Review of the Day: Hansel and Gretel by Neil Gaiman
When a successful writer of books for adults decides to traipse headlong into the world of children’s literature, the results are too often disastrous. From Donald Barthelme’s self-indulgent Slightly Irregular Fire Engine to the more recent, if disastrous in an entirely different way, Rush Revere series by Rush Limbaugh, adult authors have difficulty respecting the unique perspective of a child reader. Either they ignore the intended audience entirely and appeal to the parents with the pocket change or they dumb everything down and reduce the storytelling to insulting pabulum. This is not to say that all adult authors are unsuccessful. Sylvia Plath penned the remarkable The Bed Book while Ted Hughes brought us The Iron Giant. Louise Erdrich will forever have my gratitude for her Birchbark House series and while I wouldn’t call Michael Chabon’s Summerland a roaring success, it at least had some good ideas. Then we come to Neil Gaiman. Mr. Gaiman is one of those rare adult authors to not only find monetary success in the field of children’s books but literary success as well. His The Graveyard Book won the prestigious Newbery Award, given once a year to the most distinguished written book of children’s literature in America. Like Donald Hall with his Ox-Cart Man, Gaiman has successfully straddled two different literary forms. Unlike Hall, he’s done so repeatedly. His latest effort, Hansel and Gretel takes its inspiration from art celebrating an opera. It is, in an odd way, one of the purest retellings of the text I’ve had the pleasure to read. A story that begs to be spoken aloud, even as it sucks you into its unnerving darkness.
In the beginning there was a woodcarver and his pretty wife and their two children. Times were good and once in a while the family, though never rich, would get a bite of meat. Then the wars came and the famine. Food became so scarce that the wife persuaded her husband to abandon their children in the woods. The first time he tried to do so he failed. The second time he succeeded. And when Hansel and Gretel, the children in question, spotted that gingerbread cottage with its barley sugar windows and hard candy decorations the rest, as they say, was history.
It’s a funny kind of children’s book. The bulk of it is text-based, with time taken for Mattotti’s black and white two-paged spreads between the action. For people expecting a standard picture book this can prove to be a bit unnerving. Yet the truth is that the book begs to be read aloud. I can see teachers reading it to their classes and parents reading it to their older children. The art is lovely but it’s practically superfluous in the face of Gaiman’s turn of phrase. Consider sentences like “They slept as deeply and as soundly as if their food had been drugged. And it had.” There’s something deeply satisfying about that “And it had”. It is far more chilling in its matter-of-factness than if Gaiman had ended cold with “It had”. The “And” gives it a falsely comforting lilt that chills precisely because it sounds misleadingly comforting. It pairs very well with the first sentence in the next section: “The old woman was stronger than she looked – a sinewy, gristly strength…” He then peppers the books with little tiny nightmares that might not mean much on a first reading but are imbued with their own small horrors if you pluck them out and look at them alone. The witch’s offers to Gretel to make her one of her own and teach her how to ensnare travelers. Hansel’s refusal to let go of the bone that saved his life, even after the witch has died. And the final sentence of the book has a truly terrible tone to it, though on the surface it appears to be nothing but sunshine and light:
“In the years that followed, Hansel and Gretel each married well, and the people who went to their weddings ate so much fine food that their belts burst and the fat from the meat ran down their chins, while the pale moon looked down kindly on them all.”
Some versions of the story turn the mother into a stepmother, for what kind of parent would sacrifice her own children for the sake of her own skin? Here Gaiman is upfront about the mother. She was pretty once but became bitter and sharp-tongued in time. It’s her plying words that convince the woodcutter to go along with the abandonment plan. As the book later explains, subsequent version of this tale turned her into a stepmother, but here we’ve the original parent with her original sin. Gaiman also solves some problems in the plot that had always bothered me about the story. For example, why does Hansel drop white stones that are easy to follow the first time he and Gretel are abandoned in the woods but breadcrumbs the second? The answer is in the planning. Hansel has foreknowledge of his mother’s wicked scheme the first time around and has time to find the stones. The second time the trip into the woods catches him unawares and so the only thing he has on hand to use for a path are the breadcrumbs of the food he’s given for lunch.
Originally the illustrations in this book were created by Lorenzo Mattotti for the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of the opera of the same name. These pieces of art (which the publication page says are in “a rich black ink, on a smooth woodfree paper from Japan”) proved to be the inspiration for Gaiman’s take. This is no surprise. Mattotti knows all too well how to conjure up the impression of light or night with the merest swoops of his paintbrush. His children are no better than silhouettes. Does it even matter if they have any features? Here the trees are the true works of art. There’s something hiding in the gloom here and from the vantage taken, the thing lurking in the woods, spying upon the kids, is ourselves. We are the eyes making these two children so very nervous. We espy their mother pacing in front of their home just before the famine starts. We peer through the trees at the kids crossing past a small gap in the trunks. On a first glance the shadows are universal but then you notice when Mattotti chooses to imbue a character with features. The children are left abandoned in the woods and all you can see of the woodcutter is an axe and an eye. I think it the only eyeball in the entire book. It’s grotesque.
Of course, for a children’s librarian the best part might well be the backmatter. Recently I read a version of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” that suggested that the Grimm tale was a metaphor for a plague that had wiped out all of Hamelin’s children, save a few. A similar theory surrounds “Hansel and Gretel”, suggesting that the story’s origins lie in the Great Famine of 1315. Further information is given about the tale, ending at last with the current iteration and (oh joy!) a short Bibliography. You might not be as ready to nerd out over this classic fairy tale, but for those of you with a yen, boy are you in luck!
What is the role of a fairy tale these days? With our theaters and books filled to brimming with reimagined tellings, one wonders what fairy tales mean to most people. Are they cultural touchstones that allow us to speak a universal language? Do they still reflect our deepest set fears and worries? Or are they simply good yarns worth discovering? However you chose to view them, the story of “Hansel and Gretel” deserves to be plucked up, shaken out like an old coat, and presented for the 21st century young once in a while. Neil Gaiman’s a busy man. He has a lot to do. He could have phoned this one in. Instead, he took the time and energy to make give the story its due. It’s not about what we fear happening to us. It’s about what we fear doing to ourselves by doing terrible things to others. The fat from the meat is running down our chins. Best to be prepared when something comes along to wipe it up.
On shelves now.
Source: Publisher copy sent for review.
Like This? Then Try:
- Hansel and Gretel by The Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Sybille Schenker
- The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Lizbeth Zwerger
- The Six Swans by The Brothers Grimm, illustrated by Gerda Raidt
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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