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When I was young, maybe 6 or 7, I had an edition of Hansel & Gretel, which I enjoyed reading and re-reading, despite how much it scared me. I wasn’t, and still am not, somebody who enjoyed being scared by books, but this one in particular was given added appeal by the fact that my dad hid it on the top shelf in my closet.
Hansel & Gretel has been told countless times, by countless authors and translators. Neil Gaiman is a master of the macabre, and his version is as creepy and disturbing as you might suspect.
Commonly in this tale, the boy and girl are left by their father in the deep dark woods at the behest of the traditional evil stepmother. Gaiman’s version sees their true mother instigating the act of abandonment – which is what occurred in the original Grimm’s tale. While there is always a short backstory about why the act of abandonment comes to pass, I don’t think I have read an edition that places you in the parents’ footsteps so closely. You can almost, but not quite, sympathise with them as they make the decision to put their children at the mercy of creatures of the wood, as they have not enough food to feed the whole family, due to widespread war and famine.
“If you do not eat,” said his wife, “then you will not be able to swing an axe. And if you cannot cut down a tree, or haul the wood into the town, then we all starve and die. Two dead are better than four dead. That is mathematics, and it is logic.”
Hansel is a smart kid, taking white stones on their walk in the woods when overhearing the first plan, thus successfully getting them back to their home alive. This forces the father to abandon the children the first time without warning, so the children are left with breadcrumbs, which are duly eaten by animals, thus losing the children in the woods and enabling the dark witch to lure them in with her sweet gingerbread house, a warning to all children that if things seem too good to be true, they are.
The dark illustrations of this book are unsettlingly beautiful, rough and brisk and dangerous-looking. Lorenzo Mattotti is welcoming you into the woods with the least inviting of sketches – there is no fear that an unwitting preschooler would open these pages, unless they were made of stern stuff. Even the gingerbread house is gothic, rather than appealing – though the use of light around Hansel & Gretel’s images on this spread make it clear how they perceive the house. The pages of story alternating with pages of illustration is unusual for a fairytale perception, but the tone is constant and appropriate.
This is a masterful rendition of a favourite Grimm tale, and I am looking forward to hiding it from my own children, encouraging the appeal of the dark for them as they grow.
By Sarah Forster
Hansel and Gretel
by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti
Published by Bloomsbury
Not sure why these were ever called ‘fairy stories’ as most of them were pretty grim in the original…