Fairy Tales: Hansel and Gretel

The most recent print in my fairy tales series: Hansel and Gretel.
Hansel and Gretel

This story has always bothered me. First, the mother dies. That’s disturbing enough; the stepmother is, of course, less loving than the original. Then hard times befall the family, and the father and stepmother decide to send the children away into the deep woods to get lost and, presumably, die, so the parents will then have enough to eat. I remember seeing my parents drive away while we were visiting family friends in Florida. They were only going to the store for something –milk? cigarettes?– but somehow I thought I was being abandoned, and it was heartbreaking. So the idea of the parents purposely sending Hansel and Gretel away, on purpose, to kill them off…. no, I didn’t like that, at all. And on top of it all, to be set up as the witch’s next big meal!

Yet somehow, Hansel and Gretel’s resourcefulness wasn’t satisfying, either. Oh, using rocks to find their way home the first time they were sent into the forest was clever, and I could applaud that. But giving the witch a taste of her own medicine by pushing her into the oven, wasn’t that just as bad as her doing it to them? Couldn’t Hansel and Gretel just run away, or lock her in Hansel’s cage, or do something a bit less violent? less vindictive? Is turnabout really fair play? Weren’t they supposed to be the ‘good guys’? This story did not sit well with my youthful sense of justice. Perhaps this fairy tale upset me more than others because the protagonists were children, not the usual woodsmen or soldiers or princesses, and I could better identify with them.

When I was first contemplating a series of fairy tale prints, Sarah-Hope pointed me in the direction of Anne Sexton‘s Transformations, her book of poems, or “transformations,” of seventeen Grimm fairy tales. They are all astonishing, but I was particularly struck by her version of Hansel and Gretel.

In the poem’s introductory section, Sexton points out how we use the language of eating to express affection.
“Little plum,
said the mother to her son,
I want to bite,
I want to chew,
I want to eat you up.
Little child,
little nubkin,
sweet as fudge…
Your neck as smooth as a hard-boiled egg;
soft cheeks, my pears,
let me buzz you on the neck
and take a bite…
Oh succulent one,
it is but one turn in the road
and I would be a cannibal!”

Sexton also invokes images of the Holocaust:
“Hansel and Gretel
and their parents
had come upon evil times…
The final solution,
their mother told their father,
was to lose the children in the forest.”

She also points out how quickly and easily we turn around to become the monster ourselves:
“As for Hansel and Gretel,
they escaped and went home to their father.
Their mother,
you’ll be glad to hear, was dead.
Only at suppertime
while eating a chicken leg
did our children remember
the woe of the oven,
the smell of the cooking witch,
a little like mutton,
to be served only with burgundy
and fine white linen
like something religious.”

There are also visual inflluences in this print, most notably German expressionist woodcuts, and the movie The Cabinet of Dr. Caligarai. The two children approach the cottage, drawn in by the light cast by the hot oven.

Hansel & Gretel
Linoleum block print with hand coloring
Edition of 30

Open Studios Encore Weekend!
See this and all my recent prints during the final weekend of Santa Cruz Open Studios.
Saturday and Sunday, October 17 & 18
11am – 6pm each day
816 Hanover Street, Santa Cruz (see map)

This entry was posted in Printmaking. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *