At the Storytellers of Canada conference in Peterborough this month, Mark Jenkins and I had the privilege of spending the day with a fabulous group of storytellers and exploring the ‘thresholds’ in our fairy tales and lives.
As we led the group through the universal patterns in the fairy tales they had chosen, Mark and I had also chosen a tale. We decided to mutually delve into Hansel and Gretel, and retell the story from each character’s point of view.
Hansel and Gretel go through life together, just as siblings do. But their personalities and experiences are completely different. My Gretel was a sensitive girl who was emotionally overwhelmed by the prospect of being abandoned in the woods, whereas Mark’s Hansel was a clever boy who had a lot of tricks up his sleeve—until he ran out of them! And then it was Gretel who took charge.
To give you a glimpse into our characters, I’m going to pretend that I’m interviewing Hansel and Gretel. Mark is supplying real answers as Hansel, and I’m doing the same for Gretel.
INTERVIEWER: So, Gretel, what was life like before you found out that your parents were going to abandon you in the forest?
GRETEL: We were always hungry. My mother was a fearful person, and she put a lot of pressure on my father. He worked as a woodcutter, but he hardly made enough money for bread.
HANSEL: There wasn’t much meat, either, because even the animals were starving.
GRETEL: The forest was a dangerous place. My father wouldn’t let me go in there. He said I’d be eaten alive. But Hansel went every day.
HANSEL: I wasn’t afraid when I was with my father.
INTERVIEWER: So what were those lean times like for you, Hansel?
HANSEL: We were in the middle of the Great Famine so it was a terrible time for everyone, and some people had it worse than we did. I did everything I could to support my father. I went with him to chop wood and when I got home, I made charcoal with Gretel. Mother was a cruel person. I was afraid for Gretel because she had to do chores for her and take all her abuses. Father and I would forage in the woods for food and I would bring back the tastiest berries for Gretel.
INTERVIEWER: I guess you both overheard your mother persuading your father to take you out into the woods and leave you there?
HANSEL: Yes, we overheard them talking at night. The next morning, Father took me aside and told me to take some flint pieces from the shed to mark the path. He said that if we came back, Mother would likely accept our return as fate.
INTERVIEWER: Gretel, when did you feel that you were stepping into the unknown?
GRETEL: It was on the bridge. I wasn’t allowed to cross the bridge over the stream. Father would say I’d be eaten alive! But now he and Mother were leading us into the forest. I didn’t want to die! But then Hansel took my hand and whispered, “Come along, it’s okay. I have a plan.”
INTERVIEWER: So you trusted your brother.
GRETEL: Completely, yes.
INTERVIEWER: Was it the same for you, Hansel? When did you cross into the unknown?
HANSEL: Well, it wasn’t on the bridge. I’d crossed that bridge many times, and besides, I had the flint in my pocket. I dropped it behind me as we followed our parents into the forest. When night fell, the flint shone in the moonlight and we followed the moonlit path back home. Mother took us in again, but after a few weeks, she urged Father to leave us in the woods for once and for all. She’d locked the door to the shed so I couldn’t get any more flint. I had to use breadcrumbs to mark the path. When I saw that the birds had eaten the way back, I started to lose hope. Of course they’d eaten the path. The birds were starving too!
I couldn’t show my fear to Gretel. She was already close to despair. All she had was her trust in me. So I pretended I wasn’t afraid. We walked for days and then a white bird showed up out of nowhere. I didn’t think it was a good sign but I didn’t want Gretel to lose hope so we followed it. With any luck, we would meet some good fortune. Some kind person would take pity on us.
INTERVIEWER: Well, we all know what happened next. The bird led you to the gingerbread house.
GRETEL: It was too good to be true. The witch took us in and gave us pancakes and all kinds of good things to eat. Her kindness didn’t last long, though. She started ordering us around. And then she locked Hansel in a cage.
INTERVIEWER: How exactly did that happen, Hansel?
