25 October 2006

Revising "Hansel and Gretel" Over Time

"Hansel and Gretel" has always been a story of infanticide. Not just the witch fattening up Hansel before eating him, but also the children's parents trying to get them lost in the woods because the family doesn't have enough food for everyone.

But infanticide has become increasingly distasteful in our culture. (And, I hasten to add, this is a Good Thing.) That has made the traditional opening of "Hansel and Gretel" increasingly awkward.

Earlier this month I read a paper on stepfamilies in the early American republic by Prof. Lisa Wilson of Connecticut College which started by citing how even the Grimm brothers revised "Hansel and Gretel" to make it more palatable. UPitt professor D. L. Ashliman's webpage on the story shows the significant difference between the first and final editions.

The 1812 version, based on an 1810 manuscript:

The two children were still awake from hunger and heard everything that the mother had said to the father.
The 1857 version:
The two children had not been able to fall asleep because of their hunger, and they heard what the stepmother had said to the father.
By turning the "mother" into a "stepmother" (a change that first appeared in the 1840 printing, Ashliman reports), the Grimms offered an acceptable explanation of that woman's wish to abandon the children: they were never her biological children to begin with.

A new picture book called Hansel and Diesel, by David Gordon, makes a further revision. This change may have appeared in other recent retellings as well, but I don't recall having seen it. (And did I mention that in Gordon's book all the characters are trucks?)
Hansel and Diesel were hungry. Fuel was getting low.

"We're running out of gas," said their father.

"I don't know how we'll make it through the winter," their mother agreed.

Hansel and Diesel were listening from their room.

"I think we should go out to look for some fuel," said Diesel.
Gordon thus has the children themselves take the initiative (and blame) for going out into the woods. That lets the parents come along afterward and help their children escape from the witch character, with no hint of parental infanticide of any kind. The only bad guy in this story is a stranger from outside the family.

This change also turns the Hansel and Gretel characters from mere victims at the outset into the story's drivers [!]. Again, that reflects our modern tastes in story structure.

(Over all, however, Hansel and Diesel didn't please me. It left out most of the parts of "Hansel and Gretel" in which the kids think their way out of problems. Everything is instead resolved through force. But perhaps that's how trucks always work.)

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