Hansel and Gretel

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909

"Hansel and Gretel" (/ˈhænsəl/ or /ˈhɑːnsəl/ and /ˈɡrɛtəl/; German: Hänsel und Gretel[1]) is a well-known fairy tale of German origin, recorded by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812. Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister threatened by a cannibalistic witch living deep in the forest in a house constructed of cake and confectionery. The two children save their lives by outwitting her. The tale has been adapted to various media, most notably the opera Hänsel und Gretel (1893) by Engelbert Humperdinck and a stop-motion animated feature film made in the 1950s based on the opera. Under the Aarne–Thompson classification system, "Hansel and Gretel" is classified under Class 327.


(The following summary is based on an 1853 version, discussed by Iona and Peter Opie in 1972.)

Hansel and Gretel are young children whose father is a woodcutter. When a great famine settles over the land, the woodcutter's abusive second wife decides to take the children into the woods and leave them there to be by themselves, so that she and her husband will not starve to death because the children eat too much. The woodcutter opposes the plan but finally and reluctantly submits to his wife's scheme. They are unaware that in the children's bedroom, Hansel and Gretel have overheard them. After the parents have gone to bed, Hansel sneaks out of the house and gathers as many white pebbles as he can, then returns to his room, reassuring Gretel that God will not forsake them.

The next day, the family walks deep into the woods and Hansel lays a trail of white pebbles. After their parents abandon them, the children wait for the moon to rise and then they follow the pebbles back home. They return home safely, much to their stepmother's horror. Once again provisions become scarce and the stepmother angrily orders her husband to take the children farther into the woods and leave them there to die. Hansel and Gretel attempt to gather more pebbles, but find the doors locked and find it impossible to escape from their house.

Illustration by Ludwig Richter, 1842

The following morning, the family treks into the woods. Hansel takes a slice of bread and leaves a trail of bread crumbs to follow home. However, after they are once again abandoned, the children find that birds have eaten the crumbs and they are lost in the woods. After days of wandering, they follow a beautiful white bird to a clearing in the woods and discover a large cottage built of gingerbread and cakes, with window panes of clear sugar. Hungry and tired, the children begin to eat the rooftop of the candy house, when the door opens and a "very old woman" emerges and lures them inside, with the promise of soft beds and delicious food. They comply, unaware that their hostess is a wicked witch who waylays children to cook and eat them.

The next morning, the witch locks Hansel in an iron cage in the garden and forces Gretel into becoming a slave. The witch feeds Hansel regularly to fatten him up, but Hansel cleverly offers a bone he found in the cage (presumably a bone from the witch's previous captive) and the witch feels it, thinking it is his finger. Due to her blindness, she is fooled into thinking Hansel is still too thin to eat. After weeks of this, the witch grows impatient and decides to eat Hansel "be he fat or lean."

The witch prepares the oven for Hansel, but decides she is hungry enough to eat Gretel, too. She coaxes Gretel to open the oven and prods her to lean over in front of it to see if the fire is hot enough. Gretel, sensing the witch's intent, pretends she does not understand what she means. Infuriated, the witch demonstrates and Gretel instantly shoves the witch into the oven and slams and bolts the door shut, leaving "The ungodly witch to be burned to ashes", with the witch screaming in pain until she dies. Gretel frees Hansel from the cage and the pair discover a vase full of treasure and precious stones. Putting the jewels into their clothing, the children set off for home. A swan ferries them across an expanse of water and at home they find only their father; his wife died from unknown causes. Their father had spent all his days lamenting the loss of his children and is delighted to see them safe and sound. With the witch's wealth, they all live happily ever after.

History and analysis[edit]

Illustration by Theodor Hosemann

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm heard "Hansel and Gretel" from Dortchen Wild[2] and published it in Kinder - und Hausmärchen in 1812.[3] In the Grimm tale, the woodcutter and his wife are the children's biological parents and share the blame for abandoning them. In later editions, some slight revisions were made: the wife is the children's stepmother, the woodcutter opposes his wife's scheme to abandon the children and religious references are made.[4]

The fairy tale may have originated in the medieval period of the Great Famine (1315–1321),[5] which caused people to do some desperate deeds like abandoning young children to fend for themselves, or even resorting to cannibalism.

