Hansel and Gretel

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909

"Hansel and Gretel" (/ˈhænsəl, ˈhɛn- ...ˈɡrɛtəl/; also known as "Hansel and Grettel", "Hansel and Grethel", or "Little Brother and Little Sister"; German: Hänsel und Gret(h)el[a] [ˈhɛnzl̩ ʔʊnt ˈɡʁeːtl̩]) is a well-known German fairy tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812. Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch living in a forest in a house constructed of gingerbread, cake, confection, candy, and many other treats. The two children escape with their lives by outwitting her. The tale has been adapted to various media, most notably the opera Hänsel und Gretel (1893) by Engelbert Humperdinck. "Hansel and Gretel" is classified under Class 327А of the Aarne–Thompson classification system. A similar fairytale from Hungary is called Cerceruska.

Plot[edit]

The story is set in medieval Germany. Hansel and Gretel are the children of a poor woodcutter. When a famine settles over the land, the woodcutter's wife (stepmother to Hansel and Gretel) decides to take the children into the woods and leave them there to fend for themselves so she and her husband will not starve to death. The woodcutter opposes the plan but finally reluctantly submits to his wife's scheme, unaware that 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. Their father lights a fire for them in the woods, and goes to gather more wood. After a while, the kids realize the father isn't coming back. Gretel cries, but Hansel tells her all will be fine. After nightfall, they follow his shiny pebbles back to the house, arriving by morning. Their father is overjoyed, and takes them back in as he was very upset about leaving them in the first place.

After a while, famine strikes again, and the stepmother insists that they take the kids back to the forest to leave them. This time, she locks the door to their room so Hansel is unable to gather pebbles. Clever Hansel, though, crumbles up the small piece of bread he is given by his parents, and sprinkles crumbs along their path. Unfortunately, birds eat the crumbs, and they can't find their way home. After searching for a very long time, they come upon a house in the woods made of breads, cakes, and sugar.

They eat from the house, as they're very hungry. While they are eating, a witch comes out and invites them inside, offering them a meal, and pretending to be a kind and friendly old woman. After feeding them, she traps them in her house and makes them do chores each day, feeding them well in order to fatten them up for eating.

One day, the witch decides it is time to eat, and has Gretel light the oven and provide water for boiling her brother. After a while, the witch asks Gretel to hop in the oven to make sure it is hot enough to bake bread. Gretel, sensing the witch's intent, pretends she does not understand what the witch means. Infuriated, the witch hops into the oven herself to demonstrate what she wants, and Gretel pushes the door closed behind her, leaving "the ungodly creature to be burned to ashes". 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. They arrive home to hear that their stepmother has since died from unknown causes and their father has not had a happy day since they left their home. They live happily ever after with the witch's wealth.

History and analysis[edit]

Illustration by Theodor Hosemann

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm heard "Hansel and Gretel" from Wilhelm's friend and future wife Dortchen Wild[1] and published it in Kinder- und Hausmärchen in 1812.[2] In the Grimms' version of the tale, the woodcutter's wife is the children's biological mother and the blame for abandoning them is shared between both her and the woodcutter. In later editions, some slight revisions were made: the wife became the children's stepmother, the woodcutter opposes her scheme to abandon the children, and religious references are made.[citation needed] The sequence where the swan helps them across the river is also an addition to later editions. Another revision was that some versions claimed the mother died from unknown causes, left the family, or remained with the husband at the end of the story.[3]

The fairy tale may have originated in the medieval period of the Great Famine (1315–1317),[4] which caused desperate people to abandon young children to fend for themselves or even resort 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, abandoned children find their way home by following a trail. In "Clever Cinders", the heroine incinerates a giant by shoving him into an oven in a manner similar to Gretel's dispatch of the witch, and 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.[5][6] A house made of confectionery is found in a 14th-century manuscript about the Land of Cockayne.[1]

The fact that the mother or stepmother dies after the children kill the witch has suggested to many commentators that the mother or stepmother and the witch are metaphorically the same woman.[7]

In the Russian Vasilisa the Beautiful, the stepmother likewise sends her hated stepdaughter 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.[8] Another tale of this type is the French fairy tale The Lost Children.[9] The Brothers Grimm also identified the French Finette Cendron and Hop o' My Thumb as parallel stories.[10]

Cultural significance[edit]

Staatsoper Wien 2015

The fairytale enjoyed a multitude of adaptations for the stage, among them the opera Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck—one of today's most performed operas.[11] A contemporary reimagining of the story, Mátti Kovler's musical fairytale Ami & Tami, was produced in Israel and the United States and subsequently released as a symphonic album.[12][13] Elements from the story were used in the 1994 horror film Wes Craven's New Nightmare for its climax. Hansel and Gretel's trail of breadcrumbs has also inspired the name of the navigation element "breadcrumbs" that allows users to keep track of their locations within programs or documents.[14]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ In German, the names are diminutives of Johannes (John) and Margarete (Margaret).

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. ^ a b Opie & Opie 1974, p. 237
  2. ^ Tatar (2002), p. 44
  3. ^ Tatar (2002), p. 45
  4. ^ Raedisch (2013), p. 180
  5. ^ Vajda (2010)
  6. ^ Vajda (2011)
  7. ^ Lüthi 1970, p. 64
  8. ^ Tatar 2002, p. 54
  9. ^ Delarue 1956, p. 365
  10. ^ Tatar 2002, p. 72
  11. ^ Upton, George Putnam (1897). The Standard Operas (Google book) (12th ed.). Chicago: McClurg. pp. 125–129. ISBN 1-60303-367-X. Retrieved 15 October 2007.
  12. ^ "Composer Matti Kovler realizes dream of reviving fairy-tale opera in Boston". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  13. ^ Schwartz, Penny. "Boston goes into the woods with Israeli opera 'Ami and Tami'". Times of Israel. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  14. ^ Mark Levene (18 October 2010). An Introduction to Search Engines and Web Navigation (2nd ed.). Wiley. p. 221. ISBN 978-0470526842. Retrieved June 24, 2016.

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]