The situation is dire indeed in the fairy tale Hänsel and Gretel. We are told in the very first paragraph that “a terrible famine ravaged the land” and it was impossible to find even the most basic sustenance, bread. Without any relief on the horizon, the parents plot to rid themselves of their offspring in the hope that by losing their children in the forest they will somehow save themselves. Fairy tales are filled with examples of such extreme behavior and here the abandonment of children is equivalent to murder by neglect. A natural disaster is at the root of the crisis. The famine has not only ushered in a period of physical hardship but it has introduced widespread spiritual decay as well. This is a time when murder and cannibalism become strategies for survival. This fairy tale might be based on memories of the Great Famine of 1315 – 1322, which caused millions of deaths by starvation in Northern Europe. Catastrophic weather patterns produced greatly diminished yields in crops. The resulting calamity hit all echelons of society and many incidents of child abandonment and cannibalism have been documented by the chroniclers of the times.
Into this grim landscape come the innocent children, who are fully attuned to the gravity of their situation. Stripped of the protection and security offered by a properly functioning family, the children must make their own decisions and define their own survival plans. Hänsel tries to take charge and protect his sister. He comforts the crying Gretel and assures her that God will not abandon them. This might be a reference to the crisis in confidence the Church experienced during and after the Great Famine. Organized religion seemed impotent against the destructive forces that had been unleashed and the authority of the Church and God were called into question. But with the faith of a child, Hänsel insists on holding fast to his past beliefs as a prescription for survival.
Faced with impending death, Hänsel takes action while his sister responds to each new situation by crying, appearing frail and helpless. The gender roles in this fairy tale have often been criticized. But it is Gretel’s quick thinking that ultimately saves the day when she pushes the witch into the oven. And at the conclusion of the tale, Gretel gives her “duck speech” to Hänsel, signaling a new sort of self-reliance and confidence. Injecting a dose of fairy tale realism into the narrative, Gretel gently reminds her brother that the weight of two children on the back of a duck would probably cause them both to drown.
This fairy tale also has older motifs that pre-date the food shortages of the fourteenth century or other medieval famines; they are the bread and food images in the narrative, which are intriguing in and of themselves. Bread is one of the oldest foodstuffs and evidence of leavened bread can be found in the archeological record going back 6000 years. The very earliest references to bread are restricted to small or broken pieces, leading scholars to surmise that the first loaves were similarly small fragments. The fairy tale often mentions such broken bread pieces and they appear here in Hänsel and Gretel as the crumbs left as markers on the path through the woods. In the saga Queen Huett the proud monarch takes soft bread crumbs to clean away mud and in the saga Semmelschuhe the proud princess fashions shoes from little pieces of bread. In the world of the fairy tale, these acts are examples of depravity and sacrilege. Bread, one of the most fundamental necessities for survival, is sacred in these stories. Pre-Christian rites in Europe also reflect the consecrated status of bread. Sir James Frazer describes a custom in France in The Golden Bough . A god or corn-spirit was believed to reside in the last harvested sheaf of grain, which was ritually eaten in the form of a baked dough-man. Frazer cites numerous examples of this ancient custom of ritually eating the god or indwelling spirit of the harvested grain. He concludes that the Christian rite of communion absorbed these earlier pagan practices. The notion of a deity being bodily present within the grain and being harmed by a sacrilegious act is also illustrated in the Grimms' legend God’s Food. Here, the loaf actually gushes blood in response to an evil deed. And although Hänsel and Gretel are starving, they do not begin their feast on the witch’s house of bread and cake until Hänsel blesses their meal.
The period of sorrow and misfortune ends when the two protagonists make their way home. Their journey includes crossing an immense body of water, which is often a metaphor for dying. After walking through a strange and uncertain landscape, they finally reach a place more familiar. Their reunion with their father is joyful. The father hadn’t had a moment’s peace since he left his children in the forest. The children bring back wealth and prosperity in the form of gems and pearls. If only the family had stuck together during the crisis! Sorrows do end, the strong can persevere with their principles still intact and they are often rewarded in the end. Unfortunately, without the journey there is no transformation. One must take up life's challenges however terrifying they might be, because they are indispensable in making us what we are.