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Hansel and Gretel

Review

Hansel and Gretel

written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti

A tale as old as HANSEL AND GRETEL can definitely gain its fair share of modifications and revisions. From its earliest beginnings collected in the Brothers Grimm’s CHILDREN’S AND HOUSEHOLD TALES in 1812 to its adaptation to opera and, later, the silver screen, this tale has always held a strong connection with young and old alike. The horrendous circumstances surrounding the title characters in the tale, and their victory over the obstacles placed before them, strike a chord with all who hear this story, be it for the first time or the hundredth. 

This tale, though --- the story of how this book came to be --- is just as compelling. Lorenzo Mattotti went to see a Metropolitan Opera production of the adapted story by Englebert Humperdink, and drew the illustrations seen in this book in 2007 from his experience. These dark, swirling, two-page spreads draw you in with little direction --- you feel like you may, too, be lost in the woods. Neil Gaiman also felt this way, and was inspired by Mattotti’s art to craft the story in his own voice. Gaiman, well known for his excellent prose from award winning books like AMERICAN GODS and CORALINE, takes the story that the reader almost certainly knows and puts his stamp of beautiful horror on the prose.

"This is a story to tell your children,  and it is one that serves almost as a rite of passage.... And in this version, Gaiman and Mattotti give us something new --- imagery and prose that are a perfect match --- and take the story to new heights."

This story is, at its core, more than a little disturbing. The stage and screen versions usually leave out the terrible part about Hansel and Gretel’s parents. A famine hits the land making food scarce, so the woodcutter and his wife decide to leave their children in the woods. Many later adaptations made this the sole decision of the stepmother, not the mother, because any true fairy tale is only worth its weight in evil stepmothers. She tells the father it would be easier to feed two mouths instead of four, upping their chances for survival, and he reluctantly agrees. But this is not the case in the original version as it was told by the Brothers Grimm. Originally, it is the fault of the Hansel and Gretel’s biological parents. That message is not lost on Gaiman, as he uses exactly that dynamic for this adaptation. He expertly sets this up with superb dialogue; when the father initially objects to the idea and refuses to kill his own offspring, the mother explains herself chillingly:, “Lose them, not kill them.”

The setting of this story, the way that Gaiman and Mattotti present it, is more terrifying than the original. Mattotti’s illustrations draw you in, breaking up the prose with expansive spreads of brushed blacks and stark whites, and Gaiman’s words wash over you until you feel a part of this tale. In certain passages --- “The day waned and twilight fell, and the shadows crept out from beneath each tree and puddled and pooled until the world was one huge shadow” --- you truly get a glimpse of the vision Mattotti had for his work, and just how well Gaiman must have understood to translate it so effectively to the page.

Gaiman makes a few other minor flourishes to the story, to great results. Some are trimming decisions, leaving out fantastical imagery like the duck that, in some versions, helps the children return to their home downstream after defeating the witch. Ominously, Gaiman never refers to the crone with the house made of gingerbread as a “witch” at all. And he adds a cause for the famine that plagues the land, a great war that depleted the resources surrounding the woodcutter and his family. These, and other slight changes, give an incredible new feel to such an old story. That is the heart of this amazing book: An old tale told newly, yet through its intended lens --- dark, frightening, and rich with symbolism.

This is a story to tell your children,  and it is one that serves almost as a rite of passage. It introduces the idea of mistrust, the fear of being left behind and lost, and the ability to reason your way out of bad situations. And in this version, Gaiman and Mattotti give us something new --- imagery and prose that are a perfect match --- and take the story to new heights. Published by TOON Books in a beautiful hardcover trade or the larger deluxe hardcover with die-cut embossed cover, this is a great read for any fan of this timeless tale.

Reviewed by Jeff Ayers on October 16, 2014

Hansel and Gretel
written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti

  • Publication Date: October 28, 2014
  • Genres: Fairy Tale, Picture
  • Hardcover: 56 pages
  • Publisher: Toon Books
  • ISBN-10: 1935179624
  • ISBN-13: 9781935179627