Popular culture reviews of new fairy-tale movies or television shows frequently note, with authority, that old fairy tales had a cruelty to them that has been “sanitized” since. I challenge that notion. Cruelty has been alive and well in American fairy tales for a long time.
Visit your local library and look for a copy of an illustrated version of “Hansel and Gretel.” In just about every variation you’ll find, the parents send their children out to the woods where the parents believe they are certain to perish. After some time wandering, the children stumble upon a witch’s cottage decorated with cookies and candy — perhaps they are hallucinating this, which starvation can incline one to do — but, whether it’s real or not, in their lightheaded condition (or perhaps desperation), they nibble the house, enter when they are invited to do so, and, drat — geez, these kids aren’t too bright, but they are super hungry and perhaps, good lord, altruistic — in any case, the boy Hansel is locked in a shed by a witch with absolutely no apparent supernatural powers at all. This red-eyed (hungover? sad?) witch proceeds to try to fatten Hansel up while verbally abusing Gretel, employed doing chores. Eventually, in just about every version under the sun, the “clever” children outsmart the witch: Hansel holds out a bone pretending it is his finger, and thus avoids being eaten; Gretel shoves the witch into the oven. They return home. The end!
Child abandonment, child abuse, murder — albeit self defense, but by a child, incinerating an old woman alive! — well this is just so, you know, sentimental and innocent. So sanitized. Thank goodness we’ve restored this stupid, light-hearted story to its dark ways.
Or have we?
Just under a hundred years ago — a blink of the eye — Wanda Gag’s 1920s version ends with this flourish:
Sing every one,
My story is done,
And look! round the house
There runs a little mouse
He that can catch her before she scamps in
May make himself a very very large cap out of her skin.
I don’t understand how anyone can read this as sanitized. I don’t understand when people fail to see the cruelty in life, or in art — which doesn’t mean there is not also beauty.
Look. There is serious charm and menace to the Grimm fairy-tale form. These are really small words; they have the aura of a nursery song; and this is a tiny tale of evil predation. A little mouse — a girl-mouse, of course the little mouse is a her — is to be caught and skinned! And this little mouse, well, she seems to have quite magical powers, or offer them to her predators, because whoever catches her can make — what? A very, very large cap from her skin.
I love Wanda Gag’s work. (She grew up in poverty in Minnesota, attended art school in New York City, and is author of one of the oddest, saddest, and most violent children’s books to have become wildly popular in America, Millions of Cats. Among other things that are haunting in this inky, strange story, millions of cats devour each other.)
Gag has terrific poetics. She ends her variation of “Hansel and Gretel” on the word skin — skin, that one-syllable word that starts with a hiss and ends on the word that begins the word “no.” This is how to give readers the shivers.
Growing up in a family haunted by genocide in Nazi times — in ways I would only discover in my 30s — Gag’s coda speaks volumes to me. I am not writing this essay about the aesthetics of cruelty. I am writing it about violence — in art and in life — that goes too often denied.
The Brothers Grimm stories, by my reading, resisted such ignorance and still resist ignorance in just about every retelling I’ve seen of “Hansel and Gretel,” even those that seek to remove details deemed overly dark for those littlest of eyes — and largest of feeling. These stories invite readers into a radical acceptance that human cruelty is a reality — and, thus, challenge readers to resist human cruelty at the same time. They also invite us to be open to beauty and to find peaceful homes.
Kate Bernheimer is the author of a novel trilogy and two story collections, including How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales (Coffee House Press) and the editor of four fairy-tale anthologies, including the World Fantasy Award winning and bestselling My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales (Penguin Books). Her recent novella, Office at Night, co-authored with Laird Hunt and a joint commission of Coffee House Press and the Walker Art Center, was a finalist for the 2015 Shirley Jackson Awards.