Hansel and Gretel: Hard Facts Behind the Fairy Tale

by Tolovaj

Hansel and Gretel is a classic fairy tale with several characteristics which make it different from other well known stories. Let's check 10 most interesting facts about it!

A story about Hansel and Gretel address some of the primal human fear about abandonment, cannibalism and supernatural powers. Due to its gore, it is by

no means the best fairy tale to introduce your kid into the magic of fairy lore. On the other hand, time and hundreds of adaptations proved it's among the most popular ones. In recent years, filmmakers used it's basic plot to create a whole series of highly successful movies for grown-ups.

Yes, horror is a genre with root in folklore. What is so appealing in Hansel and Gretel? Why Bruno Bettelheim, controversial, yet extremely important figure in fairy tale theory pronounced it as an ultimate tale for kids ever? What role had brother Grimm in developing of its popularity? Let's explore...

... top 10 points about Hansel and Gretel to think about!

1. There's a whole family of stories similar to Hansel and Gretel!

  • Le Petit Poucet aka Little Thumb aka Hop-o'-My-Thumb by Charles Perrault is definitely among first ones to mention. We have an ogre instead of the witch, but basically the same plot with even more blood in ogre's house and happily ever ending with both parents alive.

 

  • Brother and Sister aka Little Brother and Little Sister, also written by Grimms starts with a stepmother, who is a witch. Children escape into the wood, and later sister rescues her brother. In this story she is the more responsible one of the siblings from very beginning.

 

  • Babes in the Wood: in this tale parents die, supposedly based on true events, parents die at the beginning. Their kids are left to their uncle, who orders their killing, kids escape, but eventually, die in the wood.
Little Thumbling by Carl Offterdinger
Little Thumbling by Carl Offterdinger
Babes in the Wood by Randolph Caldecott
Babes in the Wood by Randolph Caldecott

2. The story was rewritten and rewritten again:

Hansel and Gretel is a great example to study how Jacob and William Grimm transformed from collectors and scholars into authors and educators. They started writing tales to preserve the cultural heritage, but soon decided to publish them in a different form: instead of how they were, they presented them as they believed they should be.

  • In the 1810 the first manuscript titled Little Brother and Little Sister was written. Don't confuse it with another fairy tale with the same title.
  • In 1812 first edition of Household Tales was published. Grimms already added children's names (Hansel and Gretel are products of their imagination). Parents are still their biological mother and father, but they changed one important detail. Father, who bears an equal share of guilt in manuscript became reluctant at mother's suggestion of kids' abandonment.
  • In the second edition, published in 1819 Grimms began adding religious elements (mentioning of God, Christian symbols,...).
  • It was only in 1840, in the fourth edition of Household Tales, when Hansel's and Gretel's mother became - a step-mother. Evil step-mother is one of signature signs of classic fairy tales.
  • In fifth edition, published in 1857, additional background (famine) was added, to further justifies father's weakness and inability to protect the kids. This is recognized as a final edition of Hansel and Gretel by brothers Grimm.
Hansel and Gretel by Jessie Willcox Smith
Hansel and Gretel by Jessie Willcox Smith

3. We can't skip the symbolism of Hansel and Gretel story

Let's check only a few important elements:

  • Color white: as a color of goodness, innocence and purity it's in strong contrast with dark tones of the woods, witch's cottage or even Hansel and Gretel's home. We have white pebbles and bread crumbs, showing the way home, white birds showing the way to safety, white moon leading the kids through the forest, ... White is not so dominant color in this story like some other color in other ones (red in Red Cap or blue in Little Mermaid), but it is still obvious and powerful.
  • Birds are probably the most studied symbol in this fairy tale. Hansel is looking at (imaginary) white doves on the roof of their house when the kids are leaving their home, a bird is showing them the way to witch's cottage and a duck helping them to cross the water at return. Birds are children's guidance and guardians, with a religious background of the authors in mind, they can be definitely represented as a holy ghost.
  • Bread is a staple food all over the world and simple indicator of poverty. The scarcity of bread in the house (in this fairy tale mentioned several times) is a clear sign of the family's misery.


There is more of symbolism in Hansel and Gretel with a short summary and simple analysis of the story.

Hansel and Gretel by Anne Anderson
Hansel and Gretel by Anne Anderson
Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackahm
Hansel and Gretel by Arthur Rackahm

4. We can find numerous, often complementary, but sometimes contradictory interpretations the story

  • It's easy to see biographical elements of Grimms, especially with their (well documented) rewrittings in mind. They lost a father when they were still kids and the father of Hansel and Gretel (like many other fathers in their collection) is so weak like he was not there at all. They loved their mother and it was hard to present a cruel character, like the mother in original manuscript had. So they, like in several of other fairy tales, replaced it with a step-mother. We have already mentioned religious elements, there is also very touching closeness among siblings, like at brothers Grimm, etc.

