The Danger of an Appetite

When thinking about food in fairy tales, many would believe that eating plays a minor role throughout the course of these stories, or, at least, is not something of which there should be much concern.  However, in both “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Juniper Tree” by Brothers Grimm, an appetite seems to foreshadow dangerous or even sickening events, implying that eating can lead to horrible consequences.

In the beginning of “Hansel and Gretel,” the children overhear their parents arguing one night.  A poor family, no one in the house has much to eat, and the mother selfishly argues that in order for them to be well fed they must get rid of the children (184).  Her desire to eat is so strong that she would rather give up the children’s lives than go without food.  After one failed attempt to lose the children in the woods, the parents send them deeper into the forest.  Hansel drops breadcrumbs along the way, hoping that they will be able to follow them back to their house.  However, they realize that birds must have eaten the breadcrumbs; without this guide, they cannot find home (186-7).  Again, something’s appetite thrusts the children into danger and not for the last time.  Starved by now, Hansel and Gretel come upon a little house made of food and they cannot resist the temptation to eat.  Gretel “knock[s] out an entire windowpane” and Hansel “[tears] off a big piece of [the roof]” due to their appetite (187).  At this point, even the readers are also delighted about the idea of a house made of delicious food, but the author wishes to change this thought.  The owner of the house is a witch, and after making the children comfortable by giving them pancakes, she imprisons Hansel and has Gretel feed him every day.  The witch’s appetite means danger for the children because she wants to eat them; the more Hansel eats the quicker she will do so (187-8).  Eating always seems to mean trouble for Hansel and Gretel.

Similarly, in “The Juniper Tree,” an apple tempts a young boy and the result is dire.  The boy, who like Hansel and Gretel has a cruel mother figure in his life, comes to eat an apple offered to him by his stepmother.  Once he does so she kills him and makes him into a stew, which she horribly gives to the boy’s father to eat.  He asks for more because the “stew tastes so good”; his desire for food leads him to eat his own son (191-2). This nauseating example of eating does not encourage an appetite; in fact, all of these examples encourage quite the opposite.

Usually when characters eat in these two stories, something dangerous or sickening happens.  In both stories, the authors blatantly discourage an obsession or even an appetite for food.  In order to emphasize this lesson, appetites have the most severe consequences imaginable.

Maria Tatar. Ed. The Classical Fairy Tales. Norton, 1999.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *