Hänsel, Gretel, and the Pfefferkuchenhaus; or, eat or be eaten

by nike, December 29, 2014

gingerbreadThis Christmas, I constructed a little house out of gingerbread. It had pink glass windows (raspberry flavoured boiled lollies), and snowy white icing.

In Europe, baking gingerbread was once (in the 1600s) the province of those who belonged to the gingerbread baker’s guild, except at Christmas and Easter, when anyone could have a go at creating gingerbread stars, soldiers, babies, hearts, horsemen, trumpets, swords, pistols and animals.

According to some food history researchers, the tradition of making gingerbread houses arose in Germany after the Grimm Brothers published Hänsel und Gretel in Kinder – und Hausmärchen, in 1812. They had been told the story by Dortchen Wild (Wilhelm’s friend, and later his wife).

It is fascinating to think that these elaborate palaces of cake are being constructed to celebrate a fairytale that is, at least in part, a story about the threat of starvation during a time of famine — when the father of the fairytale could ‘no longer procure even daily bread’ and the mother feared that if they did not abandon their children, ‘then we must all four die of hunger, you [the father] may as well plane the planks for our coffins’.

The gingerbread houses we build and consume at Christmas are recreations of the house the witch inhabits. A grotesquely sweet and sticky trap into which the lost and starving children are drawn and within which they are trapped, like flies in a pretty spider’s web. The witch’s gingerbread house is bait for her own intended meal: plump, succulent, well-roasted children.

Hansel being fattened up in a cage. When the witch asks to feel his finger to test how plump he is getting, he offers the nearly-blind old woman a chicken-bone. Not fat enough for the roasting pan just yet! [Illustration by Willy Planck, from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Märchen. Willy Planck, illustrator. Stuttgart: Lowes Verlag Ferdinand Carl, n.d.]

In the end, of course, the witch does not eat but metaphorically becomes a meal herself when she is pushed into a hot oven by the escaping twins.

The witch goes into the oven. Two days at 150°C should just about do it. [Illustration by Willy Planck, from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Grimm’s Märchen. Willy Planck, illustrator. Stuttgart: Lowes Verlag Ferdinand Carl]

You know this story already …

The following is an edited extract from my PhD, completed once upon a time, in which I had a lot of strident things to say about the depiction of mothers in various literary traditions, including fairytales. The main focus of the exegesis was on how narratives about mothers often depicted them (us?) as always-already a threat to their children’s existence: as always in danger of committing infanticide, either intentionally, or through insufficient protective action.

After the children are taken into the forest and abandoned by their father (at their mother’s suggestion – she fears that either the couple abandon the children or all four starve to death) the resourceful children follow a trail of stones they have laid down all the way home.

The second time the father takes them into the forest, however, they can only lay down a trail of crumbs, which the birds and other animals of the forest soon make short work of. The trail home is gone. It is deepest night, and the children are alone in the forest:

It was now three mornings since they had left their father’s house. They began to walk again, but they always came deeper into the forest, and if help did not come soon, they must die of hunger and weariness. When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew away before them, and they followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it alighted. And when they approached the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.

One of Kay Neilsen’s illustration for Hansel and Gretel, c. 1925

Inside the cottage of sugar and spice lives a witch.

Of course the witch, as she is popularly known, is largely an inhabitant of the fairy tale where she is often figured as a perverse mother (or stepmother) whose principal destructive role is as a child killer or devourer. The trope of the stepmother, however, may not be a traditional a part of the child-devouring trope in European fairy tales. In the Olenberg manuscript – a document dating from 1810 – Wilhelm Grimm recorded the story of ‘Das Bruderchen und das Schwesterchen’ (Little Brother and Little Sister) (Zipes 50). In this early version of the Hansel and Gretel story, the mother is very much alive and it is she who urges her husband to abandon their children in the forest.

Dortchen Wild: The Grimm Brothers collected many of their stories from Dortchen, as well as many other female storytellers. These female oral storytellers were  became ‘merely’ the tellers of these tales, rather than their more empowered and authoritative authors. In the move from oral storytelling to print the women’s voices became the brothers’ property; the women were almost completely elided. For example, in the copy of the Brothers Grimm I used to read from as a child, the gender of the storyteller is almost completely occluded or overwritten. Despite the long historical tradition of women as oral storytellers in Western Europe, and the fact that the sources for many of the Grimm’s tales were women, the anonymous introduction to the collection paints a picture of a male storyteller: “The storyteller seated on a roughly made chair on a clay floor did not look histrionic. What was in his face showed that he was ready to respond to and make articulate the rhythm of the night.” (Grimm vii) The collection represents a doubled exclusion and disempowerment of the woman as storyteller. First, the teller, the ‘Frau from Kassel’, becomes part of the tale, a ventriloquised storyteller necessary to the frame narrative of the curatorial enterprise for which the Grimm Brothers were responsible, empowering the Grimm Brothers as saviours of an oral tradition whose tellers are not overtly acknowledged. Instead the fame associated with these tales has been almost universally accrued by the Grimm Brothers. Second, the writing down of these stories in the privileged form of the book serves as a reminder of the status of the oral tale as ‘other’, in need of being saved by the author/s and by the printed word, from its anonymous and precarious (democratic and flexible/living) existence in the hands and mouths of the poor, the uneducated, the lower classes, women. Nevertheless, it is important to note that without the work of the Brothers Grimm we might not have these stories at all; they may well have disappeared at some point. It is a double-edged sword, as they say. Take care.

