Friday, April 27, 2012

Hansel and Gretel: Savory Morsels and Pure Hearts

Today’s post is the last in a series of posts about fairy tales that worry parents, as reported online by The Telegraph, February 12, 2012 (http://www.telegraph. Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html). Today’s tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” is also one of my favorite tales from the Brothers Grimm.

In fact, I wrote about Hansel and Gretel in the first year of this blog on September 24, 2010. Below you will find the same synopsis of the tale as appeared here in 2010. For that synopsis, I used an online version of the tale, found at

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, not four, shall starve. 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. The plan might have worked if the children had not overheard the adults charged with their well-being. Since they were clever little spies, they armed themselves with pockets full of pebbles that reflected the moon’s glow so the pebbles, dropped along the way, 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, but instead of creating a trail to follow back home, he created an elongated bird feeder. Birds ate the crumbs so Hansel and Gretel could not find their way back home. They appear 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.” So hungry after their trek and night alone, 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 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 find and 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 they reach a large body of water, one they cannot cross, but Nature seems to pity them 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.”

This tale could indeed induce nightmares in children. After all, a stepmother tries to put an end to her stepchildren, their own father agrees, and witches thrive upon children. That’s enough to make any child doubt the world in which he lives, but there are other lessons in this tale, some that could be shared with children old enough to discern differences between fairy tales and their own lives.

Below are some of the lessons to be gleaned from “Hansel and Gretel.”

•    Hansel and Gretel are in conflict with their own fear of abandonment and death. The conflict’s resolution suggests that perseverance and quick-thinking will beat even the most evil folks in our path.
•    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.
•    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.
•    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.
•    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.

Reading Challenge:

Read about a 2007 Korean film version of “Hansel and Gretel,” posted by Slarek at http://, or stream the film and judge for yourselves. 

Writing Challenge:

Consider the horrific elements of “Hansel and Gretel.” Tell it anew as a horror story, or soften the dark edges of the tale and retell it as a modern-day version wherein the children see through the guile and win the day.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As I told Hansel and Gretel’s tale, I quoted from a version of Grimm’s story (found at; 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 original, quoted passage. This is a legitimate use for brackets, and one that you may use to maintain point of view, verb tense, and logic.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Jack and the Beanstalk: A Boy Climbs to the Sky, Returning as a Man

This post continues a review of ten fairy tales that parents deem too frightening or morally ambiguous, according to an online article from The Telegraph, February 12, 2012 ( Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html). Previous posts have considered the tenth most objectionable tale, “Queen Bee,” through the third, “The Gingerbread Man.” The tale that parents find second-most objectionable is “Jack and the Beanstalk,” another tale from the oral tradition and later recorded by an Englishman. Please read a full version of it at http://www.surlalunefairytales. com/jackbeanstalk/stories/langbeanstalk.html.

Here is a summary of "Jack and the Beanstalk."

Many of you will remember that Jack is the poor, hungry son of a widow, but many of you may not know that in the original, Jack is also the son of a fine, noble knight who was deposed and killed by the giant now residing in Jack's first home. Jack and his mother have been reduced to a little family of two with nothing except a cow that they milk each day. By selling the milk, they survive, but one day, the cow does not deliver and with nothing left to sell--not even a stick of furniture, the widow, herself too weak to travel, sends Jack to town to sell their last asset, the cow.

Along the way, Jack meets a butcher who trades Jack five beans for the cow, pleasing Jack and displeasing his mother who expected and needed money so she sends Jack to bed without supper. In some versions, in a fit of rage, Jack's mother flings the beans out the window; in other versions, Jack plants the beans. Regardless, they sprout and rise, creating a huge stalk overnight. Upon awakening and in opposition to his mother’s will, Jack investigates, climbing the stalk into the heavens where he’s met by an angelic figure.

She tells Jack that the castle and all it contains are his inheritance, that his father once owned all the wealth before the giant stole it from him. Thus, according to this version of the tale, Jack is not a miscreant. He’s not stealing, but reclaiming what rightfully belongs to him. Jack then is the boy who becomes a man, the provider and landed gentry, a hero asserting his rightful place in the world, not by sheer mischief but by daring and courage.

