On Hansel and Gretel & Good (Very)Old-Fashioned Humor
January 2, 2013 § 8 Comments
Ok, so have you guys seen this?
I’m not even mad, I mean, how could I be? It’s hysterical. I can see how some loyal readers might expect me to get all up in some steampunky arms about the ridiculous-looking romp that will surely be Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you, because I’m too busy cracking up.
It looks like fun. I’m gonna see it. At least, I’ll Netflix it when it turns up on Instant, and take a shot every time a witch dies in an unexpected and hilarious manner.
Because there are times for snobbery and contextual hand-wringing, and there are times to just gather around the fire and laugh and laugh and laugh when someone tells a story about a witch getting her just gingerbread desserts.
There’s a misconception pretty widely spread about fairy tales which concerns their morality. When I was in graduate school and teaching freshman writing courses, I used fairy tales—namely, “Little Red Riding Hood”—as tools for students to learn about critical thinking and rhetorical narrative in a low-stakes setting. As we looked at the many iterations of LRRH, the students could see how some fairy tale tellers would manipulate the tale to serve their own purposes. Those purposes ranged from 17th century European court morality to 20th century feminist narrative-reclaiming. But the first thing I had to do for those students, before we dove into the tale, was erase their incredibly pervasive notion that fairy tales are inherently morality stories. Many of them showed me in their very first blog post that they believed that all fairy tales, regardless of edition, historical context, or even Disney film status, were intended to teach a lesson.
Is it true that most fairy tales have, over the course of centuries, revealed something inherent about the values of the cultures in which they were told? Oh absolutely. And when you read the Grimms, Anasayev, or Perrault, there is definitely an element of morality as those collectors attempted to highlight the values in these old tales that reflected their own. Perrault, in fact, pasted a moral onto the end of each of his tales, and gussied up any peasant themes with courtly behavior and merchant-class settings.
What does this have to do with Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters? I’m getting to it. But first, storytime:
Before Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf as punishment for straying from the path, and before Grimms’ Little Red Cap was released from the wolf’s belly with the precious proclamation “I’ll never disobey again,” there was a French peasant tale that had circulated for centuries, and which was dubbed by scholars in the mid-20th century “The Tale of Grandmother.”
It’s a riot.
A little girl goes into the woods to visit her grandmother, and meets a wolf (a “bzou,” actually, which is the French word for werewolf). The bzou tricks her into taking a longer path, while he runs ahead to grandmother’s and gobbles her up. When the girl arrives, the bzou is disguised as the grandmother. He invites the girl in, and invites her to eat and drink the food and “wine” on the table, which is actually the grandmother’s flesh and a jar of her blood. Gross!
The bzou then entreats the girl to undress and get into bed with him. Rapey! She takes off her clothing one by one and then gets into bed, where she realizes pretty quickly that the wolf is not her granny. Instead of losing her cool, she tells him that she has to pee. The wolf tells her to just go in the bed. Gross! She says no, thank you, that’s nasty.
He ties a rope to her, and lets her go outside while he holds the end of the rope. The clever girl ties the end of the rope around a goat (or a sheep or a tree) and runs off, naked and triumphant, into the woods.
The bzou notices that she’s taking an awfully long time just for a piss, and then utters my favorite line in the entirety of the fairy tale galaxy*: “are you shitting a load out there? Are you shitting a load?!”**
When no one answers, the wolf knows he’s been duped and runs after the girl. She reaches home just in time to slam the door in his face. In one version I’ve seen, he’s then shot to death by men in the village.
Hilarious! And even though the girl does her little striptease and talks about unladylike body functions, she isn’t eaten or judged! And can’t you just see everyone gathered around with their moonshine and their woodstove, laughing their asses off as the werewolf yells out the window, and clapping when he’s shot? Morality tale? No. More like, There’s-Some-Scary-Shit-Out-There-and-It’s-Effing-Cold-Out-Who’s-Got-a-Good-Story Tale. If you’d like to read the whole thing, here’s one translation available online.
Before fairy tales got all squeaky clean, and even in many cases afterwards, a good many fairy tales were meant to be laughed at, in the crudest ways. Potty humor, new and novel ways of killing the creepy-crawlies in the woods, someone getting the better of something that would otherwise seem horrifying. There was some scary shit out there for European rural folk in the good old days. Wolves, rapists, weird unexplainable diseases. And you know what they say: laughter is the best medicine. That, and shooting arrows into the neck of whatever’s after you.
So, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. It looks like it’s terribly written, and full of “we’ve got to save those kids” cliches. But then again, “The Tale of Grandmother” is no feat of literature either. At least Hansel and Gretel doesn’t seem to be taking itself as seriously as some other fairy tale fare we’ve been treated to this past year. And watching a witch fly through metal wire and then taking a shot of nice cold vodka is about the closest thing I can imagine to being one of those French, German, Russian (generally dark-woodsy) peasants huddled close on a cold night and laughing and laughing and laughing at everything outside that terrified them. There’s some scary shit out there. I plan to enjoy this one.
*my favorite line, second only to this gem, from “Baba Yaga and the Brave Youth”: “Baba Yaga, don’t touch my spoon!”
** Also translated in some versions as “Are you making cables?” or “Are you making logs?” and the like. What’s important is the crude peasant humor. Nailed it, either way.