Smells Like Children

Dark Woods . . . Alone

All the world’s evils can be found in the sub-genre of folklore called fairy tales. 

Any reading or listening to today’s bowdlerized versions, however, contradicts that fact.  Fairy tale origins include the darker side of humanity – these oral traditions, mostly of Eastern European peasant origin, did not always teach moral lessons to children.  In fact, the majority of the tales were not meant for children in the first place.  Children adopted them for their own amusement – the tales were originally set down as entertainments for adults.

Proof of the more prurient origins of these classic stories can be found in the tale of little children lost, Hänsel and Gretel.  The story is familiar, a simple one of misplaced children who manage to find their way home. 


Baba Yaga (oil, 1917)Credit: Viktor Vasnetsov (1848–1926); public domain

Today’s version of the story, however, only bears that mundane and basic plot element in common with its antecedents.  The primary elements of earlier versions are much more harrowing: these include child cannibalism, child abuse and abandonment, a narcissistic and sadistic stepmother, and a passive-aggressive biological father who conspires to murder his own children.  And there is a witch, too, but not a merely scary witch but a truly diabolical one that lures children into her snare and then eats them, not because she is hungry but because she loves the succulent taste of young children.

The Saddest Story
Not all fairy tales carry moral lessons, and many of the best ones are lacking in any such contrivance.  For example, one may try to look for them in stories such as Little Red Riding Hood (maybe her encounter with the wolf is a punishment for being a recalcitrant child); in Rapunzel there is nothing but an adventure tale, no moral or life lesson to be had Hans Christian Anderson (ca 1867)Credit: American Peoples Encyclopedia, 1963(unless one considers the covetous cravings of a pregnant woman for her neighbor’s rampion to be the basis for a morality tale).

Others have turned their hands to creating “fairy tales” from whole cloth.  The results can be brilliant, yet disturbing in the tradition of the best known tales.  Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) wrote tales very few of which had “happy” endings.  His best works, frankly, wallow in the misery of the human condition, and end badly for their protagonists. 

Andersen himself was a miserable wretch throughout his life and it is reflected in his writings. Andersen’s mental anguish may have been along the bipolar disorder lines because, although his most beloved stories (such as The Ugly Duckling or The Princess & The Pea) have happy endings, many in his body of work do not.

He was born into poverty, the son of a poor shoemaker.  He was a gawky, gangling, clumsy man with no social skills who also practiced celibacy (not by choice but because of ineptitude).  He attached himself emotionally to many women who did not return his affections, and he even engaged, as an adult, in homoerotic attachments (one man, after Andersen declared his undying love for him, wrote in his diary that he loved women and felt badly for Andersen having to hurt his feelings in a rebuff).

There is abject despair in Andersen’s world: beyond any doubt, arguably the most gut-wrenching and horrific fairy tale written in terms of near-crippling pathos is The Little Match Girl

The story opens on the night of New Years’ Eve (the “last evening of the year”, quietly symbolic itself).  It is bitterly cold and snowing.  A little The Little Match Girl (vision of Christmas tree)Credit: Arthur Rackham; public domainimpoverished girl (whose mother is dead) is walking the streets selling matches by the book.  They are a penny each, but she has sold nothing all day.  To make matters worse she is starving.  She has no hat or scarf, her clothes are rags, and she has no shoes or stockings on her feet.  She had a pair of her dead mother’s slippers earlier in the day.  Being too big they had slipped off her feet as she hastened to cross a street ahead of a carriage.  She could not find one of them; a boy ran away with the other.

To add to these physical discomforts, Andersen goes to great lengths creating empathy by describing how angelic and pretty this little girl is.  She continues to wander the streets into the night, trying to sell matches – if she comes home empty-handed, she is afraid her father will beat her.  Finally, numb with cold and exhausted, she settles into a nook for shelter where two houses meet.  To keep warm, she strikes a match – instead of mere light, her mind sees visions of a warm stove.  The match goes out, and she lights another.  More visions (of a sumptuous meal and later of a beautifully trimmed Christmas tree) are seen in the match glow while it lasts.  Finally, she lights a match and sees her grandmother.  She has a conversation with the dead woman who offers soothing words to the freezing, starving girl.

