Friday 24 September 2010

Fairytale Reflections (2) Adèle Geras

I’m thrilled to welcome Adèle Geras as the first of my guests on ‘Fairytale Reflections’.  Adèle was born in Jerusalem in 1944 and has published more than 90 books for readers of all ages. Her Egerton Hall trilogy, collected as ‘Happy Ever After’ (Definitions) retells the fairytales of Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White setting them in an English boarding school in 1962. She has also published a collection of retellings, brilliantly illustrated by Louise Brierley, called ‘Beauty and the Beast and Other Stories’, but that, alas, is out of print.  

Adèle has loved fairytales all her life, especially the Hans Andersen stories and the Coloured Fairy books by Andrew Lang.  Her most recent books ‘Troy’, ‘Ithaka’ and ‘Dido’ (David Fickling Books) revisit the Odyssey and the Aeneid, but from the viewpoints of some of the common folk caught up and affected by these great dramas: servants in the palaces of Troy and Ithaka and Carthage.  For them, too, the gods are real, and often heartless, and may appear at any moment.  In this excerpt, Halie, King Priam’s elderly cook, notices a strange looking man among the crowds welcoming the Wooden Horse to Troy:

I’ve seen him somewhere before, she thought. He was making his way through the crowd to the beach, and it was his beard she recognized: a silvery-blue colour, as though glinting fish scales had been caught up in his hair. It fell almost to his waist. He seemed to be wet.  His hair was streaming over his shoulders, and a powerful smell of fish came to Halie’s nose as he passed her. Some fisherman she’d seen once, but where?  She turned to ask Theano whether she’d noticed him, but in the turning of her head, all memory of the man left her.

Ominous, understated, doomladen: Adèle can take an old story, tweak it, shake it inside out like a worn shirt, and – voilà – create a brand new garment.  I love her books and perhaps especially her trilogy ‘Happy Ever After’ – a wonderfully fresh and unusual version of three classic fairytales, placed in a mid-twentieth century setting and seamlessly merging fantasy with realism.  And so without more ado, here she is talking about:


It’s about hunger. It’s about not being able to cope. It’s about mother love of a warped kind. It deals with contrasts. I love it almost more than any other fairy tale and I’ve never had to articulate why before now and hope I can come up with some good reasons alongside my gut reactions.

I’m an only child. When I was a girl, I wanted siblings more than anything else. I put brothers and sisters into my fiction whenever I can because their interaction fascinates me. In one book, The Girls in the Velvet Frame, I used a photograph of my mother and four of her sisters (she had five and four brothers as well!) as the springboard for the story. So that’s the first thing that makes me like the tale: whatever might happen to them, Hansel and Gretel are TOGETHER. They help one another. They share everything. It’s not clear who’s the elder. In the Humperdinck opera, it seems Gretel is the one who teaches but it’s traditionally Hansel who suggests leaving the trail of breadcrumbs and so forth.

The premise, of parents wanting to rid themselves of their children, is horrendous. But in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and starvation and deprivation in much of Europe, there must have been thousands of desperate families with too many mouths to feed. Infanticide becomes more common when things are tough but these parents don’t commit murder with their own hands. Rather, they try and lose their children in the forest and hope for the worst.

So that’s where we start: with every child’s worst fear. They dread, we all dread, abandonment and the disappearance of the familiar. Whenever we hear about lost children, whenever we think of someone forcibly separated from their parents, our hearts shrink in horror. It’s a fear we can easily imagine.

So: two children lost in the dark wood. Alone, but for the help of a magical white bird. Birds are everywhere: they eat the crumbs and wreck any chance of finding the way home, and it’s a bird who leads them to the magical house of the Witch.

