When it comes to the fairytale canon, "Hansel and Gretel" belongs to what I think of as the B-list. Not B-list in terms of quality, of course, but B-list in terms of visibility. The most beloved adaptation is Engelbert Humperdinck's 1893 opera Hänsel und Gretel, which RKO Pictures later turned into a stop-motion-animated film in 1954. Against the full force of the Disney animated canon and its marketing apparatus, that can feel a little quiet.
(Incidentally, the House of Mouse has tried to make something of "Hansel and Gretel" — by handing it off to Tim Burton. The ensuing adaptation, which featured Burton's signature art style and an Asian-American cast, was aired exactly once on the Disney Channel in 1983.)
If we move into the horror space, "Hansel and Gretel" fares better. There were three horror adaptations of the fairy tale in 2013 alone — Asylum's Hansel & Gretel, Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and Hansel & Gretel Get Baked — and 2020 boasts a horror adaptation of its own, Gretel & Hansel.
Most fairy tales hide darker realities or themes to be discovered once you go beyond the fantastical and cheerful trappings, but despite the apple-cheeked children protagonists and the gingerbread house, the darkness of "Hansel and Gretel" seems to prevail whenever we return to the story. And that's because the history behind "Hansel and Gretel" is already the stuff of nightmares: climate change, famine, and survival cannibalism.
If you need a refresher, "Hansel and Gretel" is about two siblings in medieval Germany. During a famine, the siblings, their father, and their stepmother begin to starve. Their cruel stepmother, thinking only of herself, tells her husband that they'd be better off if they abandoned the children in the woods one day while out woodcutting. Her husband protests, but agrees. Hansel and Gretel overhear this, and Hansel comes up with a strategy. When the stepmother abandons them, Hansel just follows the stones he left behind. When the stepmother tries the same plan again, Hansel tries the same trick with breadcrumbs — but it doesn't work because birds exist. Starving to death in the forest, they come across a house made entirely out of delicious cakes and sweets. The siblings get to eating, but it's a trap set by a child-eating witch. She captures them and forces Gretel to help her fatten Hansel up for the slaughter. But it's Gretel's turn to think quick, and she manages to shove the witch in the oven before the witch shoves them in it. The witch burns to death and the children steal all of her money. They make their way home, with the help of the biggest duck in Germany, where their stepmother has died and their father welcomes them home to live happily ever after.
Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm included "Hansel and Gretel" in the first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen, which English-speaking audiences now know as Grimms' Fairy Tales. According to the brothers, the story comes from Hesse, the region in Germany in which they lived. A marginal note found in the brothers' copy of the first edition of the first volume indicates that Wilhelm's wife, Henriette Dorothea Wild, contributed to their adaptation of "Hansel and Gretel." It's likely the brothers heard the story from Henriette's family or even Henriette herself.
The first volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published in 1812, but the brothers made changes to their great work over the course of its publication history. The version I just related to you is the final version, published in 1857. In the original version, there is no rescue by duck — and their wicked stepmother is, in fact, their mother. She only became their stepmother in 1840, when the fourth edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was published.
Rereading the story with that in mind, the mother seems heartless, abandoning her children in the face of hunger and turning angrily on her husband when he dares to protest. But a similar tale from 1697, Charles Perrault's "Little Thumb," also features a couple who abandon their children in the face of hunger, albeit with much heavier hearts. The famines in these stories aren't fairytale embellishments; they're important pieces of place-setting. Medieval Europe was no stranger to the horrors of famine.
In The Old Magic of Christmas, Linda Raedisch mentions the theory that "Hansel and Gretel" was inspired by the Great Famine of 1315–1317. While it's impossible to point to a specific famine and say "Yep, that's the one this story comes from! Case closed," the Great Famine of 1315-1317 is one of the biggest and, therefore, most well-documented famines in medieval European history. That makes a useful event to get insight as to how people dealt with famines in medieval Europe. Namely: suffer.
Credit: Orion Pictures
Credit: Orion Pictures
The Great Famine of 1315-1317 tends to get overshadowed by its more famous older sister, the Black Death, which reached Europe in 1347. But it's the first of the crises that stopped medieval Europe dead in its tracks. It was precipitated by the first rumblings of the Little Ice Age. (The Little Ice Age wasn't actually an ice age, but François E. Matthes called it that back in 1939 and the name stuck.) As glaciers expanded, temperatures in Europe cooled, leading to cooler winters, worse weather, and bad harvests. While the Little Ice Age was in full force from the 1500s to the 1800s, there's plenty of contemporary reports of bad harvests and rain — so much rain! — starting in the spring of 1315.
The successive bad harvests led to an astronomical rise in food prices for the limited supply. A murrain — a word used in medieval Europe as a catch-all for different diseases that afflict cattle — afflicted livestock, further depleting food sources. As people began to starve, their bodies became vulnerable to disease, including the murrain from the cattle they ate, and people began to die. In droves. Faced with what felt like the end of the world, some people turned to faith. Others abandoned their children.
And some turned to cannibalism.
Historians are split on whether to take reports of cannibalism during the Great Famine of 1315-1317 seriously or not, given the heavy symbolism of the act. Now, I'm not a historian, so I don't have the answer to that question. But survival cannibalism, though rare, does happen. It's certainly possible that beneath the sensationalist images of starving men dying as they dig up corpses to eat is a grain of truth.