 

  • Historical parallels are harder to see. Cannibalism and abandonment of children in a 19th century, when this story was written and published, was close to non-existent, but it seems in folklore it was still very much alive. Father as a woodcutter is a typical representative of a lowest working class, living on the edge of survival. Witch, on the other hand, represents the successful capitalist. She is obviously loaded with goods, and eating children is more of a delicacy than a need for her.

 

  • A psychological view of Hansel and Gretel is definitely the most well-known when this story is in question. A step-mother could be, for instance, explained as the summary of negative characteristics in children's real mother. The emotional conflict in kid's mind when he loves and hates his own mother is solved by splitting her into two separate characters. After that, the symbolic killing of step-mother ends the problem and he can find safety in his mother's arms again. There is much more, of course, but we won't go into that here.

 

More about Anne Anderson and Arthur Rackahm important illustrators of classic fairy tales
Anne Anderson was one of the most popular and prolific illustrators of books for children between both World Wars. She collaborated with her husband on many projects.
Arthur Rackham was one of most popular illustrators for decades. Rackham's work is highly prized among collectors and he made impact on whole generations of younger illustrators.

5. If you are looking for a non-stereotypical fairy tale, this is the one!

While many readers with shallow knowledge about fairy tales insist on stereotypes, which can hurt children's development, we can't accuse Hansel and Gretel of any of the most popular ones. Especially the myth about a passive lady in distress waiting for the prince on the white horse is out of the question in this case.

Gretel is a smart, resolute and well-developed character in this story. The motif of active female characters rescuing their brothers or lovers is actually quite often: we can find it in several Grimms' tales, Andersen's Snow Queen, Russian fairy tales about Vassilissa, Morgiana in Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves ...

6. The Witch

We could find hundreds and hundreds of amazing facts and speculations about witches in general and also the particular witch in this story. Instead of that, let's just focus on her death. Many readers overlook the fact of overlapping of witch's death with the death of kids' step-mother. Everybody knows how the witch died, but only small percentage of variations explain how the stepmother died.

Well, it's really not important - both characters represent the same problem for kids. If they want to survive, both have to die and this is just a part of natural order when old is dying to make a place for new.

Hansel and Gretel by Paul Meyerheim
Hansel and Gretel by Paul Meyerheim

7. It was an important part of Third Reich's propaganda against Jewish people!

One of the most powerful marketing campaigns in human history - propaganda in Hitler's Germany - was built on fairy tales. They were already in virtually all households, they had (and still have) tremendous influence on children, and they address the most basic fears of mankind.

It's natural to blame other for everything that is wrong in one's life and in Germany between the World wars. Jews were more than a convenient scapegoat. Negative characters, including the witch in Hansel and Gretel, were often portrayed with characteristics of Jews and Goebbels personally supervised adaptations.

8. It inspired numerous adaptations for different media

The story of Hansel and Gretel is loaded with drama, what call for usage in every media an artist can possibly imagine. We should mention at least opera from 1893 by Ernst Humperdinck. Oswald, the first important character made by Walt Disney, portrayed Hansel in his own retelling of the story in 1934. Bugs Bunny performed in the role of the rescuer two decades later.

The original gruesome feel of the tale from the 19th century was restored in a new light in 2013 when Hansel and Gretel became witch hunters. We should never forget that fairy tales were originally made for adults!

9. Hansel and Gretel don't offer exactly a desirable moral of the story

Sure, we can learn a lot from this fairy tale, which shows two brave kids who managed to not only save their lives but also destroy powerful enemies and found a treasury by the way. But there are also not so negligible details to think about.

Children in this story are definitely not well-mannered. They are gluttonous, they don't respect the private property of others, they don't learn from their experience and - if we can add a pinch of humor - don't show understanding for differences between their in witch's different cultural background.

Father is not punished. He is too weak to protect his own children. He even helps to deceive them by tying a bough on a tree, so they believed they were hearing his ax when a wind knocked with it. But in the end, kids return to him and reward his incompetence and insincerity with wealth.

Material wealth is the ultimate goal and everything you need for happiness. This is the final message of the story. Hansel and Gretel clearly come from dysfunctional family and a death of the stepmother is only the first step of the solution. But it seems precious stones in Hansel's pockets can solve everything. Is this really the message we should bring to our children?

Please vote!

Do you believe our kids should be spared from unpleasant details of classic fairy tales?
Hansel and Gretel by Theodor Hosemann
Hansel and Gretel by Theodor Hosemann

10. Politically correct and sanitized versions of Hansel and Gretel

After all said we can find several parts of the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel which are hardly suitable for small children, but it seems the modern audience is particularly susceptible to the part where parents leave kids in the wood. It's hard to say if children today are more suspicious than they were a century or more ago or are their parents just more willing to listen to their fears. Being this or that, many publishers decided to change that part and in their sanitized versions Hansel and Gretel are simply lost, not abandoned in the woods.