The giant’s wife, an imposing sentry, greets Jack and provides him with food and a safe haven in exchange for his labor. When the giant approaches, she also protects Jack by hiding him in a wardrobe and in some versions, the tea kettle or the oven as the giant bellows,"Fee, fi, fo, fum, / I smell the blood of an Englishman; / Be he alive, or be he dead, / I'll grind his bones to make my bread!"

Like all royalty in far off times, the giant, living in a nobleman’s castle perched atop a very high rocky plateau on the edge of fairyland, can smell a commoner from a great distance. The rarefied air in which the giant lives, untainted by the filth of poverty or the rot of hunger, is not for the Jacks of this world; indeed, the giant asserts that a commoner is little more than grist for his mill. The giantess, never clever about Jack’s intentions, is however very clever at re-directing and misdirecting her giant husband. She settles him down by feeding him well and bringing his favorite items to him: first his golden egg-laying hen, next his bags of gold coin, and finally his golden harp.

Jack takes back each of these and makes his escape easily until the harp alerts the giant, crying “Master! Master!” Jack must flee, his life on the line, but thanks to a rock in the giant’s path and the giant’s fall, Jack gains just enough distance and time to succeed. Then he and his mother chop down the beanstalk to the skies, and the giant crashes to the ground, breaking his neck. The giantess also fell to her death, down the stairs in the castle, also breaking her neck and leaving no one to pursue Jack. He and his mother are poor no longer, and we are told, they live happily ever after.

From this summary, you can see that much of the moral ambiguity does not exist. If Jack were not the rightful heir to the wealth, then his deeds would be hard to explain. He’d be little more than the archetypal trickster, a mischief-maker whose actions cause great harm. We know that however much in need he may be, he should not become a thief to resolve his lowly circumstance. As the son of a knight, however, Jack has a solemn, honorable duty to fight for the right, to save his father’s estate, and rescue his mother from sickness and despair. Moreover, the giantess and giant, who killed Jack’s father and Jack’s siblings, are interlopers; justice must be served. Thus, a theme of this tale is similar to one revealed in Medieval Romance tales featuring chivalry: a knight has a duty to serve God, King, and family in that order. Jack must serve his family, and in doing so, he transitions from boy to man.

Another lesson drawn from “Jack and the Beanstalk” is that the love of gold is an evil. The giant not only kills for gold, he loves it so much that it functions as a dessert after his big meals. He calls for the hen to lay more golden eggs, his money bags so that he can count his gold again, and his harp so that it may lull him to sleep with its music. Jack does not seek gold, according to the story. He even accepts beans in place of money for the family's only asset, Milky White, the cow. For Jack, gold is the reward for exacting justice.

A third lesson from this story involves magic or good fortune. You'll recall that Cinderella succeeds because of her pure nature, but just as important is her great, good fortune: a loving mother, birds that help Cinderella accomplish impossible tasks, and a tree that manufactures fine clothing, transforming her into a beautiful woman with whom the Prince falls in love.

Nature is also beneficent to the dwarf in “Queen Bee.” Again, it is his good character and willingness to live peaceably among the bees and birds that persuade Nature to favor him, but favor him it does. Nature helps him overcome the challenges put before him, and as a result, he wins a bride and a fine estate.

Jack meets a man who possesses the means for Jack to reach the heavens, his true home. There, a lovely, angelic woman informs him about his true parentage and warns him how difficult his quest will be. Perhaps the most magical of all is the hen bewitched to produce golden eggs, affording Jack and his mother the opportunity to rebuild the life they were destined to live. The moral then seems to be that good fortune comes to those who are deserving and courageous enough to do their part.

Given all these lessons, Jack and the Beanstalk is another tale that parents could tell their children, helping them to know that bad fortune need not define us, that we can rise above it with good character, courage, and a healthy ration of luck.

Reading Challenge:

Enjoy a modern version of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” part of the HumorHub network, posted at

“Once upon a time, on a little farm, there lived a boy named Jack, He lived on the farm with his mother, and they were very excluded from the normal circles of economic activity. This cruel reality kept them in straits of direness, until one day Jack's mother told him to take the family cow into town and sell it for as much as he could.

“Never mind the thousands of gallons of milk they had stolen from her! Never mind the hours of pleasure their bovine animal companion had provided! And forget about the manure they had appropriated for their garden! She was now just another piece of property to them. Jack, who didn't realize that non-human animals have as many rights as human animals perhaps even more did as his mother asked.