In the morning, she is found dead, the rosy-red flush of hypothermia upon her cheeks.

This story is horrific for two reasons – in the first place, it is truly heart-wrenching to imagine this little girl’s sufferings, and then watch as she dies without hope.  Secondly, unlike most fairy tales, the events in Andersen’s story here could happen to any child under the wrong circumstances.  There is no moral, just the story of a poor little match girl who, for a few brief moments while her match supply burns down, finds a little peace. 

In the same vein as The Little Match Girl is another “moral-less” tale of adventure (more than of edification).  Its ugliness, barring a few supernatural elements, was unfortunately rooted in the realities of the lives of peasant children in the Middle Ages and beyond.

The Evil Stepmother
The models for Hänsel and Gretel could have been any of the waifs who participated in the Children’s Crusades in the 13th Century.  With empty bellies, these lost children had nothing to lose and everything to gain by leaving their homes on a fanciful quest to reclaim the Holy Land for Christendom.

Starvation was a reality for the peasantry who created and embellished their folklore into fairy tales.  Although there were many national famines of note throughout history, local famines were more frequent and just as devastating.   Mediaeval peasantry lived hand-to-mouth, and children were not precious commodities but drains on household resources.

The place of children in the world (as miniature adults, which is how they were treated up until about the middle of the 18th Century) meant that no work was too tough nor could they be expected to not contribute to the household’s coffers and stores.  If there were too many mouths to feed it was not uncommon to dump a newborn on a rubbish heap or in a slop barrow to die of exposure.  Sometimes children were placed with relatives or other families who would take them in and feed them in exchange for their labors.

Stepmothers in fairy tales are almost invariably evil.  The new woman was the interloper, the usurper of the dead biological mother’s place in reality and in memory.  The affections of a father were presumed alienated away from his children to the new woman, and petty jealousies could result.  [Lizzie Borden killed her stepmother with a hatchet before murdering her father with the same tool.  They’d been arguing just days before over the planned disposition of some property Lizzie was sure her father planned to deny her but felt she deserved.  Also, the original Cinderella, with the aid of her nanny, killed her stepmother.  Then, the nanny became Cinderella’s new stepmother and made her life more miserable than it was before.]

Hänsel and Gretel, in German folklore, began happily enough.  The little family of four – with a woodsman for a father – lived quietly on the edge of a forest that supplied their means of making a living.  The father chopped wood and sold it.  The mother, however, died, leaving the children motherless.  The father, like many peasants, took on a new wife as soon as possible – tending children and a household was beyond the ken of most men in those days. 

The stepmother he brought to live in the woods was a spiteful, selfish harpy.  Hänsel and his little sister, Gretel, were good, obedient, respectful children and did not cause trouble.  She saw them as impediments to her fiscal happiness – any money spent feeding them was not spent on her. Furthermore, a famine had struck and food was scarce.

Facing starvation for the household, the father was at the end of his rope.  The spiteful stepmother, however, came up with a plan to abandon the children to die in the woods.  They would either succumb to hunger and exposure or would be torn apart by wolves.  Either way, at least the two adults would not starve to death with the little food they had.  The father did not want to do it:

“O, you fool!”' said she, “then we must all four die of hunger, you may as well plane the planks for our coffins,” and she left him no peace until he consented.  “But I feel very sorry for the poor children, all the same,” said the man.

Hänsel had overheard the conversation.  That night he went outside and filled his pockets with white pebbles. 

The next day, the woodsman and the evil stepmother went deep into the forest with the children; Hänsel left a trail of pebbles behind him as they wandered deeper into the woods.  The adults contrived to get away from the children and abandoned them.  By moonlight, the children followed Hänsel’s white-pebble trail back to their home.

Their stepmother was aghast when they appeared, unharmed and hungry.  Angrily, she repeated her plan to the father who agreed to another abandonment attempt. Sometime later, when food was scarce again, a nocturnal discussion between the parents was overheard by Hänsel:

“Everything is eaten again, we have one half loaf left, and that is the end. The children must go, we will take them farther into the wood, so that they will not find their way out again; there is no other means of saving ourselves!”

Hänsel tried to go out and get pebbles, but the doors were locked.  Rather than risk discovery, he awaited the morning to think of something else to do.

