[CW: child abandonment, child endangerment, child abuse, attempted child murder]
I told you that we’d get to Hansel and Gretel eventually, and here we are! This is one of the more complex tales when it comes to story type, variations, and possible interpretations. While the Grimm brothers appear to have become aware of the story in the early 19th century by way of Wilhelm’s future wife, Dortchen Wild, the story, or variations thereof, is believed to have begun in the 14th century, during times of famine and plague. Earlier variations include Montanus’s “The Little Earth-Cow” (1557), Basile’s “Ninnillo and Nennella” (1635), Madame d’Aulnoy’s “Finette Cendron” (1697), or Perrault‘s “Hop-o’-My-Thumb” (1697).
Most of us are familiar with the basic story of two children abandoned in the woods by their woodcutter father at the behest of a mother-figure. In early versions, this is their birth mother but in later variations this is changed to a step-mother. It should be noted that this story is not short on misogyny in the way that the mother-figure is depicted. It’s particularly noteworthy that the mother-figure is the one who insists on abandoning the children, the children are set upon by a witch who wishes to eat them, and upon killing her and returning home, they find their father alone, because the mother-figure has died from a mysterious cause. The clear inference is that the cannibalistic witch is the mother-figure in disguise.
In reading about this, I came across several analyses that state that this portrayal of the mother-figure as the “bad” parent may be related to the simple fact that the Middle Ages was a time of famine and often-ineffective birth control, leading to children that mothers could not feed and so these children would often be left at churches or exposed in the woods, simply because there seemed to be no good options. And honestly, this makes sense, when we think about how women are viewed as being solely responsible when they get pregnant.
Married women living in a deeply Christian and patriarchal society had no choice when it came to sex but they were left to deal with the realities when children were inevitably conceived, even if the family could ill-afford to add more mouths to feed. Add in the fact that death during child-birth was a very real and present danger, which generally led to the father marrying the first women he could find who would be willing to take care of his children, and you have the perfect recipe for the wicked step-mother, while the dead birth-mother becomes the sainted figure.
The fact that the woman who willingly marries the widowed father was most likely doing so because she literally had no other options–due to poverty, age, or suspected infertility–is never considered because her feelings are of little value. The potential for being resentful at having a husband and children forced upon her for reasons out of her control is great, but it doesn’t matter, given that women are expected to be motherly, no matter the situation.
Fairytales are often a barometer for the social, cultural, and political issues of a given time period. This is something we know but we don’t always remember it. So when you read stories like Hansel and Gretel, and think of their abandonment at the hands of their wicked step-mother and their daring and violent escape from the evil witch, try to keep in mind what the story may actually be saying about women in pre-19th century Europe, the choices that were available to them, and the stereotypes that they were often subjected to at the hands of the men who made the laws and set the morals. Nothing is ever what it seems in fairytales and sometimes the evil witches and the wicked step-mothers are just exhausted women playing the hand that’s been dealt them by their societies.
The old woman, however, was really a wicked witch on the lookout for children and had built the house made of bread only to lure them to her. As soon as she had any children in her power, she would kill, cook, and eat them. It would be like a feast day for her. Therefore, she was quite happy that Hansel and Gretel had come her way.
So, I know I usually always post just illustrations but for this entry, I had to make an exception. These were from a 2009 Vogue photoshoot with Lady Gaga, Lily Cole, and Andrew Garfield. The photographer was Annie Leibovitz. I don’t know the exact context except that the issue had fairytale themed photoshoots? Anyway, Y’all enjoy these ridiculous, gorgeous photos.
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.