Fairy tales and youngest sons
The road between dreams and reality

Hansel and the trail of stones

 Lorenzo Mattotti 1

From "Hansel," a remarkable essay by poet Richard Siken, which begins like this:

"Why make a map? Why do anything at all? Now how, because hows are easy, series or sequence, one foot after another, but existentially why bother, what does it solve? Well, if you don't need to, don't. Wouldn't that be great? Just don't make anything. The world is full of things already, the world is vast and wide and full of grace, and you will always be given the benefit of the doubt. Except that isn't true now, is it? Fact is, the world is full of things trying to kill you. We do not walk through a passive landscape. Sometimes you need a map to find the food, the hiding places.

"I was a regular-style kid with a regular-style life. Things got bad, sure, but that was later. Grandma had stories about the war -- running, hiding, privation -- but that was later. I would discover that my father could speak German but refused to, was ashamed to -- We're Americans now -- but that was later. This is still the beginning, this is my bedtime, early on. The window is over my bed and there are three trees outside the window, in the yard, the dark woods, well-framed and moving slowly in the breeze. Imagine that the world is made out of love. Now imagine that it isn't. Here is a story where everything goes wrong, here is a story where everyone has their back against the wall, here is a story where everyone is in pain and acting selfishly because if they don't, they'll die. Here is a story, not of good and evil, but of need against need against need, where everyone is at cross-purposes and everyone is to blame. How are you supposed to fall asleep to this?

 Lorenzo Mattotti 2

"Hard by a great forest lived a poor woodcutter who had come upon such hard times that he could no longer provide even daily bread for his wife and two children. 'What is to become of us?' says the man. 'Early tomorrow we will take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them there,' says the woman. The two children, awake from hunger, heard everything their parents were saying. Trust no one. You are expendable. You are a burden. Why would you tell this to your child, who is about to go to sleep? As soon as your eyes are shut, we will begin to plan your demise. If I were you, were smart, I'd stay awake, ever vigilant and terrified. I would look out the window at those three trees and think about those two children. If you know the story, you know that Gretel saves the day, that women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father, son) just flounder about. My father is telling me this story and I am an only child. There is no Gretel. He has no power. I am being warned and there is no out.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 3

"Gretel begins to cry, but Hansel says, 'Be quiet, don't worry. I know what to do.' And with that he got up, pulled on his jacket, opened the lower door, and crept outside....The moon shines brightly and the white pebbles outside the house glisten like silver coins. Hansel bends over and fills his jacket pockets with them, as many as will fit. Then at daybreak the woman comes and wakes up the children. 'Get up, you lazybones. We're going into the woods to fetch wood.' She gives each one a piece of bread, saying, 'Here is something for midday. Don't eat it any sooner, for you'll not get any more.' Gretel hides hers under her apron so she can carry his. Hansel drops the pebbles from his pockets onto the path.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 4

"They arrive, middle of the woods, make a fire, rest. Because they can hear the blows of an ax, they think that the father is nearby. It is not an ax, it is a branch that he has tied to a dead tree and that the wind was beating back and forth. After they had sat there a long time, their eyes grow weary and they fall asleep. This is the first iteration. They wake, its dark, they cry, the moon rises, and the pebbles shine, showing them the way. This is my favorite part. It starts and ends here. The pebbles shine, the plan worked, Hansel Triumphant. Lesson number one: Be sneaky and have a plan. But the stupid boy goes back, makes the rest of the story postscript and aftermath. He shouldn't have gone back. And this is the second lesson I took from the story: When someone is trying to ditch you, kill you, never go back.

Lorenzo Mattotti 6

"My father is reading me this story and sometimes its just a story and other times it is his story, his history, he is sharing a sadness with me, an unfairness done to him that he cannot express, or it is the story of Exodus, or of World War II. My father creeps me out because he is telling me too many stories all at once and I do not believe he is innocent , or pure of heart, and I want pebbles. I want a lower door. They walked through the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived at the father's house. Stupid, stupid kids. "

 Lorenzo Mattotti 8

A little later in his essay, Silken writes:

"There are many definitions for poetry that are useful. I like 'Poetry is language that does more than one thing' and 'Poetry is the residue of a life lived.' I use words like pebbles, like residue. You are are in terrible danger. Grab your pebbles and go. Make a trail away from doom and don't look back. It works better than I thought it would. I also believe that anything can happen in words. The teller decides. I took it to heart. A spell, an incantation, a cake recipe. There is a bomb inside you. I can say that. It might be true. The Dalai Lama says we are born in bliss and Jesus says we are born in sin. I say, even if you do not believe in God, you must believe we are born into narrative, one foot in front of the other, things happening after other things. And since you are always moving forward -- pushed, pulled, or just strolling along -- you might as well take note of how and where you're going. Many writers can point to an event in their lives where they gained permission to write. The story of Hansel (and Gretel) gave me a mandate to write, to describe the terrain, for myself as well as for anyone who might want to, need to, follow."

