One of the many things I love about fairy tales, and stories in general, is that they reflect the reality of the time and place in which they were created. The possible origins of Hansel and Gretel are varied. Some say that it was a result of a famine in Europe during the early 14th century that led to an increase in disease, mass starvation, infanticide, child desertion, and possibly even cannibalism. Others say it was due to the story of a baker during the 17th century, Katharina Schraderin, accused of witchcraft and burned to death in her own oven after she created a gingerbread cookie so delicious that another local baker got jealous. As with most folk tales passed on from one person and place to another over time, it’s likely both had an influence on the story.
Though the origins of Hansel and Gretel are up for debate, what is known is that the Grimm brothers’ 1812 version, given to them by Dortchen Wild (who later became the wife of Wilhelm Grimm), isn’t the only one. While it’s the one people are most familiar with, an earlier French version, titled “The Lost Children”, is a bit more horrific. The “witch” is actually the Devil, who wants to bleed the children on a sawhorse. They pretend not to know how to get on the sawhorse, so the Devil has his wife demonstrate. The children slit her throat, steal the Devil’s money, and run away.
If you’re looking for something more modern, and perhaps less gruesome, give one of the books below a try (all links are to Goodreads).
- A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz
- Far Far Away by Tom McNeal
- Sweetly by Jackson Pearce
- Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffet
- The Witch’s Guide to Cooking with Children and The Witch’s Curse by Keith McGowan
- The Magic Circle by Donna Jo Napoli
- The True Story of Hansel and Gretel by Louise Murphy
- Kindergarten by Peter Rushforth