Jan/Feb 2015 Reviews & Interviews

Hansel & Gretel

Hansel & Gretel
Neil Gaiman.
Illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti
Bloomsbury. 2014. 49 pp.
ISBN 978 1 4088 6198 3.

Review by Ann Skea

Buy now from Amazon! Inspired by Lorenzo Mattotti's dramatic art, Neil Gaiman has recreated the Grimms' fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel. As the notes at the back of the book tell us, the story is believed to have originated in Medieval times when a terrible famine caused starving families to abandon their children and there were rumours of cannibalism. It was collected by Wilhelm Grimm in the early 19th century, however, from a 12-year-old girl who later became his wife. Gaiman's version combines elements of the original Grimm brothers' tale published in 1812, with those of later editions which were somewhat different, but although the overall story is familiar, Gaiman's re-telling is wholly his own.

What begins as a happy tale of a small family who lived long ago ("in your grandmother's time" or a little earlier) becomes worrying as the shortage of food must be dealt with and Hansel overhears his mother and father discussing how they might survive by getting rid of the children. It becomes truly terrifying when Hansel and Gretel are lost in the forest and have to deal with the old woman who plans to eat them. The book is aimed at nine to 11-year-olds, most of whom will already know that the story has a happy ending. But the plight of Hansel and Gretel, and the idea that parents might ever consider abandoning or killing their own children can still be shocking.

The gingerbread house, the old woman's seeming kindness and her subsequent cruelty, are fair warning never to trust strangers, as my 12-year-old grandson observed. And Gretel's revenge is, of course, well deserved and generally applauded. But, as he also observed, resourcefulness and luck are not always enough in real life. However, he enjoyed Lorenzo Mattotti's dramatic, swirling black-and-white images which were originally created for an exhibition which accompanied the staging of Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera.

Often Mattotti's pictures resemble the dark forest where only a little light penetrates to patch the tree trunks and leaves with confusing patterns. This adds to the scary quality of the book, but the pictures are not always easy to decipher. The seven-year-old in my family enjoyed being scared by them and by the story, but she preferred the small Arthur Rackman illustration which accompanies the notes at the back of the book. Being a stickler for detail, too, she pointed out that Gretel is always smaller than Hansel in Mattotti's pictures, although Gaiman says she was born two years before her brother, so she definitely should have been the tallest. Still, this is a book to stir the imagination, beautifully presented and with an old story well and freshly told.


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