Having liked The Sleeper and the Spindle, I assumed I’d enjoy another reworked fairy tale by him.
Be warned, Gaiman doesn’t really rework Hansel and Gretel like he did with Sleeping Beauty, he just enlarges on it, adding minor changes along the way. Oddly I enjoyed this story more than any other by Gaiman, which probably tells you more about how much I like, or dislike, his work than anything else.
Lorenzo Mattotti’s illustrations feel inappropriate for a children’s book, in my opinion. They’re 95% black brushstrokes with tiny bits of white. Since the cover of The Sleeper and the Spindle featured gold on the cover in addition to black and white, which were all present in the illustrations within, I assumed the green on Hansel & Gretel‘s cover would feature in the illustrations here as well. I was wrong. These are just black and white. Perhaps the illustrator was aiming for gothic, but when I can’t even tell what a couple of them are supposed to be representing, there’s a problem.
However, there’s a random illustration which doesn’t match the narrative. Only after reading the last two pages, which detail the source of the Grimm tale and a few paragraphs describing the original work, did I realise what had happened. Apparently a duck helped the duo cross the river in the original version and this is depicted in one of the illustrations. But Gaiman doesn’t include the duck in his retelling. Did Hansel & Gretel even go through an editing stage?
Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel was published in 1812. Twelve year old Dorothea Wild, known as Dortchen, was the source of the tale. She later became Mrs Wilhelm Grimm in 1825.
A hundred years before the Brothers Grimm, French author and fairy-tale collector Charles Perrault recorded “Le Petit Poucet,” or “Hop-o’-My-Thumb.” Hop-o’-My-Thumb, the smallest and cleverest of seven brothers, is also born to woodcutters who put the children out due to famine. Like Hansel, he uses trails of pebbles then breadcrumbs to find his way. The brothers stumble upon the house of an ogre who vows to kill and eat them, but Hop-o’-My-Thumb tricks him into slitting his daughters’ throats instead (by swapping their caps). By the end of the story, “Hop-o’-My-Thumb.” ends up with the ogre’s money.
An Italian tale, “Nennillo and Nennella” is also similar. Then there’s Russia’s Baba Yaga who promises no to eat the children if they can complete impossible tasks. Kindness to the animals sees them help the children in completing the tasks in order to escape. Baba Yaga may have been inspired by in part by Cupid and Psyche’s story in The Golden Ass written almost 2,000 years ago.
I want to award Gaiman’s retelling a high rating, but it’s not Gaiman’s story. He hasn’t made it his own like he did by adding a feminist twist to Sleeping Beauty. Sure, it’s been reworded, and feels smoother and more eloquent for it, but there isn’t any one thing I can definitively point to that sets it apart from the original. For me, the sometimes inarticulate illustrations detracted from the reading experience, as I sat there trying to figure out what exactly I was looking at. I felt they were incongruous and would’ve been better placed in art book or a gallery wall where I could’ve appreciated them more.
To be honest, I think this is a bit of a rip-off at £11 in hardcover for 49 pages. The cynic in me thinks Gaiman’s trading heavily on his name to make quick and easy money, especially since even before publication it was announced his version was to be turned into a live-action movie. I thought we’d already had a live-action adaptation in 2013’s highly entertaining Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. It may be too soon for another.
Although I enjoyed the warmer and more personable take on the classic fairy tale, I’m very glad I borrowed Hansel & Gretel from the library.