The family set off, and Hänsel was given a crust of bread for the children to eat later.  He crumbled the bread as he went along, leaving a trail to find later. As Hänsel & Gretel (at witch's house)Credit: Ludwig Richter, 1842; public domainbefore the parents left the children in the deep woods under a pretext, and they were alone. Unfortunately, the woodland critters had eaten Hänsel’s breadcrumb trail, so they could not find their way back to their own hovel.  Instead, he calmed Gretel, and the two started to find their way out of the forest.

They wandered for three days, hungry and exhausted.  An extraordinarily beautiful white bird appeared, and the children followed it to a clearing in the woods.  There in the clearing is a strange house, and for two chronically starved children it is a fine lure indeed.

The cottage was made of gingerbread and cakes.  The window panes were clear sugar, and the trim was of cake icing.  The starving Hänsel and Gretel fell to eating hunks of the gingerbread from the roof shingles.  An old woman on crutches came out, found them, and bade them come inside.  Once there, the old woman gave them delicious food and soft beds to sleep in.

The next morning, the old woman, who was really a witch that loved to eat children, latched onto Hänsel and shut him up in an abandoned stable with an iron grate in her garden.  SheHänsel & Gretel (greeted by witch)Credit: Arthur Rackham, 1909; public domain was to feed him as one would a veal calf – in his idleness he would grow fat.  Gretel, meanwhile, was put to use as a slave girl around the witch’s house, cleaning, making fires, and cooking. 

The witch was nearly blind, and she took food out to Hänsel daily.  Each time she brought his food, she asked him to stick a finger out if his cage.  Grasping it, she squeezed to adjudge how plump he was getting.  However, the finger she felt was not Hänsel’s but a bone (likely from a previous victim) he found in his cell.  Thrusting this bone out for the witch’s fondling meant she perceived he was still thin.

After four weeks of this, the witch grew tired of not partaking of the anticipated meal of child flesh.  Despite her perception of Hänsel’s still too lean condition, she decided to eat him anyway “be he fat or lean”.   She had a large oven outdoors and built up a fire in it to cook Hänsel.  While working at preparations to eat Hänsel the witch decided she was famished enough to eat Gretel, too.

Gretel (shoving witch into the oven)Credit: Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Theodor Hosemann (1807-1875); public domain


Planning to fool Gretel, the old witch opened her oven door and told Gretel to climb in and find if the oven was hot enough yet.  Feigning ignorance, Gretel argued with the witch – in frustration the witch demonstrated by climbing into the oven herself.  Gretel slammed the oven hatch closed and latched it with a bolt.  The witch baked alive, screaming in anguish until she died

Gretel set Hänsel free from his cage, and the pair ransacked the witch’s house.  They discovered a hoard including precious stones.  They loaded up as much as they could carry and set out once again to find their home. After walking for two hours they reached the shore of a large lake; a magic duck appeared and ferried them across.  Soon enough, they found themselves at their old house.  Their father, who had been miserable ever since leaving them in the woods, met them and he cried with joy to find them alive.  While Hänsel and Gretel had been away from home, the evil stepmother had died – thus, the widower woodcutter and his devoted children lived happily ever after on the wealth taken from the witch’s trove.

Background of the Back Woods
The original version of Hänsel and Gretel is horrifying, unlike the modern, sanitized story of today. In the updated versions, any children the witch had captured are not eaten but turned into gingerbread instead.  At the end of the more socially acceptable story, the gingerbread children are magically restored to flesh and blood when the witch is herself turned into gingerbread. 

The Brothers Grimm first collected this story having heard it as part of their folklore research from a woman named Dortchen Wild. [She lived in the town of Kassel, Germany.  Wilhelm Grimm, recognizing a good thing, later married her].  Although the story was old when they first put it to paper, it could easily be based on memories of the Great Famine of 1315 – 1322.  Millions died from starvation in Northern Europe. Freakish and catastrophic weather patterns greatly reduced crop yields.  This calamity affected all strata of society, and the contemporary chroniclers documented many incidents of child abandonment and cannibalism.

