Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2013 Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel crane Walter Crane


I look up at the clock ticking away on the mantle over the fireplace. I am not surprised at the late hour. The embers that Wilhelm has been studying all evening have died out, as has my pet theory of the evening, the one about the peasant bird cult. I should have known better. I am not going to tell Augustus of my fluttering after a notion, only to have my wings clipped. He’d smirk at me knowingly. I blame Wilhelm.

It is not clear where the Grimms got Hansel and Gretel. In their notes they say “from different stories current in Hesse.” Some feel Wilhelm heard it from Dortchen Wild, whom he later married.

Looking at three variants of this story, Finette Cendron (also a Cinderella variant), Hop-o’-My-Thumb, and Nennillo and Nennella, there are no birds other than the consumers of edible trails, be the trails of bread crumbs or peas. Even worse for my theory, in Finette Cendron a jackass eats the trail of bran strewn by the heroine.

There are other differences. Ogres take the role of the child-eating cannibal, except in Nennillo and Nennella, where there is no cannibalism. No witches make an appearance in any of these stories. Only Nennillo and Nennella has a stepmother and a brother and sister. Finette Cendron has three sisters, and Hop-o’-My-Thumb has seven brothers. The only common element is the abandonment of the children.

Then I stumble across a comparison of the 1812 and 1857 versions that the Grimms published of Hansel and Gretel. Absent from the 1812 work is the white bird that led them to the witch’s house, and the duck that helped them across the lake.

Another change between the original and the later improvement is the substitution of the stepmother for the real mother, who insists on abandoning Hansel and Gretel in the 1812 tale.

The images of the cat and then the pigeon on the peak of the roof, and the sun shining off of the chimney (think about that for a moment), I suspect are all rather romantic
Wilhelm additions.

This is Wilhelm’s story.

Wilhelm and Jacob, being the two eldest children in the family, felt most keenly their father’s death. They idolized him. Philipp Wilhelm Grimm, a jurist, kept his family well provided, but with his death they fell into immediate poverty.

Although no longer of proper social standing, which disqualified them from full admission, they were allowed to study law at the University of Marburg. They did not get the usual stipend given to wealthier students, and were excluded from student activities and the university’s social life.

As professors at the University of Göttingen, they had to flee for their safety when they ended up on the wrong side, politically, of the Hanoverian King, Ernest Augustus I.

They were abandoned at every turn by their society, dominated by the heartless aristocracy of the Holy Roman Empire. In my Bettelheimish interpretation of Wilhelm, the stepmother represents the society that cast him out. Hansel and Gretel’s father stands in for his own father. An unusual forgiveness is extended to this woodcutter. Complicit in the crime, he should be punished. Instead, he is reconciled with his children and shares in the wealth they bring home.

In later years, after the brothers were published, they finally felt accepted by their peers. Is Wilhelm, through this tale, bringing his father back to life and sharing with him the brothers’ good fortune?

I will not scold Wilhelm for misleading me, but let him brood quietly in my study.

Your thoughts?

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