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Literature / Hansel and Gretel

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A Fairy Tale originally recorded by the 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 so they will have more food for themselves. Their loving father is completely opposed to the plan initially, but she badgers him into agreeing. Hansel overhears the plan and comes up with the idea of leaving a trail of white pebbles. The plan works and the children are able to find their way back home. The stepmother accepts her plan's failure at first, but when food becomes even more scarce, she and the woodcutter attempt to abandon the children again, this time locking the children's door to prevent them from collecting pebbles. Therefore, Hansel is forced to mark their way back via a Trail of Bread Crumbs from the bread that was supposed to be their lunch; the birds eat all the crumbs, leaving them stranded.

They wander around for a while, and then they find a Gingerbread House. They are very hungry, so they start eating. 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. Hansel stalls for a while — the old witch can't see well and pinches his finger to test his plumpness and he is able to trick her by holding out a bone — but eventually she gets tired of waiting and decides to roast him and eat as he is, along with Gretel to compensate for the supposedly measly meal. She orders Gretel to crawl in to check the oven (intending, of course, to shove her in and cook her as well), but Gretel can tell what she has in mind, and pretends she doesn't know how. When the witch bends over to demonstrate, Gretel shoves her in and slams the door.

The two siblings then take all of the treasure from the late witch's house and return home. Their father joyously welcomes them back (the stepmother is either fled or dead), and they live happy and prosperous for the rest of their lives on all the valuables they took from the witch. Found in many variants across many cultures; a list of some can be found here.

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 that premiered in 1893 and is still performed today. The opera in turn was adapted into a 1954 stop-motion animation film, and the 1987 live-action film from The Cannon Group is a loose take on it.

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 and 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.

A variant appears in the Dark Parables games, in which Hansel must rescue Gretel from the witch, rather than the other way around, and does so by giving her a permanent sleeping potion instead of shoving her in the oven. He aids a goddess in the process of the rescue, and she rewards him by bestowing an unusual blessing on his descendants in perpetuity. Gerda, from The Snow Queen, is one of these descendants.

A translation can be found here.

A list of adaptations of the fairy tale can be found here.

"Hansel and Gretel" provides examples of:

