Gingerbread Man

Gingerbread man is a timeless classic from the treasury of international folklore. At first sight it doesn’t look like an ordinary fairy tale with a hero, trying to achieve seemingly impossible goal and after a series of encounters with different characters and magic transformation achieves the goal and lives happily ever after. We could say its most distinguished quality is playfulness and great tempo, not originality of characters of development of plot. It’s exceptionally suitable to tell it not only to, but also with children.

It’s about a pair of older people who wished for child until the lady of the house bake a gingerbread man who becomes alive and run away. Gingerbread man runs on the road and challenge everybody who is near enough with words:

“Run, run as fast as you can! You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man!”

This is of course only one of hundreds variations with new being created almost every day.

picture of gingerbread men
For your amusement I decided to emphasize three (hopefully) interesting thoughts about the Gingerbread Man:

1. This typical folktale with its simple plot and repetitive form is clearly aiming at the audience from lower social class. But good rhythm is not the only weapon of the story. In fact it posses all the popular elements of the fairy tale, though they are not fully developed. The magical transformation happens at the beginning (biscuit becomes alive), series of encounters is series of brief and almost identical encounters (but the tension is built due the cumulative repetition), and one of the characters actually achieves the goal – eats the gingerbread man (but this is a fox, which is usually villain in fairy folklore.

2. Gingerbread man carries huge symbolic power.Some see it as a symbol of Adam, who was made of dirt, in the earthly colored cake. Other try to relate it with Jesus. Bethlehem, his birth place can be translated as ‘house of bread’ and gingerbread houses are well known Christmas tradition, celebrating Jesus’ birth. And some connect the playful character with Santa Claus … Thanks to astronomical price of spices ginger bread was for centuries reserved for nobility and it still symbolize abundance and wealth. Gingerbread became very popular for making decorative houses after publishing Grimms’ Hansel and Grethel, where the kids arrive to the witch’s hose, made of gingerbread.

3. The story has multiple morals. One obviously tells us everybody, no matter the age, gender, wealth, etc., can achieve anything if only wish hard enough. Old woman gets a boy! But on the other hand we learn nobody can’t defeat everybody. Sooner or later somebody faster or smarter will get you. Another important message is to not trust one’s appearance. Fox in many versions acts as a nice, helpful character but only until he gets a chance to eat the gingerbread man. There is also a very realistic message, which is not very often in most popular fairy tales. It tells us many will try to achieve the same goal, but maybe only one will get there in the end (or only one can be the winner).

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Do we need fairies in fairy tales?

Fairies gave the name to the fairy tales, so we can safely presume a fairy is a necessary element in a fairy tale, right? Wrong!

Only a portion of fairy tales have fairies and majority is doing just fine without them. Tales of wonder or even stories of enchantment would probably be more suitable name.

The French term le contes de fees indeed implies there is a fairy in the tale, but we should understand it more liberally as the tale where something magical happens. In some cases fairies carry the magic and in some cases somebody else does the job.

Another misunderstanding may be thought about fairies being good and generous, because everybody knows how one of them helped the Cinderella and other to the Sleeping Beauty. Well, we can immediately add in Grimms’ Household and Children Tales Cinderella managed to go to the ball without a fairy and in the Sleeping Beauty an old and evil fairy cursed the girl in the first place.

What about Tinkerbell? I am talking about original character, not Disney’s polished one. Real Tinkerbell can be nice, but in general she is pretty mean little lady. Jealous at Wendy she even organized her death! Talking about more serious stuff, we can’t miss Morgan le Fay from Arthurian legends and in my opinion every witch can fall in this category. Life is not black and white and first fairies were really complex characters, suitable for Greek Dramas.

Picture by Frederick Sandys

Here are several additional interesting facts about fairies:

- It seems only boring adults can’t see the fairies. They are visible to children, especially girls and everybody who believes in fairy tales. Although fairies could be found all over the world, most people believe they originate in Ireland. Some think they are actually fallen angels, what could explain their love for all kinds of pranks. Some of them even steal babies. Perhaps because their favorite sound is laughter of the children?

