The meaning of a classic fairy tale
Child abandonment, poverty, gingerbread houses, and an enterprising hero: the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel has it all. It arguably has one of the most satisfying plot structures of all the fairy tales. Yet as with the other fairy tales we’ve discussed in previous posts, such as the 4,000-year-old tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a number of the plot features of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and the evolution of the fairy tale, are more complicated than we might remember from the nursery. And a summary and analysis of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ throws up some interesting details concerning the story’s plot and meaning.
One of the most familiar parts of the story is undoubtedly the gingerbread house. But the most familiar version of the tale, namely that by the Brothers Grimm, published in 1812, is ambiguous on this point: they mention bread and cakes, but the bread may well be savoury rather than sweet. Not that this makes much difference to the titular children, who begin devouring the house all the same.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before we attempt to analyse ‘Hansel and Gretel’ any further, a brief summary of the story’s plot. A poor woodcutter and his wife live with his two children – the woodcutter’s wife is the children’s stepmother. The children are called Hansel and Gretel (‘Grethel’ in some versions). The family are so poor that the stepmother persuades her husband to give the children one last piece of bread each, lead them into the forest, light a fire, and then leave them there to fend for themselves, as they won’t be able to find their way out of the forest. Although the woodcutter initially rejects this plan, he’s talked round, and agrees to go along with it. Unbeknownst to the parents, however, Hansel and Gretel have overheard this conversation, and so Hansel hatches a plan: sneaking out the house at night, he fills his coat with small pieces of flint from outside, and then goes to bed. In the morning, when the children are taken into the forest, Hansel stops at regular intervals on the way to drop a flint stone onto the ground, so that – like Theseus in the Labyrinth on Crete – he and his sister will be able to find their way back home.
Sure enough, come nightfall, Hansel and Gretel return home, using the dropped stones to guide them back out of the forest. The stepmother’s plan has been foiled. However, shortly after this she persuades her husband to have another go at executing their plan to abandon the children. Once again, Hansel and Gretel overhear them plotting, but the door is locked at night and Hansel is unable to pick up any stones before they’re whisked off the next morning. Instead, then, he uses his piece of bread, dropping crumbs on the ground as they are led into the forest. But when he and his sister try to find their way home, they discover that the birds have eaten the breadcrumbs that he dropped, and although they try to find their way back anyway, it’s no good. They’re lost in the forest.
The children roam the forest, trying in vain to find their way home. After several days, a bird (ironically, the very thing that got them into this miss in the first place, by gobbling up all Hansel’s crumbs) appears and flies above them, slightly ahead of them. The children follow, and come upon a little house, ‘built of bread and roofed with cakes’ (we’re quoting from the Wordsworth Classics edition: Grimm’s Fairy Tales (Wordsworth’s Children’s Classics)). The window is made of transparent sugar (with this detail, did the Brothers Grimm anticipate the fake sugar glass used in a thousand films and television shows since?). Hansel and Gretel, who have nothing to eat for several days except the few berries they could find, see their chance, and start to eat the house.
The owner of the house, needless to say, isn’t too happy about this. She’s an old woman who invites the children inside and, seeing how hungry they are, gives them each a large meal. But we soon learn that she’s an evil witch, who is in the habit of fattening up children and then cooking and eating them once they reach the requisite size and weight. Her house has been built as a way of luring children to her. (This explains why most versions of the tale replace ‘bread’ with ‘gingerbread’, to complement the cake roof and sugar windows: it’s like a Bake-Off contestant’s dream.) The witch locks Hansel up in the stable and forces Gretel to cook lots of food for him, to feed him up until he’s plump enough for the witch to eat; Gretel she keeps lean and half-starved on crab-shells.