Folklorists Iona and Peter Opie indicate in The Classic Fairy Tales (1974) that "Hansel and Gretel" belongs to a group of European tales especially popular in the Baltic regions, about children outwitting ogres into whose hands they have involuntarily fallen. The tale bears resemblances to the first half of Charles Perrault's "Hop-o'-My-Thumb" (1697) and Madame d'Aulnoy's "Finette Cendron" (1721). In both tales, the Opies note, abandoned children find their way home by following a trail. In "Clever Cinders", the Opies observe that the heroine incinerates a giant by shoving him into an oven in a manner similar to Gretel's dispatch of the witch and they point out that a ruse involving a twig in a Swedish tale resembles Hansel's trick of the dry bone. Linguist and folklorist Edward Vajda has proposed that these stories represent the remnant of a coming-of-age rite-of-passage tale extant in Proto-Indo-European society.[6][7] A house made of confectionery is found in a 14th-century manuscript about the Land of Cockayne.[2]

The fact that the mother or stepmother dies when the children have killed the witch has suggested to many commentators that the mother or stepmother and the witch are metaphorically the same woman.[8] A Russian folk tale exists in which the evil stepmother (also the wife of a poor woodcutter) asks her hated stepdaughter to go into the forest to borrow a light from her sister, who turns out to be Baba Yaga, who is also a cannibalistic witch. Besides highlighting the endangerment of children (as well as their own cleverness), the tales have in common a preoccupation with food and with hurting children: the mother or stepmother wants to avoid hunger, while the witch lures children to eat her house of candy so that she can then eat them.[9] Another tale of this type is the French fairy tale The Lost Children.[10] The Brothers Grimm also identified the French Finette Cendron and Hop o' My Thumb as parallel stories.[11]


