I haven’t been blogging because blogging requires a voice, and I haven’t felt like talking recently. Not in a blogging sense anyway. I’ve been working on getting that voice back but I’m still stuck in a months long rut of just repeating the same projects over and over again and people are asking me to keep repeating those projects or work on stuff they want me to help them with or the like. I have been doing things like improving my bread making skills-so it’s not a total loss.
Part of my lack of voice is that even with my red notebook of folklore ideas, nothing is coming to me for writing ideas. I ended up turning to a Facebook group to get an idea for this post, but it’s currently topical for me. Fall is when I start thinking Baba Yaga and crone magic.
Hansel and Gretel were the children of a woodcutter, who loved them dearly. They had a happy life with their father, who was a widower. Eventually their father grew lonely and decided to take a wife. But his new wife did not love her stepchildren nearly as well as their father did; however she was a patient woman and settled into her new life.
Everything was fine until a drought struck. The crops died in the fields, and hunger set in. The woodcutter did what he could until he was forced to admit that his family was most likely not going to survive. He wept bitterly. His new wife came to him in the night and said the unthinkable: take the children out to the woods in the morning. Give them a little bit of bread.
Leave them there.
While he knew that it would break his heart forever to do so, in the deep of the night he also saw the wisdom in his wife’s words. So he didn’t fight her.
However the children were still awake in the next room and heard this plan. Instead of being at risk of being abandoned, they stole a little bread [in some legends they left with a pocketful of stones] and left a trail behind them when their father attempted to leave them in the woods. They simply followed the stones back home-much to their stepmother’s horror.
The next day after their return, their father takes them back to the woods-this time making sure there are no rocks, just bread. The children leave another trail but the birds eat the crumbs. However they manage to make it back to the house again, only to find that the doors have been locked and they are alone.
The siblings decide to brave the woods themselves and eventually find themselves in the deep dark of the forest. However what they find amazes them; there is a house made entirely of gingerbread and candy.
The scent of the house lured them forward and the two find it owned by a crone. The crone is ugly and blind, and she invites the two into the house. Not sensing anything dangerous here the children enter the house-and are quickly imprisoned by the crone who is really a witch, who desires to eat the children.
The crone puts Gretel to work in the kitchen while attempting to fatten up her brother. Eventually the children manage to outsmart and overpower the witch, push her into her own oven, and escape.
They make it back to their father-who, especially after the death of his second wife in the famine, is elated to see them. They live happily ever after. Except for the dead crone and the dead wife.
What is interesting with this version of a witch crone story is that the only real benefit that the children receive from their time with the witch is that they’re sort of riding out the time until the false mother (the stepmother) leaves their lives again. There is a suggestion that the children weren’t in any real danger, and one actually has to wonder why they waited so long to leave again, what with the witch being weak enough to be pushed into an oven by a child. This story doesn’t make her out to be a Baba Yaga type, capable of taking someone out herself. In some variations the witch is actually rich and the children steal money to bring back home with them.
There are some noted parallels to the Baba Yaga archetype, but the story is not simply a retelling of earlier Baba stories. Baba takes on a much heavier teacher role in her stories; for all of her unpleasantness, Baba Yaga teaches or provides the hero with an item or wisdom, and follows through with her promises as well as her warnings. Her standards may be high, but she plays fair as long as you stay within her boundaries. In the case of Hansel and Gretel, while the stories may stem from a similar route (or the Hansel story may have actually evolved out of the Baba Yaga archetype) the function of the witch crone here is markedly different: the children here are gaining nothing from the crone except perhaps the triumph of the strength and cunning of youth over aged femininity.
I’m getting a little bit rambl-y but the role of older women as a whole in this story is interesting. There’s a heavy suggestion that the first mother wouldn’t have let the children out in the forest in the first place-and we’re definitely not supposed to be siding with the stepmother for doing so. In fact the only woman who comes out of this story looking okay isn’t a woman at all; we cheer on Gretel’s actions as she and her brother work to free themselves. The stepmother and the crone are both presented as the dark mother; these are women who sort of forgot how to ‘woman’ along the way and we’re definitely not supposed to be okay with that. I have seen discussions where there is a suggestion that this is a reflection of stances on women, but my personal suspicion is that we’re seeing more of a development of a shadow element than a direct comment on the role of femininity. I know I write from a horror perspective, but I have to wonder if our current rejection of the mother and crone presented here are based more on a societal refusal to reject the feminine shadow more than a true gender imbalance statement: after all, we aren’t questioning the role of the father and his shadow in this encounter at all. But then, men have a much longer history with embracing their shadows in literature then women.