Mira C Lambert recently finished her first book, The Sleep Trees
I was at my great aunt’s, whose home I frequented as a child, if not just to listen to her stories, because she spoiled me with a diet of peppermint chocolate and black currant juice. As usual, a big pot of something boiled and bubbled in her cast iron pot. I could smell thyme, garlic and could also make out stalks of celery poking out from under the lid. Sprays of different dried herbs hung from her windowsill, and her kitchen cabinets were full of all sorts of self-made preserves, pickles as well as tinctures and salves. After she had settled me down with my treats, she rung her hands down her apron which I noticed had a few feathers stuck to it. She then sat down in front of me on her old creaking kitchen chair. That day, she decided to tell me the story of Baba Roga, or depending on your origins, Baba Yaga.
Once there lived an old woman called Baba Roga who lived deep in a birch forest where only a feather, doll, or magic thread could find her. They said she feasted on children, naughty children to be exact. The house stood on chicken bones, and walked around by itself, and she flew in the air in a cauldron that was shaped like a mortar.
When she spoke, I listened. My aunt had no book. Like many people from the old country who passed stories from one generation to the next, she kept our peoples’ legends preserved in her memory until they were ready to be shared. But that day my concentration wavered. Unbeknownst to my old aunt, I had gone into her fridge when she was collecting eggs in her backyard chicken coop, and taken a piece of chocolate before she had given me the one I was now eating. There was no confessing. Even adults were afraid of my great aunt, who we also called “Baba.”
Later, in the safety of my bedroom, I took out my fairy tales. In one book a young brother and sister are told to leave the family home by their stepmother. They find themselves lost in a forest, and use breadcrumbs to find their way back, because “losing our way would be the most cruel of things.” In another, there was Jack who traded the family cow and their only source of income for some “magic” seeds. These seeds actually grew into a beanstalk and while climbing it he eventually met a cannibalistic giant. Then there was Snow White who was tempted by a poisonous apple, and of course the wolf who ate the grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood.” There didn’t appear to be any escaping tales of fear, hunger, and abandonment.
While it has often been argued that works like those of Hans Christian Andersen and Brothers Grimm were written under the duress of famine, the use of food and the prevalence of hunger as a common theme in fairy tales might also point to more than the extreme scarcity of food.
Long before they were made into Disney movies, fairy tales were used to educate children. Even before antiquity, Plato wrote that elderly women would tell their children mythoi or symbolic stories. Fairy tales were also told amongst adults who used them as a popular form of nightly entertainment after a long day’s work in the field. By the turn of the 19th century, the growing dissatisfaction with Christian teachings in European countries and the longing for more instinctual wisdom motivated writers like the Brothers Grimm to collect and write down fairy tales. Around this time, many countries also began to collect their national fairy tales.
In his book, The Witch Must Die, Sheldon Cashdan argues that the value of the fairy tale lies within its ability to help children deal with their “internal conflicts.” In his interpretations, he concentrates on the most significant features of specific tales such as greed, gluttony, lust, envy, and vanity. By considering Cashdan’s theory, it can be said that it’s often our unspoken human fears, such as hunger, that are transformed into unnatural or supernatural means in a fairy tale. The use of fear in stories through the use of supernatural characters and magic allows the subconscious mind to more easily process those fears because the reader does not actually have to admit they are an actual part of their own lives. I wondered, then, if my own Baba had specifically chosen the story of Baba Yaga that day as a way to teach me a little something about my own gluttony for sneaking a piece of chocolate.
Marie-Louise von Franz—considered the greatest living heir to Carl Jung, as well as the most recognized interpreter of the symbolism of fairy tales—wrote that fairy tales are the purest and simplest expression of the collective unconscious. She claimed that their value for scientific investigation of the unconscious exceeds all other material. To her, fairy tales represent archetypes in the simplest, barest and most concise forms, and because fairy tales mirror the basic patterns of the psyche, they offer us clues into what is going on in the collective unconscious.
