Where does the stepmother figure in Hänsel and Gretel? What does the fairy tale have to do with famines in Germany? Why does this fairy tale tell an initiation rite? We find out in the new episode of Narrabilia!

I will surprise you. Stories have always been my passion. Oh I know, who could have ever suspected that this impulse of mine to open them halfway to look inside had originated already in my childhood.
And, even though I've grinded quite a few, I haven't gotten bored with them yet fairy tales. There are those who at some point pass over, I don't.
Because the fairy tale is not limited to being exquisitely dark (no matter what Disney wants to give us a drink).
Talk about us.
Like many forms of storytelling, it is a mirror on humanity and its past. And, as such, it also explains much, much, much of the present. So, for this Mother's Day 2022, why not tell a beautiful fairy tale?

So today let's talk about Hänsel and Gretel, a story of maternity e cannibalism. This article is always part of the column Narrabilia, in which we dissect the stories to better understand their origins and themes.
Here are the previous episodes:
The Brothers Grimm: The Beginning of All Stories;
Orpheus and Euridice: a story of love and beyond the grave.
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley: when society creates the monster.
Romero's zombies: not the usual Easter article.

Evil stepmothers are a fairy tale classic
Evil stepmothers are a fairy tale classic

But in fairy tales, does the mother stay?

Those of you who lived in the early 2000s will remember how, at a certain point, the internet was a continuous surge of videos and articles titled, more or less, "Oh, but are the mothers of Disney characters?".
Well, they are roughly in the same place where the mothers from fairy tales are: in the grave.
And in fact, we only recently decided that we can do without killing the parents of the protagonists of the children's stories. But this topic deserves an in-depth look on its own, so we'll keep it for a next time.

However, you have certainly noticed this trend of fairy tale mothers a die and be replaced by a bad stepmother. And it is precisely the evil stepmother, since the fathers of fairy tales are little more than succulents (or die themselves), who is often the cause of the misfortunes of the children involved.
We will press the button of sexism shortly, for now let's focus on another factor.

As I told you, the fairy tale is about us. And not of any aspect of our life, but of transition from childhood to adulthood. That little conflictual thing we call adolescence.
And the death of the "good mom" and its replacement with a "bad mom" it represents the change in the relationship with the mother figure, which becomes more complicated as it grows. So, ndò is the mother? Always there, but the eyes with which we look at it change.

To this aspect, very clear both in the tales born from the oral tradition and in those created at the table in later times, Hänsel and Gretel adds something more. Something darker and that has a lot to do with what society thought of women - or, more precisely, mothers - between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. But we get there.

Hänsel and Gretel in the witch's house. Illustration by Paul Meyerheim
Hänsel and Gretel in the witch's house. Illustration by Paul Meyerheim

What is the plot of Hänsel and Gretel?

In the meantime, let's take a look at the fairy tale, for those who don't remember it well.

The evil stepmother, the succulent father and abandonment

Hänsel and Gretel are the children of a poor woodcutter, obviously widowed.
La new wife, bitch as expected, convinces him to get rid of the children because there is not enough food for everyone. Making the young die quickly, devoured by wild animals, is certainly better than seeing them slowly wither from hunger.
The succulent plant finds the request reasonable and then leads them into the woods to abandon them, not knowing, however, that the two have overheard the conversation.

They have therefore previously collected some white pebbles with which to mark the way. In this way they manage to go home. Succulent Plant then, pursued by his wife, there leaves again.
This time, however, Hänsel and Gretel have not collected the pebbles and have to use the bread crumbs, which are eaten by the birds.
Lost, the children wander through the woods until they find a clearing that houses something wonderful: one gingerbread house, who immediately start eating.

The cannibal witch

But the little house actually belongs to one cannibal witch which, attracting the children into the house, imprisons them. So he uses Gretel for housework and fattens Hänsel.
Fortunately, however, the witch, as well as a cannibal, is also almost blind. For this reason she feels the child's finger to check if she is gaining weight, without realizing that he is actually handing her a chicken bone.
Which then is useless, because a certain crone gets bored and decides to eat it anyway.

He then orders Gretel to turn on the oven and then put his head in it to see if it's hot enough. The child, realizing that the witch aims to throw her too into us, pretends to be stupid until she decides to show her how to do it. So is the witch a be roasted alive.
Hänsel and Gretel take possession of the treasure hidden in the gingerbread house and return home, helped by a duck.
Here, the Succulent Plant is left alone again, because also wife number two is dead. The three are reunited happily, who cares if the man was an accomplice in attempted infanticide, and lead a comfortable life thanks to the witch's gold.