This, the Gingerbread Cottage, the Sugar House, the House made all of sweets and the standout image of the story and it’s immensely powerful. We know it’s a snare and a delusion and Hansel and Gretel do not. In a pantomime way we’re thinking, calling out: Don’t fall for it! It’s a trick. Leave it alone! But they do fall for it. We know that they ought to resist its blandishments but they’re hungry. They haven’t eaten for days. Icing sugar. Toffee. Marzipan. Sticks of barley sugar holding up the lintel. Chocolate’s completely blissful. Then, from a door which I always imagine made of slabs of iced fruit cake (why? Ask Sigmund Freud!) the Witch emerges.

She’s not often portrayed as a traditional black hat and broomstick regulation witch. In the opera, she’s sometimes a grotesquely blown-up and exaggerated cake shop lady: too bosomy, too rouged, too feminine altogether. And she loves, loves, loves children. She loves to eat them. It reminds me of the Maurice Sendak phrase from Where the Wild Things Are: “We’ll eat you up, we love you so.” Sendak has said that this was uttered by his aunts and uncles when they pinched his chubby childish cheek in an excessively affectionate way and I can vouch for that kind of language from my own experience. My aunts and uncles, (see above) did just that: they’d pinch my cheek gently and exclaim in Yiddish: A zissaleh! Which means: A sweet little thing!

There we have it. The children’s real father and their stepmother don’t love Hansel and Gretel quite enough to keep the family together. The bad mother, the Witch, loves them so much she wants to consume them. To this end, she locks Hansel up and we have cages, and bones, and fattening him up like a calf. And for an extra nasty twist, we have the Witch turning Gretel into her servant while she’s preparing to feast on Hansel.

The end of the story is gruesome. Gretel tricks the Witch, who is reduced to ashes in her own oven. It’s not exactly bland fare for children. Hansel and Gretel escape and with the help of the White Bird, find their way home. They are carrying the Witch’s treasure with them, which doubtless guarantees them a better welcome than the one they might have expected.

Forests, birds, a witch, a marvellous house made of everything delicious, white pebbles gleaming in the moonlight, a cage, a chicken’s thigh bone, a treasure chest filled with jewels....all these are powerful ingredients but what makes Hansel and Gretel greater than the sum of its parts it the love that sees the brother and sister through the terrible ordeals they have to endure. That abides and it’s stronger than any enchantment you can throw at it.

PS I’m adding a poem here which I wrote years ago. It’s the Witch speaking.....


This time, be careful.
They have removed all the stones
That you used last time.

I have ironed sheets
and put green pears to blacken
on the bottom shelf

of the oven. Come
alone or with another.
That doesn't matter.

My mouth is open,
all my loose teeth are sharpened
and the cake is baked.

Let's pipe the icing
into red blobs like bloodstains
and call them flowers.

Pull the shutters closed.
We'll lick and suck the white hours
until you ripen.

Follow the thin bird.
Stay in those flapping shadows
and you will be bones.


  1. Wow, Adele nails it.

    I would like to add there is a book called THE KINDNESS OF STRANGERS about the dumping of children (and the running away into the woods of adults) during that period. It's when churches in Europe began orphanages and the woodwose communities of wild people in the woods became part of the culture, and the story of Hansel & Gretel sits comfortably/uncomfortably within that historical context,.

    Oh yes, and witches WERE burnt, of course. So the punishment of the story witch--while metaphoric and wildly satisfying (consummed by her own hot greed)--is within historic context as well.

    --Jane Yolen

  2. I am so honoured to be commented on by Jane Yolen...thank you, Jane for your kind words. What you say, as always is most illuminating.

  3. A brilliant look at Hansel and Gretel. I love the focus on hunger and desperation here. Issues like this are what I tend to enjoy about fairy tales and their retellings--these are not simple stories at all, and have very human emotions underneath.

  4. I love your witch poem. The last stanza in particular is deliciously chilling.

  5. That poem gave me chills. So evocative! "Green pears to blacken" "lick and suck the white hours until you ripen". Love it!

  6. Yes, what a wonderful poem, and a wonderful insight into the fairytale!

  7. Thank you for this post. I'm looking forward to all of the posts in this series.

    I find it interesting that we live in an era of unbridled fear for our children. We worry about them being snatched by candy-dangling strangers. Is this fear universal? Is it timeless?