You'll find the Siken's essay in Brothers & Beasts: An Anthology of Men on Fairy Tales, edited by Kate Bernheimer, and I recommend reading it in full.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 9

 Lorenzo Mattotti 10

The striking Hansel & Gretel pictures today are by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, created for an illustrated edition of the story originally published in France. (A later English edition, with text by Neil Gaiman, appeared from TOON Graphics in 2014.) Mattotti studied architecture when he was young but ended up in the comics field instead -- making his name with such works as Fires and Labyrinthes from the 1980s onward, and winning an Eisner Award for his Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde in 2003. He also illustrates children's books (Pinnochio, Eugenio, The Pavillion on the Links, etc.), and is internationally renown as a magazine and fashion illustrator. Born and raised in Lombardy, Mattotti now lives with his wife and family in Paris.

In the video below, Neil Gaiman talks about working on the English edition of Mattotti's Hansel & Gretel, and the dark side of fairy tales.

 Lorenzo Mattotti 7

 Lorenzo Mattotti 11Words: The passage above by Richard Siken is from Brothers & Beasts, edited by Kate Bernheimer (Wayne State University Press, 2007). The poem in the picture captions is from The First Four Books of Poems by Louise Glück (Ecco, 1999). Pictures: The drawings above are from Hansel & Gretel, a graphic novel by Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti (TOON Graphics, 2014) -- with thanks to Charles Vess for introducing me to it. All rights to the text and imagery in this post reserved by their respective creators.


It Ain't Pretty

Following the path they took,
Birds eating their crumbs
I am their unseen double
Shadow. I am the little boy,
The brave girl. Neither
Really believing home
Is no more. I smell
The sweets burning,
So tempting, something
To eat, we are so hungry.

Now I am mixed up. Is it
Going to visit Grandma,
Flinging open her door,
Seeing that she has
Been shaving and now
It is revealed. Where is
My brother? This scene
Needs a brother, older,
Wiser, brave. It is about
Other ways of the menus
Greedy wold and wicked witch.

I stop, and see Gretel and
Hansel no more. My red
Righting hood left behind,
Shredded by thorns. I see
Seven princes, all looking
For a lost princess. They
Glance at me, covered
With mud, smelly, hungry.

How will this end? It must!
In this child wisdom may
Turn into maiden sense.
Over a hill and down to see
A bedraggled lad, his fine
Princely garb worse than
My costume. At least he
Is neither brother or hungry.

Under a tree, we trade sad
Stories. "We are poets," he says.
"Yeah, mud and losses, and yet,
All not said. It will never be so."
We hold our cold dirty hands,
And walk right through each
Others clouded, shared dreams.

Two typos: Second Stanza, last line, greedy wolf, no wold.
Third stanza: Riding hood, no Righting.

A mighty slap across the calves, like the sting of Nettle. Gaiman's quote sobering. (Unfortunately I was unable to get any sound from the vimeo)

This is such a timely read (just after midnight here in our Woods) as I consider how best, if at all, a grown man (our son) might need our help to defend himself against the darkness with white stones. A fine thread the difference between helping and obstructing destiny at work.

I love the line " I say, even if you do not believe in God, you must believe we are born into narrative, one foot in front of the other, things happening after other things." Born into narrative -- my next tattoo!

Mattoti's illustrations are alive. Fabulous.

Down in the wood, the gnarled old wood,
where dark and terrors lie,
there’s a crooked house of candy and blood,
where branches curse the sky.
And in that house there dwells a witch,
and in that witch a hunger
for the tender taste of a child’s meat,
a brain still sweet with wonder.

© Austin Hackney 2016

As the mother of fairy tale loving sons I really appreciate this week's subject.

And great poems today too, Phyllis and Kitchen Boy!

