And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Breadcrumbs

Let’s see. How about Hansel and Gretel for a fairy tale post this week? This story is best known from the version recorded by the Brothers Grimm, who added a lot of the elements we now associate with the tale. That includes the names of the children, who were apparently just Little Brother and Little Sister before the Grimms got their hands on the story. The names the Grimms used were diminutive forms of common names in German fairy tales, sort of like Jack in English folk stories. In fact, Hans and Jack are essentially the same name, the former being a short version of Johannes and the latter a nickname for John. As I mentioned here, it was also the Grimms who changed the mother to a stepmother, and they made the father reluctant to abandon the children besides. That said, he still didn’t stand up to her, and never gets punished for that. Another element added by the brothers was the duck that helps the children return home, which is apparently large and strong enough to carry one child, but not two. Because a duck that can carry TWO people would just be ridiculous. The duck doesn’t really add anything to the tale, as far as I can see. Did the Grimms have a word count they had to meet?

Hey, Carl Offterdinger, that’s not a duck!

Perhaps the most interesting part of this story is the witch in the gingerbread house.

Except it wasn’t originally a gingerbread house, just a bread house, although it did have cakes on the roof and spun sugar windows. The fact that we know it as a gingerbread house owes its origin to the fact that model houses made of gingerbread were a common German craft. Whether bread or gingerbread, I have to wonder how it withstands the rain. As the Wizard of Oz says in The Lost Princess of Oz, however, “[w]ith magic to protect it, even a paper castle might be as strong as if made of stone.” I also wouldn’t be too surprised if the house could regenerate missing parts. The witch herself is described as an old woman with red eyes that can’t see very well, and she is a self-admitted cannibal. Also, while the witch is presumably not the same person as the stepmother, it is a bit suspicious that their deaths appear to coincide. The witch ends up burned alive in her own oven, which a few analysts have said became even more disturbing after the Holocaust, and this is after all a German fairy tale.

When learning about the court system in elementary school, one of the mock trials we performed was that of Hansel and Gretel for killing the witch. Really, though, I don’t think they were left with much choice. The witch had imprisoned them, and incapacitating her somehow was the only apparent means of escape. The fact that they started eating the house without asking permission first and that they took the witch’s treasures after killing her show that they might not be the most moral kids, but it’s still pretty much impossible to take the witch’s side.

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5 Responses to And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Breadcrumbs

  1. Gosh, I don’t remember the duck at all! I’m going to have to go re-read it. ^^

    Great post!

  2. I had to do an analysis of the tropes in Hansel and Gretel in library school, and came to the conclusion that the Grimms had actually combined two stories with the inclusion of the duck (or at least, the story they heard was actually a combination of two different stories). Apparently there’s a Belgian story about a wolf who lives in a gingerbread house, and that story ends by the children crossing a river with the help of friendly ducks, but when the wolf tries to cross the river the ducks dump him. It’s actually a vital part of the plot in that story, which makes me wonder if somehow the two tales just got crossed here.

    • Nathan says:

      It’s quite possible. There are a lot of fairy tales where someone escapes a pursuer by crossing an obstacle with the help of animals or magic (if not both). In “Hansel and Gretel,” however, the witch is already dead when the children encounter the duck, so there’s no suspense there. Other tales in the Grimm collection seem to combine two or more sources as well, like how the woodcutter loading up the wolf’s stomach with rocks in “Little Red Riding Hood” is something that originally occurred in “The Wolf and the Seven Kids.”

  3. Pingback: Fairy Tales from the Final Frontier | VoVatia

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