I too have had that moment of hesitation when reading to my children. There have been times reading Grimm aloud that I found myself stopping, wondering if I should read on, skip a part, or come up with a quick, less grisly alternative ending — one that does not involve shoving an old woman into a burning oven and locking the door as she howls in pain. But something in me conquered my maternal instinct to shelter the feelings of my children and I read on.
In the story of Hansel and Gretel, fear is present in the tale from the very outset. Hansel and Gretel overhear their own conniving stepmother and hesitant father plotting to abandon them in the wood, as there is not food enough to go around. This is the first instance where the children experience fear. Gretel weeps bitterly, but the valiant, resourceful Hansel comforts Gretel and assures her of their safety. He drops collected flints along the path to the woods as their parents lead them to the place of abandonment. Later on, by the light of the moon, Hansel is able to follow the path of illuminated flints back to their home.
Later in the story, after the children are successfully abandoned, they discover that the old woman who welcomed them to her house of sweet bread is a wicked witch with bad intentions. Hansel is locked in a cage and Gretel is reduced to servitude. The witch intends to fatten Hansel and eat him. Now it is Gretel's turn for heroic bravery in the face of a fearful situation. When the witch tells Gretel to light the oven, Gretel cleverly provokes the witch to stand before it. Gretel pushes the witch in, where she is burned alive.
In both of these instances, the children naturally felt fear. The outcome of this fear for Hansel was cunning and courage. Without the fear, or the occasion that caused it, there would be no need for valor. There would be no occasion to practice the loving solicitude for his sister that brought about his words of comfort and his shrewd plan to come safely back home. The same can be said for Gretel at the story's end. With Hansel locked away, she had no one to rely on but herself. The fear she felt for herself and Hansel led to courage. Her courage led her to cleverly avert disaster, and save herself and her brother. Both children reacted rightly to their fear.
It is evident that the experience of fear in the story led to noble actions that brought about a good end for Hansel and Gretel. It is not to be concluded that fear in itself is a good thing for children, or that parents should use fear to motivate their children. It is the duty of parents to protect and guide their children as best they can. But it is not possible to protect them at all times against all that is dangerous or fearful. There will come a time when every child must face something that frightens them, and parents will not always be there to ease them through it. Repeated exposure to fairy tales will impart to children the knowledge that fearful situations can be met with courage and bravery. If the minds of children are filled with stories loaded with danger, bravery, heroism and romance, the stories will not only excite and invigorate their imaginations, but also will arm them with the weapons necessary to face their own witches and dragons. As G.K. Chesterton rightly said, "fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed."
"Hansel and Gretel" is a perfect adventure where fear plays a necessary role. The story is immediately engaging because of all that makes it terrifying, gruesome and grisly. Without the strong elements of fear and violence, it would lose its lure, its power and its charm. How can there be true adventure without terror and obstacles to overcome? The reader is being taken along on an incredible, thrilling ride. And that is what makes the story so lasting to children. It leaves a deep impression because it deals with strong themes, and causes the reader to feel deeply — whether it is fear, sympathy, sorrow, or relief. It is very bold. The feelings that the child is left with are not merely productive of catharsis — they instruct. They lead to greater things. A child reading "Hansel and Gretel" may daydream about acts of valor and bravery. This prepares him for the day he is called upon to actually be brave and valorous in the face of something real. Or — if the child is more fearful or serious — he may be filled with a right sense of caution and prudence that will prepare him to face his own sinister candy house.
Our world, like the world of fairy tales, is brutal and ugly at times, but the ugliness makes the beautiful and the noble more glorious to behold.
The dark world of "Hansel and Gretel" leaves the child with a truer sense of reality. It does not represent a world that is always sunny and free of shadows — as do most modern stories for children. It does not create a false reality. The characters are without question either good or evil. The good characters experience great suffering, and are victims of wrongdoing. But they also exemplify great virtue and fortitude that leads to a great reward. The evil character is truly evil, and wishes to violently destroy the good. This fictional representation is very true to life. But perhaps the most important reality demonstrated in "Hansel and Gretel" is one that exists but often goes unseen in the real world — the wrongdoer is severely punished for her misdeeds and there is justice. This is where the violence that so many parents cringe at comes in. Loving, protective parents question the violence. Is it really necessary for our children to read this? Shouldn't they be spared? The truth is that it is essential to the story and essential to the reader's understanding of Justice. It would be an injustice if the violent death of the witch never took place. The children would have suffered inconceivable cruelties at the hands of an unpunished offender. Children crave justice. They cannot stand to suffer an injury at the hands of another and see their sufferings go unavenged. There will be times when all children will suffer at the hands of another, stronger person or force. They may never see justice, but — if they read enough fairy tales — they will be left with the true sense that the injury will ultimately be avenged or righted by some invisible, wonderful power that makes all things right. As Hansel repeats throughout the tale, "God will not forsake us."
These elements lay out the Christian life for the child. Repeated exposure to "Hansel and Gretel" and other wonderful fairy stories will firmly establish in the mind of children the knowledge of suffering, courage, fortitude and salvation — all crucial, inescapable components of human existence. The fairy world is a mirror image of the world in which we live. There are acts of violence and evil all around us all the time. Counteracting this are the continual acts of chivalry, bravery, kindness and courage everywhere, all the time. Our world, like the world of fairy tales, is brutal and ugly at times, but the ugliness makes the beautiful and the noble more glorious to behold.
Sophie Hileman. "Hansel and Gretel — The Fairy Tale School of Fear and Violence." Crisis Magazine (August 22, 2013).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
Crisis Magazine is an educational apostolate that uses media and technology to bring the genius of Catholicism to business, politics, culture, and family life. Our approach is oriented toward the practical solutions our faith offers — in other words, actionable Catholicism.
Sophie Hileman is a 2004 graduate of Thomas Aquinas College. She resides with her husband and four children in northeastern Pennsylvania, where she enjoys homeschooling and eating chocolate.
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