Sometimes I guest blog on Nurturing Narratives. This is my latest.
As of right now, historians believe that Halloween (shape-shifted from All Hallows Evening) is the step-child of Samhain, a Celtic festival, which roughly translates to “summer’s end”, held at the end of the harvest season. But, as with most celebrations of the harvest, Samhain also honors the deceased members of the community. It is believed that this festival of the dead was carried over to North America during the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, and that the present day Halloween, the traditions of trick or treating, bobbing for apples, and spooky costumes were all remnants of those darker, and more superstitious, times.
With that in mind, I thought the Brothers Grimm’s terrifying Hansel and Gretel was the story to look at this month!
Hansel and Gretel combines several important and spooky motifs: the wicked step-mother, the evil witch, the abandonment of children, the edible house, the tricking of the witch, and the triumph over evil.
During the times of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, fairy tales were much, much darker than they are today. Now, because they are so frightening, some parents won’t even consider telling a tale from the Brothers Grimm.
But sometimes a good scare is exactly what a child wants. Though unlike Halloween, the Brothers Grimm deliver a moral lesson, one that every child must learn, and Hansel and Gretel may help the child prepare for it along the way.
In the beginning, Hansel and Gretel’s family “had very little to bite or sup, and once, when there was great dearth in the land, [their father] could not even gain the daily bread.” Much to the father’s chagrin, the step-mother (which was actually the real mother in a much older version!) tells him that, in order to save themselves, they must abandon the children out in the woods.
According to Bruno Bettleheim (whose favorite fairy tale happens to be Hansel and Gretel), the Mother represents the source of all food to the children which is why they still want to return home after being deserted. This psychological interpretation is about dependence, in fact, Bettleheim says that before “a child has the courage to embark on the voyage of finding himself, of becoming an independent person through meeting the world, he can develop initiative only in trying to return to passivity, to secure for himself eternally dependent gratification.” (The Uses of Enchantment)
But, regression and denial will not get poor Hansel and Gretel anywhere, they must overcome their primitive desires to return to their Mother, the womb, or to a time when they were completely taken care of and did not have existential dilemmas of their own that they had to solve.
Stranded in the woods, when the children come upon a house, albeit a house made out of candy, they immediately and without thinking of the house as shelter, eat the house, satisfying their uncontrollable hunger.
“So Hansel reached up and broke off a bit of the roof, just to see how it tasted, and Gretel stood by the window and gnawed at it. Then they heard a thin voice from inside,”
When the witch asks them who is eating at her house (in a voice that could be misconstrued as the children’s consciences), they answer that it is the wind, knowing full well that they are stealing, and worse, eating this witch out of house and home, something their step-mother feared, leading to their abandonment.
Such unrestrained greediness cannot lead to anything good, especially in the morally structured world of fairy tales.
At first the witch is kind, “she took them each by the hand, and led them into her little house. And there, they found a good meal laid out, of milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. After that she showed them two little white beds, and Hansel and Gretel laid themselves down on them, and thought they were in heaven.”
Just as the children gobbled up the gingerbread house, the witch is equally determined to gobble them up!
The witch’s kindness, and then inevitable transformation, are symbolic for the inadequacies and betrayal of the Mother.
When a child is first born the Mother completely takes care of him, but even then, the Mother cannot possibly satisfy all of the child’s needs like she once did before the child was born. At the moment of birth the separation between Mother and child begins. As the child ages, the Mother no longer serves the child unequivocally, but begins to focus more of her energy on herself. For the child, this leads to rage and frustration with the Mother, as well as feelings of abandonment.
For the child reading Hansel and Gretel they are understanding everything on a symbolic level. Meaning, that in some way, they process all of this.
It is important that the first time Hansel and Gretel are abandoned Hansel saves them, but it is Gretel that pushes the witch into the oven. Hansel and Gretel is one of the few tales that stresses the importance of siblings cooperating and rescuing each other because of their combined efforts. The children move from depending on their parents, which will only lead them to a life of regression, to depending on each other, on people their own age. (This last step is key to understanding Roald Dahl’s children’s fiction.)
In order to stand to their full height as separate individuals, children must overcome their desire to return to infancy. They must also learn to face their fears, their anxieties, and their misgivings, as embodied in the human-like appearance of the witch. In Hansel and Gretel, both the step-mother and the witch must die for the children to transcend their immature dependence.