Hansel & Gretel
By Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti
Published by Bloomsbury
ISBN 978 1 4088 6198 1
The original Brothers Grimm story has inspired many retellings, a recent Hollywood action flick, as well as a popular opera by German composer Englebert Humperdinck. Is there any need for yet another version of this well-worn yarn?
The new Gaiman/Mattotti book stands out from what has gone before because it is a perfect blend of words and pictures. Mattotti was inspired to create his unsettling black and white illustrations after seeing this Metropolitan Opera production of the Humperdinck opera:
Pretty freaky, right? Once the images were finished, the writing began. Gaiman's storytelling is sparse and chilling, but it's the artist's double-page ink illustrations that up the shivers in this slim but fear-packed edition of the story we all think we know.
This is no happy-ever-after tale to read before bedtime. Hansel and his sister Gretel are the children of a poor woodcutter and his wife who are struggling to stay alive when famine ravages their village after the end of a terrible war. The woodcutter's wife comes up with a terrible solution to the problem.
Feeding two mouths is more practical than four; it's a simple question of maths. So Hansel and Gretel's cruel but practical mother orders her husband to take the children into the dark forest and leave them there. It won't take long for wolves to sniff them out and enjoy a good meal.
But, as we all know, Hansel and Gretel survive in the forest, and as they are trying to find their way home, they come across a house made of gingerbread. An evil old witch lives there, and she entices the siblings into the house made of sweet smells and tasty aromas. What happens next is not for the squeamish, and in this version, the darkness of the tale is heightened by Mattotti and his ink brush.
Both Gaiman with his prose and Mattotti with his illustrations capture the bleakness and true despair of a situation in which parents are willing to sacrifice the lives of their children to save their own. The creators accept from the beginning that this is, at its heart, a horror story.
This skilful and compelling version of a classic is a frightening treat from two masters who tell stories in very different, but very compatible ways. Enjoy!
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com