Karen Bayly

Author and Copywriter

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Will the real Hansel and Gretel please standup?

First of all…

It’s now two months since “Fortitude” was released. If you’d like to learn about some of books, music, actors and artists that inspired me as I wrote and edited, check out my Pinterest Board “Fortitude”.

Now for fairy tale history and some fake (literary) news ...

Hansel and Gretel: The Fairy Tale

“Hansel and Gretel” is a fairy tale with elements common to a group of European tales about children outwitting ogres and other monsters (so sayeth Wikipedia).

The most well-known version is that found in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Grimm brothers, Jacob and Wilhelm, heard the story from Wilhelm’s friend and future wife, Dortchen Wild. However, there have been various versions of the tale with significant differences in certain details. For example, in the original story he woodcutter’s wife is the children’s biological mother whereas in later versions, she is a stepmother, or is dead, or has abandoned the family.

The story has gruesome origins (or course it does - otherwise I wouldn't be writing about it): It is believed to have originated after the Great Famine in the 14th century Europe, a time in which millions of people and animals died from starvation and disease. During that period, desperate parents felt forced to abandon young children to fend for themselves and some folks resorted to cannibalism to survive.

Famine From the Wittenberg Bible.

And as if the story already wasn’t dark enough, comic artist Lorenzo Mattotti and author Neil Gaiman have retold the fable. Mattotti’s visually arresting scenes are eerie and shadowy, hinting at violence and despair. Gaiman has added his own unique touches by creating a more subtly evil witch as well as parents who wouldn’t attract the attention of the local social worker (if they'd existed on those days). He's also given it a happier ending.

Toon Books: Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel: Witchhunters

A movie that murders witches, fairy tales and good storytelling (IMHO).

Hansel and Gretel: The Fake News

In 1963,  Hans Traxler cause an uproar with a book titled Die Wahrheit über Hänsel und Gretel (The Truth About Hansel and Gretel).  It told the story of one Georg Ossegg, a teacher and an amateur archeologist, who was convinced that “Hansel and Gretel” was not a fairy tale but a thinly disguised factual account of a real murder. The book follows Ossegg’s trail as he searches for, and discovers, the house belonging to the witch in the fairy tale.

Hans Traxler, with brush in hand, poses as Georg Ossegg

According to Ossegg, the two siblings were not children but an adult brother and sister called Hans and Grete Metzler. They lived in mid-17th century Germany and worked as bakers.

The witch was Katharina Schraderin, a baker and confectioner who created a wonderful lebkuchen, a traditional  gingerbread-like treat.

Hans first tried to marry Katharina to get hold of her secret recipe for lebkuchen. However, she turned him down, so he accused her of witchcraft. When she was acquitted, he and Grete murdered her but were unable to locate her recipe.

The book published sensational photos of archeological evidence including partially charred remains of the witch, burned baking tools, and a scrap of paper with the gingerbread recipe in the dialect of the area where the remains were found.

Not one word of this 120 page book was true and it is regarded as one of the most elaborate hoaxes in literary history. Yet the book has been reprinted numerous times over the years and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. It has even spawned a film adaptation of the same name. So it seems we've always been beguiled by fake news.

You can read a more in depth account at "Is Hansel and Gretel real?"

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