The Gingerbread Man (also known as The Gingerbread Boy) is a folktale about a gingerbread man‘s escape from various pursuers until his eventual demise between the jaws of a fox. “The Gingerbread Boy” first appeared in print in the May 1875, issue of St. Nicholas Magazine in a cumulative tale which, like “The Little Red Hen,” depends on repetitious scenes featuring an ever-growing cast of characters for its effect. According to the reteller of the tale, “A 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 are unable 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 the old lady
- And I can run away from you, I can!
The tale ends with a fox catching and eating the gingerbread man who cries as he is devoured, “I’m quarter gone…I’m half gone…I’m three-quarters gone…I’m all gone!”
The Gingerbread Man remains a common subject for American children’s literature into the 21st century. The retellings often omit the original ending (“I am quarter gone… I am half gone… I am three-quarters gone… I am all gone!”) and make other changes. In some variations, the fox feigns deafness, drawing the Gingerbread Man closer and closer. Then 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 to ferry him across, is convinced by the fox to move ever-forward toward the fox’s mouth.
In some retellings, the Gingerbread Man taunts his pursuers with the famous line:
- Run, run as fast as you can!
- You cannot catch me. I am the Gingerbread Man!
Folk tales of the runaway food type are found in Germany, the British Isles, and Eastern Europe, as well as 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.
A 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 (which is referred to as “gömböc” – “dumpling” – in some regions of Hungary). 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-Boy” (“Гли́няный па́рень”, Glínyanyĭ párenʹ). 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-Boy, shattering him and freeing everyone. The Czech folk tale Otesánek (and the 2000 movie with the same name) follows a similar plot.
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.