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“Nibble, nibble, little mouse, who’s that nibbling at my house?”
– The Witch, before showing her claws
Hey, the chimney smoke is in the shape of the Witch, I never noticed that until now…
Oh yes, the review.
It’s easy to forget that fairytales weren’t written exclusively for children all those centuries ago. They were recorded with the intention of preserving cultural heritage passed down orally that was on the brink of being lost. While the Brothers Grimm would later re-edit their findings for a younger, more conservative audience, the German folklore they published had no shortage of, ahem, grimness in their pages. This was due in large part to how awful living conditions were in the Middle Ages. It was an era of deadly plagues, drastic income inequality, wisdom and progress continuously curtailed by superstition and theocracy, human rights perpetually being violated, and the constant threat of war and death hanging over people’s heads.
Ah, sure glad we don’t have to deal with all that in these enlightened times.
When it comes to the origins of today’s tale, scholars tend to point towards a massive famine that overtook Europe in the early fourteenth century. Families would turn elder and younger members out of their homes in order to hoard whatever food was left for themselves; there’s even been reports of people resorting to cannibalism. Combine all that with folks’ fear of witches and the unknown lurking in the woods, and you’ve got the ingredients for a deliciously dark story. Even Jacob and Wilhelm, with their penchant for revisionism, couldn’t curb Hansel and Gretel’s eerie undertones. The only major edit they made later on was changing the mother who threw her children to the proverbial wolves into a wicked stepmother; trust me, I’ll have more to say about that when we get to Snow White.
Now there’s a lot one could unpack with Hansel and Gretel and the deeper significance of the motifs it shares with other fairy tales: the forest serving as both sanctuary and no man’s land, the two faces of the mother and witch belonging to the same patriarchal grotesque, the sanctity of the home and how choosing familial loyalty over independence leads to a just reward, but let’s instead focus on the children themselves. Hansel and Gretel’s journey is symbolic of a child’s rocky passage to adulthood, and how they must rely on their wits to survive a cruel world beyond their doorstep. Similar stories of children undergoing a transformative odyssey through the wilderness into maturity can be found in every culture around the world, from Southern India (Kadar and Cannibals) to South Africa (The Story of the Bird that Made Milk). Certain Russian folktales involve a girl cast out into the woods by her cruel stepmother and traveling to a chicken-legged house belonging to the cannibalistic witch Baba Yaga. She completes the impossible tasks the witch sets for her by being kind to the animals, makes a daring escape using the gifts she’s earned, and returns home, ending her stepmother’s reign of terror. Sound familiar? Even Italian author Giambatta Basile, originator of Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty, created his own take on the fable. Nennillo e Nennella starts off with the usual parental abandonment in the woodlands, but goes off the rails into royalty, piracy and some Jonah and the Whale-type shenanigans (seriously, read this one, it’s a hoot). And it doesn’t stop at the written word, either. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, the seventh entry in the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, explicitly weaves the story of Hansel and Gretel into its themes as part of Craven’s efforts to return to the series back to its terrifying, more serious fantasy origins. The iconic thriller Night of the Hunter also has shades of Hansel and Gretel: two children are forced out of their home by their stepparent and find shelter in the Depression-blighted countryside with an old crone; the twist is the crone becomes their selfless protector.
The point I’m trying to make is, when done right, this fairy tale can be a rich, emotional experience, a dark but thrilling and ultimately triumphant roller coaster ride that captures a child’s view of the world in all its terror and wonder.
And Faerie Tale Theatre…it doesn’t do it right. It hardly comes close, for a number of reasons. But if you like to plod through long depressing morality plays that consistently thrash you over the head with its mean-spiritedness and bleak atmosphere, then this is the outing for you.Continue reading