Hansel and Gretel – a darkly brilliant fairy tale

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I have never shied away from telling my children fairy tales – in their ‘Grimm-est’ form. No watered-down, gentle adaptations for us. Instead, I have a complete Brothers Grimm collection that includes the darkest, most thrilling stories. They’re also memorable stories, ones that have endured and been told in some form or another for centuries.

Author Neil Gaiman embraces ‘dark’ stories for children, saying –

“I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.”

Gaiman has teamed with Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, to retell the classic Brothers Grimm fable, Hansel and Gretel. As far as fairy tales go, Hansel and Gretel is notoriously grim. There’s really very little you can do to soften the story of two children being abandoned in a wood, captured by a witch and fattened up to be eaten.

Gaiman is an exceptional storyteller and his version of Hansel and Gretel captures the suspense and terror of the original tale, while keeping the reader in a ‘safe’ place. The beginning of the story demonstrates this beautifully –

“This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest.”

Mattotti’s illustrations are a perfect match for the sinister story – dense, predominantly black images show impenetrable woods, eerie skies and lurking shadows. Hansel and Gretel are depicted as silhouettes, highlighted in the scant white space on each page.

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Gaiman and Mattotti’s edition of Hansel and Gretel includes a section at the end of the book about the history of the fairy tale and how it has changed over time. Notably, in his retelling, Gaiman never names the old woman as a witch (although fairy tale precedent leads readers to that suspicion) and also makes Hansel and Gretel’s parents slightly less negligent (in the original tale the children are abandoned whereas in Gaiman’s version it is implied their father may return to find them).

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Hansel and Gretel can be found in all good book stores or online at Book Depository, which delivers free to Australia.

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Katrina Whelen

Katrina studied planning and design, did the hard yards working in a big office building and then traded it all in for a relaxing (!) life at home with four children. She now fills her time with writing, completing a degree in genetics and taxiing her children around Melbourne to their various sporting commitments (not necessarily in that order).

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