Our first witch was big. Is it possible for our second witch to be even bigger?
The witch from Hansel and Gretel – referred to here as the Gingerbread Witch – is a truly marvellous villain, and is likely to be the first witch many children encounter. As established by the Brothers Grimm in their 1812 recounting of the tale, this is a witch who lives alone in the centre of a deep, dark wood, waiting for travellers to stumble across her home so she can cook them in her oven. She enshrines two of the most enduring witchy archetypes: solitude and cannibalism.
What sets the Gingerbread Witch apart, however, is her sense of style. Her famous house is so utterly iconic that it elevates her – and the fairy tale as a whole – to the highest echelons of the craft: a trap so memorable, so wicked, that the story remains essential today, some 200 years after it was first collected by the Grimms. Indeed, “magical baking” is the only power the Gingerbread Witch ever exhibits, although the original text also claims that all witches have a superior sense of smell:
“When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked it and ate it, and that was a feast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beings draw near.”
The other factor that makes Hansel and Gretel such a stone-cold classic is its absolute commitment to one theme: hunger. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned in the woods because their parents cannot afford to feed them. They cannot find their way home because the hungry birds have eaten their trail of breadcrumbs; they are lured to the witch through the delicious smell of the gingerbread house. The witch has lured the children to her home because she, too, is hungry; she dies when she is pushed into her own oven. Hansel and Gretel returns to the theme of hunger again and again, revisiting the theme in new and unexpected ways as the story progresses. In doing so, it reaches a level of narrative harmony that few other fairy tales have ever been able to match – or indeed, that few other stories have ever been able to match. Come for the witch, but stay for the masterclass in creative writing!
Everything turns out okay in the end, of course. The witch is burnt to death (a nice nod to tradition), and Hansel and Gretel return home to their father, their pockets full of pearls. We never find out what happens to the gingerbread house: whether the birds peck it apart, perhaps, or if another witch moves inside. Regardless, the Gingerbread Witch will always be one of my favourite witches, and gingerbread will always be one of my favourite foods.
— I don’t want to oversell the point, but the thematic resonance of Hansel and Gretel is rendered even more significant by the complete lack of internal logic found in most fairy tales. I’ll admit that a certain level of randomness can be fun – these are the forests where fairies live, after all – but in reading The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales from cover to cover there were many instances where I felt that the authors had quite literally lost the plot. Even so, there are many other delightful witches described in that collection, so expect to hear more from the Grimms later on.
— My copy of The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a beautiful cloth-bound edition with illustrations by Arthur Rackham (two of which are found above). My girlfriend, despite never having shown an interest in fairy tales before, bought it for herself from Paradise Bookshop in Daylesford, Victoria; as far as I know, she never even opened it. I stole it from her and read every single story in the lead up to writing my first book, The Vampire Knife. I like to think of The Vampire Knife as a modern fairy tale, with the horror and excitement ramped up to eleven.
— Neil Gaiman released his own telling of Hansel and Gretel in 2014, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti. I call it a telling rather than a retelling because Gaiman’s story is wonderfully faithful to the original text; his own little inventions are integrated so seamlessly that you’ll barely notice they weren’t there before. This entry doesn’t count as being a “Neil Gaiman witch,” but Gaiman is a hero of mine, and has created many fantastic witches throughout his career, so we’ll certainly be seeing a lot more of him further down the track.
— I haven’t seen Tommy Wirkola’s Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013). It’s got a pretty bad reputation, but if it’s ever available on Netflix I may give it a watch.
— How chilling is that excerpt from the original tale? I’ve been trying to make my books as scary as possible, but it’s hard to top the brutal simplicity of that first sentence. Those storytellers from 200 years ago really knew how to frighten children!
That’s all for now. Happy witching!