How to Read Folklore
This message was written and delivered by Michelle Reyes
How do the powerless make their way through the world?
Around the world and in countries where there are no such things as equality and rights for all; where things like educational access, benefactors and social mobility are impossible; and when the powerful are cruel and oppression abounds, what do the powerless have at their disposal to protect themselves?
The genre of folklore explores this very question. Consider, for example, the story of Hansel and Gretel. Many of you probably know the tale, although in modern times we’ve reduced this story to nothing more than the idea of cute gingerbread houses in the woods. This tale, however, is quite dark. It speaks to one of the most basic and dire struggles of the poor, namely starvation, and the unthinkable choices that families end up making when you’ve run out of options.
“Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy’s name was Hansel and the girl’s name was Gretel. He had but little to eat, and once, when a great famine came to the land, he could no longer provide even their daily bread.
One evening as he was lying in bed worrying about his problems, he sighed and said to his wife, “What is to become of us? How can we feed our children when we have nothing for ourselves?”
“Man, do you know what?” answered the woman. “Early tomorrow morning we will take the two children out into the thickest part of the woods, make a fire for them, and give each of them a little piece of bread, then leave them by themselves and go off to our work. They will not find their way back home, and we will be rid of them.”
The children are thenceforth abandoned in the woods, a metaphor for being abandoned in the world and left vulnerable to its great evils. The inevitability of danger for orphaned homeless children is immediately found in their encounter with a witch, who kidnaps them and plans to eat them. This is what poverty has inflicted: helpless, vulnerable children at the margins of society with no one coming to rescue them from abuse.
But when the moment comes for the witch to throw the children into the oven to bake and eat them – a clear act of dehumanization in which the witch treats these little humans as nothing more than animal meat – what does Gretel do? Gretel uses trickery to overcome the old woman. She pretends to be stupid and not 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, lock the oven door, and murder the witch.
Gretel is a trickster, and her ability to survive is dependent on her ability to outwit her oppressor. There is also a bit of irony here as Gretel learned the art of trickery from the old woman herself, who tricked Hansel and Gretel into entering her house. It is this exact duplicity and cunning that Gretel uses to commit murder in order to save herself and her brother.
What are we to do with such a tale?
Many Christians wholesale reject these types of stories. They’re full of duplicity, cunning, immorality even. “These tales are not a model for the Christian life,” I’ve heard more than one person say.
But what many don’t realize is we see these exact types of tales in Scripture.
There’s a whole subset of stories within biblical narrative that would be considered tales of the folk, and in them tricksters abound.