The Fairy Tale of Hansel and Grethel

Apr 12, 2023

Book Club Philosophy Virtues

By: Brandon Quakkelaar

Edited By: Jesse Denzin-Weber

Hansel and Grethel is the story about two siblings who survive being abandoned by their guardians, they escape capture by a witch, and they reunite with their father as a happy family in the end. There are many different versions of the story, but I’m going to focus on the story by The Brothers Grimm.

I got my hands on a version that was published in 1918 in an anthology series called Junior Classics. I really enjoyed reading it, and there were several things that stuck out to me. First, I knew the story as Hansel and Gretel, but the 1918 version I found spelled the sister’s name with an ‘h’ in the middle. It’s just notable to me that right off the bat this version is probably going to have subtle changes from newer versions. Which is unfortunate because I assume the original became a classic for a reason, and each adaption, copy, and edit watered the story down a little―diluting the message.

This is a children’s story. It’s meant to be read to children. The themes of starvation, death, betrayal, murder, and cannibalism might be jarring to modern audiences (it’s a long way from If You Give A Mouse A Cookie) but I think it’s very important. Children need to grapple with these topics so that they can be inspired to overcome. This story teaches children to have faith in God, to have hope in the face of danger, and to aspire to vanquish dragons.

Let me share a quote:

“Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.”

― G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton is absolutely right. From a very early age kids figure out there are dangerous things in the world. They start having nightmares, they fear the dark, and they need reasurrance that hope is not lost. Scary things, whether it be as benign as a dark closet or as potent as war, can be overcome.

If you have been exposed to Hansel and Grethel before, you are probably familiar with the five characters who capture our attention. They are the eponymous brother and sister, their father and stepmother, and the witch who lives in the forest. The story takes place during a time of famine. Food is scarce, and the family is hungry.

The only characters that are worth emulating are the kids. The brother has faith and is resourceful, and his sister is cunning. The adults in this story are all Chesterton’s dragons. There’s the selfish and self centered stepmother, the feckless father, and the wicked witch with a penchant for cannibalizing kids.

The First Danger Encounter; Victorious Hansel

Let’s be realistic about the dad in this story: he’s weak. He succumbs to his wife’s selfishness and as a result, he could probably be charged with four counts of attempted murder. However, the story doesn’t make it easy on the reader to recognize how terribly the dad behaved. The family is starving, and the dad is shown to have internal conflict and stress about feeding his family. He does care about his kids, but even so, when the selfish stepmother proposes a utilitarian solution to murder the kids lest they all starve, he fecklessly goes along with it. So, he is a dragon.

The stepmother is certainly a dragon. She clearly has no love for her husband’s kids. She berates her husband and uses devious reasoning to break him down to the point that they become a murderous pair. Pay close attention to what she says to her husband.

“What will become of us? How can we feed our children when we have no more than we can eat ourselves?”

“Know, then, my husband,” answered she, “we will lead them away quite early in the morning into the thickest part of the wood, and there make them a fire, and give them each a little piece of bread. Then we will go to our work and leave them alone, so they will not find the way home again and we shall be freed from them.”

“No, wife,” replied he, “that I can never do. How can you bring your heart to leave my children all alone in the wood, for the wild beasts will soon come and tear them to pieces?”

“Oh, you simpleton!” said she, “Then we must all four die of hunger. You had better plane the coffins for us.” But she left him no peace till he consented saying, “Ah, but I shall regret the poor children.”

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

I love the setup to this story. A kid listening to this would feel horror at the prospect of being left in the wilderness to die. But there’s also a lot there for parents and other adults to ponder too. There’s enough here for a deep contemplation of ethics and morality on par with The Trolley Problem. Both scenarios pose the question: does actively killing few people to save many justify killing the few? But under all of the calculation and practicality, this stepmother asserts that it is justified to sacrifice the kids' lives in exchange for the adults. She completely ignores the virtues of self sacrifice.

The children overhear the adults scheming. Their response is when we, as the readers, are gifted with the first example of virtue.

Grethel wept bitterly and said to Hansel, “What will become of us?”

“Be quiet, Grethel,” said he, “Do not cry, I will soon help you.” And as soon as their parents had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his coat and, unbarring the back door, slipped out. The moon shone brightly, and the white pebbles which lay before the door seemed like silver pieces, they glittered so brightly. Hansel stooped down and put as many into his pocket as it would hold, and then going back he said to Grethel, “Be comforted, dear sister, and sleep in peace. God will not forsake us,” and so saying he went to bed again.

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

This kid, Hansel, is great. There’s no panic. There’s no moaning, whining, or despair. Instead he shows truly masculine virtues. He compartmentalizes his emotions and reassures his sister. He encourages her to find peace knowing God is faithful. And he also takes action! He prepares for the storm that’s coming, and he’s ready with a pocketful of pebbles when it arrives. When the time comes he leads them out of the wilderness. They return home.

The Second Danger Encounter: Defeated Hansel

The story repeats with a few changes. Lean times return and the stepmother displays her selfishness again. The father caves again. The children are again betrayed, only this time Hansel’s efforts to find the way home are thwarted. He’s been locked inside, so he can’t collect his pocketful of pebbles.

