Escape into Magic
Fairy tales allow us to escape into magic while still identifying with ordinary things: family, work, food. Most fairy tales show a happy ending, offering hope in times of darkness - at least for some characters. They reassure us that evil can be contained and destroyed. It lives within witches, step mothers and monsters. Or does it? Perhaps what fairy tales really do is enable us to journey into the darkest most disowned parts of our psyches.
In Dark Enchantment, held in Glebe on 17th November 2018, members of the Australian Storytelling Guild (NSW) and the Australian Fairy Tale Society united to perform four fairy tales and explore their deeper meanings. It was a fabulous event that included puppetry, ritual, dance, ancient and modern versions of the fairy tales, and lots of laugher from the audience. Analyses that followed each tale were rich with symbology, psychology, archetypes, history, and the transpersonal.
My name is Sandie Jessamine, member of the Australian Storytelling Guild (NSW). I was part of the Hansel and Gretel performance. Lindy Nilsson-Mitchell, president of the Storytelling Guild (NSW), has asked Vibha Gulati and I to write about our exploration of Hansel and Gretel. But first, an overview of Dark Enchantment.
It commenced with Rumpelstiltskin, told by storyteller Jill Webster and her puppets. Fairytaler Joe Vandermeer posed the question: who are the real villains? After morning tea, storyteller Les Davidson performed a lively account of The Frog King. Isobel Duncan, fairytaler, explored rites of passage.
In the afternoon, story teller Karen Eastwood presented a traditional version of Hansel and Gretel, and a contemporary Australian adaptation. I explored the transformation of its characters by guiding the audience through a ritual of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey [heroic journey], based on The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) Hansel and Gretel is rich with symbols, and Vibha Gulati, fairytaler and member of the story telling guild, analysed their meanings.
In the final performance, Debra Phillips, fairytaler, and storyteller Jo Henwood, gave an insightful rendition of Little Red Riding Hood, and what if can tell us about transformation and the unconscious.
The Heroic Journey by Sandie Jessamine
There are ripples on the surface of life, produced by unsuspected springs.
And these may very deep – as deeper the soul itself
Joseph Campbell – The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949, P. 42).
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell wrote about how life is a journey of stories, reflected in fairy tales and myths. These stories follow a pattern:
· Separation from ordinary life as we know it: through choice, crisis, illness or tragedy.
· Initiation into the unknown and transition through it.
· Return to the ordinary world, or a new order is created or found. Either way, the voyager has been transformed.
I chose to use the heroic journey after my deeper reading of Hansel and Gretel revealed that it is ultimately a journey into the human shadow. It’s also an empowering story for girls - a rite of passage for Gretel from helpless child to survivor.
And so let us begin.
Hansel and Gretel starts in the ordinary world of the poor woodcutter and his family. Life is settled when there’s enough food. However, they live on the edge of the forest, the edge providing a clue that a fall may come, a descent into chaos. The forest represents the darker unconscious (the shadow). It’s often associated with the more ‘irrational’ parts of the female psyche. Light from the sun (symbolising male) does not penetrate.
When a famine comes, the step-mother is portrayed as cruel, wanting to abandon the children to ensure her survival and the woodcutter’s. The father appears weak when he agrees. Hansel and Gretel is thought to have originated in the great famine of Europe in the 14th century. Abandonment of children may have been realistic, with only those who could contribute to survival receiving food.
When the children overhear their father and step mother, Gretel cries, a normal response for a child fearing abandonment. Hansel takes a leadership role, using his rational brain to form a solution – the pebbles. However, this is a child’s response. The problem for Hansel is how to ward of abandonment.
Once the family enters the forest, the father becomes a shapeshifter, offering protection and warmth through the fire he lights, yet tying a branch to a tree to deceive the children it’s an axe. The child glimpse the ambiguity of their carer but he still represents home.
In the heroic journey, there is often a refusal of the call to adventure into the unknown. The children follow the pebbles home after waiting for moonlight to guide them. The moon, like the forest, is linked to the female psyche and unconscious. In the early stage of the heroic journey, the rational brain and the unconscious work together to lead the children home.
However, if our soul needs to go on a journey and we refuse the call, the forces that push us will strengthen. Another famine comes. This time the step-mother locks the door so Hansel cannot collect peddles. The children are taken deeper into the forest.
The children still refuse the call to adventure, but a bird has eaten the crumbs Hansel scattered. They cannot return the way they have come. The deeper you go into the unconscious (the forest), the less affective the rational mind is at navigating it.
The children are lost. They follow a bird, perhaps the one who ate the crumbs. When they arrive at the gingerbread cottage, we meet another shapeshifter, the witch. She personifies evil and the children’s fears.
The witch has wealth and food yet she devours children. Cannibalism has its roots in fear that has turned into greed. Often it is fear of abandonment. Fear of losing someone can be dealt with by devouring them. Cannibalism, eating dead relatives, was part of ancient rituals.
The children find themselves in the nadir, the most hopeless stop in the heroic journey. It’s a place where all seem lost. The witch is already deep in her shadow. She is a mirror of what life often is in Western Society. Out basic needs are fulfilled yet we can feel empty and unsatisfied. We seek material things to satisfy us or revere youth and cling to it.
Hansel finds himself locked in a stall, waiting to be eaten. He uses the bone - again a rational response - to stall the end. But consciousness can only delay the face of darkness.
In Gretel’s nadir, she must feed her protector so the witch can eat him. Hansel can no longer lead her or save her. Half-starving, she knows she will die too.
