Friday, September 13, 2013
HANSEL AND GRETEL---OR THE STORY OF YOU AND ME
Fairy tales are a sub-genre of the artistic and literary genre known as ‘fantasy,’ the latter being a genre in which life---or at least some aspect of life---is depicted in an ‘unnatural’ (ugh) and highly imaginative manner. The problematic word ‘unnatural’ does not mean ‘unrealistic’ or ‘supernatural’ (whatever that means), but, in fantasies, imagination, wonder and fancy all play very important roles.
Now, most fairy tales are not about 'fairies' at all, although as Theosophist John Algeo has pointed out they are very much about faerie. The latter has two meanings: first, the land of fairies, and second, enchantment. The second meaning is more applicable.
Perhaps the most important thing about fairy tales, apart from the sheer enjoyment that comes from reading or listening to them, or watching them on film, is this---fairy tales are mythological in nature, and their inner or more esoteric meaning is cloaked in allegory, parable and symbolism. Nearly all fairy tales are encoded spiritual and moral lessons (‘road maps’) of great importance---just like the parables of Jesus in the New Testament---and they almost invariably incorporate more than a few fragments (‘gems’) of the Ancient Wisdom, with the spiritual ideas and themes being portrayed in a highly figurative and literary manner. On the surface, or exterior, they largely present as stories for children---Kinder und Hausmärchen (‘Children’s and Household Tales’), in the words of the Brothers Grimm---but their inner or ‘true’ significance is hidden (that is, ‘occult’).
If there is one theme or underlying message contained in the great religions of the world it is this---we come from God (the ‘Great I AM’), we belong to God, we are never truly separate from God, and we are all on our way back to God. Of course, not all the world’s religions use the word ‘God,’ or express this idea theistically, but that is largely immaterial. The idea is still there. Fairy tales graphically depict the Platonic/Neoplatonic---and theosophical---idea of involution and evolution of the soul, or, in the language of the great American mythographer Joseph Campbell, the 'hero's journey' of self-discovery through trial, tribulation and adversity.
Now, most of you will be familiar with the fairy tale ‘Hansel and Gretel.’ The story goes like this. Near a forest a woodcutter lives with his wife and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. The children’s mother has died, the woodcutter’s wife being their stepmother. They are all very poor---indeed, they were starving, so the two children go out in search of food. Actually, it is the stepmother who suggests that they take the two children out into the forest and lose them. Hansel, the boy, overhears the plan, and collects pebbles, so that he can lay a trail to find his way back. He is successful in so doing. For the second ‘trip’ the two children take with them one slice of bread along, which they use to mark a path back to their home by leaving crumbs along the way, but the crumbs are eaten by the birds, with the result that the two children find themselves lost in the forest. After a while, they come upon a little house made of gingerbread---as a result of the assistance of a white bird who guides the children to the house. (Some wonderful symbolism, there!) Hansel breaks off a piece to eat.
Suddenly, the door flies open and an old woman (‘witch’) comes out and invites them in. She feeds them mountains of pancakes and fruit, and then tucks them into bed to sleep. (Note that word---‘sleep.’) What Hansel and Gretel don’t realise is the old woman is fattening them up so she can use them in her favourite dish---‘roasted child.’ Now the two children are prisoners---Hansel is put into a stable---and the old woman keeps feeding them. However, when she asks Hansel to put his finger through the bars of the stable to see how fat he is getting, Hansel holds out a piece of dry bone instead.
Finally, the children escape and push the old woman into the oven. The house dissolves into pearls and precious stones. (Again, wonderful symbolism, there.) The two children fill their pockets with jewels and food and use the trail of bread crumbs to find their way back home. They come to a great expanse of water---and a white duck carries them over it. (Again, wonderful symbolism, there.) Eventually, on the other side, they recognize their surroundings and return rich to their father’s house. Their father welcomes them home, and informs them that their stepmother has died in the meantime. (Wonderful! Note, some commentators suggest that the stepmother and the witch are at least metaphorically one-and-the-same person, because the stepmother dies when the children have killed the witch. Maybe.) They all live happily ever after.
Well, what a great story of involution and evolution! The woodcutter’s house is the spiritual or divine world or realm from which we all come, and to which we all ultimately return. The presence in the story of the stepmother----notice how in fairy tales these stepmothers are never nice---indicates, symbolically, that we have here a material existence into which the human soul (Gretel) and the human spirit (Hansel) have descended. (Note. In ancient symobology the ‘soul’ [that is, the mind including the spiritual or divine 'image' in the mind of our creation and perfectibility) is always female, and the human ‘spirit’ [or ‘life force’] in us is always masculine. That’s just the way it is.) We have the descent into a physical body, and later the ascent again to the spiritual or divine realm---the source from which we all come and to which we all eventually return. We see that so often in fairy tales as well as other secret or sacred literature. We have a white bird---a clear sign of divine guidance (cf the Holy Spirit). The gingerbread house looks so lovely, you want to eat it. The gingerbread house is like the land of Oz (cf The Wizard of Oz), that is, that strange, colourful, wonderful, yet also frightening, world in which we now find ourselves, but it is not the ‘real’ world. It is not our ‘true’ home.
Anyway, soul and spirit enter the physical body---the gingerbread house---but, like us, they experience it (that is, life on earth) as a veritable prison-house in which bad things can and do happen. (Isn’t that life?) Yes, we are in slavery, in bondage, and largely to our false selves which we mistakenly take to be the ‘real’ person each of us is. The old woman, or witch, symbolically represents all those negative, retarding forces that seek to overwhelm, indeed destroy, the human spirit (Hansel). Things like addictions, bad habits, obsessions, compulsions, and attachments and cravings of all kinds. Notice, too, the symbol of the dry bone, which represents all those negative forces that are blind to our true spirit. I think the dry bone especially symbolizes dry, intellectuality, that is forever incapable of discerning or knowing spiritual truths. I firmly espouse the use of reason in solving human problems, but there is something terribly sad and inadequate about dry reason and intellectuality without spiritual wisdom. The fire, and its lighting, symbolically represents some special event or impulse in which the soul awakens---and finds freedom. Spiritual riches---precious stones and jewels---are ours, but first we must cross the Great Water (that is, death). Soul and spirit are carried across the water, and on the far side there is---home.
The ‘message’ of Hansel and Gretel? Seek only what is truly real. See through illusion and delusion. Stay awake. Press on---no matter what happens to you. You will get ‘there’ in the end—no matter how far you stray from the ‘path.’
Note. For those who may be interested, here is a recent address of mine on fairy tales and their ‘inner’ meaning.