Friday, September 24, 2010

Big Ideas in Well-Known Places

In this week’s post, dear Reader, we will apply the lessons of the previous posts for September 10 and 17, lessons about overall meanings, also known as literary themes, and to insure that we have common ground, we will consider Grimm’s fairy tale about Hansel and Gretel, not the somewhat pasteurized version, but the full Monty, retold below.

Once upon a time, a man and his second wife, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, faced an economic downturn with no bailouts on the horizon. Pop was so distraught about the prospect of starving that he tossed and turned through the night. Dear stepmom suggested that the children be left in the forest so that only two shall starve, not four. Pop’s conscience troubles him, and he refuses until Stepmom “leaves him no peace.”

Unable to withstand his wife’s nagging, Pop agrees to leave his children alone in the woods where wild beasts may dispatch them, and the plan might have worked if the children had not overheard the adults charged with their well-being. Those naughty little spies armed themselves with pockets full of pebbles that reflected the moon’s glow and led them back home.

The second attempt at ditching the kids was more successful in spite of the kids’ faith in a “good God” who will surely save them. This time, having used all the available pebbles, Hansel crumbles the small slice of bread he had been given for the trip into the woods. He dropped these along the trail, but birds ate them. Hansel and Gretel were utterly lost, doomed to starve or become a meal for something else that resides in forests.

As the children stumble deeper and deeper into the forest, they see “a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, . . . [it] sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.” The children begin to eat, rousing the wicked witch inside. She invites brother and sister inside, offers them milk, apples, nuts, and more sugar. She also gives them beds made with clean, white linens. Sweet, innocent Gretel thinks she may be in Heaven.

Alas, she is not. She has once again fallen into the clutches of a duplicitous, wicked woman, one who imprisons Hansel, fattening him for a meal while forcing Gretel to work and weep. On the day of Hansel’s death, the witch builds a fire in the oven and tells Gretel to climb inside to be sure the oven is hot enough for bread. Little, sly Gretel pretends not to understand and asks the witch to show her how. Once the foolish witch is inside, Gretel, no longer an innocent, slams the oven door shut, then runs to release Hansel.

With nothing to fear from the witch, the children help themselves to all the gems and treasure they can carry from the witches’ home. Thus endowed with a dowry of sorts, the children set forth to return to their father.

Their goal seems impossible when the children reach a large body of water, one they cannot cross, but Nature itself seems to pity the children for in their path, Nature places a snowy white duck that answers the children’s call and transports them one by one to the opposite shore. From there, the children know the way home and rush into their father’s arms.

Stepmom is dead. Dad, we are told, “had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest” and embraces them gratefully. The children then reveal the precious stones they have carried with them so “all anxiety was at an end, and they [all] lived together in perfect happiness.”

What conflicts does Grimm’s brief tale employ? All five, and by tracing the conflicts to their logical ends, we can infer big ideas.

1. Man v. Self. Hansel and Gretel are in conflict with their own fear of abandonment and death. The conflict’s resolution suggests that quick-thinking and perseverance will beat even the most evil folks in our path.
2. Man v. Man. Hansel and Gretel face wicked women, first their stepmother and then the witch. The conflict’s resolution suggests that evil cannot defeat good in the hearts of innocent children. After all, Hansel and Gretel forgive dear old Dad who has no redeeming value--in my opinion.
3. Man v. Society. Hansel and Gretel combat an oppressive adult world inhabited by weak men and wretched women. They overcome, suggesting that even small children can go toe to toe with evil and win--as long as they have plenty of pebbles and snowy white ducks on hand.
4. Man v. Nature. The forest is an ominous force representing a malignant world wherein unprepared children must find their way. In this world are monsters disguised as kindly residents of sweet candy houses. So far, in the tale, Grimm seems to suggest that children should never talk to strangers or accept an offer of candy. But Nature is also kind in this tale. After all, the children do find a way home, aided by that white duck, so readers might conclude that Nature is neither unkind nor kind; it’s neutral, taking away and giving evenly. Our survival depends upon our own will and resourcefulness.
5. Man v. Supernatural. Well, the kids must outwit a witch and white ducks respond to verbal pleas so some sort of magic exists in this story. Hansel and Gretel’s victory suggests that keeping our wits about us and making the most of opportunities are the best magic.

Who would have thought that so much meaning could be mined from so short a tale? Me actually, and I hope you as well.

I even think a great tune sung by Pablo Cruise may be applicable for overall meanings in “Hansel and Gretel.” From “Love Will Find a Way,

So now don't, don't be afraid of yourself
Just move on to something else
And let your love shine thru
Again yes 'cause it's all right
Once you get past the pain
You'll learn to find your love again
So keep your heart open
'Cause love will find a way

After all, those kids found a way home into the loving arms of their dad and, it appears, they forgave the deadbeat.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As I told Hansel and Gretel’s tale, I quoted from a version of Grimm’s story; twice, in the fourth and eighth paragraphs, I needed to add a word within the quoted passage to clarify or emphasize a point. Brackets wrap the insertion to distinguish the addition from the quotation. This is a legitimate use for brackets, and one that you may use to maintain point of view, verb tense, and logic.

Reading Challenge

Read “Rapunzel,” another one of many Grimm’s tales.

Writing Challenge:

Identify each of the five conflicts in “Rapunzel,” and write complete sentences representing big ideas (overall meanings) that can be inferred from the conflict resolutions.

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach.