In Defense of Hansel and Gretel

Brief History: Time for another popular one. This German ditty came from the wife of Wilhelm Grimm. A starving couple decides to lead their children into the woods and leave them there to die. Some historians and folklorists think this could be based off the Great Famine of the fourteenth century when Europeans were so hungry and desperate they killed their children out of mercy. The kids in this story try to outsmart Mom and Dad’s amazing parenting skills with a trail of pebbles, but their parents catch-on and take them even further into the woods the next day. Hansel tries to leave breadcrumbs, but you know how well that worked. They find the famed house of gingerbread where a kind old lady gives them diabetes inducing treats. The next morning, she is revealed to be a witch – dun dun dun! The witch’s favorite snack is fat little boys so she locks up Hansel in a cage and feeds him constantly. Side note: the idea of people resorting cannibalism is also something reported to have happened during the Great Famine. Gretel is made to be the witch’s slave. There’s a lot of trying to trick the witch into thinking that Hansel isn’t getting any fatter and the witch underestimating Gretel’s intelligence. In the end, Gretel tricks the witch into the oven, the kids find pearls in her house, and they go back home to find out that their mother died. Of course, I’m sure bringing home pearls guaranteed that he wouldn’t try to abandon them in the woods anymore.

Analysis: I could go on and on about both of the parents. But I’m going to just focus on the women of the story. Let’s start with the less-than-motherly mom and the child-eating witch. Both are introduced as characters the children should trust and both try to kill them. In the case of the mother, this is yet another example of filicide, which is a common theme in fairy tales. Why is it a common theme? Maybe it's better not to think too hard about history on that one. The witch is a little more unique. She fits more into the fears and superstitions of Europe’s past with her trickery and more importantly how she lives in the middle of the forest. People on the outskirts of society were always the first to be accused of dark deeds in the midst of a witch craze. When creating the fairy tale, the witch had to fit the stereotype or the “stranger danger” would have been less cultural. Lastly, Gretel. Even though Hansel uses most of the story attempting to keep his sister safe, in the end she had to rescue them both. This was also a more common theme than most realize. It was often left to the sister to save the family from magical problems.

Blame it on the Victorians: Englebert Humperdinck (real name, not made up) wrote an opera based on Hansel and Gretel which downplayed a lot of the nasty bits. The children are no longer abandoned by their parents, instead getting lost on their own. Despite help from the sandman and a fairy, the kids still end up in the clutches of the witch (who in this version turns children into gingerbread before eating them). This was performed in English for the people of Great Britain and made this kinder interpretation more popular. Some stories also changed the mother into yet another wicked stepmother.

Last thoughts: In best Bugs Bunny voice: Hansel? Hansel?

*If you want know any of the places where some of my research comes from, just contact me.