Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2013 Hansel and Gretel – Part One

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.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2013 Hansel and Gretel – Part Two

Hansel and Gretel crane Walter Crane

Misled

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 inNennillo 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.

Fairy Tale of the Month: November 2013 Hansel and Gretel – Part Three

Hansel-and-gretel-rackham Arthur Rackham

Fears

I must consider that I am irresponsible. I will read Hansel and Gretel to Thalia when she asks for it. And I will do it in full knowledge of the effect it had, and still has, on me. Why will I do this?

Putting aside that my granddaughter has me wrapped around her little finger, I am an adult, and yet I lack the authority to deny a fairy tale. Who am I to question the voices of storytellers who carried this story and its ilk down many a century?

Uncomfortable subject matter is not uncommon in the fairy tale. Besides child abandonment, I can easily find tales dealing with incest, murder, and other cruelty. (I can come up with a longer list of woeful deeds, but I will let these three stand in for all the others.)

Are these not the things from which I want to shelter Thalia? That is what I think I want, but that is not what I do.

Media, if squeamish about incest, revels in murder and mayhem. It has made an industry out of these, starting with the nightly news, going on to video games and horror movies. I do little to protect Thalia from such entertainments, and, if I did, it would be seen as child abuse. I would lock her in a tower to keep out the world.

If I could keep her away from such knowledge, would that be profitable? Only if she could live in a world without misdeeds. To deny to Thalia that such things exist would be to lie to her.

Reality will intrude, even into my study. Certainly Thalia has seen television, video games, and movies. She has seen images of terrible events. What storytelling provides is the opening for her to imagine these terrible events for herself, to participate in the creation of the horrid images. The pictures come to her, not from a screen ready-made, but from within, of her own making. Therein lays the power and danger of storytelling.

Do I refuse to read certain stories to Thalia? I would be growing forbidden fruits for my little Eve to pick. Can I tell her it is only a story, and these things will never happen to her? Certainly not.

The misdeeds are out there. The fairy tales about those misdeeds are out there, and there for a purpose. The tales give Thalia the material to form images over which she has some control. The ready-made images of other media are someone else’s creation thrown at her. I am not belittling these other art forms; many are worthy of Thalia’s viewing, but they are not her own.

When my mother read that story to me, I created the story’s images, but I don’t think they created in me a new fear, one I had not known before. It gave to me a name for a formless, haunting fear, which for whatever reason, already existed within me. Actually, it gave me two names: Hansel and Gretel.

Your thoughts?

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4 Comments

  1. Interesting topic, I agree with your point of view. I see fairytales as a simple way of introducing the good and bad realities of life to a child in a subtle way. We are doing them no favours by wrapping them in cotton wool. But by focusing on the good rather than the bad we stand a chance of letting their mind create scenarios where evil is always vanquished. Do you agree?

    Reply
    • In the Grimms, with few exceptions, good triumphs over evil. The punishment of evil is usually graphic, lending some grimness to Grimm, but the good are rewarded. This is a reflection of another aspect of the fairy tale’s role, the passing along of cultural values.

      Reply
  2. I love your take on this issue, and I adore the way you’ve expressed it clearly, simply, reasonably. But your response to Maria M’s comment brings to mind the fact that two out of three of Hansel and Gretel’s perpetrators got clean away. The step-mother conveniently died during the children’s adventures, or in some versions she just went away. Dad suffers no consequences for his refusal/inability/neglect to stand between his children and abandonment. A cynic might wonder if he would have been delighted to reunite with them had they not been loaded with the wicked witch’s treasures.

    Reply
    • Fathers in these tales are usually on the sideline. I am not sure what that says about the roles of fathers in society at the time these tales were developing. As for the evil step-mother, I always equated her with the witch; when one was destroyed, so was the other.

      Reply

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