This weekend, some folklore colleagues and I watched an Estonian film titled “Nukitsamees” which translates to “Little Bumpy” (the title character is a little witch child with horns). The plot begins rather like the Western fairy tale “Hansel and Gretel” with a brother and sister lost in the woods, taken to the home of a witch where they live with the constant threat of being eaten. When they escape, they take the witch’s child with them, and though he is unruly, he eventually chooses to live a human life. There is much rejoicing, singing, dancing, and valorizing of the heteronormative family.
What really struck me about the film, however, was the grim terror that the children experienced while living in the witch’s house. While it was quite graphically depicted in the film, this is a feature of many related stories as well: the despondence and despair of the children upon discovering what they’ve stumbled into. The tale plot about children living in the house of cannibals – be they giants or witches – is quite widespread throughout Europe and Asia (I could go into specifics if I wanted to nerd out about the international transmission of folklore, but I’ll spare you that rant unless someone specifically asks about it).
These tales address very real fears of abandonment and child abuse, but more than that, I believe they deal with the experience of living in an environment that is experienced as harsh, hostile, and dangerous. The children are forced to work all day and night; they know that they could be punished or killed for any arbitrary reason; they know that their bodies will sustain the bodies of their captors, giving the captors life built on death.
What is this really about? I think these stories are about patriarchy, or, more broadly, a hierarchically stratified society that thrives upon the labor of the disenfranchised, literally building the lives of the empowered upon the bodies of the disempowered. In the case of women’s experiences of patriarchy, everything I wrote in the above paragraph applies: women’s labor in the domestic sphere is endless, filling each day and night; women (and men too) are policed and punished for any number of arbitrary transgressions when they step outside their gender roles; and women’s reproductive labor is the foundation of society’s continuation. Sexual assault remains astoundingly prevalent and functions as a powerful threat to keep women in their places, while cultural rhetoric places the blame on women who are raped as though they somehow asked for it.
Much of the same could be said for the working class in a capitalist society; for people of color in a racist society; for the urban poor in a classist society; for the untouchables in a caste society; and so on. These are the people whose bodies bear the brunt of mainstream society’s desires and needs. Those who live more comfortable lives are unaware that they are simply being fattened by the witch before being shoved into the oven.
Stories like “Hansel and Gretel” and “Nukitsamees” give us an emotional vocabulary with which to articulate experiences of fear, complicity, and hostility. Those of us who study culture know that most people can’t articulate the basic principles of the culture they live in, just like they can’t articulate all of the principles of the language they speak. We’re like fish who can’t tell that we’re swimming in water. Our culture is so infused with power relations that we can’t even begin to say where they begin and end.
The setting – a terrifying house that is not a home – intensifies the cultural conflicts we all experience. The hostility is coming from inside the house (sorry, couldn’t resist the temptation to make a BSG reference) when that is the very last place that should be experienced as hostile. Fairy tales as a genre make these artistic distortions, playing with significant themes like home and family, in order to critique these very institutions.
The imagery of terror in stories holds up a mirror so that we can see what our lives are like. Some of us are living comfortably in cages or cradles; some of us are breaking our backs stoking the fire; too many of us have already been eaten, rent limb from limb, or know people who have suffered terribly.
We are all living in the house of cannibals.