“On his way to town, Jack met an old magic vegetarian, who warned Jack of the dangers of eating beef and dairy products.

“’Oh, I'm not going to eat this cow,’ said Jack. ‘I'm going to take her into town and sell her.’

"’But by doing that, you'll just perpetuate the cultural mythos of beef, ignoring the negative impact of the cattle industry on our ecology and the health and social problems that arise from meat consumption. But you look too simple to be able to make these connections, my boy. I'll tell you what I'll do: I'll offer a trade of your cow for these three magic beans, which have as much protein as that entire cow but none of the fat or sodium.’

“Jack made the trade gladly and took the beans home to his mother. When he told her about the deal he had made, she grew very upset. She used to think her son was merely a conceptual rather than a linear thinker, but now she was sure that he was downright differently abled. She grabbed the three magic beans and threw them out the window in disgust. Later that day, she attended her first support-group meeting with Mothers of Storybook Children.

“The next morning, Jack stuck his head out the window to see if the sun had risen in the east again (he was beginning to see a pattern in this). But outside the window, the beans had grown into a huge stalk that reached through the clouds. Because he no longer had a cow to milk in the morning, Jack climbed the beanstalk into the sky.

"At the top, above the clouds, he found a huge castle. It was not only big, but it was built to larger-than-average scale, as if it were the home of someone who just happened to be a giant. Jack entered the castle and heard beautiful music wafting through the air. He followed this sound until he found its source: a golden harp that played music without being touched. Next to this self-actualized harp was a hen sitting on a pile of golden eggs.

“Now, the prospect of easy wealth and mindless entertainment appealed to Jack's bourgeois sensibilities, so he picked up both the harp and the hen and started to run for the front door. Then he heard thundering footsteps and a booming voice that said:

“‘FEE, FIE, FOE, FUM, I smell the blood of an English person! I'd like to learn about his culture and views on life! And share my own perspectives in an open and generous way!’

“Unfortunately, Jack was too crazed with greed to accept the giant's offer of a cultural interchange. ‘It's only a trick, thought Jack. ‘Besides, what's a giant doing with such fine, delicate things? He must have stolen them from somewhere else, so I have every right to take them.’ His frantic justifications remarkable for someone with his overtaxed mental resources revealed a terrible callousness to the giant's personal rights. Jack apparently was a complete size-ist, who thought that all giants were clumsy, knowledge-impaired, and exploitable.

“When the giant saw Jack with the magic harp and the hen, he asked, ‘Why are you taking what belongs to me?’

“Jack knew he couldn't outrun the giant, so he had to think fast. He blurted out, ‘I'm not taking them, my friend. I am merely placing them in my stewardship so that they can be properly managed and brought to their fullest potential. Pardon my bluntness, but you giants are too simple in the head and don't know how to manage your resources properly. I'm just looking out for your interests. You'll thank me for this later.’

“Jack held his breath to see if the bluff would save his skin. The giant sighed heavily and said, ‘Yes, you are right. We giants do use our resources foolishly. Why, we can't even discover a new beanstalk before we get so excited and pick away at it so much that we pull the poor thing right out of the ground!’

“Jack's heart sank. He turned and looked out the front door of the castle. Sure enough, the giant had destroyed his beanstalk. Jack grew frightened and cried, ‘Now I'm trapped here in the clouds with you forever!’

“The giant said, ‘Don't worry, my little friend. We are strict vegetarians up here, and there are always plenty of beans to eat. And besides, you won't be alone. Thirteen other men of your size have already climbed up beanstalks to visit us and stayed.’

“So Jack resigned himself to his fate as a member of the giant's cloud commune. He didn't miss his mother or their farm much, because up in the sky there was less work to do and more than enough to eat. And he gradually learned not to judge people based on their size ever again, except for those shorter than he.”

What is the moral of his modern story? What are the themes that you can infer from the story’s details?

Writing Challenge:

Create another modern version of Jack and the Beanstalk. You could even tell it from the Giant’s point of view.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The giant and Jack face off in a sort of duel (a competition between two people), each fighting the other for possession of great wealth. In doing so, Jack demonstrates his dual (consisting of two parts) nature: a boy who trusts a stranger on the road to town and a man who wins justice for his fallen father.