Every day, the witch goes out to the stable and gets Hansel to stick a finger out so she can feel it to test how fat or ‘fed up’ he’s getting. (Very fed up, being locked in a stable, we assume.) But Hansel sticks out an animal bone which the half-blind witch mistakes for a bony finger; he thus staves off his fate day by day. But the witch decides to cook and eat him anyway. She heats the oven, and asks Gretel to step inside to see if it’s hot enough. But Gretel guesses what the evil woman plans to do, so she feigns ignorance and gets the witch to demonstrate how she should look in the oven. Gretel then shoves the witch all the way in the oven and closes the door, leaving the old hag on Gas Mark 6 for two-and-a-half hours.
She rescues her brother from the stable, and the two of them plunder the old woman’s house, finding boxes full of gems and pearls. They take them with them and leave, and – with the aid of a large bird that helps them to cross the river – they manage to find their way back home. When they arrive home, they find their father waiting for them, their stepmother having died while they were away. He’s overjoyed to find that his children are alive, and that they don’t have to worry about starving any more.
The Brothers Grimm apparently had Wilhelm’s friend Dortchen Wild to thank for hearing about ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and so the world owes a debt of thanks to her too. (Wilhelm was evidently thankful: he later married her!) And as the above summary demonstrates, it’s a gem of a story: it’s not difficult to see, with its plucky and sympathetic child-protagonists, its house made out of food, and its sense of real peril, why it’s become such a favourite with ‘children of all ages’. There’s none of the moral iffiness that surrounds Goldilocks, that young blonde who thinks it’s okay to waltz into someone’s house and just help yourself to whatever you can find: Hansel and Gretel’s nibbling of the old hag’s dwelling is occasioned by severe hunger and having been abandoned by a heartless stepmother and a hen-pecked father who should really have known better (and grown a backbone for that matter).
Which brings us to an interesting plot point: is the wicked witch in the ‘gingerbread’ house actually the children’s stepmother? The story doesn’t normally state as much, and the witch in the forest is described as ‘aged’ rather than middle-aged, which we assume the stepmother to be. But then it’s a curious coincidence that, in the short time that Hansel and Gretel are away (a month or so; little more), the stepmother dies. The witch, of course, had perished in her oven. Was the wicked stepmother the wicked witch all along? If so, this is a delicious plot twist in this most delicious and gustatory of fairy tales. But perhaps this is taking the analysis a step too far: they represent the same figure to the children, but are (or were) in fact separate people.
Or one could imagine a tongue-in-cheek Marxist reading of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ which analyses the story – in the spirit of Frederick Crews’ glorious The Pooh Perplex and Postmodern Pooh – as a Marxist fable about the redistribution of wealth whereby the resourceful revolutionaries, Hansel and Gretel, part of a labouring family and thus members of the proletariat, overthrow (or oven-throw) their hated oppressor, seizing her ill-gotten gains (where has she got all that money from – one can’t imagine that paedophagy, or child-cannibalism, is all that lucrative) and ensuring that that wealth is distributed to the working classes.
And it is the resourcefulness and quick-thinking of the children – chiefly Hansel, though Gretel’s ability to see through the evil witch’s intentions and find a way to outwit her is also notable – that help to make this story such an affirmative one in the annals of fairy tales. And it may be that, like many other fairy tales popularised by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century, the basic story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is far older than we realise. For instance, a 14th-century manuscript features a house made out of confectionery, in a story about the Land of Cockayne, a mythical land of plenty in medieval literature that is the direct descendant of Aristophanes’ ‘Cloud-Cuckoo-Land’. Indeed, Linda Raedisch has suggested in Old Magic of Christmas: Yuletide Traditions for the Darkest Days of the Year that ‘Hansel and Gretel’ may even have had its roots in the Great Famine of 1315-20, the event that, thirty years before the Black Death ravaged Europe, decimated the population of the continent.
‘Hansel and Gretel’ continues to enjoy popularity as a classic fairy tale. It inspired the 1893 opera Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck (no, not that one), which has some beautiful music and is well worth a listen. It’s available in full on YouTube.
Image: Illustration of Hansel and Gretel by Alexander Zick, via Wikimedia Commons.