Saturday, April 8, 2017

Runaway Pancakes

Sarah Allison at Writing in Margins had referenced the Runaway Pancake family of tales a while back and I realized, other than the classic "you can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man" line, I'm not familiar with these stories at all (although my brother and I did used to love saying the line from Shrek, "Not my buttons! Not my gumdrop buttons!"). I wasn't even sure how the classic tale even ended (a fox caught the Gingerbread boy and ate him). So I went over to the list of Runaway Pancake tales at D. L. Ashliman's site and had myself a virtual pancake brunch (no Saturday morning is complete in the Tales of Faerie Kingdom without pancakes and coffee!).

It seems the story tends to go like this: A pancake escapes its original maker, and as it makes its getaway, encounters lots of other animals who express their desire to eat it. Not surprisingly, the pancake doesn't grant their request and keeps on running. It isn't until an animal, usually a fox (but sometimes a pig), claims that he doesn't want to eat it, that he is able to trick the pancake into getting into its mouth. So it's a strange, depressing tale that seems to encourage deception, unless you look at it as cleverness, depending on if you have sympathy for a talking pancake. It's that strange tension again that exists in the fairy tale world, in which characters have to eat, but even food has the potential for being anthropomorphized and given its own desires. Yet especially in a world where food was more scarce, you might feel less sympathy for a pancake whose sole purpose is to be eaten, as opposed to animal tales (in which a character might be rewarded for compassion for an animal, and yet also eat meat, sometimes of the same animal!) And although most of the breakfast pastries that are consumed, at least on Ashliman's page, are pancakes or loaves of bread, it also makes sense that the American Gingerbread Boy would be seen as sentient, since he is at least modeled after a human.

Some notable exceptions: In the Scottish "Wee Bunnock," the bunnock (small loaf of bread) is caught not because it was tricked, but simply because it became dark and it fell in a fox's hole. And the compassionate "Thick Fat Pancake" from Germany allowed itself to be eaten because it came across three hungry children.

And some slightly less related tales: the English "Dathera Dad" is about a fairy child trapped in a pudding. The Russian "Devil in the Dough-Pan" is a warning about the consequences of failing to bless your food while making it, because otherwise a demon can inhabit it-and if you bless it after the demon is there, he'll be trapped! (Although the woman still lost her loaf, it was the demon who regretted entering the bread in the first place).

Illustrations by Robert Lumley anybody else hungry now?


  1. The very first version of this story that ever heard actually had a twist ending. The fox does his trick of carrying the Gingerbread Man across the river, and flips him up into the air to eat him, but then an eagle swoops down and grabs him before the fox can snap his jaws shut. Thus, the fox also fails in the end, and the eagle is the victor. And this wasn't even a parody. It was a legit children's book. Later, my parents bought other books of the Gingerbread Man, where the fox eats him in the end, and I kept thinking, "That's not what's supposed to happen. An eagle is supposed to eat him." LOL. It took me a few years to figure out that the ending with the fox eating him was the more common one. I'm going to have to dig around my collection and find that book, because I can't remember the exact one at the moment. But it seriously feels like a parody if your already familier with the more common ending, even though it's not a parody.

  2. How interesting! The eagle ending makes it more a comedy of errors than either a warning about avoiding tricksters/a commendation of cleverness. It's funny but at the same time has a sad and fatalistic message-it doesn't matter what effort you give, like the pancake, or how clever you are, like the fox, you'll be outwitted in the end.

  3. I once read an interview in our local newspaper with a story teller who when asked whether she kept true to the original story said that usually she did, unless the children asked for more information. She gave the thick fat pancake as an example, because most of the times the children were quite unsatisfied with the ending and wanted to know what happened to the animals and the original family. And yeah, espacially in the versions where the tension in the beginning is really built up, it feels almost unfair that someone random at the end gets the pancake and not the one who made it. The storyteller found the solution to add a part where the animals run back and meet up with the family, then they all help make a meal together.

    I think the first part of the story where the pancake/bread/gingerbread is made is crucial. If the hunger and/or appetite of the humans and the yummyness of the food is played up enough, people (or at least children) will side withe the humans and animals if it's glossed over the sympathy will be with the food. That's why I like the Danish version best. Sill not one of my favourite tales, but I see how children could really be into it.

    1. I love that the storyteller felt freedom to add to the ending to satisfy the listeners...also makes me wonder if this tale and others were sometimes told to provoke a response and not necessarily pronounce a moral the way we tend to assume fairy tales function. In the age of oral storytelling most tales would probably be met with questions and reactions, unlike the written ones that remain immovable