Hansel and Gretel.

Right. I have now settled into my new old job, and have no excuses left for neglecting my blog. And yet I’m struggling to get back on the horse. There is an underlying reason for this; I’m bored.

It’s a peculiar form of boredom. I’m bored of the stories I haven’t written. There’s a lot going on here at the moment. There’s an election coming up, so everyone is a liar, a thief, a racist or delusional. To make things a little more interesting, we have recently found out that our esteemed President, a man who dodged over seven hundred corruption charges and a rape charge before reaching his current lofty position, has somehow ended up with a private home in the middle of nowhere that has cost us taxpayers a quarter of a billion Rand.

 

Did I say home? I meant homes.

Did I say home? I meant homes.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Then there’s the Oscar Pistorius trial, an object lesson on why we should stop making gods of men and shouldn’t let little boys play with live ammunition.

 

Behold! The world's most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

Behold! The world’s most unfortunately worded advertising campaign.

I have quite a lot to say about this. So does everyone else. Boring.

Just in case I thought this would all be over too soon, we have just welcomed a charming new potential resident to our fair land. A young man named Shrien Dewani has recently been extradited back to our sunny shores. If the state is to be believed, the good Mr Dewani is the inventor of a new sort of tourism. A year or two ago, he visited us on his honeymoon, and (allegedly) celebrated his new union by having his bride murdered in a staged hijacking.

 

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly...

The magic wore off pretty damn quickly…

I am going to have quite a lot to say about this. So is everyone else. Boring.

I have always subscribed to the belief that only boring people get bored. So I’m going to try something new. I’m going to tell you a story. When I started this blog, I hoped to use it as a tool to help me write a novel. Hah! I have not written a single word of fiction since month two.

So now it’s time to get back to my roots. I’m going to write some fiction. But not my own fiction. That seems just a little too much like hard work. I’m going to tell you a fairy story. It’ll help if you pretend to be five.

Hansel and Gretel.

Hello there, vaguely small people (don’t look so nervous; I’m also pretending that you’re five). My name is Uncle 23thorns, and I’m going to tell you a little story. Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

 

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Come, children, sit at my feet and listen.

Sorry, but I’m going to have to stop right there. We need to clear a few things up before we start. First of all, my name is not actually 23thorns. Amazing, right? That’s just a pseudonym. An alias. A nom de plume. It’s a name I made up so that I could hide my real identity, like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent, but without any superpowers.

I use it so that I won’t have to take responsibility for anything I write. Your parents should be able to explain it to you; just ask them why they used to book into hotels as “Mr and Mrs Smith” before you were born. Unless your surname is Smith. Then you’re on your own.

I’m not your uncle, either, by the way. But, like a real uncle, I’m happy to give you free and helpful advice. Like this: If anyone who is not the brother of one of your parents tells you to call him “uncle”, run as fast as you can to a brightly lit place and tell the unfriendliest looking adult you can find that you are being stalked by a weirdo.

 

If this is the unfriendliest looking adult you can find, keep running.

Come, children. Show me this weirdo who is bothering you…

Enough. I was getting ready to tell you a story. A fairy tale. Hansel and Gretel.

Yup. You read that right. Hansel and Gretel. The story your parents used to tell you. I know what you’re thinking; lame! (Do five year olds say “lame”?) You’ve moved on. Fairy stories are for babies. You couldn’t be more wrong.

Parents tell their babies and toddlers fairy stories because babies and toddlers are mentally deficient. Slow. Not too bright. They can’t read or write or operate heavy machinery. Once they get a bit older, though, they start to get a bit smarter. And then parents stop with the fairy tales.

They don’t stop telling them because they think you would be bored. They are, to put things simply, afraid that the fairy stories are just a bit too hard-core for you. They don’t want to freak you out.

 

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Which is a pity. Fairy tales teach kids so much about wildlife.

Luckily for you, I am not afraid. It’s not that I think you’re smart or tough enough to cope with the harsh truth of fairy tales. It’s just that I am writing under an alias, and don’t have to take responsibility for my actions. So where were we? Oh yes…

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, lived…

Sorry. Time to stop again. I just need to clear something up before we go on. Hansel and Gretel did not live in a faraway land once upon a time. Hansel and Gretel lived in Germany, around 1315. I know that seems a little specific, but it matters. You’ll see. Anyway, back to the story…

In 1315, in Germany, lived a kindly woodcutter and his two children, Hansel and Gretel. And their stepmother. Their wicked stepmother. I don’t know why they even bother with the “wicked” part. Have you ever heard of any other kind in fairy tales? The story of Spackel and Brumhilde who lived in a forest with their vicious, bitter old father and their gentle, kind-hearted stepmother, and a magical llama called Rusty who laid golden eggs?

