Murder is a common theme in many stories the world over. On the one hand it is the ultimate of crimes (1) that one can visit on another. But on the other hand it is the quickest way to get what you want.
Of course bringing children into the narrative means that it is a tale of the darkest hue. But does it remain so when the children are the murderers rather than the murderee?
Thus is it with this story. You'll want some tissues handy for you are about to read a sorrowing tale of witchcraft, cannibalism, gingerbread and, of course, murder most horrid.
Our sad tale of woe begins in the forest where there lived a very poor woodcutter and his family. He had two children who were, naturally enough, named Hansel and Gretal. If he hadn't had these children then the story would be called "The Story of the woodcutter who had no children" but probably wouldn't be worth reading.
However I digress, for it happened that his first wife had died (2) and he had remarried but his new wife was not happy with the children being underfoot all the time and often treated them badly, even going so far as to complain to her husband about them.
"There is not enough food in the house for us all. There are too many mouths to feed!" she nagged "why can't you go out hunting?"
"And risk the hunters union hearing about it? No chance"
"We must get rid of the two brats" finished his wife and the scene closes on her working on her husband to try and get him to abandon his children in the forest. (3)
But luck is on the childrens side because Hansel manages to overhear the conversation (4) he slips out and fills his pockets with little white pebbles and at dawn the woodcutter takes them both into the forest. (5)
Finally he left them alone and Gretel was frightened (6) but Hansel revealed the path of pebbles which led them back safely home.
When their stepmother discovered that Hansel and Gretel had returned, she went into a rage. Stifling her anger in front of the children (7), she locked her bedroom door, reproaching her husband for failing to carry out her orders. The weak woodcutter protested, torn as he was between shame and fear of disobeying his cruel wife but in the end he led the children out into the forest once again.
But this time there was no trail to follow because instead of pebbles Hansel had dropped breadcrumbs which had, predictably enough, been eaten by birds who were now looking happy and well fed (8)
When dawn broke, they started to wander about the forest, seeking a path, but all hope soon faded. They were well and truly lost. On they walked and walked, till suddenly they came upon a strange cottage in the middle of a glade. and because the huge neon sign that said "This is a trap" had been turned off in an effort to save electricity they had no fear in just walking up to the house and starting to eat everything.
"This is chocolate!" gasped Hansel as he broke a lump of plaster from the wall.
"And this is icing!" exclaimed Gretel, putting another piece of wall in her mouth. Starving but delighted, the children began to eat pieces of candy broken off the cottage.
"Isn't this delicious?" said Gretel, with her mouth full. She had never tasted anything so nice. (9)
"We'll stay here," Hansel declared, munching a bit of nougat. They were just about to try a piece of the biscuit door when it quietly swung open.
"Well, well!" said an old woman, peering out with a crafty look. "And haven't you children a sweet tooth?"
"And haven't you a sweet roof?"
"Well it's gingerbread actually. Apropos of nothing I do happen to be a witch"
"That's nice" the children said as they gnawed at the boot scraper in the hope that it was some kind of toffee (10)
"Oh, just get in the cage will you?"
To the amazement of all the old woman was a witch and the cage that Hansel was put in was not, as she had said, to stop him sleepwalking. No, rather it was there to hold him until he grew fat enough to eat!
Gretel, on the other hand was forced to do the housework until the witch decided to eat her as well.
However Gretel pretty much ran rings around the witch and eventually she got tired of waiting for Hansel to fatten up and told Gretel to light the oven.
"We're going to have a tasy roasted boy today" (11)
Of course Gretal plays the dumb little girl card for all it's worth claiming that she doesn't know how to light the oven even after several days spent doing all the housework and the incredibly gullible old witch ends up inside the oven.
Just to make certain that she stayed in there the children fastened it with a large padlock (12)
Then they stayed for several days to eat some more of the house (13). Eventually they found a casket (14) of gold coins (15), which they took as spoils of their victory before setting off for home.
This time luck was with them and on the second day of their journy the saw their father come out of the house towards them
"Your stepmother is dead. Come home with me now my dear children" (16)
"Look father! we're rich now. You'll never have to chop wood again" said Hansel opening the casket
And they all lived hapilly ever after. (17)
What happened with the house?
