LC's Take: Hansel and Gretel
by LC Van Savage
Hansel and Gretel. Oh my. I tried so hard to love that vicious story of abandonment, starvation and cannibalism when my grandmother read it to me, and even when I read it to myself after I learned how. I remember thinking “What’s the deal with those Grimm guys writing that awful horror story?” Yeah, I know, back in the 1940s no one ever said “what’s the deal?” unless they were trading a horse for a cow or something.
The Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, wandered around the German countryside in the early 1800s, and especially a town named Kassel, talking to farmers and villagers, writing down folklore and tales (156 in total), apparently the gruesomer and more horror-filled the better. And one young girl named Doretchen Wild, who told them lots of stories that helped make the brothers famous, married Wilhelm Grimm.
The Hansel and Gretel story, no last name is mentioned, was thought to have started in France in the 1700s and was originally about a house not made of cake and candy, but of gold and jewels where a young girl was held against her will by a giant. She finally sees her break when the big boy is standing near his own fire and she rams him into it and makes her break for freedom. The Brothers Grimm took that story and added siblings, exchanged the giant for a witch, and you know the rest. Years later Walt Disney amended the tale a bit more.
But, and this is an important but, there had to be some kind of moral in all the tales the boys wrote down. Back in my day, it seemed that all kids’ readings had to have those tedious morals mixed into them. What a great, fat bore. And woe unto us if we didn’t get it, and believe me, the Moral Squad – parents, grandparents, teachers, clergy, and all relatives – would hammer moral-loaded questions at us: What did you learn from that story? Oh my, sooo much, we’d say. Will you be a better person now that you’ve read it? Oh gracious, yes, we’d say. Did you understand what the author was trying to tell you? Oh sure, we’d say. And will you apply this knowledge to all your life’s pursuits? Oh goodness, of course, we’d say. Don’t worry about that at all. And then, the coup de grace: “And exactly what was the moral of that tale, young LC?” It was here and at a most tender age I learned the Art of Obfuscation.
What did I learn? I learned about two little scared German kids named Hansel and Gretel whose terribly poor and very wimpy woodcutter father caved into his second wife’s harpy ways, forcing him to take his kids out into the forest and leave them there because she said there wasn’t enough food for them all. Now I rush to say here that I well understand the hits stepmothers have always taken through the literary ages and I want it known I do not believe that stepmothers are automatically evil people. Most are to be lauded for taking on the care and feeding of someone else’s offspring when they likely have a few of-their-own-loins kinds themselves. But back in the days when Jacob and Wilhelm G. were (re)writing those old and scary children’s stories, many of the mothers in the stories were step and all of them were evil, cruel, scheming, and of course seriously ugly. Kind of added a little extra juice to the tales. So I’ll be using the “wicked stepmonster/mother” phrase here. No e-mails please.
Anyway, that night when WSM forced her jelly-spined husband to lead the kids out into the forest and dump them there, Hansel had at first filled his pockets with white pebbles and dropped them as they walked. When their chicken-livered father weepingly abandoned them, they found their way home because the moon shone down on the glittering white pebbles. Stepmama, relieved that the brats were finally out of her life, became livid when she discovered they’d found their way back home and so locked the kids in a room and gave them only a crust of stale bread to eat that night. But Hansel, always the plan-ahead guy, didn’t eat his bread. He put it in his pocket.
The next night, Mommie Dearest sent her husband out again with the frightened kids to the cold, dark forest, and this time, Hansel dropped breadcrumbs from the crust as they walked. But this forest wasn’t just populated with hungry animals with big scary teeth, but hungry birds who flew along behind the small group and ate the crumbs. So once again, with many apologies and beggings for forgiveness, cowardly Dad left his kids alone. Starving, cold, and unable to find their way home, they wandered around the forest. And suddenly huzzah! They found a house made of gingerbread and candy and happily scarfed a lot of it, when suddenly the cunning home-owner appeared. She’d been hiding in the house. Yep, she was a witch. What else? She pulled them inside, locked Hansel in a cage to fatten him up for a future meal, and made Gretel do housework. Now as far as I’m concerned, that Gretel part is major abuse.
But fortunately for the kids, the old crone was a little hard-of-seeing, so when she tested Hansel’ s finger every day to see if he was fattening up nicely, she never noticed that Gretel had substituted an old chicken bone for her brother’s finger, and Haggo would just get annoyed that he was staying so skinny. She then decided oh, to heck with it, a skinny German kid au jus for the main course was better than nothing at all, so she decided to roast and eat him anyway. She demanded that Gretel light the oven, Gretel pretended she didn’t know how, the old lady leaned over the open oven door and lit it, and you know the rest. Gretel shoved her in, locked the oven shut, released her brother, grabbed a big box of gold she’d seen hidden, and they ran out into the forest, taking a few pockets full of candy siding for sustenance, and predictably, the brother and sister soon found their way home.
And guess what? Their overjoyed father was waiting, weeping with joy, shouting the glorious news that the WSM had died and that he would never ever leave his kids in the forest again. H&G gave him the gold and told him he’d never have to chop wood any more, and of course they lived – what else? – H.E.A.
Engelbert Humperdinck wrote an opera of this story. No, not that Engelbert Humperdinck, but the one back in the 1800s. In Munich. Can you believe that? An opera of that story? Ugh. Although at the last minute they eliminated the part about the parents abandoning the kids to the jaws of wild animals in a dark, overgrown, terrifying forest. Apparently all the other stuff was OK.
Now above is the cleaned-up version of that so-called “beloved” child’s story. But seriously, folks, what kid could possibly love that story? Abandonment in a forest, kidnapped by a witch with a serious attitude, who probably had a huge, hooked nose covered with crusty, hairy warts, showing her broken, dirty teeth, wispy grey hair sticking up all over — you know, the standard cliché bad-witch look, Hansel getting fattened up to be eaten, Greta having to do housework etc. etc. I mean what’s to love?
The Grimm boys were well named and were probably good writers, psychologically understanding their subjects well, and their focus readers were children, of course. They appealed to the most basic fears deep inside all kids: abandonment, wild animals with big teeth, night, cold, monsters, no food, terror, loneliness.
But the H&G story eventually lost popularity because of the horrors of World War II and what happened to Hitler’s victims during that horrible, terrible time involving ovens – the high point in the H&G tale.
Next column will be all about Snow White, folks. Remember her? So stand by. You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!
See LC on "incredibleMAINE" at 10:30 a.m. every Saturday on MPBN.