- Fairies can appear in different shapes and sizes. Some are tiny as butterflies, other can be huge as clouds. They are born to solve problems. In general every fairy posses special gift, so when problems occur, different fairies feel obligated to offer a help. But beware! If a fairy helps you, simple thanks is not enough. Fairy expects something in return. In most cases this should be some kind of gift. Depending on the species, this could be a bowl of cream (Brownies in Scotland) or something shiny (they love old, forgotten stuff, like buttons) or some kind of favor. When a fairy offers you a help, you should be very very careful!

- Some of the most famous fairies are:

a) Banshees: they are rarely seen, but their main characteristic is sound. It is believed a scream of banshee in front of the house predicts a death of somebody inside. While at first they predicted only death of members of one of five major families in Ireland, in time families mixed and now every family has its own banshee. They are often portrayed combing their long hair and finding a comb in his yard is considered as very bad omen.

b) Dryads: they live in trees. Every one watches her own tree. If somebody hurts the tree, dryad will try to punish him. If the tree dies, she dies with it. This is the reason why Greeks believed they have to ask gods for permission if they wanted to cut down the tree.

c) Merrows (also mermaids and mermaids): they are water spirits portrayed as half human (from waste up) and half fish. They are in general nice and gentle being who like people and can even start families with them. The problem is their huge desire for home under water. Mermaids like to seduce young men who will follow them under the ocean and live with them in their world, but if a man manages to get mermaid’s red cap, she will stay with him on the lan. At least until she discovers the cap …

d) Pixies: they are wingless, with typical pointy ears, like to play pranks on people and have complex hierarchy with royalties, nobility and everything related. In most cases they wear green. Although most of their tricks is harmless, they can mislead a traveler from the path and cause major accidents.

e) Toothy fairies: they collect baby teeth left under pillows and leave small gifts in exchange. There is a long tradition of superstitions related to baby teeth, from belief they should be buried or burned to somehow protect the owner, to using the as talismans in battles. Tooth fairies are today often explained as a a tool, at helping children to overcome the fear of loosing a tooth and we should not forget how important is for mothers to believe their children are still kids, not growing up too fast …

Do you believe in fairies?

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Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid

Original Little Mermaid is a fairy tale, written by Danish writer and poet Hans Christian Andersen. It tells a story about a mermaid who falls in love with a prince. He is human and she is a fairy creature without soul. Can love help her to overcome the obstacles? According to Andersen: not really! If you expected happy ending in Disney’s style, you are in the wrong place. Andersen’s tale about the mermaid is a sad story with sad messages.


Little Mermaid, illustration by Anne Anderson

Here are at least three reasons to understand why Andersen wrote this beautiful tale for children the way it is:

1. Little Mermaid is a retelling of one of the most popular romantic novellas of 19th century. It tells a story about a mermaid who marries a knight to get a soul. Undine is not completely original itself. It is actually a variation of old European myth about Melusine, which was written in literary form several times from 14th century on. Melusine is of course the name of the mermaid and she is also in relationship with a human. She marries him with one condition and he breaks it. In all three cases we have a story about inappropriate relationship of human and supernatural being. In all three cases the message is clear: no go!

2. The story of Little Mermaid is in many ways Andersen’s personal story. He was always in love with people (both genders) from higher social class, he had powerful helpers who had high (and sometimes painful) demands from him, even his abilities to sing and dance (both unused in his career for trivial, purely physical reasons) are incorporated in this fairy tale.

3. Although the ending of original Little Mermaid is sad, Little Mermaid at least still has a chance to get immortal soul on her own, what is not the case in Undine, where she is dependent on others. Andersen described this decision in a letter to his friend and it is very consistent with his own views on moral and religion. On the other hand he wrote mermaid will have to wait additional time if children don’t behave properly, what was maybe acceptable in Victorian times but is now described as clear case of blackmailing.

What do you think about it?