  • "Hansel and Gretel" was first adapted for television by the BBC, who broadcast it on December 23, 1937.
  • In 2002 there was a movie adaptation of the classic story. There were a few new characters such as the fairy sandman.
  • In the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer entitled "Gingerbread," the bodies of two young children are found dead in a park. In the context of the episode, the bodies turn out to be those of Hansel and Gretel, a trickster demon who has, throughout history, posed as dead children sacrificed by witches, inciting fear among the townspeople. Their appearance in Sunnydale prompts the frightened mothers of the town to try burning Buffy, Willow and Amy at the stake. The demon is exposed and is killed by Buffy.
  • The young adult novel "Pretty Bad Things", by C.J. Skuse, was strongly inspired by the "Hansel and Gretel" fairy tale and there are many nods to it throughout the book. Main characters, twins Paisley and Beau, are abandoned by their parents as children and become lost in woodland. They have a witch-like grandmother whose house is burned down by the girl twin, Paisley. There is also a media "trail of breadcrumbs" (in the shape of the crimes the teen protagonists commit as teenagers) and both twins are obsessed with candy.
  • In the 2011 animated film Hoodwinked Too! Hood vs. Evil, Hansel and Gretel, voiced by Bill Hader and Amy Poehler respectively, are portrayed as two fat German children who have been kidnapped by an evil witch, thought to be the main antagonist. It is later revealed that Hansel and Gretel are actually the real villains of the film, as they pretended to be kidnapped in order to coerce the heroes into making the goodies that will make them powerful.
  • The Series 2 final episode of BBC's TV series Sherlock, titled "The Reichenbach Fall", features a fairy tale theme with Moriarty as the classic villain. When the son and daughter of an influential American politician get kidnapped from a pricey boarding school, it is up to Sherlock and Dr. Watson to find them. Sherlock soon makes the connection between Jim Moriarty's allusion to Grimm's Fairy Tales and his current case, allowing him to realize that he has just come across the story of Hansel and Gretel. The children are found eating candy laced with mercury in an abandoned sweets factory in Addlestone.
  • Terror Toons 2: The Sick and Silly Show - The witch planned to poison them with a rat and a bottle containing Nitroglycerine, but instead of killing them, it turns them into big headed, crazy cartoon characters: Hansel becomes a giant Demonic anthropomorphic rat and Gretel becomes a criminally insane girl with ugly teeth and a big head. They rip the witch in half and almost immediately they are pulled from their world, to reality and began watching it.
  • Hansel and Gretel appear in the TV series Once Upon A Time played by Quinn Lord and Karley Scott Collins. Hansel and Gretel are gathering kindling as their father cuts wood, but the father disappears. The Evil Queen captures the children and, in return for their being returned to their father, orders them to visit the Blind Witch (who lives in a gingerbread house) and retrieve a satchel. The witch is thrown in the oven and the children return with the satchel, containing a poisoned apple. The children are offered a home but would rather be with their father, so the Queen throws them out. The Queen has their father but refuses to release him. In Storybrooke, the children Nicholas and Ava Zimmer are homeless after their mother's death while their biological father is a mechanic named Michael Tillman in Storybrooke and reluctant to be a parent. Later, when Emma was taking them to Social Services in Boston, she pretends that her car breaks down and calls him. When he arrives to tow her car, she tells him to at least see them before making a decision. He takes them in after all.
  • In 2013, Paramount Pictures released the movie Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with Hansel played by Jeremy Renner and Gretel played by Gemma Arterton. It finds the brother and sister team all grown up and after witches that prey on young children using steampunk-esque weaponry. During the movie, they learn that their mother was a Grand White Witch and Gretel is therefore a witch herself with their immunity to the powers of Evil Witches being a hex cast by their mother.
  • Hansel & Gretel, a 2013 direct-to-DVD mockbuster produced by The Asylum and directed by Anthony Ferrante, starred by Dee Wallace, Brent Lydic and Stephanie Greco.
  • Hansel & Gretel: Warriors of Witchcraft, a 2013 version distributed by Lionsgate and directed by David DeCoteau, starred by Eric Roberts, Vanessa Angel, Booboo Stewart and Fivel Stewart.
  • Hansel & Gretel Get Baked, a 2013 horror-comedy film producer by Mark Morgan, directed by Duane Journey and starining Michael Welch, Molly Quinn and Lara Flynn Boyle.
  • Once Upon a Darkness by Aria Kane is a zombie apocalypse retelling of Hansel and Gretel, to be released June 17, 2013 from Entranced Publishing.
  • In Winter 2014 a young-adult novel, entitled The Sweet Life, by author Joshua J. Johnson, is due to be published. It is the first book in his Twisted Fairytale series. Loosely based on Hansel and Gretel, it follows the characters of Harry Sugarlock and Georgia Sweetcane.
  • In Sound Horizon's Marchen concert, Hansel and Gretel appear in the 5th song (with Intros, 2nd without). They appear with an original character who is taking revenge on the witch.
  • Howard Waldrop adapted the story for "Kindermarchen," (2007) a story which institutionalized the children's departure from home in a horrific way.
  • In the Chris Colfer children's book, The Land of Stories, the witch from Hansel and Gretel makes an appearance when Alex and Conner Baily visit her gingerbread house, the witch's hands scarred and burnt from when she previously had visitors. Conner, however, stops her from wanting to eat them by wishing the witch became a vegetarian.
  • In the Chris Colfer children's book, A Grimm Warning, Conner and Alex visit Pinocchio Prison, where Gretel has been imprisoned for accidentally pushing Hansel off a cliff.
  • In a series of Vocaloid song written by akuno-p Kagamine rin and len sing a song called "abandoned on a moonlit night" where their mother and father abandon their kids in the woods, much like hanzel and gretel were (in the song their names were even such) however upon returning home they refer to this house as the witches house when it was there mother fater living there upon killing the "witch and her henchman" the seven deadly sins were released upon the world and rin and len say "lets go see are "real" mother and father
  • 2013 ballet for the Royal Ballet updates the story to the 1950s America, and draws on contemporary reports of children imprisoned for years, such as Austria's Fritzl case. The ballet premiered in the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio in Covent Garden, London, with a site-specific set designed by Jon Bausor. The dark, adult-orientated production opened to mixed reviews.[12][13][14][15]
  • Hansel and Gretel are referenced in Chanda Hahn's fantasy novel 'UnEnchanted'

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