are characters children can latch on to and look up to. They are clever and find out what their parents are up to, react with amazing calmness, and take action to attempt to save themselves. Mallet says that the strength in Hansel and Gretel's reaction to the situation can put a fearful child at ease, which I agree with, but adds, "especially one who fears that when his mother leaves, she will never come back." Um...who in their right minds would think that this story would comfort a child who fears his mother will never come back?? This story says, "not only will your mother never come back, she'll take you to the middle of the woods and leave you there!" The reason it's empowering is not because the children put their trust in their parents, but because they learn to be dependant on themselves. Which is appealing in a way but also terrifying in real life.

Like Bruno Bettelheim, Mallet manages to see the children in this horrible predicament and yet accuse them of being selfish. Bettelheim sees their devouring of a candy house as their indulging in their oral fixations; Mallet repeatedly calls them "egocentrics" who don't appreciate the fact that the woods provides all of their needs (berries...) and the fact that they wander around  and don't make shelter for themselves or have a long term plan (as children, mind you) indicates how they are reverting back to infant-like states. And then of course, they willfully destroy someone's property without a second thought-breaking window panes and pieces of the roof off. Except that, if your house is made out of candy, you shouldn't be surprised if someone tries to eat it. Which is exactly what the witch planned on. Also, if you actually take the story at face value, the children were starving to begin with, and have now been wandering around the forest with nothing to eat but a few berries for three days. Heck-I'd probably break into someone's house under those circumstances.

The witch initially offers the children what must have seemed like paradise-a delicious dinner of sweets, no commands to do chores, no scolding, and fresh beds. Mallet says that children will initially long for a mother like this, but realize when her real purposes are unveiled that they're probably better off with their own mothers. Hansel's imprisonment, he says, is actually his own wish fulfillment-he wanted to be taken care of like an infant, and now is penned in and will be symbolically devoured by the mother figure who will never let him fully develop independance.

Mallet goes on to say that the way the witch treats Hansel and Gretel reflects, in an exaggerated way, the difference between how mothers treat sons and daughters-coddling the boys and being harsher on the daughters. Now I'm not a psychologist, and I can only speak from my own experience, but this is not true at all in my family-both my parents loved myself and my siblings equally. Even looking back in retrospect I can't see that our gender had anything to do with how we were parented.

And then of course Gretel ends up being the one to save the day, which Mallet sees as being this huge upset of traditional expectations of girls-which it is, I guess, but that's kind of old news these days. And when reading enough variations of fairy tales, there are variations where genders are reversed, so you learn not to read too closely into what each gender's actions represents about their gender.

Illustrations-Willy Planck


  1. ...I don't know about this Mallet fellow. He seems... confused

  2. Hi. =) Just wanted to let you know how much I've enjoyed reading your blog over the last couple of days, especially all the posts about Beauty & the Beast. I stumbled across it earlier this week while doing some B&B research, and it's been a lot of fun reading the perspective of someone who loves both the Disney movie and the underlying fairy tale as much as I do, as well as fairy tales in general. Thank you for all the information you share here.

    My own blog is aimed more at charting my personal journey than it is a venue for my love of fairy tales, but earlier this year I did write about seeing Disney's Beauty & the Beast again in the theater, and how deeply that touched me. If you're interested, you can find that post here:

    Again, I really enjoyed your blog. I'll definitely be back! =)

  3. Amy,

    Thank you so much for your kind words! I actually did check out your blog after I saw all the comments you left :) but thanks for the link! I totally relate to having a powerful emotional reaction to many versions of Beauty and the Beast...and I will always love the Disney version!

  4. "Mallet goes on to share that when he read fairy tales to the class, they were quieter and more calm than during any other activity."

    I had the same experience lately when I started to read Grimm's fairy tales to my two nieces. I have never seen them so still and focused, and the eldest (9 years) even turned off Minecraft of her own volition to come and listen. No mean feat, I assure you.

  5. Fascinating! I always love hearing how real children react to fairy tales