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Reworking Hansel and Gretel: Abandoned or lost children?

For most of us traditional stories hold a special spot in our memories. There are those that we vaguely remember and then there are those that have stayed with us long after they were first heard. Sometimes they are remembered because they enco mpassed fanciful, romantic dreams and could be relied on to ensure that everyone lived happily ever after. For others such tales became integral in forming unrealistic, but pleasant, beliefs about the realities of life and personal abilities to overcome adversities, find true love with a perfect partner and live happily ever after. A large part of these unrealistic expectations from life have undoubtedly been well-grounded in the saccharine reworkings of such stories and images as perpetrated by Disney, who for many years not only colonized but monopolized many of the old favourites.

On the other hand, some older versions are remembered for containing much darker elements within them. For example, in Cinderella, when the ugly sisters have their eyes pecked out, or Sleeping Beauty stories in which she is raped by the King and has twins who are hunted to be put to death by the king's wife, who in some versions is an ogre (Opie, 1980), and certainly bear little resemblance to Disney's re- workings in his animated films and associated books.

Traditional stories originated mostly when the cultural construction of childhood as we know it today, simply did not exist and children were perceived as nothing more than little adults. They had no real period of childhood, and were expected to take on adult responsibilities, such as caring for families or going out earning a living on the streets, at a farm or in the mines, from very early ages, so it is little wonder that as society and culture have changed many older versions of these stories have been reworked and reframed. Purposes for this process vary considerably. Sometimes it is to make the tales more palatable to parents who want to protect their children from the less savoury happenings within society, such as the Grimm brothers, who, in their processes of revision, 'pruned their tales of anything sexual, vulgar and offensive to a middle class sensibility' (Zipes p58). Others have been reworked to create humour (Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes, Jon Scieszka's Three Little Pigs), to make social or political comment (Anthony Browne's Hansel and Gretel), to maintain or readjust cultural frameworks or to represent a particular ideological stance such as gender (Babette Cole's Princess Smartypants), or simply to exploit their retelling for maximum economic gain (Disney) , through providing world wide entertainment in a mass media context.


It can be argued, however, that the story of Hansel and Gretel has resisted this process to a greater degree than most, and even when it is reframed, often most of the work is done through the associated illustrations rather than actually changing the text of the story. This is particularly evident in versions illustrated by, Anthony Browne (1981), Paul O. Zelinsky (1984), James Marshall (1991), Jane Ray (1997) and Ian Wallace (1994). The reframing is achieved mainly through the visual representations of socio-cultural contexts and ideologies. This can be noticed in the ways they depict the ambivalence of identity between the (step) mother and witch/old lady, the absence of any visuals of these characters' faces, their plump figures (sometimes consuming food) in the time of famine, or depictions of the (step)mother's self-centred character, with a leopard print coat and plenty of cosmetics on the dressing table, or hair in rollers, reading a magazine. The food used on the cottage in the forest is also subject to different representations, being decorated with any sort of tempting food, from Smarties to pretzels. The forests use many tree species, constructing completely different types of forest where the quality of light within varies from a reasonable amount, to very little, making the forests into intensely dark, brooding and dangerous places. There is also great disparity in the portrayals of Hansel and Gretel, depending on the timeframe and cultural context of the retelling.



Given the reliance on the illustrations and the tendency to stay fairly closely to the older versions of the story, it is pertinent to consider why this is the case. Is it because the abuse and abandonment of children is still relevant in contemporary society? It is certainly a trait from which the general public mostly prefer to keep their eyes averted. Does it touch a raw nerve? Is it too close to the bone? Or perhaps the reasons lie in the disruption created through the depiction of parents, particularly a (step)mother whose actions fail to meet the societal expectations of the nurturing female. Whatever the reasons, it is a story that many parents feel uncomfortable to share with their young children.

When a story gives rise to such powerful responses, it is worth turning to some of the critics and theorists to examine what aspects of it that they see as giving rise to the power of traditional stories in general and in Hansel and Gretel specifically. Criticism ranges across folklorist studies (Aame, Stith Thompson), psychological perspectives (Bettelheim, Von Franz), feminist literature (Lurie, Lieberman), and more recent postmodernist approaches with a particular focus on intertextuality, socio-cultural and historical dimensions and mass media studies. For example, in considering the power of fairy tales from a psychological perspective, Von Franz works with Jungian archetypes, while Bettelheim, who draws on the work of Freud, particularly sees Hansel and Gretel in terms of children's dominant anxiety of being deserted by their parents where the story 'gives body to the anxieties and learning tasks of the young child who must overcome and sublimate his primitive incorporative and hence destructive desires' p. 1613. Zipes (2002) provides an interesting analysis of different approaches in The Brothers Grimm, then argues that in the German context and other Western societies, all Grimm tales have cultural relevance representing 'basic values and norms.... that have been heavily influenced by the Protestant ethos, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism' p266. Tatar (2004) considers Hansel and Gretel as a tale that 'celebrates the triumph of children over hostile, predatory adults' a story which 'folklorists refer to as a story that pits 'young, powerless protagonists against cruel brutes' p.72.

