My oldest daughter brought home a copy of Hansel and Gretel from the school library last week. It is, as far as I can tell, a pretty direct translation from the German version the Brothers Grimm put to paper nearly 200 years ago.
Like so many fairy tales, it is very dark indeed. Hansel's and Gretel's mother is dead, while their stepmother plots to leave them in the forest to be hunted by animals—twice—because the family is starving. The evil witch with the candy house in the woods enslaves Gretel to help fatten up Hansel to be eaten, and is only foiled when locked in an oven to burn to death herself. By the time the kids make their way home, the stepmother has died as well, presumably from starvation or disease, leaving only their long-suffering father for the, er, happy reunion at the end.
Today, we wonder how anyone could concoct stories so grisly to tell to children. (Some people are so disturbed that they have rewritten even mild nursery rhymes to remove any hint of danger.) But it helps to remember where these tales came from.
Before the twentieth century, children witnessed death all the time. It wasn't infrequent for mothers or babies to die during childbirth, which most often took place at home. Infant mortality was (by today's standards) high, and life expectancies were far shorter than today, so it wouldn't be unusual for a child to have lost a sibling or parent. Even for those lucky enough not to, a largely rural lifestyle meant learning to kill chickens, cows, and other animals for food, leather, and other essentials.
Today, when death is largely distanced from us, stories such as Hansel and Gretel still have a primeval pull that modern, less frightening tales do not. It is not coincidence that those more recent stories with which kids connect most strongly, from Harry Potter books to Tolkien, also don't shy from being gruesome.
Children are small things, but they have great fears. The Brothers Grimm and all who have followed them remind us that fears are better faced than hidden.