The importance of the fairy tale as a source of cautionary cultural instruction has long been noted by scholars. In this compelling read of such classics as "Little Red Riding Hood," "Hansel and Gretel," and "Snow White," Tracy Willard turns a critical eye on the "Cannibal Mother" -- the ravenous devourer of children. Spinning her own macabre tale, Willard's essay instructs contemporary readers in the treacherous world of psychoanalytic theory. "Good little girls" may choose to read the paper in its original format, from the "Introduction" through "Little Red Riding Hood," to "Hansel and Gretel" and "Snow White," to end safely with the "Conclusion." However, in keeping with the spirit of Reconstruction, Willard's piece has been formatted to provide its own twists and turns through this dark territory. The body of the text, arranged in three segments, provides links in the sidebar that may sidetrack the reader through related concepts in other segments. Willard has also provided us with leaps forward(>>) and backward(<<) through the text, as well as hyperlinks which which lead to the essay's glossary. This format, we hope, will provide our readers with multiple and exciting readings, providing, of course, they make it out alive.

Tales at the Borders: Fairy Tales and Maternal Cannibalism

Tracy Willard

<1> As the fairy tale is a particularly fruitful space in which to represent the needs, fears and desires of humankind, the study and interpretation of fairy tales has a complex and often contradictory heritage. Folklorists, socio-historians, literary critics and psychoanalysts have explored fairy and folk tales armed with different aims and perspectives, achieving varied degrees of success. While often evincing a clear connection to myth, tales offer a new revision of enduring themes, symbols and motifs. Charles Perrault's Contes du temps passe (1697) offered one of the earliest collections of "tales" to the reading public, and facilitated the spread of this type of literature through Europe (Cullinan 172). These tales were arguably the first really exclusive "children's literature." Prior to the seventeenth century, most literature for children revolved around biblical lessons, and any tales told took the form of an oral tradition. The first editions of the Grimm's Kinder-und Hausmarchen (KHM), published in 1812 and 1815 concentrated on sculpting tales to include morality lessons and religious references. Translated into English in 1823, they have become known as the most popular and enduring tales. With the nineteenth century emergence of tales constructed specifically for the moral education of children, comes an opportunity to cast an eye towards topics, themes and recurring motifs important in this education. One such theme/motif is cannibalism. The cannibal character serves many purposes in fairy and folk tales, but usually signifies danger and impending death for the children who happen upon one.

<2> Cannibalism in fairy tales has been at least the passing subject of discussion for many prominent folklorists, historians and literary and psychoanalytic critics, including Marina Warner, Alan Dundes, Iona and Peter Opie, Bruno Bettelheim, Geza Roheim and Jack Zipes. Noting the appearance of the cannibal figure and its possible raison d'etre in specific tales has produced a quantity of criticism on the subject. In the recent publication of Cannibalism and the Colonial World, an interdisciplinary text resulting from the 1995 Essex symposia on the topic of cannibalism entitled "Consuming Others: 'Cannibalism' in the 1990s," participants focused on the cannibal figure's importance in popular culture, finance, and anthropology as well as "postcolonial discussions" (xiii). Marina Warner, who contributes a chapter on cannibalism in fairy tales that center on "male appetite for babies" discusses the prevalence of cannibalism in tales:

Only four stories by Perrault do not feature cannibalism as such ("Cinderella", "Donkeyskin", "The fairies", "Bluebeard"). In the Grimm Brothers' later, seminal anthology, the tally can't be made, as stories of ogres and flesh eating witches are so numerous, and many of them overlap. Yet these collections are the foundation stones of nursery literature in the West (160).

Warner's discussion of male cannibalism in the stories is comprehensive and illustrates conventions of the male centered adventure tale, in which fearsome ogres and giants must be overcome. Warner suggests that "a heroine at the heart of the plot generates a different antagonist;" in her mind this usually entails a cannibalistic bridegroom (164). Although she does not extend her discussion to female cannibalism, Warner does address the figure of feminine evil in From the Beast to the Blonde: "Figures of female evil stride through the best-loved, classic fairy tales: on this earth, wicked stepmothers, ugly sisters: from fairyland, bad fairies, witches, ogresses. In the most famous stories, monsters in female shape outnumber the giants and hobgoblins" (201).

<3> My concern in this essay is not to present tales in which the heroine is necessarily cannibalistic, but more specifically, to investigate the contexts surrounding female cannibal characters. As those female cannibals hold a "mother", "witch" or "step mother" position, the focus here is on the interaction and presentation of a maternal type of cannibalism and its implications. The foundation of this proposition, presented through six tales from both the Perrault and Grimm collections provides evidence of a clear repetition of the phantasized maternal cannibal figure. The figure and the context in which the maternal cannibal appears and evolves lends itself to a deeper psychological reading.

Fairy Tale and Myth

<4> The mythic influence on tale production can be seen in three ways. Jack Zipes presents the argument that tales are closely connected with mythic stories and ancient themes. Their production is also found by other folklorists to surround conflict and attempts at some moments to fortify aristocratic domination and oppressive views, while at other moments allowing a space for subtle opposition (Fairy Tale as Myth 1994). The connection between myth and tale is also explored by Marina Warner, who often presents the mythical analogue to or basis of a tale she discusses. However, Katia Canton takes issue with Zipes' argument about the connection between myth and tale and finds the literary tale a "bourgeois appropriation" (17); she suggests that they "have been edited, rewritten, and modified mirroring the zeitgeist of their author's times. They are works created by specific authors, designed within particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts" (1). The third position, held generally by Jungian analysts, entails the belief that tales are really manifestations of dreams and thus fall under the same "rules" of interpretation. Expanding from this position, it is possible to read the tales from a psychoanalytic perspective, connecting the situations, conflicts, and resolutions to the Kleinian theory of object relations. This perspective necessitates a close reading of the text, including, where possible, investigating revisions through various editions with a view to isolate that which is both projected upon characters and repressed from the texts.

Re-Visioning

<5> Although it is abundantly clear that the literary tale is a social, historical and cultural construction, vulnerable to manipulation and reformulation, my aim is not to explore the historical, cultural or social aspects of tale construction as that is beyond the present scope of this study. The theoretical perspective of this chapter is most closely allied with the idea of finding meaning in tales that presents itself through revisions and is available through close reading of texts and through psychoanalytic interpretation. Many, if not all, tales have suffered a revising process. This process has been uncovered primarily in relation to the Grimms' collections. John Ellis' One Fairy Story too Many (1983), provides many versions of Grimm tales, pointing to changes effected by the brothers to both form and content in various editions. The least well-known "version" is the manuscript version of the tales, which the Grimm brothers sent on October 25, 1810 to Clemens Brentano who was also working on a collection of tales (Ellis 39). This appears as the most "clean" version; an almost unedited presentation of tales supposedly collected from German nurses and maids and then transcribed.

<6> Addressing the revision concern, whenever appropriate I have included as many versions of the tales as possible in order to view them from several perspectives and illustrate not only important points about plot and contextual repetitions, but also to illuminate the changes made over many years with regard to this content. Revisions are instructive as they show, in this case, the evolution of meaning and importance of the maternal cannibal figure. That said, the oral or manuscript versions of the tales still fall necessarily under the sway of socio-cultural ideas of their day. Thus, each revision in its own way has significant bearing on the comprehension and reception of the topics in the tales, here most importantly the idea and use of maternal cannibalism.


Little Red Riding Hood


Hansel and Gretel


Snow White