 

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Laying all those eggs has taken a terrible toll on Rusty.

Times have obviously changed a little. People get divorced. Fathers remarry. And so we all know a few stepmothers. I, personally, however, don’t know any wicked ones. Some stepmothers are trickier than others, sure, but wicked? It may sound like a corny and old-fashioned word these days, but if you take a closer look at some of those fairy stories, you’ll notice that being “wicked” was a pretty serious business back in the day. Like slavery serious. Child labour serious. Murder serious. Which leads me back to our cute little fairy story…

One night, Hansel and Gretel overheard their stepmother (who was wicked), telling their father (who was kindly) to take them out into the forest and leave them there because they were eating too much food.

Is it just me, or did things just turn pretty dark, pretty quickly. We’re only in the second paragraph (at least we would be if you didn’t keep interrupting), and our sweet little toddler story is suddenly about murder. Child murder.

Because that’s what this is. The forest in Germany wasn’t a few trees in a park with some well laid out trails through it and a concession stand at one end covered with posters of bears in hats asking you not to litter or set fire to their home. It was a dark, endless mass of trees that stretched to cover most of the country. There were bears. And wolves. And no food. Leaving kids in the forest meant leaving kids for dead.

 

Luckily their last moments will be filled with joy and wonder.

Luckily their last moments would be filled with joy and wonder.

Most kids. Not the intrepid Hansel. He gathered up a pocketful of white pebbles, and, as his kindly father led him off into the woods to die cold and alone and hungry (the word “kindly” has clearly gone through some pretty profound changes in meaning since 1315), he left a trail of pebbles behind him. That night, when the moon came out, the children followed the path of shining stones back home.

Smart, huh? Except for one tiny detail. Home just happened to be the place where the people trying to murder them lived. So maybe not so smart. But we have to be fair, I suppose. There was no such thing as family services in Germany in 1315. There wasn’t even such a thing as the police. So home it was. For a night.

The next day, their kindly father led them off to die again. Maybe “kindly” meant “persistent”. This time, Hansel didn’t have time to collect any pebbles, so he took a piece of bread with him and left a trail of crumbs.

Smart, huh? Or not. The crumbs were eaten up by birds. Which seems like a bit of a missed opportunity. If this was my story, the trail would have been followed by a hungry bear, and we would have seen some action.

 

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

And the trail would have been made of bacon.

But no. No bears. Don’t worry, though. This is where things get a bit freaky. Hansel and Gretel do not collapse to the ground and starve, clinging together at the base of a sprawling tree, regretting up to their last breath the fact that they fed their only food to the birds. Nope. They poke around in the forest for a bit before finding a house made of gingerbread. Which they eat.

Right. So we’ve gone from dark to supremely odd. Half a second ago, it was just a sweet little story about a kindly woodcutter and a wicked stepmother trying to murder their kids, and now all of a sudden the kids are eating someone’s house. Someone’s edible house. Don’t do drugs, kids. Just saying.

And then, almost immediately, we go back to dark again. One brief, cheerful patch of house-eating after a bit of attempted child-murder, and we get back to the imminent demise of Hansel and Gretel. The owner of the house, you see, comes back. Is she the cheerful, rounded, rosy cheeked woman you would expect to find living in a house made of food? She is not.

She is a vicious old witch. Despite being blind, and old, she catches the kids. Maybe they have rickets, or seasonal affective disorder. She throws Hansel into a cage and puts Gretel to work cleaning the house. Aaaand… there’s your slavery. And a bit of child imprisonment. Which is really not so bad. In comparison to what is to come.

 

Read to your children. It builds character.

Read to your children. It feeds their imaginations.

The witch, you see, begins to feed Hansel. A lot. Which is nice of her, isn’t it? Unless, of course, she is fattening him up so that she can eat him.

She is fattening him up so she can eat him. So now we have a little cannibalism to go along with our child imprisonment, slavery, and murder. Just the sort of thing to lull a toddler off to sleep.

Anyhow, back to the story. Despite not being able to evade an old blind woman, Hansel still has a trick or two up his sleeve. Every day, the witch comes out to check if he has fattened up enough to eat yet. She does this by pinching his finger. But he is too smart for her. Instead of passing her his finger, he passes her a bone. Yup, in our sweet little toddler story, Hansel is apparently sharing his cage with the skeleton of its last occupant. Cute.

