Neil Gaiman’s ‘darkly brilliant’ retelling of Hansel and Gretel has been illustrated by award-winning Lorenzo Mattotti. It begins in rather a beguiling manner: ‘This all happened a long time ago, in your grandmother’s time, or in her grandfather’s. A long time ago. Back then, we all lived on the edge of the great forest’.
Gaiman is perhaps one of the most enduring contemporary multi-genre authors, and his forays into fairytales are sure to please many of his readers. In Hansel and Gretel there are, of course, echoes of the original Grimm story, but Gaiman’s take has a fresh feel, and unexpected twists make their way into its plot. He places the plot against the backdrop of an unspecified war, for example, which anchors it historically: ‘War came, and the soldiers came with it – hungry, angry, bored, scared men who, as they passed through, stole the cabbages and the chickens and the ducks’.
The prose itself is Grimm-esque; rather simplistic, but with something sinister lurking just ahead. There are subtle differences between Gaiman’s story and the original too; instead of leaving the usual trail of breadcrumbs on their second journey into the woods, for example, Hansel drops ‘a little white stone to mark each change of direction’.
The imagery which Gaiman builds is lovely. He uses descriptions to build vivid scenes in the minds of his readers: ‘a grove of birch trees, their trunks paper-white against the darkness of the forest’, ‘trees that tangled together like clutching hands’, and ‘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’, for instance. The sense of atmosphere has also been well created.
So much thought has been put into the visual appearance of Hansel and Gretel, and the use of whirling – almost frenzied – black and white illustrations on double-page spreads adds a real darkness to the whole. These illustrations are largely interspersed with text; the very notion that both elements are together yet separate works well. The added section at the end of the story, which tells of the origins of and takes upon Hansel and Gretel, is a lovely touch.