Tag Archives: hunger

Symbols in “Hansel & Gretel” by Neil Gaiman: The Forest, Hunger, and the Trickster

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I first heard about this book in an article published by Brain Pickings and knew I would have to read it soon. I am a big fan of Gaiman’s work and I was very interested in discovering how he would rewrite the classic fairy tale. My expectations were high, but I was certainly not disappointed. I was hooked at the opening paragraph.

This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.

(p. 8)

The forest or wilderness is a symbol that has always fascinated me, probably because as a kid I spent a lot of time in the woods near my house. It was a place of mystery, adventure, and danger. As I got older, I began to understand the forest as a symbol for the darker, uncivilized regions of the human consciousness.

When Hansel and Gretel’s parents decide to abandon them because they can no longer feed them, it is very symbolic that the children are abandoned in the forest. They are thrust deep into the woods and left alone. Essentially, this signifies a sort of rite of passage to adulthood, where they are forced to face the shadowy aspects of themselves and human nature, which can be dark and terrifying.

Gretel woke Hansel the next morning. “It is going to be a good day,” she said. “Our father is going to take us into the forest with him, and he will teach us to cut wood.” Their father would not ordinarily take them with him deep into the forest. He said it was too dangerous for children.

(pp. 16 – 17)

After they are abandoned in the woods, they succumb to the darkness which lies hidden in the subconscious. This is represented by shadows which grow and overwhelm the senses.

The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddle and pooled until the world was one huge shadow.

(p. 20)

Another symbol that figures prominently in the tale is hunger. Hunger is the most basic of instincts and drives the actions of all living things, even more so than sexual desire. Hansel and Gretel’s parents forsake their children because of hunger. It is a primordial need that can overpower all sense of reason and humanity. When the children discover that the breadcrumb trail is gone because the animals of the forest have eaten the crumbs, Gretel comments that “The creatures of the forest are hungry too.” (p. 28) And of course, it is hunger that drives the children to the old woman’s house in the woods.

They walked towards the smell: honey cake, and ginger and spices, a glorious sweetness that stole over them. Now the children ran toward the source of the smell, impelled by hunger, going in a direction they had never been before, unitl, in a clearing, they saw a tiny house, even smaller than their own.

(p. 29)

They are then captured and are faced with the terrible realization that humans, like animals, are meat and can be eaten. Cannibalism is the ultimate symbol of the dark, primordial state. It represents the animal instinct taking complete control of one’s psyche, where hunger overpowers all human reason.

The old woman was stronger than she looked—a sinewy, gristly strength: she picked Hansel up, and carried the sleeping boy into the empty stable at the rear of the little house, where there was a large metal cage with rusty bars. She dropped him onto the straw, for there was only straw on the floor, along with a few ancient and well-chewed bones, and she locked the cage, and she felt her way along the wall, back to her house.

“Meat,” she said, happily.

(p. 36)

The last symbol I would like to look at in this tale is the trickster. Hansel and Gretel embody the archetype of the trickster as symbolized by Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey. In the Odyssey, Odysseus and his men are trapped by the Cyclops Polyphemus, who also plans on eating all of them. Odysseus uses trickery to outwit the Cyclops and escape. Likewise, Hansel and Gretel do the same. First, Hansel uses a bone to trick the old woman into thinking he has not gotten fat enough to cook yet.

In truth, Hansel grew fat, but the old woman was too blind to see it. Each day, she reached for his finger, but instead he would hold out a bone he had found in the straw. She felt the bone and, thinking it was the boy’s finger, left him for another day.

(p. 40)

Finally, Gretel also uses trickery to overcome the old woman. She pretends to be stupid and not to understand the woman’s instructions. This leads the old woman to open the oven door and lean inside in an attempt to show Gretel how it is done, providing the opportunity for Gretel to shove her captor inside.

“See if it is hot enough to roast your brother yet,” said the old woman. “Climb inside and tell me.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel, and she stood where she was, making no move to open the oven door.

“It is easy. Simply open the door, and lean in, and feel if it is hot enough yet to roast flesh.”

“I don’t know how,” said Gretel again.

“You are a slattern and a dolt!” exclaimed the old woman. “Idiot child. I will show you.” The old woman hobbled over to the oven, leaning on her stick. “Learn from me.” The old woman opened the oven door.

(p. 41)

There is a bit of irony here. Gretel learned the art of trickery from the old woman, who tricked Hansel and Gretel into entering her house.

I’d like to close with a little bit about the artwork in this book. All the illustrations are done by Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti and seem like they have been carved out of the darkest reaches of the mind. The black and white prints are so dark and shadowy, just looking at them gives you anxiety. It is the perfect visual representation of exploring the darker regions of the subconscious, of getting lost in the forest of shadows that symbolizes our hidden animalistic urges.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Experience

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Blake wrote two versions of “Holy Thursday,” one for the Songs of Innocence and this one for the Songs of Experience. (Click here to read my thoughts on “Holy Thursday” from the Songs of Innocence.) Both poems deal with the issue of poverty and how it affects children, and while both provide social criticism, they do so from very different perspectives.

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

In Catholic tradition, Holy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. Since the last supper was Jesus’ observance of the Passover Seder, which recounts the Hebrews’ release from the bondage of slavery, there is a dark irony here as Blake incorporates imagery of hunger and subjugation. The church, an institution that is supposed to carry on the traditions and teachings of Christ, instead grudgingly offers meager charity to the poor and starving children with “cold and usurious hand,” all the while viewing themselves as holy and charitable.

For me, the stark difference between this poem and the one from Songs of Innocence is the tone. This is an angry poem, seething with indignation. The poet’s view, no longer tainted by innocence, only sees the bare suffering that poverty inflicts upon poor children. He questions why in a land of abundance we allow those who are less fortunate to suffer, and I personally feel that this question is relevant today. How can we, as a society, tolerate children going without food when we have the resources to alleviate their suffering? It is a question we need to ask ourselves, because there are a lot of children who go to sleep hungry every night.

Blake states strongly: “It is a land of poverty!” This is a powerful statement. It is not material or economic wealth that makes a society prosperous; It is how a society cares for its people that determines whether that society is prosperous or not. A society, just like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, and allowing poverty to exist only weakens the social fabric.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Innocence

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Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

I confess that when I read this, I was lost as to the meaning of the poem, mainly because I had absolutely no idea what Holy Thursday was. So I did a quick search and discovered that Holy Thursday, in Catholic tradition, is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. At that point, the poem began to make sense to me.

The scene that Blake describes seems innocent enough, but as is the case with most poems in The Songs of Innocence, there is a sense that below the surface, something is wrong. In this case, it is the hypocrisy of the church. The children are paraded into St. Paul’s cathedral in a display of charity and kindness, but it is really just a show and does not appear to be genuine. The children are poor and probably homeless, which can be determined by the fact that Blake points out in the first line that their faces are clean, implying that this is not how they normally appear. I got the impression that to show how charitable the church is, they cleaned and fed a group of homeless children just to show them off.

At the end of the poem, Blake entreats the church elders to practice what they preach, to have pity on the poor, hungry children who crowded London’s streets and to not drive them from their door, but instead offer them comfort and food. Just as Christ fed the poor and starving, so should the church.

Once I was in a car with a co-worker going out for dinner, which was being paid for by the company we worked for. On the corner was a homeless person with a sign begging money for food. The person I was with callously yelled out, “Get a job!” I lost all respect for that person. I understand that you cannot give to every starving person, but you can at least have sympathy for those who are less fortunate. And that is the message in this poem: cherish pity. You may not be able to help everyone who needs help, but at least have compassion for another human who is suffering.

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