Literature: Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel meet the Wicked Witch

A fairy tale originally recorded by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. It's in the Public Domain, so here goes:

Once upon a time, there was a brother and sister named Hansel and Gretel. Their father was a widower who had remarried, and the family was having hard times. The stepmother insists they abandon the children in the woods and their father is spineless enough to go along with it. Hansel overhears the plan and comes up with the idea of leaving a Trail of Bread Crumbs from the bread that was supposed to be their lunch, so they can come back; unfortunately, the birds eat all the crumbs, so by the time they decide to follow the trail home, there isn't one.

They wander around for a while, and then they find a Gingerbread House. They are very hungry, so they eat from it. The owner of the house, a Wicked Witch, calls out that she knows someone is eating her house; Hansel and Gretel don't reply. The third time, the witch goes out to meet them. She seems surprisingly friendly, and gives them a huge feast.

The next day, Hansel is in a fattening pen, and Gretel is a servant. It seems that the witch eats children, once they are properly prepared. There is a Happy Ending for Hansel and Gretel, of course... the witch asks Gretel to light the oven and Gretel pretends she can't. When the witch bends over to do it, Gretel kicks her into her own oven.

There are television versions of this tale, but few film versions for reasons that should be clear.

The 19th century composer Engelbert Humperdinck adapted the fairy tale into an opera (premiered 1893). The opera in turn was adapted into a 1954 stop-motion animation film.

Garrison Keillor deconstructs this one, as well as "Snow White" and "Cinderella", in his short story "My Stepmother, Myself" in his book Happy To Be Here.

There's a modern retelling set in WWII Poland where Hansel & Gretel are Jewish children; and that's all we're going to say about that.

The Doctor Who Expanded Universe book Time Lord Fairy Tales retells it as "The Gingerbread Trap", crossing the plot over with that of the Tenth Doctor story "School Reunion".

The tale may have originated during the medieval period of the Great Famine when people were driven to desperate measures. Children were abandoned to fend for themselves, and there were many reported incidents of cannibalism. Subsequent revisions of the story (such as changing the children's mother into their evil stepmother, and making the father more sympathetic) may have resulted from folk wanting to distance themselves from the true horror of that time.

"Hansel and Gretel" contains the following tropes:

  • Bears Are Bad News: One version has a grizzly bear as the Big Bad instead of the witch.
  • Big Bad: The Witch.
  • Brother-Sister Team: Our heroes.
  • Composite Character: In some versions of the tale, after killing the witch, the children return home and are happily reunited with their father, when they find out that their wicked (step)mother has died too. This has lead some folklorists to speculate that the wicked (step)mother and the witch are in fact the same character. At least one Russian version has the stepmother and the witch be sisters.
  • Creepy Twins: Hansel and Gretel, in the Darker and Edgier adaptations.
  • Cultural Translation: Being a fairy tale, this is often done. A good example of older fairy tale books in Eastern Europe having the witch be Baba Yaga.
  • Distressed Dude: Hansel is locked up in a cage and fattened up to be eaten, and it's left to his sister to bail him out.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death
  • Face on a Milk Carton: In the Supernatural episode "About A Boy" (S10, Ep12), the witch no longer abducts children because of the Amber Alert system. Instead, she deages adults with a hex bag, fattens them up, and eats them.
  • Fattening The Victim: The witch uses her gingerbread house to lure children into her home in order to fatten and cook them.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Witch, who pretends to be nice to Hansel and Gretel so that she can lure them into her house and eat them.
  • Gingerbread House: Trope Maker and Trope Codifier. Although in some versions, it's made of bread, and in others, it's simply a house that the siblings recognize as occupied by smoke from the chimney, and are attracted to in an effort to beg for food, only to be caught.
  • Guile Hero: Both siblings use their smarts to outwit both their parents and the witch.
  • Half-Identical Twins: Our heroes are often depicted as such, although it's not stated in the original tale if they're actually twins or not.
  • Happily Ever After
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The witch's death.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The witch eats children.
  • Kill It with Fire
  • Level Ate
  • The Lost Woods
  • Murder by Cremation
  • No Name Given: The parents and the witch. Though in Humperdinck's opera, the parents are Peter and Gertrud and the witch is Rosine Leckermaul (literally, "Rosina Tastymuzzle").
  • The Nose Knows: In many versions, the witch is nearly blind, but has a keen sense of smell that lets her detect prey from a distance.
  • Offing the Offspring: an implication often overlooked now, but obvious to folk at the time of the tale's origin is this: the woodcutter's wife can bear him more children once the famine has passed.
  • Parental Abandonment
  • Rule of Three
  • Solitary Sorceress: This tale is a strong contender as Trope Codifier for the "witch lives in a cottage in the woods" variant of the trope.
  • Sugary Malice: The witch.
  • Temporary Bulk Change: Hansel fattens up rapidly over what appears to be just a few days.
  • Trail of Bread Crumbs: Trope Namer, Trope Maker and Trope Codifier, and possible Ur-Example, together with "Hop-o'-My-Thumb".
    • Though note that the breadcrumbs didn't work. The trail of stones is what did.
  • Wealthy Ever After: They return with the witch's treasure.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: In at least one version, Hansel and Gretel are escorted home by a magic duck...who the father then kills and cooks for dinner.
  • Wicked Stepmother: In most versions of the tale. It's worth mentioning however that in the first edition version recorded by the Grimm brothers she was the kids' actual biological mother, and the father shares the blame for abandoning the children. Apparently some people found that too shocking, so they changed it.
    • Averted in Humperdinck's opera, where she is once again the birth-mother. Though in the opera, she has no evil motive: she simply sends them out as an exasperated parent and they become lost by accident.
    • As mentioned above, some Russian versions of the story have a pragmatic reason to have a Wicked Stepmother...she is the sister of the Wicked Witch who marries widowed fathers so she can send her their children.
  • Wicked Witch

Alternative Title(s):

Hansel And Gretel