Friday, August 12, 2011

Hansel and Gretel

It has been said before now that the so-called "original" versions of many fairy tales (if my research has taught me anything, it's that there's no such thing) are not suitable for today's children. A very good argument in favor of this is the version of this story made famous by our German friends, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. In their version, the children's mother decides to abandon them in the woods so as to have fewer mouths to feed. Their father, though resistant at first, eventually gives in.

Another interesting thing about this story is what happens after the two escape from the witch's house. In the Grimm, they are running home, carrying precious stones and gems they have stolen from the witch, when they come across a large lake and they take turns crossing on the back of a duck...the answer to the question you are now asking is, "I have no earthly idea." This reminds one of "Iron Henry" from the end of the Grimm version of "The Frog Prince," in that it is a completely unnecessary, frivolous and entirely pointless element which every subsequent adaptation has, wisely, jettisoned from their tellings.

Finally, and this isn't exactly relevant to the story, but today just happens to be my kid brother's 25th birthday. So, HIPY PAPY BTHUTHDTH THUTHDA BTHUTHDY, Dash!

For some reason, the logic behind which is now, sadly, lost to us, people used to live in cottages in the middle of the woods. This allowed for some very nice scenery, but made it difficult to get anything done. The nearest village was usually quite a hike (or, in the Yiddish, “schlepp”) and more time was lost in commuting than anything else. Not to mention the constant fear of your kids being eaten by some manner of predator.

But, foolish though it may seem to you and I, it was the norm Once Upon a Time and Long Ago (see how I did that?), so let’s just get on with the story. Which is about a wood-cutter, his wife, and his two children, called Hansel and Gretel.

Now, the wood-cutter was a good man with a good heart, a keen mind and a solid work ethic. Unfortunately, what he didn’t have was customers. He chopped down lots of wood and got a lot of work done, but nobody bought his firewood. And since cutting wood was all he really knew how to do, it looked for certain that he and his family would starve to death.


But Hansel and Gretel would not let that happen. The good news is that they loved their parents and very much wanted to help. The bad news is that, being children, they were easily swept up by fantasy. Hansel read a book about a buried treasure being deep in the forest, and assumed that there must be a similar treasure in their forest. Once he had convinced Gretel of this, the siblings set out into the woods with only a loaf of bread between them as rations.

Hansel led the way with Gretel bringing up the rear. He blazed a trail with his wooden sword while Gretel was busy tearing pieces of bread from the loaf they had brought. She dropped them as they walked so as to provide a trail they could follow back to the house. Many hours later, the intrepid duo stopped in the middle of a clearing.

“I think we’re lost,” said Hansel. “I don’t even know how to get home.”

“I do,” said Gretel. And she told Hansel about the trail of breadcrumbs. So they started to follow the trail home, vowing to continue the search tomorrow.

But the birds, unlike Hansel, hadn’t needed an explanation of the trail of breadcrumbs. They just ate them. With the trail gone, Hansel and Gretel were more lost than ever. They wandered through the night, trying to find something familiar. Around midnight, they were too tired to go on and went to sleep. A few hours later, they awoke and continued trying to find their way home. At length they came to a meadow, hidden from the rest of the forest by a thick outcrop of trees. Here they found, not the clear path home they were hoping for, but something far more remarkable.

It was a house. Just an ordinary house in every respect except for one: It was made entirely out of sweets! The walls were gingerbread, the roof tiles were fruit pies, the windows were clear, spun sugar, the flower box was frosting, the cobblestones were gumdrops, the doorknob was a candy apple, the insulation was…well, okay, you get the idea.

Now, for two small children who have just spent the night in a scary forest with no food, there are very few sights more welcome than that of an edible house. Gretel suggested they knock on the door and ask the person who lived there for a bite, but Hansel just tucked in immediately and began devouring the house. Gretel shrugged and joined in. It must’ve been half an hour before they even thought about the owner of the house, and that was just because she spoke to them.

“Well, well, well,” she said. Hansel and Gretel looked around, their mouths still dripping with sugary sweets and saw a little old woman with warts on her nose, long shriveled hands and a black robe. Recognizable to any sentient being on the planet as an evil witch. Needless to say, but I will anyway, Hansel and Gretel were a little frightened.

But the witch smiled at them and said, “Oh, you poor dears, you must be starving to death. If you come inside, I have some more food for you.”

Of course, we all know better than to go into a strange woman’s (witch’s) house and accept her offer of food. But between being scared to death, homesick, hungry, a mild sugar buzz, and the fact that Hansel was not the cleverest of little children, he completely forgot this very basic rule of safety and followed the Witch into her house. Gretel shrugged and followed him as well.

Once inside, as promised, the Witch gave Hansel and Gretel heaps of food. And not just sweets, but real food. Chicken and ham and beef and vegetable soup and mashed potatoes…I could go on and on, but I won’t, because I’ve wasted enough time on needless exposition. And everything was delicious. Like you imagine food tastes when you see it on TV. Hansel and Gretel felt they’d never get enough.