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Heinrich Vogeler

Heinrich Vogeler (1872-1942) was painter, designer, architect and illustrator from Germany. He studied art in famous Academy in Duesseldorf as many other famous German painters and illustrators.

This is example of his work, influenced by Art Nouveau philosophy:


Scene from Sleeping Beauty by brothers Grimm

I managed to find couple of interesting facts from Vogeler’s life too:

1. He traveled a lot.  He visited most of European countries and he spent some time even in Ceylon. Through many contacts he found the bitter truth about the working class and developed deep sympathy about its position. In a way we can say this makes him similar to Walter Crane with whom he shared extremely developed sense for details and love of decorative borders. Another similarity is versatility of both artists who contributed their creativity to many other areas which are not always considered as ‘fine art’. Vogeler, for instance designed tapestry (as above), carpets and embroidery.

2. Vogeler participated in World War I as volunteer. In eastern front he didn’t only find out more bitterness, he got accustomed with communist’s ideals and even wrote a letter to his Emperor with a suggestion to stop the war. The answer wasn’t surprising. He was sent to mental hospital, discharged from military services and his wife divorced him. But he later remarried, entered communist party and emigrated to Soviet Union.  When World War II started, he was deported to Kazakhstan where he died.

3. If we want to emphasize only one specific feature of his work, this would probably be birches. He loved them, he painted a lot of them and for some time he even owned a cottage surrounded with birches and called Birch House.

I hope you enjoyed this short presentation of Heinrich Vogeler.

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Shoemaker and the elves

The Elves and Shoemaker Story

Not among the most popular ones, yet still pretty well known fairy tale by brothers Grimm, Shoemaker and the elves presents a story about hard working shoemaker who doesn’t have much success with selling his shoes. When it looks his business will definitely fail, a miracle happens.

When he wakes in the morning, a pair of shoes was made from the last piece of leather. It was so well made, he could sell it for enough to buy leather for two pairs and next morning two pairs were really waiting for him. His business unexpectedly expands until he tries to find out who helps him.

When he and his wife find out two elves are helping them and they don’t even have clothes, they prepare them nice present instead of usual pieces of leather. Elves get dressed and stop working but shoemaker’s business is just fine from then on.

the elves and shoemaker story illustrated by robert anning bell

In this case I decided to emphasize three important facts from this fairy tale which was written by Grimms in the time of formation of new society. If we want, it can be great example of early capitalism:

1. The cobbler is working hard but this isn’t enough. He needs something more for success. While in the story this is magic, we can also say he needs something extra to be notices on the market. It doesn’t necessary mean he has to beat the competition, in this case superb quality looks enough  to incite demand on market.

2. When you got first costumers, you need to make another important step: reinvest the profit. In the fairy tale shoemaker doesn’t rest on laurels. Everything he earns, he invests in new material and despite the mysterious helpers he never stops working, he just specializes in his parts of the production process: purchase, cutting and selling. Division of labor is another important feature of capitalism.

3. This one is my favorite observation  – reward of workers. When shoemaker and his wife give elves clothes, they stop working for them. Although in this particular case everything ends well (cobbler’s business runs great even without elves), we can also understand how can a reward be really double edged sword. If you pay your workers too much, your profit will be lower and if they get a chance, they can even leave you and maybe start working on their own. They can actually become your competition and capitalism never liked that.

I am pretty sure the relation between the elf and shoemaker (worker and employer) would not have such a happy ending if the story was written in 21st century…

What do you think?

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Child abandonment in fairy tales

One of the reasons fairy tales are so tremendously powerful lies in simple fact – they are dealing with deepest and darkest fears of almost every child. Being abandoned by parents is certainly one of them.

Hansel and Gretel is probably first coming to one’s mind, especially if we know in older versions parents (it is father’s idea), not step parents (wicked step mother is most known villain) are the ones who abandon the kids.

Well, child abandonment is present in fairy tales in many different forms. Sometimes parents are dead (Babes in the Wood), sometimes incompetent (Cinderella), sometimes powerless (Sleeping Beauty), sometimes helpless due circumstances (Rumpelstiltskin)  and sometimes just lost the deal with more powerful opponent (Rapunzel).


