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  • Writer's picturekellinthewoods


'They saw that the cottage was made of bread and cake' by Kay Nielsen, 1925

‘Hansel & Gretel’ is, in my opinion, the most disturbing of the Grimm’s fairy tales. Brother and sister Hansel and Gretel, abandoned by their struggling father and stepmother in the deep, dark forest near their home, spend three nights and three days lost there before happening upon a cottage made entirely of gingerbread. The cottage is inhabited by a cannibalistic witch, who plans to cook and eat Hansel before she is pushed into her own oven and burnt to death by Gretel.

Abandonment. Starvation. Loss in the wilderness. Abduction. Cannibalism. Incineration.

This, I hear you say, is not the stuff of fairy tales.

And yet, of course, the stuff of fairy tales is exactly what it is. The Brothers Grimm included ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in their famous collection of fairy tales, Children’s and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmarchen) in 1812. In later editions of the collection, the brothers ‘softened’ the fairy tale somewhat, adding the father’s remorse and misery at leaving his children and changing the mother into a wicked stepmother, but even so the fairy tale remains one of their darkest and most fascinating.

Arthur Rackham, Hansel & Gretel, 1903

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is generally believed to be German in origin, although there are hints of it in the 1559 story Das Erdkuhlein, in which two children who are cast out by their stepmother leave a trail of pebbles in the woods, in Madame d’Aulnoy’s ‘Finette Cendron’ (1721) and the French fairy tale Thumbling (Hop-O’-My-Thumb), which appeared in Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairy tale collection. In this tale, clever children trick an ogre into killing its own children instead of them. Tales like this, where children out-think ogres, were especially popular in the Baltic regions, and the witch in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is also reminiscent of the cannibalistic witch Baba Yaga of Russian folk tales.

Some scholars believe that ‘Hansel & Gretel’ may have come into being during or after the Great Famine in the fourteenth century, when much of Europe- from Russia to the United Kingdom, and south to the Pyrenees and the Alps- starved. This devastating famine coincided with the end of the Medieval Warm Period and began in the spring of 1315 with heavy spring rains that continued into summer and autumn, followed by one of the worst winters in the history of the Middle Ages. This bad weather – interspersed with dry summers and periods of drought- continued until 1322 and resulted in catastrophic harvest yields as well as the loss of draught and food animals through starvation and disease. Historic sources often refer to this period as the ‘Great Murrain,’ which, simply put, means ‘The Great Dying.’ During this time stories of infanticide, cannibalism and of children being abandoned by their parents to fend for themselves arose. (As a side note, it is also interesting to note that witch hunts often increased in frequency and intensity during times of agricultural instability.)

When viewed in light of this historical backdrop, it is easy to imagine a connection between events like The Great Famine and the creation of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, which, after all, focuses primarily on food, hunger and gluttony. The image of the Gingerbread House is of course the strongest example of this. It stands for everything the children have lost- comfort, safety, shelter, and, above all, food. Bruno Bettelheim in his work The Uses of Enchantment acknowledges the power of the image:

‘The gingerbread house is an image nobody forgets: how incredibly appealing and tempting a picture this is, and how terrible the risk one runs if one gives in to the temptation. The child recognises that, like Hansel and Gretel, he would wish to eat up the gingerbread house, no matter what the dangers. The house stands for oral greediness and how attractive it is to give in to it.’ (Bettelheim, p. 161)

Hansel and Gretel illustration by Wanda Gag

Gingerbread itself has a long and interesting history. French legend states that it was brought to Europe in 992 by an Armenian monk, while other food historians believe that it was introduced to Europe by Crusaders returning from the Middle East in the eleventh century. For more information on the history of gingerbread and some fascinating historical recipes, check out and The Old Foodie’s wonderful article ‘Through the Ages with Gingerbread.’

I first wrote this as a guest post over at my friend Lauren's blog The Well Read Cookie.


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