    Times are tough now, too, with many homeless people and numerous charities trying to help. In the part of Canada where I was raised, there are "villages" of people living in the deep, wooded ravines. I ran wild in those ravines as a child, but I would never allow my children to do the same. The "woods people" are still with us. But were they ever not?

  8. 'let's call the bloodstains flowers'
    Adele Geras Rocks The Fables.

  9. One thing I've always liked about this story is when the children are nibbling at the house, and the witch calls out 'nibble, nibble, gnaw - who's nibbling at my little house?' and the chilrren reply, 'only the wind, the child of heaven' - but in the German, it rhymes:

    "Knupper, knupper, kneischen -
    wer knuppert an meinem Hauschen?"

    and the children's answer is:

    "Der Wind, der Wind,
    das himmlische Kind!"

    It's often hard to translate the little rhymes which were handed down in the oral tradition - and would be looked out for by the listeners and even chanted together. And it shows the children's resourcefulness too!

  10. er.. knusper, knusper Knaeuschen,
    wer knuspert an meinem Haeuschen.
    There should be umlauts over the a's, but adding e is an acceptable way round.
    Knuspern means 'crunch' or maybe even 'munch' rather than nibble. You're right about it being hard to translate, though, Kath. I have often wondered over 'Der Wind, der Wind, das himmlische Kind'. I think one of the difficulties is that 'das himmlische Kind' also means the child Jesus, or it certainly did to me in my childhood, so in a way the kids seemed to be invoking Christian protection. And it is hard to replicate the sounds, the witch's 'kn's and u's (pronounced like foot) and 'aeu' (pronounced like oi) are creaky and sound like an old woman, whereas 'wind, himmlische, kind' are all clear and sound like kids talking. 'Adele, I knew I recognised 'zissaleh', and of course it's like German suess, which means sweet. I thought it was a fascinating post, and read it with enormous interest, and the poem is really powerful and disturbing! Thanks for writing it.

  11. Then I wonder if my version may be a dialect, Leslie - this was taken from a German edition I own, which is clearly full of odd Flemish (?) and other dialects I wouldn't recognise! I must show it to you some time. Some of them, oddly, are a lot easier for me to read than standard German. I love your comment about the wind being also an invocation to Christ - and yes, isn't Adele's poem wonderful?

  12. Adele mentions the role of birds everywhere in the story but misses out the almost surreal part when the children are heading home and require the assistance of a white duck which carries them over the water one at a time.

    It always struck me as being a very anomalous and unnecessary part of the story - they have worked together, overcome the danger, taken the witch's treasure and all that is required is that they get home to their father.

    Why throw in this last obstacle which is so easily overcome? Why a white duck, why not a swan or a goose?

    The only thing that I can come up with is the idea that just because they had defeated the witch does not mean that they can get home without further obstacles in their way. After all they had been hopelessly lost, it would be beyond even the suspension of disbelief required for fairy tales to expect the children to just stroll home without any further difficulty.

  13. I love this post and Adele's poem. I've been re-reading Anne Sexton's Transformations this week and I was struck by the opening lines of her Hansel and Gretel and how much they chime with what Adele was saying:

    Little plum,
    said the mother to her son,
    I want to bite,
    I want to chew,
    I will eat you up.

    Sexton's poem is packed with references to food and cooking. The images give the sense of a kind of fetishisation of food which comes from hunger.

  14. Gruffling - yes, I don't know about the duck - but a white duck strikes me as a symbol of domestic, childhood innocence in a way that a swan wouldn't- too wild - and geese are too in your face and aggressive. No one can be afraid of a duck - so the harmless 'dooryard' bird takes the children home...?

    1. I have always been struck by the white pebbles and the white duck - against all that darkness of forest and oven.
      Wonderful post, Adele. I knew a little boy who was obsessed by that story, so much so it was the only one that he wanted read aloud to him. He had a younger sister, and (it later turned out) an abusive father, and perhaps it helped him.