Saturday, December 06, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #340: Hansel & Gretel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti

Five days ago, I started a post about a different book of Neil Gaiman's words with someone else's pictures by saying that book was not a comic. Well, his Hansel and Gretel is even less of a comic: it's close to the Platonic ideal of an illustrated book, with the words and pictures completely segregated onto separate spreads, never to touch.

But, even with that, Hansel & Gretel is odd. You see, in most cases, illustrated books are made in a particular order: first the words are written, and then the pictures are drawn to match them. But this time, the pictures were drawn to match different words -- or rather not exactly to match any words at all. Lorenzo Mattotti's dozen dark, chiaroscuro pictures were part of an art exhibition inspired by but not directly illustrating a 2007 Metropolitan Opera production of the Englebert Humperdinck opera Hansel and Gretel in David Pountney's English translation. Gaiman wrote this version of the story -- collected around 1810 by the Brothers Grimm from a girl who would later become Mrs. Wilhelm Grimm, and I assume all of you are familiar with the general outline -- afterwards, to go with the Mattotti drawings.

Gaiman's retelling sticks to the standard beats of the story, though he does go back to the earliest versions: the children's mother is the initial villain, not a stepmother. But he doesn't transform or reconfigure the story as he did with Snow White in the cutting "Snow, Glass, Apples," and as he and others have done many times over the last four decades since Angela Carter and Tanith Lee showed the way back to the original dark, bloody, sexual stories.

Instead, it's the way we've seen it many times before: the children live on the edge of the dark wood, with their parents, a poor woodcutter and his wife. War comes, famine comes, and four mouths are too many to feed. The mother convinces the father to leave the children in the wood. The first time he tries, Hansel was prepared with small stones to mark the path, so they find their way home. The second time, there was no warning, and the animals and birds ate the bread crumbs left to mark that path. The children wander, hungry, and find a gingerbread cottage. Inside lives an old woman, who is even nastier than their mother. Chains and cages follow, and fattening for the pot stymied briefly by a chicken bone. And inevitably the old woman goes into the oven and the children escape with her riches.

If you want a standard retelling, this is fine: Gaiman's words are as precise and carefully chosen as ever. Mattotti's drawings are probably overly dark and impressionistic for most children, but maybe they will see the depths and shades in those pictures. But it's no more than that; it's just the story you already know, told decently in a nice package.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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