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On Hansel, Gretel, and the Witch

So ... yeah. I was dragged out to see the new "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" film last night. Um .... before discussing the film, let's start with a little background on the tale which (very very loosely) forms its foundation.

The original "Hansel and Gretel" was recorded by the stalwart Grimms boys in 1812. Unlike other folk and fairy tales (notably Cinderella), it has few transcultural variations: "Finette Cendron" and "Hop o' My Thumb" and possibly the Baba Yaga tales from Russia. But that's about it. The original oral fable went through a few revisions after it was written down -- religious imagery was added, and the biological mother of Hansel and Gretel became a stepmother, for example -- but it remained popular enough to be adapted into stage productions, live action films, animated films, and numerous children's books. 

Of those children's books, my favorite is Hansel and Gretel by Linda Hayward and Sheilah Beckett. It is a straightforward retelling with little nuance: clever children, bad witch, the end. Beckett's illustrations are alternately sweet and sunny, and dark and frightening, and the children are always adorable. Consider this a good introduction to the classic tale for very young readers. 

With its themes of wilderness versus civilization, parental neglect, cannibalistic witches, and cunning children, "Hansel and Gretel" has also long been a tale ripe for, shall we say, reinterpretation. Such reimaginings, tweakings, and twistings are usually only found in teen and adult renditions of the tale, though.* Is this because only an older audience will understand the deeper layers of the tale, or because no one has bothered to write such a picture book? I'm not sure. But, if you are on the hunt for a little subversive humor, consider AJ Jacobs' Fractured Fairy Tales; Legally Correct Fairy Tales by David Fisher; and Once Upon a More Enlightened Time: More Politically Correct Bedtime Stories by James Finn Garner. Each skewed retelling is hilarious in its own unique way; in Garner's version, for instance, Hansel and Gretel walk out of the woods years later as ... hippie eco-terrorists.   

Unlike "Hansel and Gretel," witches are everywhere in my personal library. I have only a couple of versions of the classic fairy tale (most of those in larger collections), but lots and lots and lots of books about witches. My recommendation: if you are going to read the classic tale to a child -- and I heartily suggest a steady diet of fairy tales starting at a very young age -- make sure to balance that out with more positive tales of older women, magical women, and odd women.

At the top of my list is The Last Wild Witch: An Eco-Fable for Kids and Other Free Spirits by Starhawk and Lindy Kehoe. This is a quirky, sweet, wonderful story about acceptance, loving the natural world, and being true to our selves. Important lessons at any age.

Follow that up with Witch Poems, edited by Daisy Wallace and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, and the two Hereville volumes by Barry Deutsch. The latter might seem an odd suggestion, as it centers on an Orthodox Jewish girl living in an Orthodox Jewish community. But there is a witch. And a talking pig. And an ogre. And the witch may not be especially nice, but she keeps her word.

Next, the Oz books. Good witches, bad witches, nuff said.

Then The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In a Ship of Her own Making by Catherynne M Valente. If the title alone doesn't get you to pick up the book, nothing I say will.

For teens, look into getting a copy of Daughters of the Moon: Witch Tales From Around the World, edited by Shahrukh Husain, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare, and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline l'Engle**. Or, if they need a little brain candy, the Sabrina the Teenage Witch collections; silly, but harmless.

For adults ... wow, so many suggestions. I'll limit myself to four recommendations, each a different genre, or I would never stop. Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. The Witchcraft Mystery series by Juliet Blackwell, starting with Secondhand Spirits. Joey Hill's Something About Witches, the first in an erotic occult trilogy. And, finally, Sarah Kennedy's excellent poetry collection, A Witch's Dictionary. I particularly like this line from the poem for "A" --

See Ashtaroth, reduced to a minor/ male demon (with bad breath) from the former/ (feminine) Astarte. Nobody likes/ an uppity female messing around/ with a divinely appointed order!

And this line from the "C" poem: Confess, confess:/ to being old, female, or dirty.

*phew* Okay, I could go on and on. I have so many books that directly deal with or feature witches. Suffice to say that, for now, I am happy to have so many books to choose from: they'll help scrap the memories of that awful film from my brain.

 

* For an excellent filmed retelling, see the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode "Gingerbread."

** Yeah, okay, this technically qualifies as Christian fantasy, but it's a darn good book and the witches are awesome.

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Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine Eternal Haunted Summer. She is also the editor-in-chief of Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She thinks it is incredibly unfair that she must work for a living rather than being able to read all day. In her next life, she would like to be a library cat.

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