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

17 thoughts on “The Bad Mother’s Death Revealed: a Spoiler!

  1. I have been catching up on your recent posts at the Artlog on Hansel & Gretel. It has been interesting to read some of the thought processes behind your approach to interpreting one of the most recognised of the Grimms’ fairy tales.

    You have often shared with us your incredibly evocative memories of the toys, books and films that you loved as a child. I enjoyed your Facebook post this week on your painting My Dream Farm, which touched upon your sadness at the loss of a much-loved childhood toy and provoked some wonderful responses from people wanting to share their own memories. This has made me curious to find out when you first encountered Hansel & Gretel and can you remember your reaction to the story then? Why do you think this particular tale stayed with you long into adulthood to become the subject of your first picture book?

    In an interview with the School Library Journal, Neil Gaiman, who has also recently re-imagined Hansel & Gretel, revealed: ‘I first heard [Hansel & Gretel] on the radio when I was about five years old…. And I found it absolutely terrifying. It was the first time it had occurred to me that humans ate other humans and that I was potentially food. The discovery was so shocking and so dark.’

    I agree with you that fairy tales are universal and that the nature of their origins clearly demonstrates that they should not just be restricted to children in the modern age. J R R Tolkein believed that there is no such thing as writing for ‘children’. In his 1939 lecture -‘Fairy Stories’- he stated: ‘Children…neither like fairy-stories more, nor understand them better than adults do.…They are young and growing, and normally have keen appetites, so the fairy-stories as a rule go down well enough. But in fact only some children, and some adults, have any special taste for them. … It is a taste… that does not decrease but increases with age, if it is innate.’

    Maurice Sendak, who I know is a hero of yours, remarked in his last interview: ‘I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book. I don’t write for children, I write — and somebody says, “That’s for children!”’

    Despite you stating that you have created a fairy tale for adults, I am sure your own version of Hansel & Gretel will find a home on the bookshelves of young and old alike, who share what J R R Tolkein identifies as an ‘innate’ and ‘special taste’ for fairy tales!!

    • Hello Sarah.

      I don’t recall reading Hansel & Gretel when I was very young, but someone must have told me the story, because I made a glove-puppet of the Witch, an event I recount HERE. I remember intending to make Hansel and Gretel, too, and having the idea of mounting a ‘show’. But perhaps making the Witch had stretched my fledgling producer’s skills as far as they were ready to go at that time, because I never did get around to making the children.

      Later I remember a copy of illustrator Vojtech Kubasta’s pop-up version of the story that would have been around in the early 1960s. The book didn’t belong to me – though I have a copy now – and I can’t recall at this remove whether it belonged to a friend, or I saw it in a library or a bookshop. It made quite an impression on me, though not because of the story, but because I loved the book design and the illustrations. (I like Kubasta’s later books rather less, but in the early and middle period of his career, he produced spectacularly good work. Even today I love his rich and vibrant palette)

      As a teenager I came upon the opera, which impressed me enough to seek out the original story. At which point I realised that the librettist had tampered quite a lot with the Grimm brother’s dark narrative tone, rendering the end of the opera more palatable by presenting the parents not as the wretches who abandon their children in order to be rid of them, but as harried adults at the ends of their tethers, later deeply regretful of having rather crossly sent the high-spirited children to seek berries for the table. At the end Humperdinck has the parents turning up to rescue Hansel and Gretel, though not before the Witch has been dispatched. A child murdering an old lady by slamming her into a flaming stove is OK, but everyone gets very squeamish about bad parents!

      I’ve been told by quite a few parents that they’ve acquired copies of my version of Hansel & Gretel for rather young children. They clearly agree with Sendak. (As do I!) I suppose that really I’ve made it for the people who will enjoy it most, be they little or big. I would have loved it as a child, but I understand that some may not. Approach with caution is my recommendation!

      And just in case you were wondering, my favourite Hansel & Gretel illustration veers around, changing from week to week. Some days this, some days that. Right now THIS is the one that makes me happiest, from of all things, an old pop-up Disney Silly Symphonies book.

      • Thanks for your answer Clive and for sharing those links. The cottage pop-up in the Disney Silly Symphonies book is absolutely magical. The scene reminds me of a photograph of a gingerbread cottage in a recipe book my mother owned, when I was child, which I used to gaze at longingly. It was a happy day when my mum said that we could make the cake together. I remember being very reluctant to eat the cottage, as it was such an object of beauty to me! 🙂

        I am intrigued by your tale of the witch’s hat. I can’t help but imagine a scene like this taking place, just before you happened upon the hat in Elephant & Castle.

  2. Thanks for showing us that scene where the father does the mother in, it is good to see her actually GO lol. Awesome maquettes Clive, I love them to bits and I love how the ending in the picture book reveals all in such ghoulish fashion 😉

      • I remember you showing me this shocking plot twist when I visited last year Clive – I loved it and thought it added such a nice dark twist to the story!

        Can’t wait to watch the tv series, when are you and Phil going to make it?? ha ha

          • I’m sooo ready! 🙂

            (I’m also ready to work on the spin-off tv series ‘Delicious and Deadly’ about two renegade zombie gingerbread men who seek out and eat naughty children! (one child per episode))

            • I’ve come up with a possible theme song:

              ‘The Zombie Gingerbread Men – the baddest biscuits ever made,
              Are coming for naughty children – so they’d better be afraid!
              They’re tracking them down – there’s nowhere to run to!
              So bad boys and girls please note: they WILL find you!’

