As I walked to the repair shop to pick up my car, I noticed a roadside sign for the local community theatre group. They were performing Hansel and Gretel. I thought about this story and silently wondered why a group would choose this play to perform in Calgary at this time of year. As a kid, and then later as a parent, I had never liked this story. It is the story of two children lost in the woods who look foolish because they did not create a reliable system that would allow them to find their way home. We might ask why the parents were not held accountable for allowing them to wander off. Then there is the encounter with the witch, a woman whose goal is to pop the two waifs into the oven and cook them up for a meal for herself. It is so horrifying that I can’t believe it is part of a story meant to be read to children. Why would anyone want to tell this story?
The answer, of course, lies in why we tell any stories to children. Certainly, some are predominantly a source of entertainment, but even entertaining stories can contain an ethical moral; most fairy tales do have an explicit or implicit moral. What is it that the story of Hansel and Gretel is teaching? The major message of the story seems to be that the world is a cold, cruel place filled with things that have the potential to “eat us up.” It tells us to be vigilant and ready to outwit the cruelty of this world. Unquestionably, if that is true, it is a message that must be told in whatever fashion adults and children will be able to hear. If the world is full of evil witches, dangerous stalkers, and corporate thieves, if we can outsmart the witches of this world, then we need to tell this story over and over.
But what about another “fairy tale” - a true one. Once upon a time there was a man and woman placed in a garden by an all-knowing Gardener. The Gardener loved them and wanted them to have a wonderful life in the garden he had created especially for them. He gave them much liberty and very few rules, but even the few rules he gave them proved to be too much for the two people. They broke the rules so completely that the Gardener had to send them away from the garden. Yet, even as he sent them away into a world inhabited by thorns, thieves, and witches he created a way back to the garden. If the couple, or any of their children, ever wanted to return to the beautiful garden, all they had to do was follow his son. The Gardener’s son was a great gardener who could tend even the wildest of soils filled with rocks, thorns, drought, and plant pests. Even in the most difficult of conditions, he could create works of art. He could have stayed in his father’s Grand Garden, but instead he chose to go out into the place where the man and woman had been sent, redeeming lives and patches of soil. There the son worked in obscurity creating small patches of beauty in a world filled with darkness and painful circumstances. The Gardener’s son waited patiently for the children of the garden couple to join him in the redemption process and win back a broken world.
For many of us that is more than just a fairy tale. It is the nature of how we see life. Yes, the world is full of evil witches and those who would take advantage of us at every turn; but there is an answer at hand. The answer is not simply using our wits to outsmart a hungry witch. We all know that the tricksters, false leaders, and pushers who promise candy but give death, can never be completely outwitted or avoided. On our own, there will always be a huckster who will catch us off guard long enough to do great damage in our lives. We need more than ourselves. We need a community all on the same path, following the “way back.” We need the Gardener’s son.