Although this discussion about the power of fairy tales in general and Hansel and Gretel in particular, is necessarily abbreviated, it serves as a framework for an analysis of Jan Wade's (1992) version of Hansel and Gretel from her collection of reimagined, Fairy tales for Young Australians. The purpose of this analysis is to discover what can happen when this story is reframed to fit within a particular cultural context and accompanied by illustrations that have been matched accordingly.

Immediately obvious is the different setting and visuals for the story, in that Wade decorates, indeed almost smothers her retelling with plenty of Australiana in both text and illustrations, including blue gum forests, baobab trees, lamingtons and pavlovas and a range of wildlife such as crows, frill necked lizards, echidna, redback spider, and a kookaburra, not to mention Hansel's patriotic green and gold T-shirt, with the iconic Australian map across the front, Gretel's wattle sprigged hat, the witch's ugh boots and cork hat with its bumper sticker related slogan, 'I crossed the Nullabor', emblazoned across it, or the opals that are included in the witch's treasure trove. The ways in which these particular aspects of culture are represented fail in many ways to generate the primacy and intensity of the fear evident in early versions of the story. For example, in older versions there is the belief that the children could be torn apart by wild animals. In Wade's version, there is no indication either in text or illustration that the children are in any real danger from the reasonably friendly looking Australian bush creatures.

The children live on a farm with their parents, a poor grazier (which can seems to be a contradiction of terms) and his wife. Whether or not it is a mother or a stepmother in the older version is open for discussion, (Tatar) in that the Grimms' early versions referred to a mother, but this was later changed to a stepmother. Although all of the versions accessed for this article begin with both a (step)mother and a father, when the children finally return home, only the father is there to greet them. Wade chooses to maintain a tight nuclear family structure for her whole story, so that it begins and ends with no overall disruption to the family. This structure preserves the safe circular narrative structure, so often used in books for young children, where the children leave home, have an adventure and return home again safely.

More importantly, this reworking begins with quite a different premise from the older tales, in that when the children realize their parents are desperate for food, they leave the family home of their own accord with the intention of finding help for them, become lost, then are captured by a witch. This means Wade changes the fundamental underpinnings of Hansel and Gretel. When the children choose to initiate the action of leaving home, it changes the whole way in which the narrative unfolds. By deleting the abandonment of the children by their parents, Wade shuts down an important component of the older versions. Given that this abandonment is an abdication of parental responsibility, and that it is aligned also with the deliberate deception perpetrated through their father, who fastens a branch to a dead tree, so the wind bangs it back and forward, sounding like an axe, so the children are convinced that their parents are not too far away, it is a crucial aspect of these versions. Failure to include these aspects in the text absolves the parents of any responsibility for the children being alone in the forest, and in so doing severely limits the strength of the emotional engagement of readers as they respond to this abuse of children.


Within the Australian context, the trope of children lost in the bush, is not unusual. It is every parents' nightmare, as Reeder so neatly encapsulates in her recent publication for the National Library, Lost! A true Tale from the Bush. This tells the story of three young children, who in 1864 became lost in the Wimmera District of Victoria, then were found nine days later. Stories about children lost in the Australian bush have, for generations, been close to the hearts of many Australians, but sadly, most do not have the same happy ending as this tale. Although this trope of lost children has a distinct resonance within the Australian culture, it is not new, and over time, has been present in a range of literature. Lost children however are very different from deliberately abandoned children, and while Reeder acknowledges, when stories are retold, 'each retelling has been embellished in some way to bring the story to life' p.2, it can be argued that it is still important to maintain the psychological integrity of stories, otherwise they can lose their emotional strength and power, such as is the case with Wade's version or Disney's reworked version of Sleeping Beauty.

Furthermore, this basic change in Wade's version, means there is no opportunity for the father to express in any way his dilemma of abandoning his children. Nor does it allow for a brief return home, so Hansel really has no opportunity to show his sibling loyalty to his sister, or for the two children to become united against the actions of their parents. This means that some of the basic reasons generated for the power of this story by both Tatar and Bettelheim, fail to materialise.


