Fairy Tale Fridays: Hansel and Gretel

Pop-up of Hansel and Gretel meeting the witch at her house made of cake and candy

The "pop-up" Cinderella, including Hansel and Gretel, Goldilocks and the three bears : Puss-in-boots. New York : Blue Ribbon Books, inc., 1933. Special Collections Children's Literature PZ 8 .C574 1933

If you go trick-or-treating this weekend, watch out for witches in candy-filled houses! As Hansel and Gretel learn in this fairy tale, you may get more tricks than treats.

Hansel and Gretel has long been a popular favorite since it appeared in the Brothers Grimm's fairy tale collections in the early 19th century, and has appeared in innumerable illustrated editions. One of the most intriguing aspects of illustrated works is studying the ways in which artists choose to interpret and highlight aspects that may not jump out at readers based on the text alone. Interestingly, the several illustrated editions of Hansel and Gretel held in the Children’s Literature Collection from the 1930s and 1940s universally de-emphasize the more horrifying aspects of the story.  All of the illustrators choose to use bright, often-primary colors to depict round-cheeked children who look as though they have never missed a meal in their lives and the witch generally appears almost as though she were a character of comic relief. Considering the grim outlines of the story - from parents abandoning their children to canibalism - such illustrative choices were perhaps deemed nececessary in order to keep the narrative from becoming overly threatening and to remind readers that they could look forward to a happy ending.

Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods
9 stories. Chicago : Merrill Publishing Co., 1938. Special Collections Children's Literature PZ 8 .A15 1938

“Hansel and Gretel” takes place in a time of famine and opens with a father worrying how to feed himself and his family. His wife urges him to abandon his two children - Hansel and Gretel -  in the woods to remove the burden. Although he initially resists, she harrangues him for being a fool who will cause all four of them to starve, and he eventually agrees to her plan.   

The children overhear the conversation and Hansel slips out the back door to collect shining white pebbles to fill his pockets. The next day, as the family walks into the forest to collect firewood, Hansel surreptitiously drops the pebbles one by one. The woodcutter and his wife leave the children by a fire with a bit of bread for their lunch, promising to return for them after a day of cutting wood. Famished and fatigued, the children fall asleep and do not awaken until after nightfall. However, they are able to find their way home by the light of the moon shining on Hansel’s white pebbles. Upon their return, their stepmother scolds them for sleeping out in the woods, but their father rejoices to have them back.

Despite his pangs of conscience, though, when the famine continues and worsens, the children’s father acquiesces again to his wife’s urgings and makes plans to abandon his children. This time, the stepmother bars the cottage door, preventing Hansel from collecting pebbles. The next day, he attempts to mark their path with bread crumbs, but the birds quickly eat them up. After wandering in the woods for three days with nothing but a few berries to eat, a bird leads the children to a clearing where they see a little house made of bread (sometimes gingerbread) and decorated with cakes and candy. They are so hungry that they immediately begin breaking off bits of the roof and windows, until an old woman hobbles out to see who is destroying her house.

Children nibbling on the witch's house
Bradbury, Emilie C. Hansel and Gretel. Sandusky, Ohio : American Crayon Co., 1943. Special Collections Children's Literature PS 3503 .R23 H2 1943

At first, the old woman appears to be friendly, inviting the children to stay with her and feeding them pancakes, but as the children slept that night, she locked Hansel into the stable (or sometimes a cage) and then proceeds to make a servant of Gretel, forcing her to cook food for Hansel to fatten him up for the witch to eat, but receiving only cumbs herself. Hansel tries to delay the inevitable by tricking the witch into thinking a piece of bone he has found is his own bony finger, but eventually she loses patience waiting for him to get fat and declares she will cook him the next day.

Before boiling Hansel in the kettle, though, the witch bades Gretel to help her bake bread by checking the oven to see if it is hot enough. Gretel realizes that the witch intends to bake her. She tricks the witch into showing her how to get into the oven and shuts the door, leaving her to the very fate she had planned for Gretel. Once Hans is freed, the two children explore the witch’s house, where they find boxes of pearls and precious stones, many of which they carry away.

Gretel pushing the witch into the oven
Grimm, Jacob, 1785-1863. Hansel and Gretel. New York : Grosset & Dunlap, 1944. Special Collections Children's Literature PT 2280 .H36 1944

After wandering for some hours, the children come to a large lake, which a white duck carries them across. The woods on the other side of the lake becomes increasingly familiar until the children find themselves back home, where their father is delighted to see them again. Fortunately, their stepmother has died while they were away, and since the precious stones ensure the future comfort of the children and their father, Hansel and Gretel ends with the assurance that the family's troubles are at an end. 

Hansel and Gretel with the duck and the gems
Bunny's book of best stories. Akron, Ohio : The Saalfield Publishing Company, 1939. Special Collections Children's Literature PN 6071 .F15 B86 1939