Hansel and Gretel: historical context

Hansel and Gretel: historical context

Historical Origins of “Hansel and Gretel”

  • “Hansel and Gretel” is a story drawn from German folklore, specifically from a collection of fairy tales published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812, during the German Romantic Period.
  • This period was characterized by a prominent focus on the supernatural, nature, emotion and the power of the imagination, with the Brothers Grimm being key figures in this movement.
  • Grimms’ Fairy Tales contributed to the effort at the time to preserve and record traditional oral folk culture, seen as pure and threatened by industrialization and modernity.

Societal Themes in “Hansel and Gretel”

  • “Hansel and Gretel” is believed to date back to the Great Famine (1315-1317), reflected in themes of hunger and abandonment in the tale.
  • In the 19th century, child abandonment was not uncommon due to extreme poverty and famine, and the story draws on these societal anxieties.
  • The story also reflects cultural fears about ‘witches’ – older, solitary women seen as threatening due to their associations with magic and unruly behaviour in early Modern Europe.
  • The witch, in this story, represents danger outside the family unit and reflects fears of cannibalism during times of hardship.

Symbolism in “Hansel and Gretel”

  • The gingerbread house in the tale is a symbol of hope but also deception: it appears to offer sustenance and a path out of poverty, but it’s actually a trap.

Misinterpretations and Lessons from “Hansel and Gretel”

  • During the 20th century, Hansel and Gretel were mistakenly rewritten as an illustration of Nazi anti-Semitism, but this interpretation lacks historical evidence.
  • Understanding the historical context of the play will help in interpreting the fears and anxieties of families during the Brothers Grimm era as embodied in Hansel’s and Gretel’s experiences.