04 June 2008

Why Does the Gingerbread Man Run?

I’ve had a draft of this posting on my Blogger site since November 2006, and the publication of the Hungry Tiger Press edition of John Dough and the Cherub spurred me to finish it.

In researching the introduction for that edition, I dug into the folktale that obviously inspired L. Frank Baum to write that novel: the story of the Gingerbread Man. That’s a version of the tale called “The Runaway Pancake,” classified by folklore scholars as Aarne-Thompson type 2025. Examples have been documented in many European cultures, from Ireland to Russia, Norway to Slovenia. (See Prof. D. L. Ashliman's folktexts website for examples of other widespread tales.)

As I understand it, one basis of the study of folklore is that the more widespread a story or motif within a story is, the older it probably is. Conversely, a variation on a story or song that shows up in only a few collected versions is more likely to be a recent creation or addition.

The story of the gingerbread man provides an interesting case study for those guidelines. “The Runaway Pancake” is widespread enough that it must be quite old. In most cases the runaway breadstuff is simpler than a gingerbread man: it’s a “thick, fat pancake” in the earliest printed version (from Germany in 1854), a “wee bunnock” in an early Scottish version, a johnny-cake in a tale from the American South. Gingerbread shaped like a human entered the scene in St. Nicholas magazine in 1875; while that’s an early printed example of the tale, the gingerbread is rare in other versions, indicating it was a recent ingredient.

All the versions of “The Runaway Pancake” have the same middle of the story: the breadstuff rolls or runs away from the people who made it. They give chase, joined by other people and animals. The pancake taunts an increasingly long list of pursuers.

The versions diverge at the ending. In some tales, a wily animal--a fox, a pig--fools the pancake into coming too close, and then gobbles it up. (The picture above, from Joseph Jacobs’s More English Fairy Tales of 1894, shows a fox feigning deafness so Johnny-Cake comes closer.) One version of the story has a fox offering to carry the gingerbread man across a river and gobbling him up on the way.

The variations I find most interesting are those that hint at why a pancake or gingerbread man would up and move in the first place. Sometimes it just doesn't want to be eaten. Other versions offer different explanations with implied moral lessons.

The St. Nicholas retelling, which was printed syllable by syllable for young children to sound out, starts like this:

There was once a lit-tle old man and a lit-tle old wom-an, who lived in a lit-tle old house in the edge of a wood. They would have been a ver-y hap-py old coup-le but for one thing,--they had no lit-tle child, and they wished for one ver-y much. One day, when the lit-tle old wom-an was bak-ing gin-ger-bread, she cut a cake in the shape of a lit-tle boy, and put it into the ov-en.

Pres-ent-ly she went to the ov-en to see if it was baked. As soon as the ov-en door was o-pened, the lit-tle gin-ger-bread boy jumped out, and be-gan to run a-way as fast as he could go.
That version implies that the old woman’s wish for a child was so strong it brought the gingerbread to life. For wanting what she can’t have, she has to chase after her gingerbread, and never catches it.

“Johnny-Cake,” documented in the American South in 1889, starts like this:
Once upon a time there was an old man, and an old woman, and a little boy. One morning the old woman made a Johnny-Cake and put it in the oven to bake.

“You watch the Johnny-Cake while your father and I go out to work in the garden.”

So the old man and the old woman went out and began to hoe potatoes and left the little boy to tend the oven. But he didn’t watch it all the time, and all of a sudden he heard a noise, and he looked up and the oven door popped open, and out of the oven jumped Johnny-Cake and went rolling along end over end towards the open door of the house.
Here the runaway breadstuff becomes a lesson for children about carelessness.

And way back in that German “Thick, Fat Pancake” of 1854, the ending is:
Then three children came by. They had neither father nor mother, and they said, “Dear pancake, stop! We have had nothing to eat the entire day!” So the thick, fat pancake jumped into the children’s basket and let them eat it up.
Once again, there’s a clear moral--but that appears to be a late addition to the tale.

All those variations make me think that the oldest, central part of the story is the pursuit of the pancake or gingerbread man, and his taunting chant at the pursuers. Over the centuries, storytellers in different cultures added different details to explain that core story and invest it with a moral meaning.


Jay said...

There is a possibly older variant where a couple makes a son out of clay. However, the boy proves stubborn and runs off. The big difference is that it swallows people in it's way and grows. Finally, it breaks and the people are released.

I wonder if variants of the tale include "Pinnochio." But then, if you move it from live food items to people making a companion from a usually inanimate substance, then I guess this goes back to Pygmalion.

J. L. Bell said...

There's also the golem legend, which sounds closer to the story of a boy made of clay. In that sort of tale, people make a creature from something not meant to be alive, and suffer the consequences.

The runaway pancake/gingerbread man tale seems to be distinct from those in that the creature that comes to life is something that's normally eaten. In some versions, it runs away because it doesn't want to be consumed. People and animals always chase the runaway because they want to eat it. And the story usually ends with a meal for someone.

John Dough and the Cherub is the rare variant in which the gingerbread man isn't eaten at the end.

Jay said...

Eh, I was probably reading too far into the couple making a creature out of an inorganic substance. I still wouldn't be surprised if they all came from a similar source.

Of course, characters made of inanimate substance fill Baum's: scarecrows, tin men, giant rag dolls, pumpkinheads, sawhorses, wax dolls, wooden men, etc...

I wish he'd given Para Bruin an origin, but I guess those characters are the most fun to read: we don't know where they came from, they just are.

Anyways, let me say that until I'd read your article in the Bugle last year, I missed any connection between John Dough and the classic gingerbread man or pancake (or tortilla or johnny-cake). Thanks for pointing out how a simple fairy tale could evolve into a fantasy novel. (It's all over Baum's work, really.)