Our witch is obviously getting a little hungry. She decides to cook Hansel anyway. And his little sister. Maybe she wanted some dessert. She fires up her old oven and orders Gretel to climb inside. Gretel, it seems, is a bit of a dark horse. She has hardly featured so far, but now it is her time to shine. She tricks the witch into having a look inside the oven. Maybe she told her she’d dropped some money in there when she was cleaning it. And then she shoves her in. And shuts the door. And cooks her alive. Cute. Toddler stories.

 

In there? How much money?

In there? How much money, exactly?

And then things get a bit weird again. They steal the witch’s treasure (witches, giants, ogres, and dragons always have treasure. It’s the rules) and go back home again. To the people who tried to kill them. Twice.

Luckily, the wicked stepmother has conveniently died during their little holiday, and they live happily ever after with their kindly father. Or so the story goes. Things would be a little awkward, I imagine, when the kindly father tells the kids to clean up their rooms or tells them they can’t have a PlayStation, and they remind him of that time when he tried to kill them. Twice.

So there you have it. The stories you left behind as a toddler were a little rougher than you remember.

And the really scary part? Some of them are also a lot more real than you think. You might have noticed a bit of a food theme running through Hansel and Gretel. The kids are kicked out of home for eating too much food. Their trail home is eaten by birds. They eat a complete stranger’s house. The stranger tries to eat them. They cook the stranger. It all seems just a little bit obsessive. With good reason.

 

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

The true message of Hansel and Gretel.

Remember Germany? 1315? It was a pretty bad year. There was too much rain. The crops failed, and there was a famine. It happened again the next year. And the next. There was hardly any food around at all until 1322. People starved. Lots of people. People who could no longer feed their families abandoned their children. In forests. And yes, some people resorted to cannibalism. Guards were posted in cemeteries to watch over the recently dead lest they end up as someone’s dinner, while other, more enterprising individuals took a more proactive approach and hunted down and killed their meals.

The Great Famine in largely forgotten now, partly because it happened so long ago but mostly because it was followed almost immediately by the Black Plague, which made it look like a tea party.

Largely forgotten, but not completely forgotten. The pain and the suffering and the social upheaval the plague caused have sent faint echoes down through the ages in the stories we use to help our toddlers go to sleep.

There were not, however, in 1315 or at any other time, any houses made of gingerbread. That’s just a fairy tale.

Although bacon houses or gloriously real...

Although bacon houses are gloriously real…

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30 thoughts on “Hansel and Gretel.

  1. Linne says:

    I meant to add: more scary than Grimm is a man who shaves patterns into his chest hair . . .

  2. Linne says:

    I read these as a small child and then graduated to Edgar Allan Poe; when I die, my body will be cremated . . . no waking up in the coffin days later for me! I do love the original stories, though, and after reading Bruno Bettelheim’s study on them (see my note above), am very in favour of reading them to children. Better that than the real horrors of our current world . . .

    You make me laugh every post; an unequalled achievement. I think you should give up on the fiction, or at least the serious fiction, and just put all your posts into a book. Wait, we’ve read them already. Darn . . . no, you shall have to write new posts, but not post them; put them in a book and sell them to us . . . :-)

  3. Kevin says:

    Thanks for making me revisit the tales of 1315 with fond memories, knowing that I’ll be able to sleep with this tale of horror dancing in my dreams. Glad to see you are up and about with your blog. I haven’t seen it in my reader so I was wondering what was going on.

  4. Seasonal Affective Disorder is nothing to toy with….At the beginning of this winter I had 4 kids. Now……?

  5. albertine says:

    Do you know Bruno Bettelheim “The Uses of Enchantment”? he has something to say about people like my parents who ‘protected’ their kids from fairy tales.
    To this very day, people growl and snuggle into their babies’ necks saying ‘I’m going to eat you up!’ The babies shriek with glee.

    • Linne says:

      Yes! He did a long study (20 years or so, I seem to remember) and found that kids who were told the old tales dealt with life’s challenges better than kids who were fed (dare I say it?) the sanitized Disneyesque versions. Very interesting . . .

  6. narf77 says:

    And bacon (as a lure) doesn’t work on vegans!

  7. narf77 says:

    And you can be bollocksed if I am clicking “like” Mr 23Thorns, you are going to have to work a whole LOT harder to coax me out from my brightly lit room to read one of your (terrifying) posts again!