Child abandonment can be positive alternative to certain death

Here are three more literary areas, where child abandonment plays important role:

- In mythology Oedipus is abandoned because of the prophecy (which later came true anyway), Romulus and Remus are abandoned because their great uncle Amulius want to secure his position, Ion was abandoned because he was illegitimate and his mother Creusa was afraid of her parents…

- In Bible Ishmael (his mother was a servant) was abandoned by his father Abraham to secure the privileges of his second soon Isaac (his mother was Abraham’s wife), Moses was abandoned because the Pharaoh ordered to kill all Hebrew newborns and we can say Adam and Eve were abandoned too thanks for failing the test in the Garden of Eden.

- In modern literature we can find numerous instances of abandonments, from Charles Dickens to J. K. Rowling, from Frankenstein’s monster to Leela from Futurama. As we can expect Freud has nice explanation about the popularity of the theme. It is closely connected with separation, but this probably exceeds the purpose of this  post.

What do you say? Was Hegel, German philosopher right, when he claimed the essence of humanity is not to desire but to be object of somebody else’s desire? When nobody craves our company we actually feel abandoned… Do we really live in constant fear of being abandoned?

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Aladdin and the Magic Lamp

Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is probably the most famous among the fairy tales from Arabian Nights.  It starts on the 514. night by the way…

Unfortunately younger generation knows it only from Disney’s adaptation where a lot of original charm (and controversy is lost).

It is not a typical tale from the collection because it is set in China, although most of the names are Arabic. Many experts believe China (setting of the story) and Morocco (where the evil sourcerer comes from) are only locations which should be more appropriately called East and West or even far far away, as we are more used to in Western fairy tale tradition. Some say the real setting should be Turkestan.

Despite the Oriental setting the plot is pretty close to Western storytelling patterns, the tale includes several known themes from other classical fairy tales, like forbidden room like in the Bluebeard, fight of ordinary guy against great powers like in Jack and the Beanstalk, quest for the princess (pick the name by yourself) and so on.

And we should not forget the magical transformation from irresponsible youngster to successful adult, the transformation by which most of the best fairy tales are known today.


Aladdin and the lamp by Rene Bull

As you may expect, here are three more magical wishes, pardon, amazing facts about the story of Aladdin:

1. Very important is absence of anything similar to Aladdin and the Magic Lamp in Arabic folklore. Antoine Galland, first translator of the collection in Europe got the original manuscript from Syria, but we will probably never know how much came from storytellers and how much is the product of Galland’s own imagination. The other famous story with a questionable background, coming from the same source is Ali Baba and 40 Thieves.

2. China was so popular in Western Europe in 18th and 19th century many theatrical adaptations were made with everything as much looking and sounding Chinese as possible on the stage. Very popular pantomime in England (slightly adapted after more than 200 years it is still played) changed the names of the characters according to – the brands of the teas!

3. Aladdin inspired many famous artists to produce now widely known compositions, movies, literary works nd even video games. One of them was Hans Christian Andersen who’s firs published fairy tale The Tinder-Box is clearly heavily influenced by Aladdin and the magic lamp.

And you? Have you ever read it or you know it only from the silver screen?

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Wilhelm Hauff

Talking about fairy tales the name of Wilhelm Hauff (1802-1827) never pops up among first ones. Most people actually never heard of him and considering his short life this could be expected. But he is still pretty important author who definitely deserves a post in this blog.

Wilhelm Hauff's Little Longnose

Little Longnose by Bertall

 Here are three interesting facts about Wilhelm Hauff and his work:

- He wrote fairy tales by request of Baron Ernst Eugen von Hugel. Hauff was tutor of his children and fairy tales were part of the education program. Many of them were strongly influenced by Orientalism, especially by 1001 Nights (Arabian Nights) and they still inspire artists all over the world.

A nice selection in English translation can be downloaded here. (Beware: Dixon’s illustrations are not in public domain!)