The Ogre in the tale of Tom Thumb. Illustration by Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré
The Ogre in the fairy tale of Thumb. Illustration by Paul Gustave Louis Christophe Doré

Hänsel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm e Thumb by Perrault: similarities and differences

This is, more or less, the story as they tell it to us Brothers Grimm in their Tales of the Hearth, put together between 1812 and 1822. But, if you remember what we talked about last January, the Grimm stories are not mere fruit of Germanic folklore.
And if it is true that the image of the witch as an old hag who lives in isolated places like the woods did not come up with them, it is equally true that it is their version of the fairy tale that increases the number of appearances.

Despite what the Brothers Grimm said about their work, many of the stories they reported are a revised version of French fairy tales, already collected and cleaned up by Charles Perrault with his The stories of Mamma Goose, published in Paris in 1697. And which famous character appears in Perrault's book? Thumb.

Now, there is a story entitled Thumb also in the Tales of the Hearth Grimm's, but it's totally different and shouldn't confuse us. Also because Grimm's version of the Thumb of Perrault is, in fact, Hänsel and Gretel. In fact, if you allow me to take up the words I used last January:

1) the head of the family is a poor woodcutter;
2) they have no food to feed themselves;
3) parents abandon their children in the woods;
4) one of the sons manages to find his way home the first time by sowing pebbles;
5) the second time, the birds eat the crumbs and get lost completely;
6) children are "captured" by an anthropophagous creature.

The witch checks Hansel's finger. Illustration by Arthur Rackham
The witch checks Hansel's finger. Illustration by Arthur Rackham

Why the ogre of Thumb is replaced by a witch in Hänsel and Gretel?

But why then, if Tom Thumb and his brothers are almost devoured by a orc, Hänsel and Gretel must escape the clutches of one witch? The answer is historical in nature. And, as mentioned in the beginning, it has to do with sexism and motherhood.

Famines in Germany and the practice of abandoning children

How Dr. Emily Zarka also tells us, between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Germany was not very well. The country was in fact subject to periods of famine, to such an extent that a 40% decrease in population is estimated between 1708 and 1711. The last famine was between 1771 and 1772, not even 15 years before the birth of the Brothers Grimm.
The two therefore had to deal with the aftermath of these events and were able to hear direct testimonies from those who lived them.
And if even today the periods of strong crisis do not bring out the best of humanity, they certainly did not in the eighteenth century.

In fact, it seems that it was not uncommon during the famine abandon the children, or even kill them. Such gestures were justified as the only possibility of guaranteeing the survival of the rest of the family.
But this did not mean that they could be tolerated by the law. This does not mean that the law of time was particularly enlightened.

Only mothers could be tried for infanticide

Beginning in the second half of the XNUMXth century, in Germany it became illegal for women not to declare pregnancies. Likewise, it was mandatory for the rest of the population to report any suspected pregnancy.
Furthermore, although both fathers and mothers could be charged with infanticide, only the mothers were formally indicted and then tried.
If we add to this that in German and European folklore there is no shortage of bogies devouring children, just as there was no lack of witchcraft fires in Germany between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, we get an idea of how Tom Thumb's ogre became a witch.

The stepmother in Hansel and Gretel is always represented frowning. Unknown author.
The stepmother in Hänsel and Gretel she is always represented frowning. Unknown author.

An initiation rite and the figure of the mother-monster

Hänsel and Gretel it is, like many others, a fairy tale that tells us about an initiation rite. The two children pass every test, returning home with a treasure. They pass from mouths to be fed to those who provide for the needs of the family.
But their story also tells us something else: how the famine filter transformed mothers into monsters in the collective imagination of Germany at the time.

We can indeed read the three adult female figures present as the same person. The loving mother becomes a cruel stepmother from hunger, to the point of turning into a witch and wanting to feast on the flesh of her own children.
Indeed, Hänsel and Gretel defeat only one antagonist, the witch, and on their return their stepmother is also dead.
If it seems unfair to you that the widower father Plant Succulent gets away with this picture, it is because he is. But fear not: even rich widowers can become monsters in the world of folklore. More precisely, werewolves. But that's another story.