Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2013 Hansel and Gretel

hansel and Gretel nielsen Kay Neilsen

A Tale Not Told

I watch Thalia dragging Teddy behind her through the archway of my study door, opening it wide enough to slip out, leaving it ajar.

She almost chose to have me read Hansel and Gretel, but another story attracted her attention. However, it won’t be long before she will want me to read it. I dread the day.

I remember my mother reading me that story. I think it may have been out of a Golden Book. Rather clumsy, solid-color illustrations appear before my mind’s eye. The theme of child abandonment bothered me deeply, ingrained itself into my psyche, and bothers me still. I don’t want to pass that burden along to my granddaughter.

I decide I’d best prepare myself for this eventuality by reading the original version, but what I read is not quite the story I remember.

Facing starvation, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother browbeats their father into agreeing to the scheme of abandoning the children in the forest. Overhearing them, Hansel devises a plan to drop white pebbles along the way in order to guide him and his sister back home.

The parents’ second attempt succeeds when Hansel is not able to collect pebbles, and, instead, relies on a trail of bread crumbs, which is eaten by birds.

In both cases, when Hansel drops his pebbles or crumbs, he turns his back to his parents, and the father asks him what he is doing. Hansel replies he is looking back at his cat sitting on the peak of the roof, or in the second case at his pigeon sitting there. Both times the stepmother answers that it is the sun shining off of the chimney. I don’t remember that at all in my mother’s reading.

Led by a white bird, the children end up being captured while eating the witch’s edible house (gingerbread is not mentioned). Gretel becomes the witch’s serving girl and Hansel is fattened for a feast.

The day Hansel is to be eaten, the witch tells Gretel to stick her head in the oven to see if it is hot enough. Gretel plays the simpleton, tricking the witch into poking her head into the oven. A quick shove and a slam of the iron door does in the witch.

Hansel and Gretel find treasure in the witch’s house; then they escape, aided by a duck that carries them across a lake to safety and home. Frankly, I don’t remember the duck, the white bird, nor the pigeon; or the cat, for that matter.

Upon returning home, they find their father happy to have them back, and their stepmother deceased.

The bird motif has caught my attention. Is this a reflection of a bird cult among the peasantry from whom the Grimms collected this story? Birds flit throughout this tale. I feel a long, sleepless night of research stretching out before me. I know this is true when I look up from my reading to see Wilhelm sitting by my fireside, staring pensively into the flames.

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