May 18, 2010

Fairy Tale Origins – Part II
Hansel and Gretel

As in Little Red Riding Hood, this is a tale of children who are alone in a wood, away from parental influence, and must, through their wits, find a way to navigate the forest and avoid danger.

The story of Hansel and Gretel and its many variations are considered to be simple childrens fairy tales, but many contemporary folk scholars, such as Jack Zipes and Maria Tatar, believe that these tales of poverty, child abandonment, starvation and cannibalism can be traced back to the Middle Ages when people were actually experiencing these problems.

As with most folklore, these early stories were passed down orally. It was not until the 17th century that they were collected and published. The earliest version of Hansel and Gretel was written by Italian folklorist Giambattista Basile, whose Nennillo and Nennella was published posthumously in The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones (1634). In this story a selfish stepmother and her weak husband abandon his two children in order to conserve food. There is no evil witch however. Instead, a pirate kidnaps Nennella and a large fish saves her.

Other early versions involved French writers. Charles Perrault's Le petit Poucet (Little Thumb - 1697) involves seven brothers who stumble upon an ogre’s house after being abandoned by their parents. A year later, Madame Marie-Catherine d'Aulnoy wrote Finette Cendron, a similar story of three princesses who are abandoned by their parents in the woods and find their way to a giant's house.

The most well known of these tales is, of course, the story of Hansel and Gretel as told by the German scholars Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm, first in 1812 and then in revised versions in 1819 and 1857. In the earliest versions of the story, it was Hansel and Gretel’s mother who suggests that they abandon the children not a stepmother, and in fact both parents participated in the decision.

During the Middle Ages, there were many disasters such as famine, war, and plague, which would cause parents to abandon their children. However, while creating a story based on familiar stereotypes, the brothers Grimm were also writing for middle class patrons during the nineteenth century. As a result, some of the original themes were converted to something less unpleasant for children of that era.

For instance, the mother and father’s collaboration in abandoning the children becomes something less sinister but also more morally ambiguous. The mother was turned into a wicked stepmother, so that there was no longer the conflict between mother and child. The father became a weak pawn in the hands of this witch.

Both the witch’s and the stepmother’s relationship with the children and their threat to the children is based on an overwhelming desire for food. The stepmother does not want competition for what little food is available and the witch wishes to consume the children as a delicacy.

In the end, the witch is burned to death in her own oven. Death by fire is a fitting ending that works not only for the genre but also fits with the mode of punishment for those accused of witch-craft.

The ending of the story is particularly difficult. The Grimms attempted to modify the story to fit into the satisfactory ‘happily ever after’ mode, but Hansel and Gretel doesn’t really reach a moral high note. It takes wealth to change them into a happy family and there is no resolution for the father’s lack of character in allowing the children to be abandoned in the first place.

The major change effected by the Grimms during the revision process from the 1810 manuscript edition to the final product lies in the reshaping of the parental figures. In an early version of the tale, both (natural) parents can be seen as "evil" in that they each contribute to the abandonment of their children actively. In subsequent editions, the roles begin to subtly shift so that the father slowly emerges as reluctant victim to the step -mother's evil designs-the "witching" of the female begins.

The mother becomes increasingly sinister in the first edition of the tale, but she is not the only female character to be presented as clearly evil; in this edition, the "old woman" becomes a wicked witch who lay in wait for children and had built her house to tempt them. Whenever one of them got into her power, she killed it, cooked it, and ate it.

The duplicitous nature of the woman/witch is illustrated by her behavior. Before she reveals her evil nature, she first gives the children a good meal of and then puts them into bed. The next morning she puts Hansel in a stable and puts Gretel to work. The story progresses as the manuscript draft does, but when Gretel is asked to enter the oven it is "God" who inspires her to shove the witch in instead.

The second edition (1819) follows the first almost identically until the death of the witch, after which the children take her jewels and then try to return home but can only do so with the aid of a white duck who ferries them across a river.

In the fifth edition (1843), the mother becomes "the wife" and thus a step- mother. She has gained even more zeal to rid herself and her husband of his children, and perhaps to soften the maternal threat to the children, she loses her status as a biological parent. When they return home, the wife blames the children for falling asleep in the wood and being left behind. Again the duplicity of the evil female character is shown, this time in reference to the wife. Much as the wife pretends the children are at fault and pretends that she is happy for their return, so does the witch "pretend to be so kind" in order to fool the children into entering her home. The tale, with some added details, follows the previous editions to its end. This double nature of the female character is corresponds to the split of the child's perception of its mother into good and bad elements.

Grimm’s version of the story
The story the operatic version is based on
Yet another version of the story
The History of Hansel and Gretel

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