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The Gingerbread Man

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NOW you shall hear a story that somebody's great-great-grandmother told a little girl ever so many years ago:1

There was once a little old man and a little old woman,2 who lived in a little old house3 in the edge of a wood.4 They would have been a very happy old couple but for one thing -- they had no little child, and they wished for one very much.5 One day, when the little old woman was baking gingerbread,6 she cut a cake in the shape of a little boy,7 and put it into the oven.8

Presently she went to the oven to see if it was baked. As soon as the oven door was opened, the little gingerbread boy jumped out,9 and began to run away as fast as he could go.10

The little old woman called her husband, and they both ran after him. But they could not catch him.11 And soon the gingerbread boy came to a barn full of threshers.12 He called out to them as he went by, saying:

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
And I can run away from you, I can!13

Then the barn full of threshers set out to run after him. But, though they ran fast, they could not catch him. And he ran on till he came to a field full of mowers.14 He called out to them:

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
A barn full of threshers,
And I can run away from you, I can!

Then the mowers began to run after him, but they couldn't catch him. And he ran on till he came to a cow.15 He called out to her:

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
A barn full of threshers,
A field full of mowers,
And I can run away from you, I can!

But, though the cow started at once, she couldn't catch him. And soon he came to a pig.16 He called out to the pig:

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
A barn full of threshers,
A field full of mowers,
A cow,
And I can run away from you, I can!

But the pig ran, and couldn't catch him. And he ran till he came across a fox,17 and to him he called out:

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
A barn full of threshers,
A field full of mowers,
A cow and a pig,
And I can run away from you, I can!

Then the fox set out to run. Now foxes can run very fast, and so the fox soon caught the gingerbread boy and began to eat him up.

Presently the gingerbread boy said, "Oh dear! I'm quarter gone!"18 And then, "Oh, I'm half gone!" And soon, "I'm three-quarters gone!" And at last, "I'm all gone!"19 and never spoke again.20

1. Now you shall hear a story that somebody's great-great-grandmother told a little girl ever so many years ago: This introduction was included to the tale when it was published in St. Nicholas magazine in 1875, unfortunately without source notes. However, the tale was already well-known at the time and popular with children. It is interesting to note the chain of female storytellers shown in this introduction. A grandmother told a little girl who is apparently now passing along the story as an adult to another generation. While this introduction is primarily a literary device here, it still supports the role of women as storytellers and heads of the kitchen where gingerbread is made.
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2. A little old man and a little old woman: While we are first introduced to the old couple in the story, this tale is not really theirs, but that of the gingerbread man.
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3. Little old house: Note that this is not a romantic fairy tale. It is set in a rural, agrarian setting far away from royalty and/or romance. It is a tale of whimsy for the lower classes.
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4. Edge of a wood: Magic is often found in the woods in fairy tales. Perhaps the wood supplied the magic needed to bring the gingerbread man to life in this story.
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5. They had no little child, and they wished for one very much: Folklore often tells the stories of infertile couples and wished-for children. Sleeping Beauty was finally born to infertile parents, for example.
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6. Baking gingerbread: The rich tradition of baking gingerbread in Europe has lead to its inclusion in folklore. Gingerbread comes in many colors and consistencies, but is usually firm enough to hold a shape or support weight more than other baked goods, hence the popularity of gingerbread figures and houses.

To read an excellent history of gingerbread as a food, visit The History of Gingerbread.
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7. Shape of a little boy: Boy-shaped gingerbread is one of the most popular shapes for gingerbread cookies. While the story doesn't say so, one wonders if the old woman chooses the shape in her hunger for a child of her own.
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8. Put it into the oven: Ovens are often seen as a womb symbol or symbol of birth and transformation in folklore. It's not surprising that the gingerbread boy springs alive from the womb-like oven.
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9. Little gingerbread boy jumped out: Carlo Collodi's Pinnochio is another famous story, although not a traditional fairy tale, in which an inanimate object comes to life.
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10. Began to run away as fast as he could go: This tale, and others like it, are popular in many cultures. Many of the tales are classified under a tale type system called the Aarne-Thompson Classification system. Tales like this one are classified as AT 2025: The Fleeing Pancake. Usually the runaway item is a baked good, such as pancake. You can read about other traditional tales of this type on the Tales Similar to the Gingerbread Man page. These days many authors like to reinterpret the tale into their own cultures. You can see many of these picture books on the Book Gallery For Gingerbread Man page.

In some variations of the tale, the pancake or gingerbread man does not run a way until someone or an animal starts to eat him.
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11. They could not catch him: The entire impetus of the story is the chase. As we add several characters to the chase, comedy and drama ensues. Will anyone catch the gingerbread man? We won't know until the climax of the story.
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12. Barn full of threshers: Before the invention of threshing machines, farm workers, also known as threshers, would separate seeds or grain from the husks and straw after a grain harvest.
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13.  I've run away from a little old woman,/ A little old man,/
And I can run away from you, I can!: The Gingerbread Man is a popular type of tale called the cumulative tale. In a cumulative tale, we find little plot but a lot of rhythm and repetition, such as the gingerbread man's chase and accompanying rhyme as he taunts his pursuers. A new element is added on to the previous list of events until the climax and end of the story. Other well-known cumulative tales in folklore include The House That Jack Built and There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.

The version of the tale I grew up with included the refrain: "Run, run as fast as you can. You can't catch me, I'm the Gingerbread Man!"
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14. Field full of mowers: Before the invention of mechanical mowers, farm workers, also known as mowers, would work in the fields to cut down grass, usually with scythes.
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15.  Cow: A cow would is not known as an agile or fast animal. It is also not considered to be very intelligent. It won't be able to catch the gingerbread with its body or mind.
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16.  Pig: A pig, while often faster than a cow, is not known for its great speed either. It is not an intelligent animal either. It's reputation for greediness still makes it somewhat of a threat to the gingerbread man's future. Just like the cow, it won't be able to catch the gingerbread with its body or mind.
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17.  Fox: The fox usually appears as the animal which eats the gingerbread man. The fox usually uses his cunning and wiles, not his speed, to catch the gingerbread man. Usually the gingerbread man reaches a body of water he cannot cross and the fox offers to carry him across. Once they are out in the water, the fox eats the gingerbread man who can no longer run away. In other versions, the fox tells the gingerbread man (or other food item) that he cannot hear him and asks him to come closer. Once the gingerbread man is close enough, the fox quickly gobbles him up.
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18.  "Oh dear! I'm quarter gone!": This version of the story details the gingerbread man's demise. He is eaten in four bites by the fox. This ending is usually considered too lingering (and gruesome) for modern versions in which the gingerbread is eaten in one large gulp.
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19.  "I'm all gone!": We can't guess how the gingerbread man is able to say this since he is all eaten up!
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20.  Never spoke again: The gingerbread man is eaten--as is right since he is foodstuff and not really a little boy--and thus ends the story. Not happily ever after, but with the end of his life. Never fear, there are always more gingerbread men to be made and eaten.
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