Hansel and Gretel

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1909

"Hansel and Gretel" (also known as Hansel and Grettel, Hansel and Grethel, or Little Brother and Little Sister) (/ˈhænsəl/ or /ˈhɑːnsəl/ and /ˈɡrɛtəl/; German: Hänsel und Gretel[a] [ˈhɛnzl̩ ʊnt ˈɡʁeːtl̩]) 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 kidnapped by a cannibalistic witch living deep in the forest in a house constructed of cake and confectionery. 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. Under the Aarne–Thompson classification system, "Hansel and Gretel" is classified under Class 327.

Plot[edit]

Hansel and Gretel are the young children of a poor woodcutter. When a great famine settles over the land, the woodcutter's second, abusive wife decides to take the children into the woods and leave them there to fend for themselves, so that she and her husband do not starve to death, because the kids eat too much. The woodcutter opposes the plan but finally, and reluctantly, submits to his wife's scheme. They were 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 walk 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 follow the pebbles back home. They return home safely, much to their stepmother's rage. Once again provisions become scarce and the stepmother angrily orders her husband to take the children further into the woods and leave them there to die. Hansel and Gretel attempt to gather more pebbles, but find the doors locked and it is impossible to escape.

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 for them to follow home. However, after they are once again abandoned, they find that the 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, cakes, candy and with window panes of clear sugar. Hungry and tired, the children begin to eat the rooftop of the house, when the door opens and a "very old woman" emerges and lures the children inside, with the promise of soft beds and delicious food and a hot bath. They do this unaware that their hostess is actually a bloodthirsty witch who waylays children to cook and eat them.

The next morning, the witch cleans out the cage in the garden from her previous captive. Then she throws Hansel into the cage and forces Gretel into becoming her slave. The witch feeds Hansel regularly to fatten him up. Hansel is smart and when the witch asks for Hansel to stick out his finger for her to see how fat he is, he sticks out a bone every time. The witch is too impatient and decides to eat Hansel anyway.

The next day, the witch prepares the oven for Hansel, but decides she is hungry enough to eat Gretel too. She coaxes Gretel to the open 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 hag into the oven, slams and bolts the door shut, leaving "the ungodly creature to be burned to ashes", 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 duck ferries them across an expanse of water and at home they find only their father who revealed that their stepmother died from an unknown cause. 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 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 himself. 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. The sequence where the swan helps them across the river is also an addition to later editions.[3]

The fairy tale may have originated in the medieval period of the Great Famine (1315–1321),[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, 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.[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 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.[7] 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.[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

Hansel and Gretel's trail of breadcrumbs inspired the name of the navigation element "breadcrumbs" that allows users to keep track of their locations within programs or documents.[11] The opera Hänsel und Gretel by Engelbert Humperdinck is one of the most renowned operas, and is considered one of the most important German operas.[12]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

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

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. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ 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. 

Sources[edit]

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