HANSEL: Well, one of my jobs for the witch was to look after the big white bird. I’d gone inside to clean out the birdcage and that’s when the witch locked me in. She had unnatural strength. The worst moment was sitting locked in the cage and knowing that now I couldn’t protect Gretel. Up until then, I was always hatching plans.
INTERVIEWER: What was the worst moment for you, Gretel?
GRETEL: The witch told me to fetch water to cook Hansel. I went outside thinking, No, no, I can’t do this! I would have preferred to be eaten alive by hungry beasts than to do the bidding of that terrible witch! She was making me a part of her evil and there was no way I could participate in Hansel’s death. In that moment, I got angry, very angry. And then a powerful white force rose up in me. It was like a fierce and cleansing love. It cleared my mind and put me on watch. I waited for an opportunity to act.
INTERVIEWER: And when did it come?
GRETEL: I carried in the water in and poured it into the pot on the stove. Then the witch told me to get into the oven. She wanted me to check the bread because her eyesight wasn’t good. She said, “Sit on the breadboard and I’ll slide you in.” I knew she wanted to cook me. I said, “I don’t know how to do that. Could you please show me how it’s done?” So she sat on the breadboard, and that’s when the force rose up in me. I pushed her in and locked the door!
INTERVIEWER: And you, Hansel? What happened to you in that cage?
HANSEL: A lot, actually. In the cage, I was no longer in control and that was very humbling. At first it was a terrible feeling, but then a kind of acceptance came over me. Was I ever really in control? Or did I pretend to be in charge so I wouldn’t always be afraid? I thought, What if I just trusted? Gretel always trusted me. Now it was my turn. What else could I do? Just as I decided to do that, to trust … the cat brought over a mouse bone and dropped it right beside my cage. I realized that I could use the bone to trick the witch. She kept coming by to feel my finger and see how fat I was getting. So I stuck out the mouse bone instead, and she thought I was too skinny to eat. It was amazing how all the small forces around me were helping me work things out. I just needed to trust them.
Next thing I knew, Gretel was opening my cage.
INTERVIEWER: Once you had freed yourselves, what happened? You’re both very quiet. Hansel, would you like to speak?
HANSEL: The witch was howling in the oven in this horrible, inhuman voice. Gretel couldn’t bear it. She said, “Let’s open the oven door. She’s learned her lesson! Let’s make her promise not to harm anyone else.” But I knew the witch had to die. I wanted it on my conscience, not on Gretel’s, so I stopped her from opening the oven door. We just slumped to the floor and held each other till the sound stopped. Then I put more wood in the fire box just to make sure.
GRETEL: It was terrible, really and truly terrible, terrible.
INTERVIEWER: And then what happened?
HANSEL: We went into the room we weren’t allowed to go into. It was filled with stolen treasure.
GRETEL: The witch had taken it from the people she had killed and eaten. I couldn’t take their precious belongings, but Hansel said, “It can’t go back to anyone now, it belongs to us.” There were strings of pearls, diamond necklaces and earrings and other heirlooms. Of course, the witch would favour rich people. It broke my heart to put their treasure in my apron, but then I heard all these voices whispering to me, like the voices of the dead. They were saying, “It’s yours, it’s yours! You have stopped the evil, and you have saved countless lives to come! Take it! We want you to have it.”
Still, I cried a lot of tears gathering up that treasure.
INTERVIEWER: What made you decide to take the treasure home? Was there a moment when you thought maybe you should just take the money and run?
GRETEL: Well we did have quite a discussion about that. I wasn’t sure that we should go back. Who’s to say that Mother wouldn’t steal all the treasure and send us back to the woods? On the other hand, we had enough to feed the whole village.
HANSEL: I trusted Gretel’s intuition.
GRETEL: We both loved our father, and we wanted to help people. So we took the risk.
HANSEL On the way home I thought a lot about our mother. I mostly forgave her. She had been consumed by fear. Father later told us that she had died right around the same time the witch had died.
INTERVIEWER: That’s weird.
HANSEL: Yes, but I can’t even describe the relief and joy we felt when we saw Father again. He was over the moon. We spread the treasure out on the table and he immediately agreed that it was for the whole village.