Or at least something real and scary enough to come out, years later, in a fairy tale.
"Hansel and Gretel" reflects those very real fears — the idea that, when famine comes, the people who are meant to care for you will fail you. Hansel and Gretel contend not only with their mother, but with their father's inability to protect them from the consequences of famine. In the fairy tale, after the children successfully kill the witch, the mother dies, suggesting a connection between the two characters. The one trying to survive by abandoning the children and the one trying to survive by eating them might be one and the same, just at different points in their desperation.
No wonder "Hansel and Gretel" has always leant itself best to horror; it's always been rooted there.
Like many other fairy tales, this one is dark for a reason. Hansel and Gretel's abandonment and battle with the witch was inspired by the Great Famine of the early 1300's when people were literally starving.Is The story of Hansel and Gretel Based on a true story? ›
In reality, Ossegg did not exist and the details of the story were fabricated by Traxler. Vanessa Joosen has called the book a "fictive nonfictional text," which "carries the features of a nonfictional text but consciously misleads the reader."What did the parents do to Hansel and Gretel? ›
The parents abandon their children in the forest for a second time, and this time Hansel makes a trail of breadcrumbs. However, birds eat the breadcrumbs, and Hansel and Gretel become lost. The children come across a giant gingerbread house in the woods and they begin to eat it as they are both starving.Why did Hansel and Gretel parents leave them in the movie? ›
Muriel spread a rumor across the village about Hansel and Gretel's mother. To keep the siblings away from the angry villagers, their father left them in the forest, but when he returned to their home, he was hanged by the villagers while Adrianna was burned at the stake before his eyes.What is the message of Hansel and Gretel? ›
What is the moral of Hansel and Gretel? Children may learn numerous things from this tale. The most important thing to learn is to never trust strangers, even if they treat you well. The witch discovers the kindness of the old woman.What does the witch represent in Hansel and Gretel? ›
The witch symbolizes greed because she hoards food, jewels, and pearls, for which she has no use, while others around her starve in the famine. The witch plans to eat the children, but Gretel tricks her, burns her to death in the oven, and then frees Hansel.Is Gretel in Darkness based on a fairytale? ›
'Gretel in Darkness' is a 1975 poem by Louise Glück. The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by Gretel, the little girl from the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. In the poem, Gretel reflects on how she is haunted psychologically by the memory of the witch she killed, in order to save herself and her brother Hansel.What happened to Hansel and Gretel in the original story? ›
How did the original Hansel and Gretel end? The original written version of "Hansel and Gretel" ends with Gretel pushing the witch into the oven which kills her. Gretel frees Hansel, and the two children steal the witch's treasure and return to their cottage.How did Gretel get rid of the witch? ›
Gretel still kills the witch at the end of the story, in a similar way to traditional versions: she “pushes” the witch into the fire that was meant to cook Hansel.Is there an evil stepmother in Hansel and Gretel? ›
Brunhilda is the evil stepmother of Hansel and Gretel. She married their father and seduced and manipulated him to get attention and to get Hansel and Gretel in trouble. She also hides food from them so she can have it all to herself, such as a week's worth of bread and cheese.
At the end of the 200-year-old Grimm fairy tale, Gretel traps the cannibalistic witch in her own oven, allowing her to escape with her brother Hansel and the witch's priceless stones. The kids return home rich and live happily ever after. The end.What happened to Hansel and Gretel's dad in Once Upon a Time? ›
In the Once Upon a Time version, Hansel and Gretel are sent into the forest by their father, a Woodcutter. When they return, he is gone, having been abducted by the Evil Queen.Why are the witches fingers black in Gretel and Hansel? ›
However, as she looks down, her fingers turn black just like the witch's, which is a mark of evil in her veins. Gretel was warned all witches have this darkness inside them, it's a matter of who gives in; reminding us, again, of the debacle Rey faced with the Light and Dark sides of the Force.What is the psychological meaning of Hansel and Gretel? ›
Hansel and Gretel depicts raw childhood trauma: parents abandon their children in the forest in order to feed themselves. Then the children discover a magical, edible cottage, only to be entrapped by a cannibalistic witch. Everyone is starving, a metaphor for psychic insufficiency.What do the pebbles symbolize in Hansel and Gretel? ›
Hansel and Gretel used pebbles when they went into the forest so that they could find their way home. The pebble from the raven also helps to guide Jeanette/Winnet toward her home— which ultimately is her true self.What do the bread crumbs symbolize in Hansel and Gretel? ›
Bread crumbles in Hansel and Gretel show how fragile and insecure is our position. Oven t is a representation of a womb. It offers a possibility of birth (or in this case rebirth), but also death if an already born person gets back in (refuses to grow up).Were the Brothers Grimm real? ›
Two hundred years ago, two young German librarians by the names of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm published a collection of tales that would become one of the most influential works of folklore in Germany, Europe, and eventually the world.Who wrote the original Hansel and Gretel? › How old were Hansel and Gretel in the story? ›
As the title's name reversal suggests, in this version, it's a 16-year-old Gretel who takes the lead and is tasked with watching over her 8-year-old brother Hansel when they're cast out on their own.Who is Telek in the true story of Hansel and Gretel? ›
Their guide to the wildlife is Telek, a local woodsman who loves Magda's pregnant grandniece, Nelka. After Gretel recovers from a serious illness, she ventures into the woods by herself in search of wild ponies.