Well A to Z bloggers, we've made it eight days and all the way to the letter "H". Today I'm discussing a story I've struggled with for some time. In some ways I see Hansel and Gretel as the most gruesome and horrifying of all the fairy tales. It's quite grotesque, filled with cannibalism and abandonment, witchcraft and murder. But to understand the true horror of the tale, we have to understand its historical context, the changes that were made over the course of its many publications, and the reasons behind those changes.
To begin with, the tale most likely originated during the Medieval period and the Great Famine (which occurred in the early 1300's). Through the course of this unfortunate event, mass death, cannibalism, and even infanticide became horrifically commonplace. We can see the reflection of such practices in Hansel and Gretel, as their parents are faced with a horrible choice to make when their food supply runs too low. This is a problem many Medieval families struggled with, and their decision to abandon the children into the woods – in essence sentencing them to death to ensure the parents own survival – was a choice many families made, though today's social code makes this decision morally abhorrent.
Now when the Grimm brothers originally published the tale in in 1812, the mother and the father in the story were the children's' natural parents. However, when they edited and republished Hansel and Gretel in their 1857 edition they made several changes, the most notable of which was the mother's switch from biological parent to step-mother. In other words, the Grimm Brothers decided to soften the parental betrayal by making it a weak-willed father being led by his unfeeling wife rather than a mom and dad choosing their own lives over the lives of their children. Considering how dark many of their other stories were – toes being cut off, eyes pecked out, etc. – this shows remarkable restraint on their part. If the Grimm Brothers say something is too . . . well, grim . . . then you better believe there's something wrong.
Of course, the story has a "happy" ending whereby the children kill the witch, find jewels and riches hidden in her gingerbread house, make their way back home and are reunited with their father who, after informing them of the mother's death, welcomes them with open arms. But one has to question how happy the story can really be when the brother and sister will forever be haunted by their parent's decision to let them starve to death.
It's definitely one of the most sinister plots in the fairy tale bunch.
My favorite version:
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
This post is part of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. My theme (in case you didn't already guess) is Fairy Tales. Stay tuned for the rest of the alphabet, and if you'd like to check out the other participants, simply click here.