With Children and “Hansel and Gretel”

Talking about fairy tales with the very young

Illustration by Collin Knopp-Schwyn and Immanuel Giel (Wikimedia).

Once Upon a Time . . . there was:
*a girl in a red cloak who spoke to a wolf
*a maiden who lost her slipper as she ran from the ball
*two children who came to a Gingerbread House and met a witch
*a princess who slept for a hundred years
*a damsel who lived with seven dwarves and ate a poisoned apple

“Little Red Riding Hood,” “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Snow White” — these are what we call “fairy tales,” though a better name for them is “folk tales” (because, if they belong to anyone, they belong to the folk or humankind). These stories or tales, as we might simply call them, are among the most popular and most well known in the world.

Take “Cinderella,” for instance. Folklorists have found more than 340 versions of this story in Europe, Africa, and Asia. It is generally believed to be the most popular fairy tale. That would make it the most popular story in the world.

The universal popularity of these tales begins to suggest something about their extraordinary power. These old, old stories have spoken to millions of people, over many centuries, and around the globe.

But their extraordinary power can also be seen close at hand. Walk into the chaos of a school classroom and pronounce the incantation “Once Upon a Time” and a magical circle seems to be drawn and a spell descends. By the end of the storytelling, the classroom and the students are different, the mood changed, the situation altered. On occasions like those, the power of fairy tales is palpable.

Several years ago, I volunteered to tell fairy tales to a pre-school group. I was interested to see how children actually responded to the tales. I learned two things the day I told the story of “Hansel and Gretel.”

I told the story as best I could . . . speaking of the hunger the family faced, how the father and his wife plotted to abandon the children in the woods so there would only be two mouths to feed instead of four, how clever Hansel overheard the plot and filled his pocket with white rocks to mark the path back home . . . and then from the back of the room came a little voice saying, “Not white rocks. White pebbles.” But I continued with my story and, going a little farther along, I heard the voice from the back again, a little louder this time: “Not white rocks. White pebbles.” But I continued, and got a little farther into the story when the voice from the back became loud and insistent: “NOT WHITE ROCKS. WHITE PEBBLES.”

Then I did what I should have done in the first place: I stopped and paid attention. (Like many adults, I confess, I have to be reminded to listen when children speak.) So, I asked and listened. And the little girl explained how I was mistaken: “It’s not white rocks. It’s white pebbles.”

That’s the first lesson I learned that day: when it comes to these stories, children are the real conservatives who wish to preserve these tales just as they are. So, obliging, I retraced my steps in the story back to the point where I first made my mistake and inserted the words “white pebbles” and took up the story again from that point, remembering to use the phrase “white pebbles” as I proceeded.

I told how the children were abandoned in the woods a second time, how the birds ate the bread that Hansel had used to mark the trail home, how they came to the Gingerbread House and were imprisoned by the witch, how the witch planned to eat Gretel but the clever girl tricked the old woman and pushed her into the oven, how Gretel freed Hansel and they started home, and how (at the end of the tale) . . .

they went on happily until they came to the wood, and the way grew more and more familiar, till at last they saw in the distance their father’s house. Then they ran till they came up to it, rushed in at the door, and fell on their father’s neck. The man had not had a quiet hour since he left his children in the wood; but the wife was dead. . . . Then was all care at an end, and they lived in great joy together. [translation by Lucy Crane]

Now as I was finishing story, when I mentioned the dead wife, another five-year-old in the back of the room interrupted and said: “That was the witch.” And, of course, she was right. But that is something I know from having thought about the story for years and having read Bruno Bettelheim’s interpretation of “Hansel and Gretel” in his The Uses of Enchantment. Even my university students are slow to make this recognition until it is pointed out that both the father’s wife and the witch say the same thing to the children in the morning (“Get up, lazybones”), that both mean to harm the children, and that the death of the witch and the wife seem synchronous.

But this child, at this storytelling, knew something in the twinkling of an eye. That was when I learned my second lesson of the day: while they may not often reveal this fact, children not only enjoy fairy tales — they also understand them.

Roadway sign in Ireland.


1. Versions. To give students a sense of the various ways a tale has been told, ask them to write the story of a favorite fairy tale as they remember it. Then help them look up an original version of the story and ask them to compare it to their own version, noting the differences. Often enough, students remember or partially remember the Disney version of a fairy tale; but even in these cases, they sometimes have altered this or that part of the story. Invite them to speculate about why they remember the story in a particular way: why they left some things out, altered the story in some way, or made additions.

This can be a good prelude to talking about different versions of a fairy tale. Jack Zipes has collected several dozen renditions of a well known story in his The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood (Routledge, 1993). It is easy to locate versions of “Cinderella” by Charles Perrault and by the Brothers Grimm and to compare these to the Disney film; other interesting versions of the tale (and some splendid essays) can also be found in Alan Dundes’ Cinderella: A Casebook (Wildman Press, 1983). P.L. Travers offers six versions of another well known tale in About the Sleeping Beauty (McGraw Hill, 1975). And don’t overlook comic versions of the tales: in Jon Scieszka’s books, Anne Sexton’s Transformations (Houghton Mifflin, 1971), and James Finn Garner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories (Macmillan, 1994).

2. Understanding. The teacher who wishes to lead students to a discussion of the meanings of fairy tales — who wishes to encourage analysis and interpretation — will find a wide variety of resources in the library or bookstore. Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment (Vintage, 1977), despite its psychoanalytical methodology, is perhaps the most accessible of all studies of the fairy tales. A new — dense but exciting — study is Marina Warner’s From the Beast to the Blonde (Farrar Straus, 1995). In the library, you will also find dozens of other worthwhile books by scholars and critics like Jack Zipes, Maria Tatar, Ruth Bottingheimer, Joseph Campbell, Maria Von Franz, and others.

When reading these works, assemble a collection of quotes about a particular tale that you can distribute to the students and then ask them to respond to. For example, if you were discussing “Sleeping Beauty,” you might ask older students to respond to the following ideas:

“Our fairy tale tells of death and resurrection. The flowering of the hedge of roses and the awakening of the sleeping maiden suggest the earth in lifeless repose which, touched by spring, begins to live anew and blossom as young and beautiful as ever. It suggests also the awakening of sleeping nature at the first glimmering of the new day. Processes which eternally have taken shape in ‘Sleeping Beauty” — processes in nature which surround man.” — Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time

“The king ordered every spinning wheel / exterminated and exorcised. / Briar Rose grew to be a goddess / and each night the king / bit the hem of her gown/ to keep her safe. / He fastened the moon up / with a safety pin / to give her perpetual light. / He forced every male in the court / to scour his tongue with Bab-o/ lest they poison the air she dwelt in.” — Anne Sexton, Transformations

“You see them in high school study halls, twisting their tresses and staring out the window. . . . You see them on the couch, TV blaring, paging through Seventeen magazine . . . young, languid, bored. . . . They are convinced they are waiting for something, . . . for their real existence to begin. . . . Sleeping Beauty is most of all a symbol of passivity.” — Madonna Kolbenschlag, Kiss Sleeping Beauty Good-Bye

“So, face to face with the Sleeping Beauty — who has long been the dream of every man and the hope of every woman — we find ourselves compelled to ask: what is it in us that at a certain moment falls asleep? Who lies hidden deep within us? And who will come at last to wake us, what aspect of ourselves?” — P.L. Travers, About the Sleeping Beauty

This essay originally appeared in San Diego State University’s “Children’s Literature Circle” (Spring 1998).

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12. November 2016 by
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