Famine would have been a very realy fear for people and here runs front and center. Famine has forced Hansel and Gretel's parents to a drastic plan: lead the children into the woods and ditch them. Of course, whenever parents consider such dastardly things it means one parent is a step-parent. Guess which, or should I say witch because by now we know that step-mothers are secretly witches (but not true witches as we'll see).
Having heard the plan the children decide they will find a way home. Hansel leaves small pebbles along the road the first time and the parents (well, the step-witch at least) is dismayed at their return. Second time's the charm as they lead the children deeper into the woods and Hansel switches to bread which is eaten by birds. Now truly lost in the woods they stumble upon a house made of bread and cake with sugar glass for windows. Nibble-nibble-nibble and out pops a true witch. How do we know? Because
...witches have red eyes and can't see very far, but they have a keen sense of smell, like animals, and can detect when human beings are near them.which sounds an awful lot like an albino to me. Seems folk in those days were fearful of things they didn't understand and woe to any child born to be labeled a witch. (And for a more detailed look at the idea behind while albinos are cast as villians in popular culture, check out this article fromPenn State.)
So this particular witch was smart enough to know that during a famine people would be shoving their children into the woods the way some people flush goldfish down the toilet when they tire of them. And she had the resources (being a witch, no doubt, she could conjure them) to build edible houses much like the gingerbread treats children can't resist during the holiday season.
Once lured to the house the witch throws Hansel into a pen for fattening while Gretel has to help with the household duties. The detail here that gets me is that while Hansel feasts and seems unable to use his strength to break out Gretel is fed crab shells. Crab shells. In the middle of the forest. Crab.
How Gretel fools the witch and gains her freedom owes much to the old Punch and Judy plays (that were themselves adapted from the humorous bits of lazzi performed by harlequin, or Arlequino, in 17th century Comedia del Arte). To fool the Hangman, Punch pretends not to understand what he's supposed to do. The Hangman informs him to stick his head in the noose but Punch can't seem to manage until out of frustration the Hangman sticks his head in the noose where Punch kicks the box out from under him and cheats death. Here, Gretel is asking the witch for a demonstration on how Hansel is going into the oven until the witch finally shows here to where Gretel can shove her in and bake her.
The witch dead, Hansel and Gretel ransack the witches house of gems and jewels, find their way home, and return home to their joyful father who, once again, is a widower since the step-mother died.
As a reminder that the Grimm tales came from the oral tradition this one ends with the storyteller's little tag:
My tale is done. See the mouse run. Catch it, whoever can, and then you can make a great big cap out of it's fur.Not quite Hickory Dickory Dock, but about as meaningful.