If this house is magically made of gingerbread and other child attracting things then presumably it's going to regenerate itself automatically. The witch, after all, is an old woman who can't be running up and down ladders with gingerbread shingles all the time. Maybe the kids should have stayed in the house and used it to supply nearby towns with gingerbread and other sweets. They would have been able to go back to their father with more than just a casket of gold coins.
Exactly how old are these children?
Clearly they are old enough to survive by themselves but young enough that Hansel isn't accompanying his father to work.
Why don't they defy traditional gender roles?
Leaving asid the fact that this was written back when women did the housework and waited for the big strong men to do the big strong manly things (18) You would think that modern retellings of the story would have Hansel doing something other than simply sitting around while Gretel does all the housework.
Granted he was in a cage and but would it have killed him to get a feather duster or let him sort out the books? It would be nice to think he'd be smart enough to accidentally lose any recipe books titled "To Serve Man" but I'm not going to hold my breath with this kid.
The witches house is only a couple of days away from the woodcutters. Why didn't they sell the children to the witch in the first place?
It's a horrible thought I know but they were poor and needed the money while she was hungry and needed someone for Sunday dinner. Clearly they didn't explore all avenues before choosing to abandon their children in the manner of the old country.
So where is the moral in all this? What is the lesson that we and, more importantly, our children are supposed to take away from this charming bedtime story of child abandonment?
Is there one? Perhaps it's just a story about things that happened in the past which, as has been noted before, is another country.
A possible moral is that it is not acceptable to abandon your children because your poor. Except that in this story it totally is.
Perhaps it's that murder is perfectly acceptable in certain situations.
I don't know, the jury remains hung and the only person who benefits from that is the witch.
An interesting point is that it is Gretel that is the one who does the killing. I bring this up because until their capture it has been Hansel that has been the more active member of the group. But here at last is a situation that she can not get out of by standing around and being a helpless female. While she played the card with the witch it was clearly to get her in the best position to close the door on the problem, so to speak.
Their father on the other hand is an interesting case. He is obviously upset about abandoning his children in the forest, so much so that he has broken out of his usual submissive persona and killed his wife who, having gotten her way, is still finding things to fight with him about.
As for the witch it is difficult at the best of times to side with a cannibal but this is someone who built a house out of candy. Think about that, the amount of insurance that this structure would need would be gigantic. The bribes to the various council members to allow such shoddy and unsafe materials to be used would have likewise been huge. Personally I am not at all surprised that she tries to eat children. It's because she probably can not afford any real food.
- Not counting downloading copyrighted music.
- It isn't important exactly how she died. She was just dead all right? This story doesn't work if she's still alive, maybe she died from "Runningoffwiththehandsomeprince" syndrome.
- "We could arrange marriages for them dear" "No! They must be abandoned in the forest!"
- An interesting point here. if she is "forever" nagging the husband to abandon his children then why is it that Hansel is only now taking note of it? Perhaps it is less a case of forever nagging and more a case of "we should abandon them in the forest" "All right"
- And most normal people would have taken them down to the police station or even to another part of the forest to set up house away from the insane stepmother
- Presumably because she's a girl and girls can't do anything like, oh I don't know be mass murderers, Elizabeth Bathory, or do anything outside the kitchen, Amilia Airheart
- Why exactly?
- Cloud, Silver lining. I know it doesn't help that much but it's the thought that counts.
- I know it's a trap but do they have to be such pigs?
- For the record? it wasn't
- I am slightly concerned about the use of the word "We"
- Nothing ruins a dinner party like having the main course escape. A terrible faux pas all round.
- With a dead body in the oven? I mean yes she was a witch but come on people think of the hygiene of it all
- Presumably a small jewelry box rather than the other kind but it could easily go the other way in this house
- The real kind not the chocolate ones
- "Did you kill her dad? It's all right if you did. We've discovered how fun murder is as well"
- Except for the witch who was burnt alive. The stepmother who died under suspicious circumstances and the policeman who had to investigate the whole affair.
- Like getting the spider out of the sink