While in this case children retain trust to their parents, they also lose the satisfaction of dealing with the evil part of their mothers (if psychologists are correct). In my personal opinion, Hansel and Gretel should be told in 'original' version - the version of abandoned children. This is not only suggesting them cruelly, yet realistic fact that sometimes people closest to us can hurt us, it also tells them they have the power to deal with this world as it is: hard, dangerous, but also sweet (remember the cottage, made of sweets?) and full of opportunities.

But to tell the true story of Hansel and Gretel, we need to know if the listeners can deal with this realization. Some children can handle it earlier, some later and some never. It is our job, the job of parents and best storytellers to our kids, to tell the best stories when our children can make the most of them. Or in other words: it is not a question of which version to tell, but when to tell it!

Updated: 01/24/2016, Tolovaj
 
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Which version of Hansel and Gretel is most appealing to you?


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Tolovaj on 04/25/2016

You are right, sandyspider. That's why it's called classi, isn't it? ;)

sandyspider on 03/06/2016

I really don't know which one I like best. The classic is always good.

Tolovaj on 01/31/2016

Very interesting, frankbeswick. It would be nice to compare the perception about elves, dwarfs and other fairy creatures in different parts of the world. I am sure we can find them everywhere, yet they are not the same. In your country, for instance, you have numerous heroic beings, what is in tune with the history of the UK. In our country, they are much more benevolent. We have to dig very deep to find so effective arrowheads - in time of Perun, Svarun and other Slavic mythological figures.

frankbeswick on 01/30/2016

In England people looked at the fossil belemnites, pointed seashells, found in chalk rock and thought that they were elf arrowheads that had been buried in the rock, such was the force with which they were shot. The early English had an ambiguous relationship with the elves. On one hand they believed that elves were capable of firing arrows at you and could be bad tempered enough to do so, but the English thought the elves to be wise. For instance, the only English king ever called great was Alfred,a word that means elf -wise, one who has elf wisdom.

Tolovaj on 01/30/2016

I am so deeply involved in fairy tales, I often forget that many people believe they are just stories for children. I think Hansel and Gretel clearly suggest the opposite and the history (as much as it is available due lack of documentation) shows the same.

It really dosen't matter if we start with Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose (written for nobility on the court of Louis XIV), Straparola's Pleasant Nights (formed after Boccaccio's Decameron) or oral tradition in any country in the world - they were always made for adults in the first place.

It was only after second edition by brothers Grimm, when people started to think they are made for children too. Not exclusively, just for kids, too. Only after commercialisation at the end of 19th century children became primarly target and only after Freud's work psychologists seriously started looking for usefulness of fairy tales in development of kid's mind.

One of greatest charms of fairy tales is in their universal appeal, which is in my opinion at least partly intertwined by ther elusiveness - Tolkien's work 'On fairy tales', where even he as the master of language fails to find a decent definition, is a lovely example.

You also mentioned fairies which are not always good hearted. I agree. If we compare them with characters from fiction, we can conclude, they need to be at least a bit complex to be interesting. Black and white doesn't work in Greek drama. All memorable characters posses several shades of gray (althogh not always 50). Only after beginning of mass production and (for maximum profit necessary) simplification majority of fairy tales started presenting good fairies and bad witches.

It's a natural development. Every adult, who ever tried to explain something a bit more complex to a kids, knows how fast we start simplifying, even for the price of 'truth'.

Uff, I should make a full wizz on that subject ... Thanks, frankbeswick, for commenting!

frankbeswick on 01/30/2016

Tolkien believed that faery [as he spelt it, old English spelling] was an important genre. He called Faerie "The Perilous Realm" for he believed that we wrongly classify fairy tales as exclusively for children. Serious themes and frightening tales belong in fairy literature. It is also worth noting that fairies were not always regarded as benign beings, for they could kidnap children and be quite malicious.

I have spoken to people who still believe in the Sidhe, as they call them in Ireland and Scotland; in Ireland they still have a healthy respect for fairy forts and do not like to disturb them. This belief is probably fading out, but the people to whom I spoke were not foolish or irrational.

Tolovaj on 01/29/2016

Good point, frankbeswick. Where would we be, without fairies and dreamers?

frankbeswick on 01/28/2016

What you believe is important, as you are important in yourself. If you believe in fairy, go for it.

Tolovaj on 01/27/2016

Collective unconscious is hard to prove. As somebody coming from the hard science field (chemistry) I believe in repeatable experiments. And it's hard to repeat the history, so we'll have to rely on documents, which clearly show brothers Grimm rewrote all the stories to suit their beliefs. They did that several times and archived all the evidence.

It's really not important what I believe, I just want to present the facts (which are pretty unreliable due to their age anyway) to open horizons to the people. A fairy tale (or any other story) is never just a fairy tale - it can be a document, a tool, a statement, ... This is the main reason why I like to explore them so much, I guess.

Thanks, Mira, for your comment, it's always a pleasure to see your avatar in my box:)

Mira on 01/27/2016

So you don't believe in the collective unconscious, Tolovaj? What about the works of Joseph Campbell that show how so many archetypes and narrative threads are found all over the world?

That said, I found it fascinating to see how the Grimms changed their story from edition to edition.


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