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  • Horst Kornberger

Looking at Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel is a tale for any child between the age of six and one hundred and six. It is appropriate at almost any time in life for it addresses important issues involved in any process of change and transformation.

As in Sweet Porridge and the Three Billy Goats Gruff, food plays a central part. Hansel and Gretel are abandoned for the lack of food, when the ‘great dearth fell upon the land.’ But there is more to the story than the age-old tale of need tied to the heel of those who leave the golden age of home.

First of all there are two heroes: a brother and a sister. The story strikes a rare balance in fairytale between the masculine and feminine elements — Hansel is more active in the beginning of the adventure, Gretel at the end. It is her mixture of wit and courage that saves them both.

The story of Hansel and Gretel contains many layers of meaning and poetic detail. I have always loved the scene when Hansel looks back at the house and with his childhood imagination sees the white cat on the roof where his stepmother sees only the chimney lit by the morning sun. And I am always intrigued by the little bird of guidance that leads them to the gingerbread hut and the little duck that helps them return home.


The Sweet House of Addiction

What makes Hansel and Gretel so pertinent for our times is the way it addresses the topic of attachment and addiction in relation to the process of ‘leaving home’. The parting from home occupies almost half of the tale. Parting is never easy and takes time. In the story it has to be undertaken twice: the first time, the children return. The second time they remain lost.

The world is always a place of lack and always contains a stepmother who will make us leave, wherever we are. Most of our life is about leaving home. We leave home when we are born, when our mother weans us, when we are taken to childcare. We leave the familiarity of kindergarten for school, the comfort of childhood for puberty, our peer group at high school for new experiences in the world at large. We leave home for our first flat, and we leave it when we enter a relationship or terminate a marriage, change jobs or move to another country. After forty we leave the comfortable home of our youthful looks and unquestioned health and some twenty years later we leave the home of professional life. The last home we leave is the first we inhabit: our body.

As in the story, parting is never easy and we want to return. When that is impossible, we feel lost. All kinds of insecurities lurk beyond the fence of the familiar. Left alone and to our own devices we wander in the ‘dark wood’. Like Hansel and Gretel we are desperate and in need. And like them we will find the gingerbread house. There are many such houses in life. And they always answer to our direst need, our lack. If we are hungry it will be bread and cake; if we are alone it will be a relationship; if we are ambitious, it will be money or fame. And the new job or partner or house or opportunity will make us feel as if we are in heaven. But the sweeter the house, the more sour it is likely to turn. At the extremities of this story we find ourselves locked into the cage of addiction. All Hansels end up behind bars and all Gretels are made handmaids to terrible schemes.

Life is a long series of leave-takings, feeling lost and falling prey to sweet houses. But it is equally a series of liberations. Every sweet house turned sour is an opportunity. It is the challenge that spurs our return to ourselves — laden with the treasure of experience.

To break the pattern of addiction is not easy. It takes courage and insight. Through her presence of mind Gretel sees through the schemes of their captor and with courage she does to the witch as the witch had intended to do with her. The witch — that is the addiction — burns in the fire of her own making, ‘howling quite horribly.’ This is what addictions do when we try to stop them. They burn in their own fire and so consume themselves.

We have all heard the cry of craving gnawing on its own bone. We know it in many variations: we cry when we are born, the baby howls when it is deprived of its breast and teenagers sob when a relationship ends. We know the quiet howl of stopping smoking, the extended howl of a traumatic divorce and the head-banging howl of addicts going cold turkey.

But after the howling comes the satisfaction of having overcome the terror: Hansel’s liberation. Then there is the joy of freedom, of finding the treasures, and of the final return when the attachment is overcome, the addiction conquered. The treasures are the wisdom we gain through facing the challenge. It is what we bring home. The pain endured makes us compassionate. We are no longer the same. Nor are Hansel and Gretel: when a duck offers to take them over a great stretch of water, Gretel insists on going one by one, so as not to overburden the bird.

Every challenge we master does the same for us. It makes us more mature and leaves us with treasure to share. In Hansel and Gretel this theme is not restricted to individual lives. It applies to all levels of human existence. It may be applied to a marriage, to the life of a corporation, to the destiny of a people or a culture. At its highest level the story provides a metaphor for the life of humanity.

The witch plays a prominent part in this tale. Many interpretations see the evil witch figure as a patriarchal device. I take a different view. To me the household tales bear the mark of the imagination, the feminine side of creativity. They are primarily women’s lore. The Brothers Grimm merely collected these stories from the women who held them. The witch of the folktale is an archetype of interior dimension that has little to do with the millions of women persecuted and burned at the stake by bigoted churchmen.

The witch in the household tales is the imagination’s way of dealing with the feminine shadow in both women and men. It is an original creation of female spirituality and ought to be honoured as such.


Excerpt from The Power of Stories by Horst Kornberger

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