I was trying to put together a store-bought Hansel and Gretel ginger bread house the other day when I recalled the role that Napoleon Bonaparte played in publication of the Grimm brother’s stories. Bonaparte’s armies occupied Germany from 1806 -1813, something which gave rise to a great deal of resentment among its inhabitants. They were upset when he conscripted their countrymen into his army and took great offence when the French language, as well as French laws and taxes, were imposed upon them in his efforts to create a continental European state.
Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm were particularly incensed by all of this. The Grimms were philologists, devoted to the study of German literature and linguistics. In most circumstances they probably would have led quiet and uneventful academic lives. But, in those years the Grimms were young rebels with a cause. They began collecting folk tales. This wasn’t exactly “to the barricades” heroism under gunfire, but it was very important. At that time, Germans were in the growing pains of an identity crisis that was exacerbated by the French occupation, which they felt threatened their indigenous way of life. In 1812, when their Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Nursery and Household Tales) was published, the Grimms saw it as a means of salvaging authentic German culture and self-understanding. According to Jakob Grimm, they sought “in the history of German literature and language consolation and refreshment…from the enemy’s high spirits.” Their motivation was patriotic and the initial edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen was a scholarly and high-minded effort, with a lengthy introduction and complex annotations. It was a serious work for a serious audience.
The Grimms did enjoy some success with their book, but they also received their share of bad press. One reviewer claimed that it contained, “the most pathetic and tasteless material imaginable.” However, a few of their tales, particularly those which featured children suffering badly at the hands of their elders, such as “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Hansel and Gretel,” did seem to catch the public’s attention. J. R. Tolkein once said that folk tales “entered the nursery when they became unfashionable, like old and battered pieces of furniture that are moved into a playroom.” This is an interesting notion, but it doesn’t really reflect the journey of the Kinder- und Hausmärchen. Following the collapse of the Napoleonic Empire and the withdrawal of the French from the Germany, the Grimm’s began to gear further editions of their folk tales to a younger readership. They quickly learned that they were not so much unfashionable, as they were largely unsuitable for an audience of children. They were tales that had been told for generations to adults in barns, kitchens, and back parlours. They were all good stories, but they were also riddled with the lewd and the violent. For example, in an 18th century version of “Little Red Riding Hood” the young heroine ate the flesh and drank the blood of her grandmother, then performed a strip tease for the wolf. Other tales featured incest and child mutilation. Still others hearkened back to dark centuries of poverty and starvation, when infanticide and child abandonment were not uncommon.
“Hansel and Gretel” is one of these latter stories. An early version featured the wife of an indigent woodcutter who connived with her husband to rid themselves of their two children by abandoning them in a dark forest inhabited by a cannibalistic witch. The witch lived in a cottage “made of cakes with panes of pure sugar” that she used as a hunter might a baited trap for small animals. She lured the starving children inside and cast a spell on them. However, the two children, through their own wiles, eventually managed to kill her and return home.
Successive versions of the stories in their folk-tale collections reflect the Grimm’s response to an audience increasingly sensitive to the abuse and public misfortunes of children. Modifications were made in tales involving cruel parents. In “Hansel and Gretel,” “Cinderella,” and “Snow White,” the maternal figure was transformed into a stepmother, a change that distanced the natural family mother from any guilt or possible association with the evil witch. Frightening male figures were also presented in a different light. In “Hansel and Gretel” the woodcutter was cast as a basically good man nagged and deluded by the stepmother. Foreign translations also included these alterations. The Grimms, however, played no part in the final metamorphosis of their “Hansel and Gretel” tale. This was left to a German composer in the Wagnerian mould by the name of Englebert Humperdinck. (Not to be confused with the romantic crooner from Leicester, England, Arnold George Dorsey of There Goes My Everything fame, who appropriated the Humperdinck moniker for stage purposes). The real Humperdinck seized upon the Grimm’s story and wrote an opera in that name. It was performed in Weimar to great acclaim in 1893.
The Humperdinck opera features a poor broom maker and his wife, a caring woman suffering the travails of poverty. She is the natural mother of their two children, and, one day, asks them to go to the woods to pick strawberries. When they do not return, both parents become distraught and run out to search for them. Meanwhile, the children have been netted by the witch, who casts a spell on them and begins to fatten Hansel for the table. However, Gretel tricks her and pushes her into her oven. Then, she uses a magic wand to release other children who were under the witch’s spell. At this point the parents rush in and the father sings:
Now you see the finished plot.
How the wicked witch was caught.
Lost her head, now she’s dead,
Turned into gingerbread….
Heaven has a hand to lend.
Wicked deeds will have an end.
The Humperdinck version of “Hansel and Gretel” absolves the parents from anything resembling infanticide or child abandonment, a transformation critical to family sensibilities. It is also in accord with an “Alice in Wonderland” view of the tender innocence of children that surfaced during the latter half of the 19th century and was used very effectively in popular Victorian advertisements for such things as soap and butter. Humperdinck made one other critical change. The witch’s cottage was no longer built of bread and cakes. To the delight of gingerbread bakers everywhere it was made of gingerbread, chocolate, and sugar candy. The roof was covered in Turkish delight, the windows sparkled with white frosting, and the chimneys were made of red peppermint. Furthermore, in a remarkable, semi-religious transfiguration of the diabolical into the edible, the witch turned into gingerbread when she was pushed into the oven!
Englebert Humperdinck was to write several other operas, none of which are particularly memorable. However, his “Hansel and Gretel” met with great success wherever it was played, and it eventually catapulted the gingerbread house into the Christmas orbit, where it has remained ever since, a glittering talisman of Holiday charm and parental devotion.