The Gingerbread Man
The Gingerbread Man (also known as The Gingerbread Boy or The Gingerbread Runner) is a fairy tale about a gingerbread man's escape from various pursuers and his eventual demise between the jaws of a fox. The story is variety of the class of folk tales about runaway food, which are classified in the Aarne–Thompson classification system of traditional folktales as AT 2025: The Fleeing Pancake. A gingerbread boy as hero is a uniquely American contribution to the tale type.
The Gingerbread Boy makes his first print appearance in "The Gingerbread Boy" the May 1875 issue of St. Nicholas Magazine in a cumulative tale which, like "The Little Red Hen", depends on rhythm and repetition for its effect with one event following hard upon another until the climax is reached. According to the author of the 1875 story (whose name is not known), "A servant girl from Maine told it to my children. It interested them so much that I thought it worth preserving. I asked where she found it and she said an old lady told it to her in her childhood."
In the 1875 St. Nicholas tale, a childless old woman bakes a gingerbread man who leaps from her oven and runs away. The woman and her husband give chase but fail to catch him. The Gingerbread man then outruns several farm workers and farm animals while taunting them with the phrase:
- I've run away from a little old woman,
- A little old man,
- And I can run away from you, I can!
Variations on the 1875 story
The Gingerbread Man remains a common subject for American children's literature into the 21st century. The retellings often omit the original ending ("I'm quarter gone...I'm half gone...I'm three-quarters gone...I'm all gone!") and make other changes. In some variations, the fox feigns indifference to the edible man. The cookie then relaxes his guard and the fox snatches and devours him. In other versions, the Gingerbread Man halts in his flight at a riverbank, and after accepting the fox's offer as a ferry, he finds himself eaten mid-stream.
In some retellings, the Gingerbread Man taunts his pursuers with the famous line:
- Run, run as fast as you can!
- You can't catch me. I'm the Gingerbread Man!
Folk tales of the runaway food type are found in Germany, the British Isles, and Eastern Europe, as well the United States.
In Slavic lands, a traditional character known as Kolobok (Russian: Колобок) is a ball of bread dough who avoids being eaten by various animals (collected by Konstantin Ushinsky in Native Word (Rodnoye slovo) in 1864). "The Pancake" ("Pannekaken") was collected by Peter Asbjornsen and Jorgen Moe and published in Norske Folkeeventyr (1842-1844), and, ten years later, the German brothers Carl and Theodor Colshorn collected "The Big, Fat Pancake" ("Vom dicken fetten Pfannekuchen") from the Salzdahlum region and published the tale in Märchen und Sagen, no. 57, (1854). In 1894, Karl Gander collected "The Runaway Pancake" ("Der fortgelaufene Eierkuchen") from an Ögeln cottager and peddler and published the tale in Niederlausitzer Volkssagen, vornehmlich aus dem Stadt- und Landkreise Guben, no. 319. The Roule Galette story is a similar story from France.
An interesting variation of this trope is found in the Hungarian tale "The Little Dumpling" ("A kis gömböc"), and contrary to the title the main character is not a dumpling, but the Hungarian version of head cheese. In the tale it is the gömböc that eats the others; it first consumes the family that "made" it, and then, rolling on the road, it eats various others – including a whole army – the last of whom is a swineherd. His knife opens the gömböc from the inside, and the people run home. In another variation the gömböc bursts after eating too many people. A similar Russian tale is called "The Clay Guy" ((Глиняный парень)). In it, an old childless couple make themselves a clay child, who first eats all their food, then them, then a number of people, until he meets a goat who offers to jump right into his mouth, but instead uses the opportunity to ram the clay guy, shattering him and freeing everyone.
Joseph Jacobs published "Johnny-Cake" in his English Fairy Tales (1890), basing his tale on a version found in the American Journal of Folk-Lore. Jacobs' johnny-cake rolls rather than runs, and the fox tricks him by pretending to be deaf and unable to hear his taunting verse. In "The Wee Bannock" from More English Fairy Tales (1894), Jacobs records a Scottish tale with a bannock as hero.
Derivations and modern works
The Gingerbread Man (music by Alfred Baldwin Sloane) features a character named John Dough ("John Dough" being another term, current at the time, for a gingerbread man). Ranken's character has no qualms about being eaten. L. Frank Baum's John Dough and the Cherub (1906) and The Road to Oz (1909) also feature a character named John Dough. Baum's John Dough is life-sized creation and scared of being eaten, but ultimately sacrifices his hand to save a child's life.
Modern literary runaway food tales include Ruth Sawyer's Journey Cake, Ho! (1953), a tale about an old couple and their "bound-out boy", Johnny, whose journey-cake is chased by the boy and a variety of animals.
Some tales have ethnic settings such as Eric Kimmel's The Runaway Tortilla (2000) about a desert-roving tortilla who avoids donkeys, rattlesnakes, and buckaroos only to be defeated by crafty Señor Coyote; the Hanukkah version called The Runaway Latkes (2000) by Leslie Kimmelman; and Ying Chang Compestine's Chinese New Year tale, The Runaway Rice Cake (2001). Peter Armour's Stop That Pickle! (2005) is a tale about a runaway deli pickle.
Modern twists on the tale that retain a gingerbread man as protagonist include Janet Squires' The Gingerbread Cowboy; The Gingerbread Kid Goes to School (2002) by Joan Holub; and Lisa Campbell's The Gingerbread Girl (2006). In 1992 Jon Sciezka published The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales. "The Stinky Cheese Man" is a rendition of "The Gingerbread Man" where the cheese man runs away from everyone fearing they will eat him, when really everyone just wants to get away from his smell.
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- D. L. Ashliman (editor/translator) (2000–2010). "The Runaway Pancake: folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther type 2025". University of Pittsburgh. Retrieved December 24, 2013.
- Dodge, Mary Mapes, ed. (March 14, 2012). St. Nicholas: A Monthly Magazine For Boys And Girls, Volume 2, Part 2... Nabu Press. p. 452. ISBN 978-1277939439. Retrieved December 2012.
- "The Gingerbread Boy". St. Nicholas. Scribner & Company. May 1875. Retrieved December 24, 2013.
- Jacobs, Joseph; Batten, John D. (1894). "The Wee Bannock". More English Fairy Tales (2nd ed.). London: David Nutt. pp. 66–70 & notes: 227.
- Hanlon, Tina L.. "Runaway Cakes and Gingerbread Boys." Retrieved 1 November 2008.