  • Adults Are Useless: Are they ever! The children's birth mother is dead, their stepmother wants to abandon them, their father is cowardly enough to comply to his wife's wishes and the witch desires to eat them for her supper!
  • An Aesop:
    • Don't be too trusting of strangers. Also, strangers immediately offering you goodies and treats the minute they meet you is not a good sign. It should make you raise suspicions that they want something from you in return.
    • Candy laid out in open sight (let alone if they're in a forest far from civilization and in the shape of a house) is a sign that this is a trap.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Illustrations often portray one or both of the siblings going barefoot, presumably to indicate their poverty.
  • Bears Are Bad News: One version has a grizzly bear as the Big Bad instead of the witch.
  • Birdcaged: Hansel is imprisoned in a cage by the witch.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: The Witch lures in children with her Gingerbread House and pretends to be friendly to them while secretly scheming to eat them.
  • Bowdlerize:
    • In the first edition of the Grimm tales, there was no stepmother; instead both parents agreed to abandon their children. For the second edition, the Grimms changed the mother into a stepmother and added the father's reluctance to follow his wife's plan. This was part of the Grimms' effort to make the tales more palatable as family entertainment.
    • In VERY early versions of the story (as noted below), the witch's house is not delectable, frosting-covered gingerbread and candy. It's just normal bread, which both ramps up the famine's severity AND the witch's evilness.
  • Big Bad: The Witch, who kidnaps the children and plots to cook them for supper.
  • Brother–Sister Team: One of the most famous examples in fairy tale literature, no doubt. We follow Hansel and Gretel's journey through the woods and into the lair of a witch, who they're able to outsmart and vanquish by themselves.
  • Can't See a Damn Thing: The witch has terrible eyesight. When she is trying to fatten Hansel to eat him, he uses this to his advantage by holding out a chicken bone instead of his finger for her to test how fat he's getting.
  • Cold Equation: Attempted by the stepmother, as the family is running low on food during a famine. During the Great Famine, crop failures led to astronomical food prices across a shockingly wide region of Europe, and it obviously hit the poor hardest.
  • 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 led 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.
  • Cooked to Death: Gretel turns the tables on the witch by pushing her into her own oven and burning her alive, thwarting the witch's plan to kill and roast Hansel and Gretel.
  • Cooking the Live Meal: On the same day the witch of the gingerbread house is about to carry out her long-announced plan of killing and cooking Hansel, she fires a baking oven and tells Gretel to crawl into the oven "to see if it is properly hot" for baking bread, because, as the narration assures us, she wants to lock up Gretel in the oven to bake and then eat her. Gretel however turns the tables on the witch by pushing her into the oven and locking the door. The witch's plan for Gretel contrasts with her declared intention to kill Hansel before cooking him.
  • Dangerously Garish Environment: The Gingerbread House. It is after all an edible, candy-colored house that's implied and, in some versions, directly stated to be designed to lure childrennote  to be caught and eaten by the witch.
  • 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.
  • Enchanted Forest: The siblings become lost in a dark forest, where they meet and are captured by a cannibalistic witch.
  • Evil All Along: It doesn't take long for the old woman in the Gingerbread House to reveal her true colours as a cannibalistic Wicked Witch.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Befalls the witch, who gets cooked alive in her own oven by the siblings.
  • Fattening the Victim: The witch uses her gingerbread house to lure children into her home in order to fatten and cook them. She pinches Hansel's finger every day to see if he's getting fatter, but because of her bad eyesight, he's able to fool her by using a chicken bone to make her think he's not gaining any weight.
  • 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; most versions of the story involve a house made of candy. 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: The children escape the witch and take all her treasures and jewels home with them, and they find their stepmother has died and their father is overjoyed to see them. They live like kings from then on.
  • Henpecked Husband: The woodcutter, so much so that he's willing to abandon his own kids in the woods on his second wife's insistence.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: The witch, intending to cook Hansel and Gretel in her oven, ends up getting shoved into the oven herself.
  • Hope Spot: The children are able to find their way back home using the trail of pebbles, and the stepmother, while angry, initially lets it be. But when the famine worsens, the stepmother insists on abandoning them again, this time locking the door to prevent Hansel from collecting anymore pebbles. Hansel attempts to leave a breadcrumb trail, but the birds eat them.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: The witch eats children.
  • Kill It with Fire: The witch is burned to death in her oven.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: In some versions, the children's stepmother dies for no apparent reason besides this.
  • Lured into a Trap: The gingerbread house itself was a trap the witch set up for children.
  • Murder by Cremation: Gretel tricks the witch and locks her up in her own burning oven.
  • No Name Given: The parents and the witch are unnamed in most versions. Though in Humperdinck's opera, the parents are Peter and Gertrud and the witch is Rosine Leckermaul (literally, "Raisin 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.
  • Oktoberfest: In illustrations, Hansel and Gretel are almost invariably depicted wearing traditional Bavarian costumes. After all, everyone knows it's a German story.
  • Parental Abandonment: The parents do this to their kids in the forest under pretense that they are only leaving briefly to gather some wood, their motive being that there will be more food for them during the famine occurring their country without the children.
  • Related Differently in the Adaptation: Up to the third edition of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen, the plan to abandon Hänsel and Gretel in the forest was promoted by their real mother. From the fourth edition (1840) onward, the same character is introduced as stepmother (although she is still occasionally referred to as just "mother" in the text).
  • Rhymes on a Dime: The Witch's most famous line in English versions of the story when she comes out to catch Hansel and Gretel.
    Witch: Nibble, nibble, like a mouse. Who's been nibbling on my house?
  • Rule of Three: The children get abandoned three times in most versions.
  • The Sandman: In the theater version, the Sandman appears to Hansel and Gretel in the Enchanted Forest, signaling that it is time for the children to sing their evening prayer and go to sleep (though a Dream Ballet ensues). The Sandman's morning counterpart, the Dewman, appears to wake them up again with a very similar song as the curtain goes up on the third act.
  • Social Darwinist: The children's stepmother. The family is living in a medieval famine-stricken Germany, meaning a food shortage, so she decides getting rid of the children is the best option.
  • 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.
  • Sweets of Temptation: One of the most famous examples. While hungry and lost in the woods, Hansel and Gretel come across a lovely gingerbread house decorated with candy, which they help themselves to. It turns out to be the house of a witch who uses it as a trap to lure in children so she can kidnap them, fatten them up, and eat them.
  • Temporary Bulk Change: Hansel fattens up rapidly over what appears to be just a few days but in most versions, he's back to normal by the end of the story.
  • 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.
  • Unconventional Food Usage: The witch lives in a gingerbread house. It's implied to be a trap to lure in people, since she tries to eat the protagonists.
  • Wealthy Ever After: The tale ends with the children returning home with the witch's treasure.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Also doubles as Ungrateful Bastard. 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 the best-known versions of the tale, the plan to abandon Hansel and Gretel in the woods is put forward by their stepmother, and the father only complies because of her pressuring. The trope does not appear in the first edition version recorded by the Grimm brothers (and in occasional retellings of the story, such as Paul O Zelinsky's), where the woman is the kids' actual mother, and the father also desires to abandon the children.
    • Averted in Humperdinck's opera, where she is once again the birth mother. In the opera, however, 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: The antagonist is a child-eating witch.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Exaggerated for the witch, who wants to eat the two kids.