Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Heinrich Le...
Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Heinrich Leutemann or Carl Offterdinger via Wikipedia

Hansel and Gretel is a Germanic folk tale of unknown age that was put into print and published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812.

The story is about two children of a poor woodcutter. When a great famine spreads across the land, their wicked stepmother (Carl Jung‘s negative anima figure) urges their father to take them out and abandon them in the forest. But having overheard the disturbed plans, the children secretly slip outside to gather white pebbles for markers.

The next day, while the children are being lead out into the woods, Hansel secretly drops the pebbles on the ground to make a trail which, hopefully, will lead him and his sister back to safety. After walking a few hours, their father stops and tells them to wait while he goes to gather wood for a fire.

The father never returns, so Hansel leads Gretel home by tracing the moonlight reflected from the pebbles. Although their guilt-ridden father is happy to see them, when famine strikes again the wicked the stepmother convinces him to desert the children a second time.

As before, Hansel and Gretel overhear the diabolical plans and, this time, gather and drop behind themselves a trail of breadcrumbs. Abandoned in the forest again, to their dismay they discover that birds have gobbled up the bread.

Meandering through the woods, the children are eventually lead by a bird to a fantastic gingerbread house. A kindly old woman takes them in, feeds them heartily and tucks them into bed.

The next morning, however, she reveals her true nature. She’s a witch.  And she promptly throws Hansel into a cage, demanding that Gretel do all her cooking. The witch feeds Haensel daily, fattening him up like an animal for the slaughter. But Gretel is starved.

Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Carl Offter...
Hansel and Gretel, illustration by Carl Offterdinger via Wikipedia

To check on Hansel’s plumpness, the witch demands that he stick his finger out of the cage every day. One day, Hansel tricks her by sticking out a bone. Enraged at his apparent lack of progress, she orders Gretel to cook him right then and there.

Heating up the oven, Gretel pretends to have difficulty opening the oven door to check the temperature. The witch opens and enters the oven, and Gretel quickly slams and locks the door behind her, sealing her doom.

Gretel then releases Hansel and they trek home through the forest, crossing a river on the back of a duck. With the stepmother now dead, their father is delighted to see them again.

Writer Alison Jones suggests that the story conforms to a mythic cycle in which the ogre is consumed by his or her own technology (in this case, the fire) partly by his or her own stupidity and partly by the quick-wittedness of the hero or heroine. And from a Jungian perspective, the story illustrates how the intelligence of the conscious ego must be used to overcome the sometimes deceptive powers of the collective unconscious.



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