INTERVIEWER: I wonder … what died with the witch, would you say?
GRETEL: Something monstrous!
HANSEL: I would say it was the impulse to abandon everything you care for when you’re hungry and desperate.
GRETEL: Our mother thought, ‘If you aren’t the eater, then you’ll be the eaten.’ That’s the way she saw everything. She never loved us.
HANSEL: We were just mouths to feed.
GRETEL: I used to think that love would make you soft. But love made me strong. I don’t think it’s easy to love at all. In a desperate situation, when everybody’s hungry, what are you going to do? Keep your love alive or throw it to the wolves? My mother threw us to the wolves.
HANSEL: The good news is, she didn’t succeed. And now we’re living a very different kind of life. Like Gretel said, it’s not easy to love. You have to trust that if you do the loving thing, help will arrive. Most of the time you don’t know how it will happen, but it does. We can get a lot done as a community if we’re willing to go through difficult times together. It’s really important to accompany one another.
GRETEL: Yes, because if love runs out of the world, we’re all cooked!
A Final Note
When Mark and I looked at the thresholds that Hansel and Gretel crossed in the story, we found their stories and we found our own. I have experienced Gretel’s fear of going into the wild forest as she stood on the bridge. I’ve been there in my own life, and in fact, Mark was there too. Many years ago, when I had just started storytelling, Mark helped me cross my first major threshold into the performance world. I had been invited to give a speech to a pharmaceutical marketing association. They wanted to know how storytelling could be used to market pharmaceutical products. I wasn’t prepared to demean the power of story by turning it into a marketing tool, but on the other hand, I couldn’t just tell them fairy tales. They’d ‘eat me alive’! So Mark, like Hansel, helped me come up with a plan. I told them the myth of Hygyeia’s bowl, the universal symbol of pharmacy. They loved the story and it fulfilled my wish to bring the power of myth to their industry.
Mark also found his own story in Hansel’s threshold crossing. When Hansel was lured by the white bird to the witch’s house, Mark was reminded of his own threshold experience of coming to live in a house that was not what it appeared to be.
Most of us are fairly familiar with the idea of stepping across the boundary that separates the status quo from the unknown. But the other threshold, the ‘return’ threshold, is a different experience altogether. We’re crossing back from the depths to the surface, from the wild to the familiar. The ‘homecoming’ is not necessarily a celebratory event where everybody’s happy and welcoming. There are all kinds of challenges associated with returning home. My Gretel was worried that her mother would take the treasure and send the children back out into the woods, repeating the whole pattern. Why go home and risk losing everything? Hansel and Gretel went home because they loved their father, and they had the means to help the community. They had discovered the power of love and goodwill and they were resolved to put it in action, whatever the outcome. As Hansel said, they were living an entirely new way of life.
On their way home, that new way of life was tested. The children came to a large lake that they couldn’t cross on their own. Gretel called for help and a white duck came paddling along. The duck was willing to carry them both across the water but Gretel recognized, not just the needs of herself and her brother, but the needs of the duck. The duck couldn’t carry her weight and Hansel’s—they would all drown. So Gretel instructed the duck to carry them over the lake one by one.
As Joseph Campbell wrote in The Hero With a Thousand Faces, the challenge for those who are returning is to bring their wholeness into an atmosphere where ‘men who are fractions imagine themselves to be complete.” Hansel and Gretel were bringing a radically new spirit of goodwill to a state of scarcity where it was ‘every man for himself.’ They would have the problem of every ‘returning hero” who, in Campbell’s words, has to “confront society with his ego-shattering, life redeeming elixir, and take the return blow of reasonable queries, hard resentment, and good people at a loss to comprehend.” 216
In the Peterborough workshop, we had a long discussion about how our characters crossed the return threshold. It’s not a crossing we generally spend much time talking about, and yet many of us are seeking ways to emerge and share the gifts that we have forged through deep trials and adventures. How can fairy tales help us to understand this leg of the journey?
That’s a subject I promise to return to!
Title illustration by Jennie Harbour (1893-1959. The others are by me (and Gretel.)