Academic journal article Style

Grimm and Grimmer: "Hansel and Gretel" and Fairy-Tale Nationalism

Academic journal article Style

Grimm and Grimmer: "Hansel and Gretel" and Fairy-Tale Nationalism

Article excerpt

Every year during the holiday season in theaters around the world, an old woman is pushed into a roaring oven. As she screams in agony, children on stage and in the audience shriek with delight. Not confined to grand opera, this scenario has been played out in countless tellings of "Hansel and Gretel," voted Germany's favorite fairy tale in 1997 (Zipes Happily 38). That most in the audience are not too troubled by the old woman's fate has much to do with the circumstances of her demise, in particular the fact she had been holding the children captive for weeks with the clear aim of killing and eating them. By way of explanation the Grimm Brothers provide an even more damning reason why we should not feel sorry for the woman in the oven: she was, they write, "a wicked witch" (81). While many readers have found much to admire in "Hansel and Gretel," others have found it to be disturbing in the extreme. (1) The tale has recently made its way into the judicial reasoning of the highest court in the land: writing the majority opinion that overturned California's ban on the sale of violent videogames to minors, Antonin Scalia noted that "Hansel and Gretel (children!) kill their captor by baking her in an oven," (Brown 8).

Whereas recent cognitive literary theorists have tended to stress the beneficial aspects of fiction, (2) this essay will investigate the possible dark side of "narrative transport," a term coined by Richard Gerrig to describe what happens in the mind when we are swept away by a story. As such highly influential narratives as "Hansel and Gretel" demonstrate, the engendering of prosocial behavior is often conditioned by the narrative construction of radical evil, a process by which the simplifying tendencies inherent in story-telling play a key role in demonizing putatively disruptive groups or types. Techniques typical of narrative transport--stereotypical characters and situations, vivid imagery, suspenseful problem solving--immerse readers of the fairy tale in a world in which prospects of abandonment, treachery, and death are overcome through cooperation, ingenuity, and justified violence to create a parable ripe for nationalist appropriation. The historical relationship between the classic fairy tale and nationalist ideology provides an instructive example of how evolutionary predilections and cultural practices could interact to set the stage for cruelties and horrors unimaginable even by the Brothers Grimm.

As Jack Zipes has pointed out, debates over the value and influence of fairy tales have been ongoing since the eighteenth century (Art 138). Since the 1970s, much of this scrutiny has focused on the potentially pernicious influence of degrading gender stereotypes on young minds. Marcia Liebermann writes,

   If we are concerned about what our children are being taught, we
   must pay particular attention to those stories that are so
   beguiling that children think more as they read them "of the
   diversion than of the lesson"; perhaps literature is suggestive in
   direct proportion to its ability to divert. (184) (3)

Lieberman's linking of the influence of fairy tales to their power to divert is supported by recent theories and findings that argue that the persuasive power of fictional narratives lay precisely in their success in circumventing the critical faculties. "Narrative transport" seems particularly suited to describe the fictional worlds to which many a fairy tale character--and reader--have been regularly conveyed. Gerrig writes,

   Someone ("the traveler") is transported, by some means of
   transportation, as a result of performing certain actions. The
   traveler goes some distance from his or her world of origin, which
   makes some aspects of the world of origin inaccessible. The
   traveler returns to the world of origin, somewhat changed by the
   journey (10-11)

Prior to Gerrig, Victor Nell analyzed at length the phenomenon of being "lost in a book," comparing the extreme of this experience to trance; "Attention holds me, but trance fills me, to varying degrees, with the wonder and flavor of alternative worlds" (Lost 77). …

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