              I also feel that the Zombie Gingerbread Men will need some kind of vehicle for getting about in – mini-bus, monster truck, creepy Cadillac (with a roomy boot for putting children in) etc etc or perhaps they could have a range of customised vehicles? (helicopter, motorbike,etc which launch out of the secret HQ each week in some kind of exciting action sequence?! )

              Anyway Mr Director sir, I will leave these important decisions in your capable hands! 🙂

            • Like any franchise worth its salt, my reinvention of Hansel & Gretel has spawned a spin-off in your gingerbread zombie hoodlums cruising the neighbourhood in vehicles with fancy paint-jobs and souped-up sound-systems, like biscuity versions of the Childcatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang!. I’ve gotta tell you that isn’t the way I thought this story was gonna go, but I have a feeling you might have hit on a winner. Every rapper in the US is gonna wanna be on the soundtrack! This could go the way of Marvel, where all the subsidiary characters end up with their own films, graphic novels and TV series. You may have to give up the day job to nurture this baby of yours to its full potential. I see endorsements too. This could be mega!

  3. What if mum dies of natural causes…suddenly. For surely a human being who kills (destruction by abandonment and rejection) its own offspring, runs counter to the nature of Nature of ANY species. We can say she is sick to the center and this in turn manifests in her physically as a killing dis-ease…that takes her.

    Bam, she’s dead.

    Why not?

    Clive I like it that your book is an Adult children’s story.

    • Well, Cosima, there could be any number of reasons why she might have died in their absence. However, as this is a picture book, and I was obliged to make the story work in purely visual terms, I had to take liberties to

      a) condense the narrative to fit the format.

      b) find ways to make the familiar material exciting, and to deliver some surprises.

      In many respects preparing the the book was quite similar to making a storyboard for an action film. There was much that I had to leave out, particularly the repetitive sequences that are so beloved of the folktale tradition, but that don’t work well in visual terms. So I didn’t include the parents’ several attempts to lead the children into the wood before successfully losing them, nor the sequences of Hansel repeatedly offering the short-sighted witch a chicken bone through the bars of his cage, in order to dupe her into believing he wasn’t gaining weight ready to be cooked.

      Creating the subtext of the mother’s fate, starting with a clue in the second illustration of the book and revealing just enough information in two images near its conclusion to allow the attentive reader to put two and two together, took quite a bit of narrative and illustrative dexterity. I was quite elliptical in my approach, and I’ve discovered that many people don’t even notice the final, irrevocable evidence of her murder, because they’re distracted by other visual attention-grabbers.

      The story in its original form does have inconsistencies and puzzles, not least of which is the supposition that all will be happy when the children return, even though it was most emphatically not happy before they left. Even with the mother dead, there’s still a father who did not defend them, and I think that’s the part of the puzzle that I wanted to make, at the very least, plausible. As for the bad mother in literature, drama and history, I imagine we could set up a three week seminar on that subject and still not cover all the examples, nor do justice to the stories. I think I could talk about Medea alone for about a week.

      It’s true that I intended this as a tale for adults. I wanted it to be poignant, unflinching, dark, grotesque and very scary, though not balking at the odd joke. But then the ‘fireside tales’ were not originally intended specifically for children, but for communities, and it’s only in latter times that the description ‘fairy tale’, has become associated with stories intended primarily for children. Most ‘traditional’ tales that fall within the genre are scattered through with horrid and bloody events that would not be deemed appropriate for little ears. Cruel step-sisters self-amputating toes and heels to cram their feet into a dainty ‘fur’ slipper (Cinderella), a sorcerer who dismembers his wives (Fitcher’s Feathered Bird) and a King’s evil second wife and stepdaughter executed, the wife by burning and the stepdaughter by being cast to wild beasts and torn apart. (Brother and Sister). The real world can be a cruel one, and fairy tales, before they were hijacked for the nursery, reflected the inequalities and dangers awaiting the unwary at every turn. It’s those qualities that make them such fertile territory for illustrators. I could start all over on Hansel & Gretel tomorrow, and come up with something completely different.

      • I think the “little child” is ever alive in us no matter our adult age.
        What horrors we live through as children are still in there – and could continue to control our unrealized or unaware actions as adults playing out ineffective loops if we let them.

        The life of our “little child” has been a side interest of mine in these last couple months coincidentally. You are illustrating the shadows of the inner self.

        As an artist I’m interested in how you use your paper maquettes to help in developing the storyline! Thats interesting to me!

        • I like that phrase, ‘the shadows of the inner self’.

          The maquettes help me to better understand the characters that people my paintings and illustrations. I use them particularly as compositional aids. I play with them endlessly, manipulating and rearranging them into my constructed scenarios. When ideas emerge that strike me as interesting in terms of composition, then I begin to make drawings. Many of them and quite rough. The possibilities they reveal to me are almost endless. Moreover, I could never come up with half the ideas that spring from the maquettes, were I to attempt to work without them. There is no short-cutting this process for me. Making the maquettes takes time, but they endlessly repay the efforts I put into them.

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