As I grew up, an interest in Jungian psychology and my own writing led me to reread both the fairy tales of my youth and find altogether new ones. My new favourite was “The Red Shoes” by Hans Christian Andersen. Here a young motherless child had made her own pair of shoes with scraps of cloth. Later she is adopted and her wealthy guardian takes her to a store to have a pair of shoes made. Against her guardian’s wishes, the girl chooses a pair of red shoes. One day, she comes across a strange man who remarks on her beautiful dancing shoes, but turns out to be the devil in disguise. Eventually the shoes lead her to dance uncontrollably, so much so that she misses her adoptive mother’s funeral. Finally, exhausted and unable to stop, she begs the executioner to cut off her feet.
A depiction of Baba Yaga, a traditional character in Russian fairy tales
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a Jungian analyst whose seminal work Women Who Run With The Wolves uses fairy tales, myths and other stories to help describe the feminine archetype. She describes the story of “The Red Shoes” as a tale about what happens after a woman’s inner life has been taken from her. The handmade shoes represent a loss of vitality and of a self-made life. Starved of her inner joy and natural instincts, the girl finds herself prone to obsessions, addictions, dancing out of control. “The Red Shoes” can also be described as a story about giving up, about not being encouraged, about failing to feed that inner life or failing to turn off one’s inner fire and then letting one’s flame eventually die or alternatively letting it burn out of control. Estes describes this as being in state of hambre del alma or starved soul, where one experiences a relentless hunger for creativity, sensory awareness, or other instinctual gifts. A woman in this state can be described as having a hunger for anything that will make her feel alive again. On the outside, she may look quite unassuming, but on the inside she “is filled with dozens of pleading hands and empty mouths.” This got me thinking about how sometimes, in our most vulnerable state, we make some poor decisions—be it bad relationships, addictions of various sorts, or simply not following our inner call. Perhaps it could be said that instead of bad decisions, we can better describe what’s going on as an ongoing inner famine, a hunger for something that will nourish and sustain.
In terms of contemporary authors, I can think of several who integrate the themes and styles of fairy tales into their storytelling. Some of my favourite writers, such as Aimee Bender, Amélie Nothomb, and Amy Tan are not only influenced by fairy tales, but tend to mix food and fantasy in their work. Nothomb’s autobiographical book, The Life of Hunger chronicles her early life as a diplomat’s daughter living in Japan, China, New York, and Bangladesh, at the same time she was an anorexic. Nothomb writes of experiencing a state of constant hunger that cannot be satiated with food, the beauty of nature, nor the tenderness showed to her by those who love her. Bender’s book, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake for example, tells the story of nine year-old Rose who, after biting into her mother’s lemon-chocolate birthday cake, is suddenly able to taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. To her dismay, she tastes sadness and desperation. Suddenly, food becomes both a danger and a threat to Rose.
To me, fairy tales and stories in general are much like food. They can have a power over us, containing ingredients for nourishment and repair. They are entrenched with instructions, much like those reflected in a recipe, which can teach us something new or guide us on the complexities of life, and even provide some kind of eventual enlightenment. Stories can also set our inner life in motion, which is particularly important when the inner life is struggling, lost, or famished.
There are similarities between story and recipe
As I finish writing this article, I go to my kitchen to pour myself a bowl of soup that has been simmering all morning. I lean back against the kitchen cabinet to eat it, and look up at the braids of garlic and chilli hanging down on my slowly fogging window. My big black mortar and pestle still carry the traces of various spices I have crushed. Outside my son races through the pine forest improvising various scenes with his friends—the same friends who say his mother tells the wildest of stories. I smile and think there could just be a little bit of Yaga inside all of us.
Mira C Lambert was born in Australia and grew up wanting to be a chef, but was dissuaded by her parents and decided upon a path of humanitarian aid instead. Today she works on developing food security and nutrition programs in developing countries around the world. She recently finished her first novel, The Sleep Trees. Her favourite fairy tale is“The Red Shoes.”