Pancakes are traditionally eaten on Shrove Tuesday (or indeed any Tuesday). In medieval times, the pancake was seen as terribly indulgent. Eating pancakes was a way of letting your hair down and celebrating the end of week. We should point out that, before the Gregorian calendar was introduced in 1582, Tuesday was on Friday, Fridays were on Wednesday and there was only one Saturday a month (which was why peasant folk were often tired on Monday).
The Little Mermaid
Being the height of indulgence, pancakes often represent the permissive side of the human psyche in fairy tales. There are several ancient variations of The Little Mermaid that have the mermaid lured away from the water with the promise of pancakes. This was a cruel practice, in which the mermaids were beached on the riverbanks and then carted off for meat. This was one of the few ways in which country people were able to get some fish (half-fish) in their diet. The life and death tousle between nymphs and men over a pancake, has nowadays evolved into Shrovetide ball games at locations in the country with a nearby river. Sadly, mermaids are no longer able to participate in this games, being extinct or possibly fictional, and modern games are matches between rival towns or counties. Nonetheless, the moral of the original tale is clear: give a man a pancake and he can eat for a day, teach a man to catch a mermaid with a pancake and he can feed a village.
Babdica and the Pancakes
As we toss our pancakes in an iron pan, we may choose to remember the fairytale heroine Babdica. In the earliest version of Babdica and the Pancakes she is cooking pancakes for her family when lightning strikes above the family home. Babdica holds the frying pan out of the window and channels the lightning safely to the ground, ensuring that the thatch on the cottage does not catch fire. The King of the Clouds is so impressed by her bravery and quick thinking he blesses her with the power to produce lemons at will (which is why we have lemon juice on our pancakes). Recent archaeological surveys of the Cerne Abbas Giant earthworks reveal that the chalk man’s enormous phallus was not originally anything of the sort and was actually a pan shaped item that he held in his hand. This theory is borne out by the one of the names given to the hill figure: Babdica’s delight.
The contrast of the indulgence of Shrove Tuesday with the religiosity and self-denial of Lent is perhaps no more obvious than in the Scottish fairy tale of Pip-in-the-Oats (or Princess Pancake). In this tale, having found an apple pip in her bowl of porridge oats and grown a tree from it, from which the apple-blossom fairy then emerges, our heroine is whisked away on a flying pancake to a ball being held by a local laird. In this Cinderella-variant, our heroine dances with the laird’s most handsome son and the two fall in love. However, the fairy exacts a price from Princess Pancake: she must be utterly silent for all forty days of Lent if she wishes to marry her love. She almost succeeds but, on the day before Palm Sunday, she is thwarted when she steps on a thistle (or Irishman, depending on which version you read) and cries out in pain. The moral of this tale is uncertain. Perhaps it is, be grateful for your giant flying pancake and don’t get ideas above your station.
There are a good many more of these long-forgotten fairy tales, and we will bring you more in the coming weeks. The main reason for their obscurity is the fact that their moral messages are flawed, indecipherable and stupid. What would it look like if fairy tales were written in the modern age, when heroines do not submit so readily to the crazy whims of the fairytale universe? It might look something like Disenchanted which is available now for pre-order from Amazon.