The difference between these two words and their meanings is a single vowel. A duel, spelled with an e, is a contEst while dual, spelled with an a, is two pArts in one object.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Gingerbread Man or Pride Goes Before Fatal Falls

With today’s post, I continue to review the ten fairy tales that parents avoid sharing with their children, deeming them too frightening or morally ambiguous, according to an online article from The Telegraph, February 12, 2012 (http://www.telegraph. Previous posts have considered the tenth most objectionable tale, “Queen Bee,” through the fourth, “Little Red Riding Hood.” Today’s post is about the third, “The Gingerbread Man,” a folk tale oft told and once recorded by the Brothers Grimm. You may read a version of the tale at

The Gingerbread Man’s story has been told and retold many times in many ages by many authors. Some aspects of the tale are similar to the Pinocchio legend because an inanimate creature comes to life and then misbehaves. Unlike Pinocchio, at least Disney’s version of it, the Gingerbread Man does not live happily ever after, having learned his lessons the rough and tumble way.

Chaucer provided a different version of The Gingerbread Man with “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s protagonist is not a cookie, but a proud rooster named Chanticleer, the king in his own little garden of Eden. All the other barnyard creatures serve him, their only enemy a fox that lurks just beyond the fence. With soothing flattery, the fox lures Chanticleer to the fence and tricks the rooster into stretching his neck over the fence whereupon the fox enjoys a fowl feast.

“The Gingerbread Man” has the same elements: 1) an inanimate creature that, 2) once animated, misbehaves, and 3) falls victim to the tricks of a smarter, more patient enemy. Here is the tale in brief.

A little old woman bakes a fine gingerbread man, giving him eyes of candy and hair of icing. When he thoroughly baked, the little cookie springs to life and runs away. The woman and her husband chase him, but the gingerbread is too fast for them. He is also too fast for a cow, horse, and chicken, and to each, he taunts: "Run, run, as fast as you can! / You can't catch me! / I'm the Gingerbread Man!"

But when the Gingerbread Man meets and taunts a fox, he meets a more patient enemy, one like the first wolf that Little Red Riding Hood meets. This fox is wily and persuades the cookie that a fox would not find gingerbread tasty at all. Thus, in a state of false security, the Gingerbread Man decides to rest and then the fox pounces.

The moral of this story appears to be a simple one: never let your guard down because the world is full of hazards.

Reading Challenge:

Aesop offered a fable, “Rat and the Elephant,” with some of the same ingredients as those found in “The Gingerbread Man,” but with a better outcome.  Read this fable, noting the features of it that are similar and dissimilar to those found in “The Gingerbread Man.” Then, dear parents, you can
share “The Gingerbread Man” and Aesop’s fable together. Both teach the harms of being overly confident, but Aesop’s rat learns to be humble in order to live another day.

Writing Challenge:

Tell a tale with a moral. Try to be as economic as Aesop is. To delight your children, pick animals or objects that are familiar to them.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics):

The Gingerbread Man might have survived if he had been discreet (not calling attention to oneself) Indeed, if he had not taunted others, especially the fox, the Gingerbread Man might have endured as a discrete (separate and unique) creation.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Little Red Riding Hood: A Lesson in Recognizing and Avoiding Temptation

An online article from The Telegraph, February 12, 2012 (http://www.telegraph. reported the top ten fairy tales that parents avoid sharing with their children. Previous posts have considered the tenth most objectionable tale through the fifth. Today’s post is about the fourth, Grimm’s version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” available for you to read at /short-stories/UBooks /LittRed.shtml.

This tale is about temptation, seduction, and murder, but I assure you that your children will not recognize the sexual suggestions. Just as many of Shakespeare’s most bawdy jokes elude high school students, the sexuality in “Little Red Riding Hood” will go unnoticed by children. First, let me tell the tale.

Little Red Riding Hood, so called because she wears a bright red cloak, embarks on a journey to deliver fresh bread and wine to her ailing grandmother. Red’s mother, as any good mother would, reminds Red to stay on the path and not wander into the dark woods.

As Red walks the 'righteous' path, she meets a wolf that sizes her up as a tasty morsel, ripe for the taking, but when he discovers that she is on her way to her grandmother’s house, he decides that he might enjoy two meals if he is clever. He tempts Red by telling her what lovely flowers and delightful birdsong she will hear if only she will leave the path, and she does, but not until the wolf has learned where the grandmother’s house is and has left Red alone.