Wade's artwork captures the cuteness of the Australian animals, the lusciousness of the cottage and the image of mostly happy healthy children, out on an adventure. The parents are never seen and the one illustration of the witch, with a kookaburra on her hat, is not overly fearful, although the children's expressions display a degree of dismay.

Overall, while many may find this version entertaining in its own right, I believe that in the effort to culturally reshape the older versions of Hansel and Gretel into an Australian context, it simply does not measure up. It becomes a different story, with a tendency towards humour rather than drama or being a reflection of the real difficulties children face in life. As a reimagining it contains much less dramatic intensity and in so doing does not enable the reader to experience the rich emotional engagement that is possible in many other versions. Facing the terror of the unknown, knowing that your parents don't want you any more, that they have deceived you, and left you to be devoured by wild animals is powerful stuff. This emotional restriction is further evident when considering the father's dilemma of submitting to his wife's demands to abandon the children or to care for them. By eliminating the father's personal struggle from the story, there is no evidence or experience of the emotion of remorse as it occurs in many other versions. The watering down or elimination of these kinds of experiences mean that readers are unable to tap into the deepest of human emotions in the powerful ways that are so accessible in earlier versions.

It can also be argued that this version provides a narrow dimension of cultural experience, with its reliance on a seemingly conventional structure of family and a tightly postcolonial informed view of the Australian landscape and experience, where many voices are silenced. Similarly this is reiterated in many aspects of the supporting artwork.


It is not the intention of this brief analysis to criticize the practice of reworking traditional stories as this is an ongoing process that has been in place for centuries and is likely to continue, especially in light of the new technologies available and the always creative minds of writers and illustrators at work. It does, however, highlight the fact that when changes are constantly being made, the fundamental relationship between the reworkings and older versions can move further and further apart. Although it is worth noting, that there is certainly a difference between reworkings and errors in translation of such stories, Von Franz (1996) believes that there is still an important place for reading as close to the original as possible claiming that 'the editor or translator is sometimes impertinent enough to distort the story without taking the trouble to make a footnote. They would not dare do that with the Gilgamesh epic or a text of that kind, but fairy tales seem to provide a free hunting ground where some feel free to take any liberty' (p5).

Present day readers are generally well aware of the plethora of retellings now available, but I believe it is timely to stop and consider the blurring of lines between versions and to consciously make decisions about the place of the more traditional forms of these stories. Rather than having them lost or completely diluted we must ensure that modern readers still have the option to read and explore these versions. Without a knowledge of these, readers are deprived of the opportunity to really appreciate all the cleverness, alternative thinking and creativity, as well as the pitfalls that can be evidenced in the re-workings, nor are they able to engage in well informed discussion about the derivations of traditional tales and the crucial role played by the constantly changing political, social, cultural, historical and economic contexts which generate change.


Bettelheim. B. (1976/1991) The Uses of Enchantment. London: Penguin.

Hallet, M. & Karasek, B. (eds) (2009) Folk and Fairy Tales (4th Ed). Ontario, Canada: Broadview Press.

Opie, I. & P. (1974/1980) The Classic Fairy Tales. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tatar, M. (ed) (2004) The Annotated Brothers Grimm. New York: W. W. Norton and Company.

Von Franz, M. (1970/1996) The Interpretation of Fairy Tales (Revised Edition). Boston: Shambhala Publication Inc.

Zipes, J. (2002) The Brothers Grimm(2nd Edn). New York: Palgrave.

Zipes, J. (1997/1982) The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam Books.

Children's Texts:

Browne, A. (1981/1986) The Brothers Grimm Hansel and Gretel. London: Methuen.

Cole, B. (1986/1988) Princess Smartypants. London. Collins Picture Lions.

Marshall, J. (1991) Hansel and Gretel. London: Harper Collins.

Owen Reeder, S. (2009) Lost! A True Tale from the Bush. Canberra:

National Library of Australia.

Ray, J. (1997) Hansel and Gretel. London: Walker Books.

Scieszka, J. (1989) The True Story of The 3 Little Pigs. London: Puffin Books.

Wade, J. (1992)Fairy Tales for Young Australians. Sydney: Weldon Publishing.

Wallace, I. (1994) Hansel and GreteL Ontario, Canada: A Groundwood Book.

Zelinsky, P. (1984) Hansel and Gretel. New York: Dutton Children's Books

Sue Claney is Adjunct Lecturer in Literacy Education with special interest in Children's Lit at CSU
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Author:Clancy, Susan
Publication:Reading Time
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Nov 1, 2011
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