Especially Hansel, who was already on the portly side.

After they’d had enough to eat, the Witch asked if they’d like to go to sleep?

“No, thank you. We need to get—” began Gretel, but Hansel blurted out, “Sure!”

So, the Witch led them to a special room that looked as though it had prepared for just such an emergency. She led them each to their beds, tucked them in very gently and wished them good night…

But the next morning Hansel found himself suspended in the air in a large wooden cage! Suddenly the Witch’s intentions were abundantly clear. She was going to fatten up Hansel and eat him! Gretel, who was more on the petite side, would have the unpleasant task of serving her brother the food he was to eat in order to get fatter quicker.

“And if you don’t eat every morsel she serves you,” the Witch warned, “I will kill your sister right in front of your eyes!” Here she let out a loud cackle, an evil laugh that shook the rafters. It shook the walls. It shook the cage Hansel was hanging in and it swung into the Witch’s head, knocking her spectacles off her face. “Blast! Now I won’t be able to see a thing. But that’s all right. I’ll be able to tell whether you’re getting fat enough. I’ll just feel your finger every day, and when it feels thick enough…suppertime!”

Hansel (the portly, Not Very Clever one) was scared to death that he was going to be eaten. Gretel (thinner, Cleverer), took a moment to think it over. Hansel wanted to find treasure in the woods. Gretel thought to leave a trail. Hansel started eating the house without permission. Gretel suggested they ask first. Hansel ran into the stranger’s house and accepted her offer of shelter. Gretel was apprehensive about both. Sure, she was stupid to follow him all this time, but she was still one heck of a lot smarter than Hansel! She could get them out of this mess easily.

“For once in your life,” she whispered to Hansel, “listen to me!”

The next morning the Witch came to feel Hansel’s finger. “What?” she exclaimed. “You need to eat more, child. Your hand feels as thin as a bone.” The reason for this was simple enough: His finger was a bone. At Gretel's suggestion, Hansel had saved a chicken bone from the previous night’s meal and stuck it out pretending it was his finger. With no glasses, the Witch couldn’t tell he was faking. Gretel helped him maintain the illusion for about a week. Hansel could eat as much as he wanted without gaining an ounce, as far as the Witch thought.

Then one day, the Witch felt Hansel’s finger again. Frustrated that he wasn’t gaining any weight, she had decided to go for a fly around the forest on her broomstick. But before she could leave she heard a loud snap and a crash. Even without her glasses, she could see what had happened: Hansel had gained so much weight that he had gotten too heavy for the cage to hold him and it had fallen.

“A ha!” cried the Witch. “So you have deceived me! Just for that I’m going to cook and eat both of you!” She dove at Hansel and Gretel, but they were smaller and faster (even the now Somewhat More Than Portly Hansel) and got out of the way just in time. Unable to stop herself, the Witch dove into the oven, which had been lit to cook Hansel’s breakfast, and burned herself alive…


The fire spread. It caught the walls, the windows and everything. Gretel dragged her heavy brother out of the house just as the whole place was going up in smoke. In a matter of seconds, the gingerbread house was an enormous bonfire that was visible for miles…

Even at the home of the wood-cutter and his wife.

Well, from there it was an easy matter for Hansel and Gretel’s parents to find them and bring them home. Nothing was left of the witch's house, except for what she kept in her basement: Diamonds, jewels, gold coins, treasure beyond belief! Hansel and Gretel and their parents were now wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. And, from that day on, Hansel always took the advice of his clever sister, Gretel. 

Oh, and they lived happily ever after, in case you  hadn’t guessed.


If You Liked My Story, You Might Enjoy:
  • Babes in the Woods (1932) An early Disney Silly Symphony which, while clearly based on this story, seems to go out of its way to distract you from the fact. Here the children have no names and befriend a band of dwarfs (early prototypes for Snow White) before being set upon a by a witch (likewise) whose house is made of sweets, but who turns children into horrible creatures instead of eating them.
  • "Hansel and Gretel" (operetta) The most famous composition by English composer Englebert Humperdink whose name is much better than his music could ever be...although his music is still pretty good.
  • "Fractured Fairy Tales" (TV) I mention this because their version of this story is one of the few to actually use the duck bit I mentioned earlier. 
  • "Faerie Tale Theatre" (TV) Here, Joan Collins is the wicked stepmother and the witch, Paul Dooley is the kindly father and a very young Rick Schroeder is Hansel.
  • Bewitched Bunny (1954) This one starts as Hansel and Gretel, but Bugs Bunny saves them and takes their place as the witch's intended victim. The best part, though, is that, for some reason, everyone refers to the boy as "Haaaaansel" which is a great running gag in a cartoon, but which would never work in text.

"The Reluctant Dragon"

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