Friday, January 25, 2013

ReviewMeTwice- Hansel & Gretel by The Brothers Grimm

This week, you may have noticed that our blog is a little eclectic.  First we're talking about fairy tales, then movies.  There is a reason for this.  Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters came out in theatres this week.  So Alex has kind of been covering the movie half of it and I have been covering the fairy tale half of it.  However, we decided to dive into the actual fairy tale (Brothers Grimm version.)

We specify the version because I, personally, know of at least six of them.  The Grimm Brothers wrote two of these versions (H&G and The Juniper Tree), so we want you to know exactly which one we decided to look at.  In reality, they're all very similar.  Kids left out in the woods, find a house made of food, almost get eaten by a witch before killing her and returning home.  It differs slightly on the witch front, but essentially, it's that.

So what is it about this fairy tale that made the Grimms find it and include it in their book of tales for children?  The thing about fairy tales are that the characters are meant to be very flat, very black and white so that the reader can easily insert themselves.  Fairy tales were also often told to teach lessons.  And the one in this tale?  If you have the food, you have the power (also, STRANGER DANGER, but come on.  That one is obvious).

Ok, maybe food = power wasn't EXACTLY what the teller was going for, but think about it.  H&G's mother denies them food to keep as much as possible for herself.  They are drawn to the gingerbread house and captured, due to food.  Hansel holds some of that power when he pretends that he's not fattening up, denying the witch food, and inevitably, even the witch becomes a metaphor for food when she's thrown into an oven.

It also teaches about resourcefulness and cunning.  Hansel leaves the white pebbles so he can get home.  He tries to leave a trail of bread to do the same.  It is he who tricks the witch into prolonging his life and then thinks to ask the duck to help them cross the river.

So fairy tales, all good, right?  Not really.  Hansel & Gretel, like most fairy tales, is incredibly misogynistic.  Hansel seems to do all the thinking in this book and all Gretel does is cry (because clearly that's all women can do.)  And the evil mother and witch are both females, giving the indication that males could never have such malice (in fact, the father doesn't want to let his kids go.)  All the females in the story are dead by the end, except Gretel, whose one act (shoving the witch in the oven) doesn't even reflect that well because it's the only murder in the tale (albeit of a evil witch, but still.)

Fairy tales serve good and bad purposes, but you must also keep in mind, fairy tales are old.  Most of them reflect values of a different time, a different era.  They're still fun to read and do send some important messages.

Remember how on Monday, I told you that Jakob Grimm didn't set out to create a timeless collection of children's stories, but instead a volume of folk tales, fables, and other stories passed down through generations that would assist him in studying the evolution of the German language and culture?

Although they've become children's entertainment for us, these began as stories for anyone in that culture, usually - as Cassy said - serving as a cautionary tale designed to convince members of that society to conform to what they, as a whole, considered appropriate behavior.

Fairy tales give stepmothers a bad rap. I've had a few of my own; they really don't do things like convince your dad to abandon you in the forest, or refuse to allow you to attend the prince's ball (then cut apart your stepsisters' feet to fit them into the golden slipper). This probably comes from the idea of using fairy tales to teach cultural moral lessons: Divorce was frowned upon, so literary stepmothers were used to demonstrate this by doing terrible things to the fathers' beloved children.

In general, "Hansel & Gretel" is a pretty tame tale. The most gruesome part is that the witch burns to death in her oven while screaming in agony. That really isn't so bad. No, really. You should read the original "Snow White." Or better yet, the original "Cinderella" (in German, Aschenputtel). You also have the dad who is weirdly easily convinced to abandon his children in the forest because if he doesn't, the whole family will starve to death.


  1. I have a copy of "Grimm's Fairy Tales" on my iPod and I read them periodically--some of them honestly do not make any sense. Especially the endings. And you're right about the misogyny, I have definitely noticed in in several tales.

    I'm not sure about this Hansel and Gretel movie. It could either be pretty good or abominably bad. Maybe I'll rent it if I feel in the mood for a silly movie night.

    1. Yeah, I've read a lot of Grimm Fairy Tales (I took a class on Fairy Tales) and some of them are just weird. Or they put these odd morals at the end of the tale that make absolutely no sense.

      To be honest, Perrault (as ridiculously misogynistic he is), writes some of the best ones. Mainly because they're not watered down for kids.