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“Hansel and Gretel” by Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti

Neil Gaiman, Hansel and GretelIf you visit the Innsbruck Christmas markets this time of the year, amidst the stalls packed with festive ornaments and those selling different varieties of mulled wine, you will notice colourful figures of giants and giantesses made of papier mâché watching you from above, having been put up over arches, fixed to the gables of the city’s beautiful palaces. As helpful information plaques explain, they are the protagonists of some of the Grimm Brothers’ tales. A couple of them belong to the tales originating from the region of Tirol, giantesses as powerful as the massive mountains which are home to them, like the fearful Frau Hytt and Frau Holle. Most of them, however, are more prominent figures, such as Snow White or Sleeping Beauty.

A little square is devoted to Hansel and Gretel, shut in their famous bread and cake house, while the evil witch keeps a watch over them from the corner of a façade and a vendor distributes slices of Sachertorte from the hut’s window.

To the tale of the famous siblings is dedicated a new book for young readers, a collaboration between Neil Gaiman – the British writer, musician, radio and television author – and the Italian illustrator Lorenzo Mattotti. Their thin, elegant book in black and white was published by Toon Books last October in a standard and a deluxe edition.

Two hundred and two years after the first publication of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales) in 1812, (seven more editions would follow, until the best known, printed in 1857) the Grimm Brothers’ tales continue to attract the interest of literature, the cinema and their public, besides scholarly work. Jack Zipes, professor emeritus of German and comparative literature at the University of Minnesota, has recently published the first English translation of the 1812 edition of the tales. English speaking readers can at last become acquainted with horror stories such as How the Children Played At Slaughtering (Wie KinderSchlachtens Miteinander Gespielt Haben), expunged by the Grimms in later editions of their work, for fear to shock a bourgeois readership. The brothers had also removed from some tales crude details, references to fairies or sexual allusions.

Neil Gaiman’s reimagining follows closely the German tale in its most popular version, with slight variations. The reason for the horror in the tale is made clear from the start: hunger. At the time of the story – long ago, when «we all lived on the edge of the great forest», life was just hard work and constant hunger. Hansel and Gretel’s father cut trees to make a living, and his was «hungry work». Food was never plentiful for him and his wife, but at least it was enough. Then children were born – Gretel first, Hansel followed - and later war came, and things got even harder. Hansel and Gretel did not seem to care about the stale black bread and the bad-tempered parents, «as long as they could play in the forest, and climb trees and ford rivers.» But when their desperate father (urged by his practical wife, who did not want to extra mouths to feed) tried to get rid of them by “losing” them in the forest, they quickly learned to count only on each other and on rely on their wits. Young as they were, they managed to survive in the forest, outwit a cruel, human-flesh-hungry witch, and finally find their way home.

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Neil Gaiman, Hansel and GretelThroughout the story, meat is what adults crave, necessary nourishment which can give them more energy than their usual diet of black bread, eggs and cabbage. Although they feast on it, meat is also something disgusting, «dripping with blood, black with flies or yellow with wasps.» Meat is the reason why the witch lures Hansel and Gretel into her sugar house. As she is almost blind and too old to hunt for animals in the woods, she needs to capture children to fatten up and eat. Finally, when Hansel and Gretel (having escaped the witch’s table) grow up and marry, the people at their weddings eat «so much fine food that their belts burst and the fat from the meat run down their chins.»

Food, on the other hand, is not so important for Hansel and Gretel as children. They know that when they play or sleep, they are not hungry. In their world there is beauty, and even when they are lost in the deep forest, they are not just frightened, but fascinated by it. The beauty is in the sunlight stained green by the leaves, in the grove of birch trees with «trunks paper-white against the darkness», in the trees «gnarled into shapes that looked like angry giants, frozen into time.»

The story is told in simple, straightforward sentences, describing both beauty and horror in the same matter-of-fact tone. With its alliteration and rhythm, now faster, now slower, it sounds beautifully, enthralling the reader. The word choice creates colours, images which stay with the reader for a long time: the green light in the forest, the small loaves of white bread in Gretel’s apron, the red cherries – a gift from their father - which the children suck slowly to make them last. The envious look of the mother, counting the four cherries left in the glass jar. Finally, the pale moon that looks kindly on the feasting guests at the siblings’ weddings.

Colourless are instead the two-page illustrations in black and white by Lorenzo Mattotti. Prevalently black, they convey the horror which the text somehow, with its tone, manages to keep at bay. Lying in his bed at night, Hansel listens to his parents plotting against him and his sister and almost sees the wooden ceiling falling in on him. When the children are lost in it at night, the intricate forest is blacker than black, like their anguish and fear. White instead is the oven where the witch disappears, and the river that they ford to finally return home.

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