Sweetly: Origins of the “Hansel & Gretel” Story

Much like we did with Sisters Red and “Little Red Riding Hood” earlier this month, today we explore the origins of the “Hansel & Gretel” story to offer a better understand if Jackson Pearce’s Sweetly, a modern retelling of the classic fairy tale.

A trail of breadcrumbs …

The most classic version of “Hansel & Gretel” begins with their stepmother’s plot to abandon them in the woods, in order to avoid having to feed them. Upon her first try, the kids leave a trail of pebbles and — surprise! — show up back at home. The second time around, evil stepmom locks them in their room so they can’t gather pebbles. Instead, Hansel leaves a trail of breadcrumbs as they are taken into the woods. Except birds eat the breadcrumbs, and they have no way to get home.

However, while wandering in the woods, Hansel and Gretel stumble upon a home made of candy. Being hungry, they kids begin to nosh on the candy house (om, nom nom) until the owner — a witch — catches them chewing on her shutters. She tricks them with promises of soft beds and sweet food, only to trap Hansel in a cage and force Gretel into hard manual labor. All the while, the blind old witch feeds Hansel lots of sweets to fatten him so she can eat him. (Yes, this is a children’s story about cannibalism).

Eventually, the witch tries to convince Gretel to look inside the oven — planning to knock the girl into the oven, to cook and eat her too. But smart little Gretel plays dumb and makes the witch show her what she means. When that happens, Gretel and Hansel push the witch into the oven and escape. When they make their way back home, evil stepmom has mysteriously died and their dear old dad has been pining away from them.

Oh, and they found some gold and jewels of the witches and stole them, and now they are rich. Happily ever after.

The story’s origins

The most well-known, written version of “Hansel and Gretel” can be traced to the Brothers Grimm. The first printed version was released in 1812 — however, as with their other stories, the Grimms gathered oral tellings of “Hansel and Gretel” from others before writing it down.

The story went through a few revisions before the one we know best today was settled upon. In some earlier versions, it was the children’s biological mother who tried to abandon them in the woods, not a stepmother. In many cases, dear old dad was just as in on the plot to abandon the kiddos, too. (Parents of the year, eh?)

Birds and witches and stepmothers, oh my!

There are a few themes and theories many interpreters have addressed regarding “Hansel and Gretel.”

The first is the appearance of birds throughout the story, and how they appear to both help and hinder Hansel and Gretel. The “hinder” by first eating the children’s trail of bread crumbs, and again by leading them to the witch’s house. But in some versions, birds also help ferry the children home after they have escaped the witch.

Then there’s the witch and theorized connections between her and the children’s stepmother. Many note the correlation between the witch’s demise and the stepmother’s mysterious death. Some interpreters suggest that either there is some sort of connection between the stepmother and the witch, while others suggest they are in fact the same person. Or maybe it’s just a big fat coincidence.

Operatic Interpretation

There have been various retellings and adaptations of the “Hansel and Gretel” story, but the most well-known is Engelbert Humperdinck’s 1893 opera. Originally written and performed in German, it is often performed in English today. Since the story is familiar and the music is quite accessible, the Hansel & Gretel opera is often seen as a great way to introduce children to opera itself. Here is an excerpt from one of the most well-known pieces, the “Evening Prayer.”

For the comments: What is your favorite version of the “Hansel and Gretel” story?

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