- He was very prolific author. He wrote several novels, short stories and poems. his most important work besides the collection of fairy tales is historical novel Lichtenstein, which was set in 16th century and is sort of hommage to Ivanhoe and Waverley by Sir Walter Scott.

- Wilhelm Hauff was apparently man of the letters. He was inspired by works he liked but also with works he despised. He mocked sentimental novels written by Heinrich Clauren with writing The Man in the Moon which he published under Clauren’s name.

Who knows what interesting stuff could Hauff offer to the world of literature if he didn’t die of typhoid before his 25th birthday?

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Snow White and Rose Red

Snow White and Rose Red This is one of less known fairy tales coming from Germany with broad theme of animal brides and bridegrooms (like Donkeyskin or Beauty and the Beast). It was probably first written by Caroline Stahl at the beginning of 19th century and included in the famous collection of brothers Grimm.

I must warn readers to not confuse Snow White in this fairy tale with Snow White who was hanging out with seven dwarfs. The fairy tale about Snow White and Rose Red is not nearly as passionate and violent as the more known story about a princess and jealous step mother.

It is essentially a tale about ungrateful dwarf (Caroline Stahl titled it exactly like that) which was transformed by Grimms to fit into their model of fairy tales for children. They also added some christian elements like an angel we can see in the illustration below.

Snow White and Rose Red by Alexander Zick

Snow White and Rose Red by Alexander Zick

Despite the fact it is not among best fairy tales ever, it is still very interesting material to study, so I decided to  make three sets of symbols which are abundantly present in Snow Red and Red Rose:

1. Colors: red (vitality, action) and white (purity, simplicity) are already mentioned in the title, but we can notice at least green (freshness, fertility) and gold (maturity, wealth).

2. Animals: deer (vigor), hare (fertility), lamb (gentleness), dove (peace), eagle (pride)  are only few among many animals among bear (power) has the most important role. In older version he acted only as a force punishing the ungrateful dwarf but Grimms made him a prince so they got a chance to conclude the story with marriage.

3. Skin: animal skin is in my humble opinion the most important symbol in this fairy tale where hair and beard also play noticable parts . Prince has to loose bear’s skin to be transformed into human being and suitable groom. This story has several fantastic elements (supernatural beings and talking animals) which classify it as fairy tale but this kind of transformation is extremely important too because without that it wouldn’t talk about changes and fairy tales for kids are essentially important exactly for this reason – to prepare their audience for the inevitable: changes!


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Therapeutic value of fairy tales

Fairy tales are rarely just fairy tales. We all know how tremendous is their power on children but many don’t realize they can be useful for adults too. With their form where imaginative and logical elements are organized in understandable and logical  structure fairy tales offer solutions to numerous psychological issues.


Fairy tales can act as special sort of social glue

Here are only three of the approaches which can be used to get some therapeutic value from fairy tales:

- Imagination. In fairy tales (and all sorts of related forms of narration, here is a for example difference between fairy tales and fables) everything is possible. Characters can experience all sorts of problems and many of these seem unsolvable. Life in fairy tales often seem unfair and cruel, but still keeps some kind of internal logic. This certainly resembles psychological problems which can be better seen through the fairy tales.

- Consolation. Happy ending are without doubt among most popular elements of fairy tales. After all possible (and impossible) problems in the world the hero of the fairy tale in most cases defeats the enemies, achieves goals and lives happily ever after. Not exactly the situation from real world but very close to the message patients (with physical or mental issues) want to hear: everything will be all right. And not too far from message everybody, healthy or not, needs to hear from time to time: no matter how big is the problem, it can be at least partially solved.

- Projection. Most patients can easily empathize with characters in fairy tales. We can all find some kind of similarity between our and Cinderella’s situations after all. If Cinderella can overcome obstacles and if we can feel like her, we can certainly at least believe we can overcome our obstacles. After all fairy tales, myths, fables, legends and everything else, pure fiction or based on true events, can never be made if some anonymous author never experienced the situation similar to the one in a story.

Enough food for thought?

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