Folklore and fairy tales are riddled with tales of child abandonment: purposeful and accidental, peasant and royal, orphaned and unorphaned alike, nearly every child in a fairy tale spends at least some time alone. Some stories, indeed, focus on that abandonment, and the lengths that children must go to in order to survive, particularly if not discovered by unusually friendly dwarves or bands of thieves. Including “Hansel and Gretel”: on its surface, an adorable story of an adorable boy and adorable girl (they’re in a fairy tale) who just happen to find a gingerbread house in the woods. Nothing could be cuter.
Well, if you ignore all the starvation and the murder.
The Grimm Brothers apparently first heard the German version of Hansel and Gretel from a member of the Wild family, a prosperous middle class household, perhaps from their chief storyteller Henriette Dorothea Wild, better known to history as Dorchen Wild. Some sources allege that Dorchen’s father, a pharmacist, may have abused his children and frowned upon her friendship with Lotte Grimm, sister of the Grimm brothers, which might help explain why some of the fairy tales told in the household focus on parental abuse. Or possibly, they just liked to tell stories about evil families to contrast those lives with their own. The Wilds, like the Grimms, also lived through and observed the Napoleonic wars and later displacement of adults and children alike, something that seems to have influenced their retellings. In any case, several years after the story appeared in the first edition of Household Tales, Dorchen Wild married the younger Grimm brother, Wilhelm. They had four children, three of whom survived to adulthood, none, apparently, ever abandoned in the woods.
The Grimms were also aware of Giambattista Basile’s considerably more brutal and vulgar version (pretty much every one of Basile’s fairy tales can be summed up as “considerably more brutal and vulgar”), “Nennilo and Nennela,” one of the last stories in his collection, The Tale of Tales. By the time Basile scribed this tale, he seemed to be running out of steam, filling it with—even by his standards—unusually random elements such as pirates, fish whose insides contain palaces, knife sharpeners, and death sentences focused on barrels of studded nails—in an ending later echoed in the ending of “The Goose Girl,” also collected by the Grimms.
Before all of the pirates and knife training, however, Basile tells a simpler story of child abandonment. After the death of his unnamed wife, Iannuncio, identified only as a father, remarries a woman that I shall call Pasciozza since the words Basile uses for her are not exactly safe for a mostly family-friendly website. Pasciozza is, to put it mildly, not fond of his two children, Nennillo and Nennella. To be fair, the story suggests that at least one of these children does not always use diapers, so this hatred isn’t completely without cause, even if I can’t help but think that the solution here is to try to make sure the kid keeps diapers on. Or hire an extra maid. Anyway, she gives her husband an ultimatum: it’s either them, or any chance of ever sleeping with her. This is where I kinda begin to question the fairness of Basile’s description of Pasciozza, since given this choice, Iannuncio pretty much chooses sex, taking his children not once, but twice, to the woods and leaving them there, barely even protesting. The story wants me to believe that Pasciozza is the only person at fault here, but (a) it seems that Iannuncio didn’t exactly tell his new wife all that much about the kids, and (b) maybe just a TOUCH more protest before abandoning your toddlers in the woods, dude. Especially since the tale clarifies at the end that while Iannuncio and Pasciozza are not nobles, or wealthy, they are certainly not starving or poor. (Indeed, although the kids aren’t quite well born or wealthy enough to marry kings, they end up marrying quite well.)
To be completely fair, Iannuncio does leave his children a basket of food, as well as a trail to follow back home (ashes the first time, bran the second). I’m not overly inclined to be fair, however, because just seconds later we find out that Nennilo is so young, he can’t even tell people the names of his parents, which STRIKES ME AS FAR TOO YOUNG TO BE LEFT ALONE IN THE WOODS SO THAT YOU CAN HAVE A ROMP WITH YOUR NEW WIFE, IANNUNCIO. It is really saying something when the pirates end up being better parents—until, that is, they violently die a few sentences later, because, well, again, this is a story written by Basile.
(If you’re trying to remember him, he’s the same guy who published an early version of “Sleeping Beauty” where Sleeping Beauty doesn’t wake up when the prince finds her and sleeps with her and later had about half the characters start eating each other. So, you know, a group of suddenly dead pirates is sorta in his style and even a bit of a comedown.)
Basile, I should note, disagrees with me completely, starting the tale with a rant about stepmothers, and continuing by putting all of the blame for everything that goes wrong on the evil stepmother, even when these things are clearly the fault of pirates or people refusing to notice that the fish right next to them is TALKING, the sort of thing that really, characters should pay attention to. Apart from the pirates, Pasciozza is also the only person specifically punished for her misdeeds.
The Grimm brothers were less certain about where to put the blame. Their footnotes mention both the Basile story, where the blame rests with the stepmother alone, and Madame d’Aulnoy’s Finette Cindron, where the children are abandoned by their father and mother, not stepparents. In the Grimm’s original version, Hansel and Gretel are abandoned by their mother, though their father protests. Only in 1840, in their fourth edition of their tales, did the Grimms change the mother to a stepmother, once again pulling away from blaming parents for abandoning their children in the woods.