    • 23thorns says:

      Look! I’ve sorted it out for you already! There can be no monsters under your bed- they would all fall down into the scientist’s leper-chamber when he slides back his panel to inject you through the matress. Now get some sleep- you can thank me when you wake up.

  8. narf77 says:

    Thanks a LOT Mr 23Thorns. I was just about over my childhood fear of fairy tales, the werewolves, the vampires, the zombies (yeah, my parents believed in being entertained whilst doing the reading chore thing…) and here they are back again! Thanks to you sir, our electricity bill is going to skyrocket again. Steve is going to have to sleep in the spare room where it is dark (and therefore the monsters are able to enter with impunity), I am going to have to remain bleary eyed (and terrified) with a dog on either side of me (I need to add here a USELESS dog on either side of me who would sooner let me be eaten by werewolves if they thought they had made a new pack mate :( ) and knowing all the time in my 1000 hallogen watted brightness that there is a modicum of darkness in that teeny tiny space under the bed… just enough darkness…for something to slither… to mutter and to plot Mr 23Thorns…to PLOT! Under that bed there be dragons Mr 23Thorns…and they be full of bloody teeth!

    • 23thorns says:

      Dragons would have been a mercy. I must have had a foetid imagination as a child. I had no monsters under my bed. I had a mad scientist who had hollowed out a chamber under the floor of my room.
      At night, i would lie awake imagining him sliding back a panel under my bed and sticking a very long needle up through the base of the bed and up through the matress to inject me with leprosy (yup, he had lepers down there with him).
      The only way I suvived through to adulthood was by sleeping on the very edge of my bed. It worked. He missed me every time.
      God alone knows what my parents had been reading to me…

      • narf77 says:

        I told a fib. My parents didn’t read those books to me. I snuck off and read my parents books at an early age. I had tsunami’s in my dreams along with werewolves etc. and thank GOODNESS dad didn’t buy any schlock horror books about mad scientists or I am sure I would have been on the very edge of my bed. As it was I had to cram blankets along the edge of the bed to at least give me a bit of warning when those question claws from under the bed started searching and I developed a most interesting ability to hide under my own elbow until I was 17 as I slept (again, who needs elbows…protect the brain!)

  9. Kami says:

    Just what I needed on a sleepless night. Thanks for that rendition of a story my mother used to read to me often as a wee lass. I think I can drop off to sleep now, finally.On a separate note, I wish you’d write more often because I personally am quite entertained by any topic you write about. As are others, I’m certain of it.

  10. sula1968 says:

    I so often have long gaps between blogging, I sometimes bore myself and feel that someone else (like you) would write on my proposed topics far more eloquently.
    Despite having 2 small children (3 & 6) I am really irritated by the niceification of children’s stories. Recently at a toddler class we were given a new version of the old woman who lived in a shoe along these lines “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many children, she knew just what to do, she hugged them and kissed them and held them tight, I love you, I love you she said goodnight”, I find that a tad nauseating and where is the message about over population?
    I am also constantly struck by the fact that although children are now so molly coddled the world is sicker and more twisted than ever before.

  11. Reminds me of the original little mermaid story where the mermaid does not get her prince and she throws herself in the ocean to become sea foam. They conveniently left out of the Disney version my daughter loves so well too, that every step the little mermaid took was like walking on knives.
    Hans Christian Andersen knew his horror stories alright.

  12. Lyn says:

    I was only thinking of you yesterday, and lo and behold, here you are with another great post for us :-D

  13. Absolutely enthralling story telling!

  14. I read Hansel and Gretal to my daughter just the other night! And jeez, what was I thinking?!!! Gingerbread biscuits will never be the same again!

  15. grannyK says:

    I like that version! Now, do Goldilocks and the Three Bears!! *goes to pop popcorn*

  16. Bambi Lynn says:

    You’re good!

  17. amithi says:

    Can we get the story of Spackel and Brumhilde next? ;)

    • 23thorns says:

      I would love to, but I don’t think Rusty could take the strain.

      • amithi says:

        Too bad. It sounded like it would have been a nice change from all the murder and mutilation… I grew up with the unsanitised versions of Grimms’ fairytales and that probably explained some of my more interesting nightmares. ;)

      • 23thorns says:

        Yup. We tried to read some of Grimms’ stories to my son when he was three, but for some reason he seemed to prefer the versions in a book called “A Treasury of Stories for Four-year-olds”.

  18. janeybgood says:

    This is my favourite version of the story ever, thank you!
    I have always wondered about the child abandonment thing in this story. The Brothers Grimm wrote it like it de rigueur to just abandon your kids when they became an inconvenience.

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