The children, however, had heard the conversation as they lay awake, and as soon as the old people went to sleep Hansel got up intending’ to pick up some pebbles as before; but the wife had locked the door, so that he could not get out. Nevertheless he comforted Grethel, saying, “Do not cry; sleep in quiet; the good God will not forsake us.”

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

He uses crumbs from his piece of bread to leave a trail. But the attempt at marking a path home fails because all the crumbs get eaten by birds. This gives Grethel an opportunity to show virtue. She shows her nurturing and loving nature when she shares her piece of bread with Hansel who sacrificed his own.

Hansel kept saying to Grethel, “We will soon find the way”; but they did not, and they walked the whole night long and the next day, but still they did not come out of the wood; and they got so hungry, for they had nothing to eat but the berries which they found upon the bushes.

Soon they got so tired that they could not drag themselves along, so they laid down under a tree and went to sleep.

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

When they wake up things continue to get more desperate for them. They get hungrier and hungrier. They continue to wander.

The Third Danger Encounter: Victorious Grethel

The lost children wander until they find a cottage made of bread, cakes, and sugar panes for windows. Such a house presents an irresistible temptation for them, and they quickly begin stuffing themselves. That’s when they encounter the third villain of the story: the old witch who lives in the cottage. The final dragon.

The witch presents herself as a sweet old woman. She lures the siblings into her cottage with good things to eat and the promise of rest. Then she drops her facade and reveals her nearly blind red eyes and evil intention: cannibalism. She roughly cages Hansel and declares that he will be fattened up to be a good meal, and Grethel becomes a slave who must obey the witch’s commands.

Then [the old witch] took up Hansel with her rough hand, and shut him up in a little cage with a lattice door; and although he screamed loudly, it was of no use.

[…]

“Grethel.” she called out in a passion, “get some water quickly; be Hansel fat or lean, this morning I will kill and cook him.” Oh, how the poor little sister grieved, as she was forced to fetch the water, and how fast the tears ran down her cheeks! “Dear good God, help us now!” she exclaimed. “Had we only been eaten by the wild beasts in the wood then we should have died together.”

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

These events contrast with the first half of the story. Hansel, the hero who once saved himself and his sister, is now helpless. Grethel, who previously required reassurance and reminders that God is faithful, is now her brother’s only hope. When the witch declares it’s time to kill and cook Hansel, Grethel remembers to ask God for help. Though she is still terrified, she is also cunning. Grethel takes action when given an opportunity. She saves herself and her brother by locking the witch in her own oven.

Grethel perceived what [the witch’s] thoughts were, and said, “I do not know how to do it; how shall I get in?” “You stupid goose,” said she, “the opening is big enough. See, I could even get in myself!” and she got up and put her head into the oven. Then Grethel gave her a push, so that she fell right in, and then shutting the iron door, she bolted it. Oh! how horribly she howled; but Grethel ran away, and left the ungodly witch to burn to ashes.

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

When the situation was the most dire, Grethel manages to trick the witch into climbing into the oven herself. Grethel shuts the door on her, trapping her in the oven. Then she frees her brother. By doing so Grethel becomes a heroine. The children overcome evil.

Returning Home

The story shows Hansel and Grethel stuffing their pockets with riches which they found in the evil witch’s cottage. Then they journey back through the woods and, with the help of a duck, they cross a lake and eventually make their way back to their home. They find their dad who’s been unhappy (and he ought to be) ever since he abandoned them to die.

Then they began to run, and, bursting into the house, they fell on their father’s neck. He had not had one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest, and his wife was dead. Grethel shook her apron, and the pearls and precious stones rolled out upon the floor, and Hansel threw down one handful after the other out of his pocket. Then all their sorrows were ended, and they lived together in great happiness.

― Hansel and Grethel (1918)

The ending of this story bothered me at first. Here are these kids. They have survived multiple betrayals and life and death situations. And here they are joyful to be with their dad again even though their dad repeatedly betrayed them, couldn’t feed them, and hasn’t had any kind of redemption arch whatsoever. Why the kids kept trying to go home at all after the second time being left in the woods doesn’t really make obvious sense. The author arbitrarily declaring that everyone lived happily ever after might merely show an attempt to end on a high note, but there should be a better message there. Though I struggled to see the deeper meaning that gave a foundation for the positivity to rest on.

After pondering for a while, I started to recognize the deeper meaning. First, though the dad is weak and unable to withstand the negative influence of his evil wife, she’s dead and gone. So the immediate threat to the kids is gone. Second, the dad and his kids obviously love each other. So it’s teaching a lesson of unconditional love, and honoring parents. Thirdly, when the kids return home, they bring along financial security for the family which is something that the dad wasn’t able to provide. So while the dad is right to be happy because he’s got a third chance at being a good dad for his kids, the happiness is completely due to the noble actions of his children rather than any contribution from himself.

Morals of the story

The man in the story is not masculine. If he were, he would not have been so feckless. The women in the story were not feminine. If they were, they would have been nurturing and compassionate rather than selfish and murderous. The children displayed all the virtues the adults lacked. Children who hear this story will see the incredible challenges and harrowing circumstances endured by Hansel and Grethel. The siblings are heroes because they did heroic things. The siblings are role models because they demostrated virtue and faith in God. They overcame the dragons and, in the end, restored their family. It is inspiring, and that is why it is such a great story to read to children.

Further Reading

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