Other tales of children abandoned in the woods took care to distribute the blame. In Charles Perrault’s story of Little Thumb, the mother protests abandoning the children; the father insists, arguing that the family will otherwise starve. In the English story of Molly Whuppie, the starving parents only abandon their youngest three children, keeping the rest, suggesting more complex motives. This is also true of the Polish story of Jan and Hanna, which, apart from the increased number of children, is otherwise fairly close to Hansel and Gretel, right down to the gingerbread house. A Romanian version blames the stepmother again—and adds a touch of cannibalism.
(Really, the more I read of these fairy tales, the more inured I’m getting to all of this eating other humans in soup or as nicely dressed main courses for huge feasts.)
The more desperate the financial situation, the more competent the children. Basile’s children, from a home with sufficient food and money (if not, apparently, sex), are in nearly constant need of rescue and are generally helpless. Finette, raised a princess, and only poor, not starving (and at that, “poor” only by the standards of the wealthy French aristocracy, whose description of “poor” in this tale would fill most poor people with envy) needs the help of a fairy godmother—though she is later able to trick an ogre into an oven. The poorer Molly Whuppie defeats a giant without help. Hansel, from a home without food, manages to mark a path back home, initially defeating his mother’s plans to kill him. Gretel, also from a home without food, crying and helpless at the start of the tale, ends up killing the witch towards the end.
And generally, the more poverty stricken the parents and stepparents, the more violent the children. Finette, for instance, rarely in any real danger of starvation apart from a brief moment of eating acorns, tricks an ogre into going into an oven and dying inside, never raising a finger to him. Molly Whuppie also defeats her giant through tricks, and he remains alive at the end of the tale. The considerably younger Gretel, poorest of them all, finds herself pushing the witch into an oven.
The prevalence of these tales reflects an ugly reality: throughout Europe, parents could and did abandon their children. Some of these children ended up as forced laborers in various professions. Others ended up as beggars or criminals. Still others died. The reasons for abandonment varied. In some cases, these children seem to have had minor to severe disabilities that their parents felt unable to cope with. Other mothers abandoned unwanted babies at the steps of churches and convents—especially babies born outside the bonds of marriage. Famines and war forced many families to split up, sometimes leaving children behind. In other cases the historical record is silent on the reasons; we only know it happened.
We can guess, too, that then as now, parents worried about their children getting taken away by strangers—strangers who would, perhaps, try tempting their children away using candy and treats not available at home. It’s perhaps not surprising that the hungrier the children are in these tales, the sweeter and more abundant the food that tempts them towards hungry monsters and witches. Thus Hansel and Gretel, more desperate than most of these children, and lacking a fairy godmother (though they do have friendly birds, and prayers) find themselves tempted not just by a table covered with food, or even the hope of bread and milk from the first house they encounter, but cake, pancakes, apples and other sweet things, in a house specifically designed to attract and fatten children. Other fairy tale children content themselves with bread, milk and soup.
Incidentally, the “gingerbread” that forms such a large part of “Hansel and Gretel” is absent in all of the Grimm versions. That later detail may have come from some Polish versions, or was possibly in a reflection of the German custom of building small houses from gingerbread. The original house does, however, have a roof made of cake, turning the house from sanctuary to trap. That cake probably isn’t needed—as hungry as they are, the bread would probably be enough to tempt them. On the other hand, the witch was presumably looking for better fed children than Hansel and Gretel—especially given that she later spends time trying to fatten Hansel up—so used cake to sweeten the deal and the temptation. The cake also, of course, suggests the comparative wealth of its owner.
Given that the witch has access to plenty of food, at a time when her neighbors just a three day walk away are forced to abandon their children, and yet still wants to eat her neighbors, her death has been read as a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of peasants towards their wealthier, landowning, sometimes rapacious neighbors. But it also serves as a warning to the tale’s listeners to be wary of strangers, particularly strangers with sweets—and a warning to parents that these monsters might be out there. The witch in Hansel and Gretel may have gone to rather elaborate lengths to attract starving children, but she could and did go to those lengths because she knew children would be out there, in the woods.
Still, the image of young, starving helpless children overthrowing a well fed oppressor is a powerful one, one that probably helps account for the ongoing popularity of the story. In a period of multiple displacements and abandonment, we can guess that children and parents alike needed stories of competent children who could survive abandonment in the woods. Or, in the case of Basile, incompetent children lucky enough to be rescued by princes and pirates, or with Finette, lucky enough to have a fairy godmother—as well as a touch of intelligence and charm. Or with Hansel and Gretel, a young girl strong and brave enough to be able to shove her next caretaker, if needed, into an oven.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.