A turning point comes when the witch grows impatient for gratification and asks Gretel to climb into the oven to check the heat. Gretel delays this with guile (the rational brain), by asking the witch to show her how. This is not enough to save her. She pushes the witch into the fire, ignoring the old woman’s screams. Witches are burnt because they’re supposedly evil – justification for them to die. Yet Gretel has killed. It is only by claiming her shadow that she has survived the nadir. She has taken on qualities of the witch.
Gretel frees Hansel (woman as rescuer of a trapped male). The children become thieves, stealing the witch’s treasure.
Hansel and Gretel seek home again. They are still children and not ready to be out in the world alone. Yet the water they must voyage over symbolises their first crossing into maturity, earned in the nadir. It is Gretel who determines that the duck can only carry one child at a time. She is ready to move forward without Hansel’s protection or leadership.
When the children return home, the step-mother has died. The step-mother and witch are often viewed as mirror images, the abandoning/devouring shadow. Gretel has taken these qualities into herself by killing the witch and telling Hansel to cross the water alone. They are no longer her projections.
The father is referred to as ‘the man’ not the father, at the end of the story, symbolising the children’s growing independence. We learn he did not have happy hour since he left the children in the woods. Perhaps he went through his own nadir. It is always painful to let go of those we love.
Why do the children forgive him? Hansel has experienced being powerless and trapped. He needed to be rescued. He has experienced weakness, just like the father. Perhaps he understands his father’s choice. Gretel knows that like the step-mother and witch, she can kill or abandon to survive.
Hansel and Gretel is really about the transformation of Gretel. Hansel never ventured away from problem-solving, a realm outside of the unconscious and dreams. He remained trapped in the underworld until Gretel saved him. Gretel had to let go of being the needy child. She had to find the strength, the treasure, that is often found in our worse moments. She had to become her shadow.
Performing Hansel and Gretel by using the heroic journey, resonated with my personal journey. I am putting the final touches on a memoir: Kamballa the Forgotten Girls Home: A Journey through Dissociation. It was short listed for the Walter Stone Australian Life Writing Award this year. To reconstruct this period of my life I’ve had to re-enter my experiences of being trapped and dissociated in a hostile environment as a fifteen-year-old. I’ve had to face my shadow, to bring this story to life. Dissociation is usually defined as detachment from reality. But anyone who has lived and breathed fairy tales or walked through dreams, knows there is no sole reality. There are many worlds hidden beyond the ordinary one, if we just open ourselves to them. We are also many selves. Hansel, Gretel, the woodcutter, the step-mother, the witch: they can be found within one skin.
Symbols in Hansel and Gretel by Vibha Gulati
Dark Enchantment was an inspiring day that combined the best of storytelling and fairy tales. All performances were a magical retelling of cultural struggles through the ages. There was also a focus on contemporary issues. Karen Eastwood’s Australian version of a Hansel and Gretel tale reflected the conflict between mining rights and caring for our environmental.
In my preparation for Hansel and Gretel, I lived with the themes for weeks before and after the presentation. Hansel and Gretel brings up several symbolic dilemmas that face the modern world. Must we kill to survive, as Gretel killed the witch? War is an example of this. How much of our souls would we sacrifice to exist? Would we desert out children during a famine if we knew the alternative might be our death?
I chose to focus on symbology because symbols spring from the collective unconscious. They express the core nature of human beings and unite us through time. Symbols can be deeply personal, containing meaning we attribute to them, based on our experiences. They can provide answers and a path in times of stress.
Let us begin with Hansel as he looks back at his house so he can create a path home with white pebbles. White pebbles symbolise Justice. In ancient Greece a vote with white pebbles indicates that the suspect is not guilty. This points to the innocence of Hansel as he does not blame his parents for the abandonment. Pebbles have been used in grave sites to ensure the rebirth of the spirit. Could this indicate that a part of Hansel needs to be reborn?
There is an innate instinct to return home. Both Hansel and Gretel long to be there despite how they were treated. The familiarity of home is beautifully expressed in the following quote:
The House is afield of dense infinities, laid down, each one, with an almost physical power, in the life we share with all that in being ‘familiar’ has become essential to us, inseparable from what we are. David Malouf – 12 Edmondstone Street (1985)
The next significant symbol in Hansel and Gretel are the birds. Birds play an important role in Shamanic stories across cultures. Shamans adorn themselves with feathers and attempt to communicate with the gods within us. It is a bird that stops the children returning home and a bird that leads them to the gingerbread house. This is an indicator that that the journey must continue for their growth and ultimate good. It will be transformational.
The gingerbread house symbolises the immediate gratification of direct need. Often things look superficially attractive [the gingerbread house] but eventually turn sour, such as relationships or jobs. We assign to the witch qualities which we often condemn, disown or suppress in ourselves, for example, anger, jealousy or envy. The use of fire in the story is a symbol of the possibility of transformation and purification of ourselves. When we think about the howl of the witch, we can recognise this as the 'human shriek', the pain of our addictive behaviours being eradicated. We are all prone to certain habits and tendencies which need transforming. For me, this is part of the human condition, the weaknesses and strengths that make up the human psyche.
In conclusion, the symbols in Hansel and Gretel connect us to ourselves and humanity. Fairy tales may be simple stories but they are timeless because of their archetypes, motifs, and mystery.
·Sandie Jessamine (art therapist, adult education and writer) and Vibha Gulati (social worker) are available for workshops that help people with mental illnesses find magic through art, ritual and storytelling.