THE PLOT OF HANSEL AND GRETEL
One of the best ways to retell a familiar story is to add plenty of minor detail. The trick is to make this detail seem both unexpected and surprising.
There are things I really like about Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel:
1. In earlier retellings, it is Hansel who has all the bright ideas. Hansel realises what the parents/step-mother has done to them — abandoned them in the woods. By comparison, Gretel seems naiive and even stupid. In this retelling, Gaiman offsets this interpretation by making Hansel — but not Gretel — privy to an overheard midnight conversation between the mother and the father.
2. So often in fairytale retellings, it is a step-mother rather than a birth mother who is evil. It is generally thought that a story with an evil mother is too terrible for a young reader to contemplate. If there are unwritten rules in children’s literature (and indeed, there must be few these days, if we include YA), it is that mothers must love their children unconditionally, even if they themselves are too screwed up to care for them properly. If you went looking for terrible mothers in children’s literature you’d be hard pressed to count the evil ones on one hand. But Neil Gaiman does not shy away from the reality that some women do indeed lack mothering instincts, just as many men lack fathering instincts.
3. Not only that, Neil Gaiman portrays gut-wrenching emotion in the father. Counterintuitively, this is what makes this story feminist — a story in which women are not put on a pedestal as mothers, where women have only one representation: self-sacrificing and emotional. In stories, men are often allowed to be just men, even when they have children. They are not judged so much on how effective they are as fathers. In this story, however, the father is the parent with the nurturing instinct, and is at the mercy of his wife’s terrible decisions rather than the other way around. We won’t have gender equality until we have as many bad mothers as there are bad fathers, I guess.
Food In Fairytales
Carolyn Daniel writes in Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature:
The woodcutter’s family is poor and they “did not have much food around the house, and when a great famine devastated the entire country, [the woodcutter] could no longer provide enough for his family’s daily meals”. At the suggestion of their stepmother, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods. The hungry children come across a house made, in the Grimm version, of “bread” with “cake for a roof and pure sugar for windows”. Cane sugar was a very costly commodity and had been imported from India or Arabia since the eleventh century. It was used for making marzipan and other sweetmeats. Sugar would only have been available to rich nobles and not to woodcutters and their families. The house made of sweet food represents something exotic, very rich, and beyond the reach of the peasantry. When your diet is poor and monotonous, a story featuring plentiful, appetizing food is bound to have appeal, but I believe this fantasy goes beyond the desire to alleviate hunger: it also represents economic desire. The exoticism and richness of the sugary food in the fantasy represent not only the riches of the nobility but also their ability to avoid the hunger and drudgery of the peasants’ daily life. The Grimm version ends with the children filling apron and pockets with the pearls and jewels they have found in the witch’s house and taking them home to their father. “[In] the meantime” their stepmother has died and so “Now all their troubles were over, and they lived together in utmost joy”. Their future is secured by the wealth with which, like the nobility, they can now live in relative ease and luxury. Unlike the magic porridge pot that merely alleviated hunger, the jewels provide the woodcutter’s family with riches and instant freedom from their menial existence.
Continue reading “Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti”