Friday, April 27, 2012

Hansel and Gretel: Savory Morsels and Pure Hearts

Today’s post is the last in a series of posts about fairy tales that worry parents, as reported online by The Telegraph, February 12, 2012 (http://www.telegraph. Fairytales-too-scary-for-modern-children-say-parents.html). Today’s tale, “Hansel and Gretel,” is also one of my favorite tales from the Brothers Grimm.

In fact, I wrote about Hansel and Gretel in the first year of this blog on September 24, 2010. Below you will find the same synopsis of the tale as appeared here in 2010. For that synopsis, I used an online version of the tale, found at

Once upon a time, a man and his second wife, Hansel and Gretel’s stepmother, faced an economic downturn with no bailouts on the horizon. Pop was so distraught about the prospect of starving that he tossed and turned through the night. Dear stepmom suggested that the children be left in the forest so that only two, not four, shall starve. Pop’s conscience troubles him, and he refuses until Stepmom “leaves him no peace.”

Unable to withstand his wife’s nagging, Pop agrees to leave his children alone in the woods where wild beasts may dispatch them. The plan might have worked if the children had not overheard the adults charged with their well-being. Since they were clever little spies, they armed themselves with pockets full of pebbles that reflected the moon’s glow so the pebbles, dropped along the way, led them back home.

The second attempt at ditching the kids was more successful in spite of the kids’ faith in a “good God” who will surely save them. This time, having used all the available pebbles, Hansel crumbles the small slice of bread he had been given for the trip into the woods, but instead of creating a trail to follow back home, he created an elongated bird feeder. Birds ate the crumbs so Hansel and Gretel could not find their way back home. They appear doomed to starve or become a meal for something else that resides in forests.

As the children stumble deeper and deeper into the forest, they see “a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, . . . [it] sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.” So hungry after their trek and night alone, the children begin to eat, rousing the wicked witch inside. She invites brother and sister inside, offers them milk, apples, nuts, and more sugar. She also gives them beds made with clean, white linens. Sweet, innocent Gretel thinks she may be in Heaven.

Alas, she is not. She has once again fallen into the clutches of a duplicitous, wicked woman, one who imprisons Hansel, fattening him for a meal while forcing Gretel to work and weep. On the day of Hansel’s death, the witch builds a fire in the oven and tells Gretel to climb inside to be sure the oven is hot enough for bread. Little, sly Gretel pretends not to understand and asks the witch to show her how. Once the foolish witch is inside, Gretel slams the oven door shut, then runs to release Hansel.

With nothing to fear from the witch, the children help themselves to all the gems and treasure they can find and carry from the witches’ home. Thus endowed with a dowry of sorts, the children set forth to return to their father.

Their goal seems impossible when they reach a large body of water, one they cannot cross, but Nature seems to pity them for in their path, Nature places a snowy white duck that answers the children’s call and transports them one by one to the opposite shore. From there, the children know the way home and rush into their father’s arms.

Stepmom is dead. Dad, we are told, “had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest” and embraces them gratefully. The children then reveal the precious stones they have carried with them so “all anxiety was at an end, and they [all] lived together in perfect happiness.”

This tale could indeed induce nightmares in children. After all, a stepmother tries to put an end to her stepchildren, their own father agrees, and witches thrive upon children. That’s enough to make any child doubt the world in which he lives, but there are other lessons in this tale, some that could be shared with children old enough to discern differences between fairy tales and their own lives.

Below are some of the lessons to be gleaned from “Hansel and Gretel.”

•    Hansel and Gretel are in conflict with their own fear of abandonment and death. The conflict’s resolution suggests that perseverance and quick-thinking will beat even the most evil folks in our path.
•    Hansel and Gretel face wicked women, first their stepmother and then the witch. The conflict’s resolution suggests that evil cannot defeat good in the hearts of innocent children. After all, Hansel and Gretel forgive dear old Dad who has no redeeming value--in my opinion.
•    Hansel and Gretel combat an oppressive adult world inhabited by weak men and wretched women. They overcome, suggesting that even small children can go toe to toe with evil and win--as long as they have plenty of pebbles and snowy white ducks on hand.
•    The forest is an ominous force representing a malignant world wherein unprepared children must find their way. In this world are monsters disguised as kindly residents of sweet candy houses. So far, in the tale, Grimm seems to suggest that children should never talk to strangers or accept an offer of candy. But Nature is also kind in this tale. After all, the children do find a way home, aided by that white duck, so readers might conclude that Nature is neither unkind nor kind; it’s neutral, taking away and giving evenly. Our survival depends upon our own will and resourcefulness.
•    The kids must outwit a witch and white ducks respond to verbal pleas so some sort of magic exists in this story. Hansel and Gretel’s victory suggests that keeping our wits about us and making the most of opportunities are the best magic.

Reading Challenge:

Read about a 2007 Korean film version of “Hansel and Gretel,” posted by Slarek at http://, or stream the film and judge for yourselves. 

Writing Challenge:

Consider the horrific elements of “Hansel and Gretel.” Tell it anew as a horror story, or soften the dark edges of the tale and retell it as a modern-day version wherein the children see through the guile and win the day.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

As I told Hansel and Gretel’s tale, I quoted from a version of Grimm’s story (found at; in the fourth and eighth paragraphs, I needed to add a word within the quoted passage to clarify or emphasize a point. Brackets wrap the insertion to distinguish the addition from the original, quoted passage. This is a legitimate use for brackets, and one that you may use to maintain point of view, verb tense, and logic.