The Grimms made several changes to the stories they collected before the first edition was published in 1812, and destroyed all the copies of their early drafts, except those held by the famous poet, Clemens Brentano, and later discovered in the Olenberg Monastery at Alsace. The rediscovery of these early working documents reveal a systematic rationalisation of abandonment and abuse narratives within the fairy tales, in particular the substitution of the stepmother for the biological mother, and an increasing emphasis on the character of the witch.

Subsequent versions of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ show a strong, demonising link between the figures of the (step)mother and the witch, in particular through several narrative devices such as the repetition of the same or similar words and actions. Both the (step)mother and the witch, for example, wake the children at odd hours and call them ‘lazybones’. Both are inherently duplicitous characters who appear friendly at first (in particular to other adults or at first meetings) but are later revealed to be voracious, selfish and destructive.

Hansel and Gretel are denied nourishment (the traditional and, by implication, ‘natural’ domain of the mother) and are therefore thrust into the care of their father. The reader is invited to identify with the children in their longing to be reunited not with their mother, stepmother or any other maternal figure, but with the absent father who, though he is the one who abandons them in the woods, symbolically represents order and power.

Jack Zipes suggests that the Grimm brothers altered the manuscript to protect the status of the (dead) mother because both were close to their own biological mother. Perhaps, as well as this quite personally driven desire; their rewriting represents a more general refusal to engage with the idea of the maternal figure as destructive; a desire, instead, to insist on preserving the figure of the benevolent, generous, loving biological mother. As well as the Grimm Brothers own personal experience, a wealth of cultural tradition depict mothers as consistently caring and nurturing women, incapable of acting against the best interests of their children, even when their own lives are under threat. The cannibalism of the witch and the selfish ruthlessness of the stepmother can be read as part of a general editorial effort in these tales, and other similar narratives of the time, to retain the biological mother as benevolent and nurturing. They are part of a body of fictional and non-fictional texts that render the biological mother as the (potential or actual) good mother while the evil (step)mother becomes the locus of blame for all childhood abuse and neglect.

In the early 1800s in Europe, when the Grimm Brothers were collecting and publishing their work, it was common for women to suffer malnutrition, even death by starvation, during periods of famine. Narratives about these women depict them as willing to sacrifice themselves to preserve the lives of their offspring. The motivation for the (step)mother in the tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, if contextualised in its period, can readily be figured as a mother’s fear of starvation and death resulting from extreme poverty, a fear much more real for the mother than the father. As Shulamith Shahar notes in Childhood in the Middle Ages:

Poorer families, particularly at times of famine, appear to have apportioned the meager [ibid] food supplies in their possession to the husband and children. Many more women than men in the lower classes are afflicted with blindness and various bone malformations as a result of malnutrition. Temporary infertility in women in labouring classes was apparently sometimes caused by the cessation of menses due to starvation (famine amenorrhoea) (116).

According to the moral implications of the edited tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the father’s abandonment of his children is less sinful, less morally reprehensible, than their stepmother’s desire to survive, and far less distasteful than the witch’s desire to eat the children, an unchristian act associated with the devil and witchcraft. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ is part of a set of narrative tropes in which witches eat children, are more likely to be women than men, and are linked to notions of chaos and destruction.

‘Hansel and Gretel’ minimises the guilt of the father for his role in the abuse or neglect of his children: transferring all of the moral responsibility for the children’s endangerment to their (step)mother and the witch. This tale, and others like it such as ‘Little Snow White’, ‘The Goose Girl’ and ‘The Frog-King, or Iron Henry’ rationalise and perhaps even condone the ways in which men – as fathers and lovers/husbands – use the bonds of love or family to institute and reinforce control over their children and wives.

Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone illustration of the gingerbread cottage for ‘Hansel and Gretel’

‘Hansel and Gretel’ is part of a recurring cycle of stories of abandonment or failed murder of babies or children, and their recovery at a later date ‘not because in life they always do, but because they sometimes do, and one wishes they always would’ (Zipes. Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children and the Culture Industry, 46).

Lisbeth Zwerger – father, children and ‘nourishing’ treasure reunited at the end of Hansel and Gretel’s perilous adventure


The happy endings of these fairy tales – which serve to put off rather than escape the threat of infanticide – mitigate the guilt of the parents by making it appear that the parents are not the problem, especially the father. Instead, the real threat is some greater, supernatural evil (such as the witch at the heart of the forest/mother) that is always threatening the safety of the family home.

The paternal reunion by Frank Adams. Lots of bread is available with the (step)mother out of the picture


This threat – the barely placated or sublimated stepmother/witch – is most often incorporated into the return to the safe home, the happy ending. Despite magical and violent punishment of the evil witch of fairy tales they are an eternally recurring figure – and one which is perhaps one of the most stable, most instantly recognisable fairy tale archetype. The witch as shapeshifter always threatens to return, particularly with the birth of a child, and she is always, oddly enough, strangely reminiscent of the mother at whose death or disappearance the narrative begins.

Otto Kobel: father and children reunited while the white cat looks on. Is she a familiar? A stand-in for the now-absent (step)mother/witch?

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