The Bad Mother’s Death Revealed: a Spoiler!

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In the Grimm brother’s Hansel & Gretel, the children experience in short order, parental abandonment, possible starvation and/or death by exposure, and capture by an apex predator who intends to murder and eat them. When Gretel sees an opportunity to escape, she seizes it, even though it means committing an act of grotesque homicide. So it’s almost inconceivable that at the point she frees Hansel from his cage and the two leave the Witch’s cottage, the place they head for is home, where their troubles originated. But then again, they’re just children, so where else would they go?

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Above: vintage illustration of Hansel and Gretel returning to their relieved father.

From the start when I began reacquainting myself with the story, I was bothered by the notion that they’d return to their abusers, the bad mother who hatched the plan to abandon them in the wood and the weak father who’d complied with her. But then there’s that unconvincing aside offered by way of an explanation at the conclusion of the narrative, that the mother has died in the interim. So that’s alright then. The worst of the two has gone, and so with only a formerly henpecked weak man in charge of things, we can assume that everything will be OK, right?

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Above: illustration from the book before the colour separations were added.

I never bought that bit about the mother having popped her clogs. It felt like an afterthought. And there’s nothing to indicate that the children could have known she’d died in their absence, so the fact of it can’t have affected their decision to return. Nevertheless, that’s what the Grimms wrote, and as I prepared to edit the story down to what would work in a picture book, I had to come to grips with the fact.

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Above: illustration from the book before the colour separations were added.

I went through many stages of attempting to make the issue of the mother’s death feel less tacked-on. Finally, in the book as published, I lodged visual clues that indicate what happened ‘off-stage’ in the children’s absence. It begins elusively at the start of the story, in the illustration of the Bad Mother ordering Hansel and Gretel from the house. All the reader’s attention is on the raw expression of hate on the woman’s face as she hurls the words ‘Get lost!’ at the bewildered children. Simultaneously her husband, almost unnoticed, turns from the event, walking away while carrying the tool of his occupation, a hefty wood-axe. That axe only makes two appearances in the book, and the second one can leave us in no doubt as to what became of the mother in the children’s absence.

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Above: early maquettes of the Weak Father and the Bad Mother.

When working with the maquettes that I customarily build to work out compositional ideas, I toyed with the possibility of showing more specifically what became of the mother. In the end, I eschewed the explicitness and found a better way to convey the scenario as a mystery. But here, on the Artlog where few will see, are the maquette actors playing out the the mother’s death scene as it isn’t depicted in the book!

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Hansel & Gretel was published in 2016 by Random Spectacular, and is available

HERE