Of course, the wolf hurries to Grandmother’s house, pretends to be Red, and devours poor, sick Grandma. When Red remembers her mission and her mother’s words, she returns to the path and rushes to her grandmother’s house, surprised to find the door open wide.

Red enters and remarks upon her grandmother’s big eyes, big hands, and big mouth. The wolf, wearing Granny’s cap and lying in bed under covers, reassures Red, telling her that her big eyes help her see her granddaughter, her big hands are for big hugs, and her big mouth perfect for eating up Red, and he does. Then he falls into a deep sleep, his belly full, his appetites sated.

The woodsman happens by and hears terrible snoring coming from Grandmother’s house in the woods. He enters and finds the wolf. His first reaction is to shoot and kill the wolf, but then he wonders if Grandmother might be inside the wolf’s belly so he cuts open the wolf and saves Red Riding Hood and her grandmother. In an act guaranteed to exact a slow revenge upon the wolf, the woodsman fills the sound-sleeper’s belly with stones. Upon awakening and seeing mortal enemies close by, the wolf tries to flee, but falls dead.

The woodsman takes the wolf’s hide, Granny eats the bread and wine, recovering from her illness with good food, and Red learns a lesson: she vows never to stray from the path again, and she keeps her vow for later, when she again encounters temptation, she stays on the path to her grandmother’s house where, together, they lock the door against a second wolf. But this one persists, climbing on the roof to wait until Red emerges then follow her until he can attack her. Granny knows what is in the mind of the wicked wolf, and she entices him to fall to his death by directing Red to pour sausage water in the trough. The wolf smells the rich, meaty smells, and in tracking the scent, overreaches and falls  from the roof to his death. He drowns in the trough of sausage water.

Finally, Red skips happily home and is never troubled by temptation or wickedness again.

In that red cloak, Red Riding Hood, though little, is a stand-out in a dark forest, and wolves take note, one using his clever wiles to lead Red astray and hurt Red’s grandmother, then Red herself. But wolf gluttony leads to their deaths and the woodsman’s profit. What then are the big ideas in this little classic?

·      Stay on the public path, a path of righteousness and duty.
·      Avoid the dark forest, full of enticing pleasures that endanger life and joy.
·      Do as your mother tells you.
·      Excess appetites, including a wolf's appetite for sausages, will lead to danger and possibly death.
·      Choices and decisions may jeopardize happiness and life itself.
·      Grandma is wiser about the ways of wolves than are little girls.

A child’s world is sometimes a dark forest, full of unknowns and possible dangers, but these are more apparent to the adults who have walked the path ahead of them. Children don’t conceive of monsters in the form of wolves or harms that might come their way. Parents teach children to be wary of danger and strangers, of wolves in plain clothing, wearing the faces of ordinary people. This tale is one way to teach that lesson, but judge wisely, parents. Very young children do not need to know that monsters exist. Tell your children about them when you believe they need to know.

Reading Challenge:


Read two different versions of Red Riding Hood, told from the wolf's point of view: 


The Wolf's Story: What Really Happened to Little Red Riding Hood by Toby Forward and illustrated by Ishar Cohen 


Honestly, Red Riding Hood Was Rotten: The Story of Little Red Riding Hood as Told by the Wolf (The Other Side of the Story) by Trisha Speed Shaskan and illustrated by Gerald Guerlais


As both titles suggest, these books tell the fairy tale from the wolf’s point of view. Using them in conjunction with the original tale is a way of ameliorating the dread and a means to a fair and balanced lesson about events. You may also open a discussion about point of view. You may also ask your child to write another ending for the tale. Doing so gives your child power over the story in the same way that re-imagining a nightmare to end happily can let us drift off to sleep without worrying about things that go bump in the night.


One final reading challenge is to "read" the film Red Riding Hood (2011), starring Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman. It's rated PG-13 so watch it without your little ones and take note of the twists in the tale.

Writing Challenge:

Tell Red’s tale from the mother’s or the grandmother’s point of view.

GUM (Grammar, Usage and Mechanics): Complacent and Complaisant

If Red had not been complaisant or willing to please herself with flowers, she might have escaped harm. If the Wolf had not been complacent or smug and self-satisfied about his conquests, he might have lived.

These words may sound alike, but they are spelled differently and have very different meanings.