Illustrations of the witch do not merely show an old crone, but a hideous disfigured hag.  The witch of Hänsel and Gretel has her antecedent in a Slavic witch named Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga is a terrifying vision of an old crone that eats children – she is part of Slavic folklore, but a version of this figure can be found in the lore of the Nordic people as well. 

Baba Yaga is hideously frightening in appearance.  She flies around in a giant mortar (the bowl-shaped grinding surface used in a mortar-and-pestle for grinding grain); the pestle is Baba Yaga's cabin (on chicken legs)Credit: Nicholas Roerich, 1905; public domainused as a rudder.  A shrieking harridan swooping down in her mortar as a bird of prey might, she kidnaps children and flies to her home,   This house is a strange structure – it is a log cabin that sits atop posts shaped like chicken legs, and it can move and dance around on occasion.  The cabin’s compound is enclosed by a palisade made of human bones with skulls on its poles. The macabre keyhole in her cabin’s door is a gaping maw filled with sharp teeth.   In her strange cabin she consumes her catch in peace.

The Hänsel and Gretel story has variants in other cultures, ranging from Sweden to Japan.  Usually, the witch is a murderous ogress in these versions, but the core elements are the same.

The primary plot device is the situation of “the lost children”, and this motif features in many fairy tales.  Another of the Grimms’ tales is called Brother & Sister, and is like Hänsel & Gretel.  Another tale is of French origin, most tellingly called The Lost Children.  This story opens the same way as Hänsel and Gretel with bad parents leaving children to die in the woods.  Climbing a tree, the boy sees two houses, one red and one white.  He and his sister trek to the red house – the woman there lets them in but tells them they must be quiet or her husband will eat them.  Her husband is the Devil. Though his wife has hidden the children, the husband sniffs them out (because they are Christians!).  He beats his wife, and then locks the boy up in a barn for fattening and eating.

The kill method in this story is different – the Devil usually places the victim on a sawhorse, slitting its throat to bleed out.  While the Devil is away it is up to the wife to prepare the boy for eating, and in a similar feigning of ignorance (as with Gretel's witch and her oven) the Devil’s wife ends up on the sawhorse.  The brother and sister tie her up, slit her throat, and she dies. 

Just as in Hänsel and Gretel the siblings finds precious gems and coins in the Devil’s house.  They abscond with it; the Devil gives chase, but cannot cross a particular body of water, and the brother and sister escape his clutches.  Back home, they forgive their parents for abusing and abandoning them, and they all live happily ever after on the Devil’s stolen treasure.

Witch Slayer, Warrior Woman
As it always seems, the female characters in any fairy tales are re-imagined and resurrected in various forms more often than their male counterparts.  For example, no one would give Shannen Doherty in title role, 2012's "Witchslayer Gretl"Credit: Showcase/SyFy, 2012a second thought to a Beast without the Beauty, no one would care about vertically-challenged forest dwellers without Snow White, and certainly no one would have made Hänsel an icon without Gretel.

Hänsel, though clever, is a failure in the story.  Gretel is the heroine although she starts out a simpering, mewling coward.  It is Gretel who contrives to get the witch in the oven, and it is Gretel who frees Hänsel from his captivity.  It is also Gretel who seizes upon the solution for crossing the lake on the duck’s back – she immediately recognizes they together cannot cross, but the magic duck can Gretel (web art warrior)(90231)Credit: spawn.comtransport them individually. 

In pop culture, many stories are rehashed for different adventures, and the tale of Hänsel and Gretel is no exception.  Recently, Showcase made a film that aired on the SyFy cable network called Witchslayer Gretl.  In this version, Hänsel is grown up, but his sister (played by actress Shannen Doherty) did not escape the clutches of the witch who’d captured them.  He believes she is dead, but he discovers that not only is she alive and grown, but she is an apprentice to a witch.  And a big-screen treatment, Hänsel & Gretel: Witch Hunters 3D, hit theaters in early 2013.

Other print media and web artists use the iconic Gretel as anything from a teenaged sexpot to a Valkyrian warrior.  As with the great female fairy tale characters, good or evil, as long as there remains someone to breathe new life into them, they will continue to entertain and enchant. 

Or frighten . . .


Grimm's Fairy Tales
Amazon Price: $10.99 $9.65 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 25, 2015)