Friday’s Fairy Tales: Hansel and Gretel

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So…embarrassingly, I had originally planned to post this Friday’s Fairytales over Hallowe’en because when would this tale be more fitting, since it is the international time of year when kids gorge themselves on sweets? Oops, real life got in the way. It has been a while since I’ve posted a Friday’s Fairytales (the last one being The Frog King on 17th October 2014- man, that flew by)- so let’s get straight into it!

Origins: Hansel and Gretal is probably one of the most recognised tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, published in 1812. Under our favourite Aarne Thompson scale, the tale falls under number 327. Number 327 is divided into two sub-categories. 327 (A): The Children with the Witch, and 327 (B) The Small Boy defeats the Ogre.

Story:

  • There was once a woodcutter, who lived with his second wife and two small children. The children’s mother, his first wife, died some years earlier.

  • A great famine comes to the land, and the stepmother (of course) tells the woodcutter he needs to send the children away into the woods, so that she and her husband will not starve to death due to the kids eating all their food (nice.)

  • The woodcutter initially argues with her but eventually submits to the idea. They do not know that the children have overheard them discussing this plan.

  • While the parents are asleep, Hansel sneaks outside to gather as many white pebbles as he can and returns to his sister.

  • The next day, as the family walk deep into the woods, Hansel manages to leave a trail of white pebbles. Once their parents leave them behind, the children wait for the moonlight so they can follow the pebbles back home in the dark.

  • The stepmother is horrified to open the door and find them standing there. Soon they run short of food and once again, she orders her husband to abandon them in the woods and leave them for dead.

  • This time, she locks their bedroom door, so they cannot escape and look for pebbles to get back home.

  • Hansel sneaks a slice of bread from the home on their way out, and leaves a trail of breadcrumbs. However once they are abandoned again and try to find their way back, they discover the crumbs have been eaten by the wildlife.

  • After days of wandering around in the woods, the children come across a gingerbread house (you know, as you do).

  • The children, who are tired and hungry after days of walking around lost, start trying to eat the gingerbread house, when an elderly woman emerges and invites them inside, promising them warm, soft beds and delicious food. They instantly agree to it- not knowing she is actually a cannibalistic witch who loves the smell of children in the morning.

  • The next day, the witch locks Hansel in an iron cage in her garden and forces Gretel to become her house slave. The witch feeds Hansel regularly, attempting to fatten him up. Resourceful Hansel saves a bone from something he was fed by the witch, and whenever the witch tries to pinch him to feel if he is fat enough to eat yet, he hands her the bone- so she always thinks he is too thin to eat. The witch is blind, so she does not know.

  • After a few weeks of this however, the witch grows fed up of waiting and decides to eat him anyway.

  • As the witch prepares the oven for Hansel, she decides she is also hungry enough to eat Gretel as well. She tries to coax Gretel over to the oven, telling her to check the temperature of the oven for her.

  • Gretel, sensing what would happen, pretends to be dumb and not understand what the witch means.

  • Frustrated, the witch demonstrates, and as the witch is leaning into the oven, Gretel gives her a mighty shove, and bolts the oven door shut, leaving the witch to burn to ashes, screaming in pain as she does.

  • Gretel frees Hansel from his cage, and they discover the witch kept a large amount of treasures, jewellery and precious stones.

  • The children take these jewels, put them in their clothes, and set off for home. A swan helps them across a large body of water and once they arrive home, they find their father, alone.

  • Apparently the wife had died while the children were away, from “unknown causes” (personally I think the husband was so wrecked with guilt he probably bumped her off).

  • With the witches wealth, the children and their father lived happily ever after.

Variations:

The above is actually a later version from 1852. The original version from 1812 contained slight differences- the parents were both the children’s biological parents and shared the blame for abandoning the children. It was only in later editions the “stepmother” element was added.

It is believed that this tale may have it’s origins from the Great Famine of 1315-1321, where people may have desperately abandoned or killed young children, or even maybe referred to cannibalism, to save themselves.

Some theorise that the fact the stepmother died while the children were away, that the stepmother was actually the witch in disguise, the whole time!

Re-tellings:

    1. Sweetly (Fairy Tales #2)- Jackson Pearce

      – you can see my review for this book here

    2. The Magic Circle- Donna Jo Napoli

      – a re-telling from the Witch’s perspective!

    3. The True Story of Hansel and Gretel- Louise Murphy

      – Set during Nazi Germany- looks very interesting

What do you think of Hansel and Gretel?

What do you think of the interesting changes to the mother/stepmother element of this tale? How do you feel it changes the tale- or does it not change it at all?

I also find it interesting that this is classed as “The Small Boy defeats the Ogre”- yes Hansel is resourceful and tricks the witch, but it is actually Gretel who kills the witch once and for all- so why does she not get the credit for it on that scale?

Are there any tales you’d like me to discuss in future?

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