The Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel

The tale of Hansel and Gretel is one of the more familiar of the Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

Prior to actually reading the tale, I knew that the children were left in the woods, couldn’t follow their trail of breadcrumbs home, discovered a gingerbread house occupied by a witch who intended to eat them, and ended up locking the witch in her own oven.

What I didn’t know was the level of detail found in the original story (or stories). The children were left in the woods at the urging of their mother (stepmother?) who feared there wasn’t enough for the whole family to eat. The children found their way home by way of dropped moonstones. The first time they were left in the woods, Hansel tricked the witch into thinking he wasn’t gaining weight by giving her the same old animal bone to feel when she came to check his finger for fatness. After they were free of the witch, the children were carried across a pond by a kind duck (what?) They arrived home at last to find their mother (stepmother?) dead.

It was fun to see how different translators and retellers tell this story, and how different illustrators illustrate it. It is certainly a dark tale – but each version has its bright moments.

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Sybille Schenker, text edited by Martin West

Visually, this book is gorgeous. You can recognize it by its black cover sewn together with orange thread. The illustrations are typically black and white with stark contrasts – but with great depth thanks to a multitude of vellum overlays layering page upon page upon page. The illustrations are beautiful, but creepy. The text is fairly detailed, but translational choices emphasized the relationship between brother and sister – and decreased the forboding nature of their abandonment by having the stepmother (as opposed to the mother) doing the convincing and then the actual abandoning (the father is apparently there, but it is stepmom who marches the children into the woods and tells them that their father and she will return for them – which, of course, doesn’t happen.)

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, retold by Rika Lesser
This book received the Caldecott Honor in 1985 (it’s as old as me!) for Zelinsky’s beautiful illustrations. I wish I knew enough about art history to be able to place them in some artistic school – but I’ve seen paintings in this style in museums. They are perfectly suited to the tale and to the historical setting of the tale. The story is told well, with lots of dialogue between characters. Interestingly, about half of the book addresses the period before the children found the gingerbread house.

Hansel and Gretel retold by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
A relatively wordy version for slightly older children, this retelling increases the spook factor rather than playing it down. Trees claw at the children in a forboding manner; the old woman (never named as a witch) tells the children that she hopes their arrival heralds the coming of meat to her kitchen again. The additions to the story fleshed it out but didn’t feel contrived or moralistic like some of the other versions (that I didn’t like so much.) Mattotti’s illustrations are stark, black and white with lots of tangled branches and the occasional eye poking out. The people are the clearest of all the forms, but even they are merely black outlines against a white splash of light. The illustrations and story alternate with each double page spread, making this a better choice for reading to oneself than for reading aloud (since you can’t look at the pictures while someone else is reading.)

The Cookie House by Margaret Hillert, illustrated by Kinuko Craft
This is unique among the retellings because it is a first reader, with just 59 words. The text primarily consists of Hansel and Gretel’s thoughts as the events of the tale occur: “Mother is not here. Father is not here. I do not like this.” This leaves the illustrations to tell the story – which they do quite well. As with all first readers, this is a book best read by a child (since it doesn’t have the rich text that makes parental read-alouds so beneficial) – but it really is a nice version of the Grimms’ story. I can certainly see a child reading it to her parent and then having dialogue about what was happening in the pictures (to flesh out the story).

Hansel and Gretel illustrated by Susan Jeffers, retold by Amy Ehrlich
A straightforward retelling of the story – with one new-to-me detail: a white bird led the children to the witch’s gingerbread cottage. The stepmother is often referred to as “the woman”, helping to make the betrayal a little less personal. Illustrator Susan Jeffers has two different illustration styles (it seems to me). The woodland pictures are in great detail, with individual leaves on the trees and lots of lovely wildlife. The indoor pictures and those prominently featuring people seem to be almost in the style of American Country Crafts (you know, the kind from the ’80s and ’90s, round faced dolls with peat moss hair and painted on cheek circles?) This wasn’t a bad picture book, but it’s not my favorite either.

Nibble, Nibble Mousekin retold and illustrated by John Walsh Anglund
A quite wordy version with lots of text on each page and a fair bit of extraneous description. This one has Hansel fill his pockets with stones on the mere suspicion of his stepmother’s wickedness, without having overheard her plan (in fact, she never shares the plan with the father – thereby freeing him from the guilt of weakness.) Furthermore, the stepmother runs away rather than dies, leaving the children and their father to enjoy each other in the end. The illustrations alternated between color and black and white on every other two-page spread. The children remind me of Precious Moments dolls – but the rest of the illustration is different enough that it’s only a passing reminder. I generally prefer the more faithful retellings found above.

Hansel and Gretel retold and illustrated by James Marshall

The retelling was neither bad nor spectacular – but the cartoon-like illustrations didn’t really suit my fancy. My library also had a video version of this, in which the illustrations are lightly animated (the stepmother is always munching something). While the generally very story-book like manner was appealing (that is, a narrator read the story while each page was shown on screen versus the flash-from-one-scene-to-another-very-quickly nature of typical cartoons), I still wasn’t impressed with the storytelling or the illustrations.

Hansel and Gretel retold by Cynthia Rylant, pictures by Jen Corace
Generally speaking, the retellings of “Hansel and Gretel” have been faithful to the extent that my commentary has focused on omissions or on illustrations. This retelling is an exception, for while the illustrations are interesting, what stands out is what Rylant has chosen to ADD to the story – explanations. She explains the stepmother’s selfishness, explains the father’s weakness, and explains the moral she wants children to derive from the story.

“It has been said that guardian spirits watch over and protect small children, and that may be so. But there are also stories of children who find the courage to protect themselves.”

“Perhaps this is when guardian spirits finally intervene, when small children have already been so brave.”

I would much prefer that retellers keep to the story and let parents and children talk about what the story means. In this case, I am all for children being brave – but I want my children to know the bravery that comes from complete reliance on the Holy Spirit, who intervenes when we can do nothing, granting us supernaturally a spirit of “power and of love and of a sound mind”.

So this is one retelling I don’t recommend.

4 thoughts on “The Brothers Grimm: Hansel and Gretel”

  1. The fairy tales I read this month were a collection of what are supposed to be the originals, at least originally written (some of the stories were handed down orally for hundreds of years). I hadn’t known that the Grimms themselves revised the stories with each edition. One detail they changed was making the mother in the original a step-mother in later versions. There weren’t any birds in the version I heard except the ones who ate the bread crumbs (I also hadn’t known that the parents took the children out to the forest twice – the first time, Hansel dropped pebbles; the second time bread crumbs.)

    Thanks for the comparison between children’s editions! Though I enjoyed listening to the format I did, I think the stories would be much more interesting in individual illustrated books.


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