I have always loved this set of illustrations by Mattotti. They transform and inspire me, as most of his work does. However the art was originally produced for a French language edition years before there was any connection with Neil. It was only when the artist asked the folks at Toon Books if there could be a English language edition that he (Gaiman) became involved with the project, graciously providing the current text. And really, thank goddess he did, because otherwise so many of us would never have known of, or even seen this glorious, essential work. I have never seen any artist capture the magic and terror of the deep woods as well as Mattoti has in this book. Bravo.

Also, you've paired it so well with the words of that evocative essay. I really must order a copy of the book!

Charles, is that French language edition still in print, do you know? I'd love to read it.

Mattoti's understanding of, and ability to render, the relationship between light and darkness is nothing short of visionary. I can't stop looking at these images!

Thank you so much for the correction, Charles. I'll amend the wording in the post.

I like the first two stanzas particularly, the mixing up of the tales. I think that works really well.

That was my favorite line in the essay too.

I love your performance of the poem!


I ordered the book through the French Amazon, but don't know if its still in print or not?

Hi Terri

These posts have been tremendous, unique and thought provoking . I have thought about the young brother, the odd child, the strange one in life and in fairytales. As Christopher Barzack explained yesterday, this was the boy who did not fit in and the one considered least likely to succeed or be accepted by society. Yet, it is this child who often saves the day with his keen wit and physical smallness. But extending beyond that point, the young hero is given the practical mentality/intellect to solve the problem and prevail. It is still keeping within the traditional boundaries of gender. As Richard Silken contends in his view of most fairytales , women have power (mother, daughter, witch) and men (father, son) just flounder about , leaves a lack of leniency or acceptability for the male to have a similar skill, a sensitivity to natural things, an intuitive acuity that connects to the wise nurturing of earth . Society sometimes brands the male "prodigy" in music, dance or art as someone special but also alien in his awareness and delicate application of the craft. The individual is not seen as normal but strange, exclusive even leaning toward the effeminate. And this ,too, brands him with a stigma. In Shakespeare's play, The Tempest, the character of Ariel, the sprite and servant of Prospero, was originally defined as a male spirit of air and magic. Yet, in Victorian times and in the recent past, painters have depicted him as female as well as directors of the play, itself.


It may have seemed more believable and even safer. However, the sensitive genius that operates for the good of humanity, the enrichment and the productivity of its imagination, is a blessing, a gift that should be revered and respected openly as something viable/significant in both genders.

the one set apart from social normality."
Christopher Barzack

They could not accept him as a sprite.
A slender-winged youth
who could decipher the magic
of tree rings, toadstools and thistles,
bones, barnacles and shells --
everything of field and beach,
or comprehend how he flew
beyond the horizon and back again.

He was the odd brother, the strange thinker,
the cursed child left at birth.
Their baby daughter stolen
by unnatural folk The house lassoed
in moonlight. A ring sunken
in the wet grass.

And as he grew into a concept
they could never conceive
as real -- they relegated him
to the ghost of an ancestor's guilt.
An artist who portrayed
Arial erupting
from the cloven pine as a girl.

A man who betrayed The Playwright
too ashamed or afraid to paint
the delicate mind, the craft
of intuition as male. A beautiful boy
who glittered.
Again, loved the essay, the pictures, poem by Louise Gluck and the inspiration they have all invoked. Thank you many times!!

My Best

Hi Phyllis

I like the tone and premise of this poem very much. And that last stanza really speaks to me --

Under a tree, we trade sad
Stories. "We are poets," he says.
"Yeah, mud and losses, and yet,
All not said. It will never be so."
We hold our cold dirty hands,
And walk right through each
Others clouded, shared dreams

Stories, poems, heroism and insight transcend experience and gender. Both can be enriched by the magic/sense/prophecy/revelation of fairytales.

Thank you for sharing this!
Much enjoyed,

Hi Austin

A stirring, startling and wonderful reading your rhyme on youtube. Yes, it sent chills down the spine and left these favorite lines echoing --

And in that house there dwells a witch,
and in that witch a hunger
for the tender taste of a child’s meat,
a brain still sweet with wonder.

Thank you for sharing this,

Thank you Terri and Wendy. I think 3 & 4 stanzas need some fiddling around with, but I am pleased with your kind words. I think i have been able to take poems out on a limb, more than I ever did before. I never expected to find so much magic to respond to.

Candy and blood...horrifying. ..."taste of a child's meat, a brain still sweet with wonder..." has many interceptions, hating innocence, wanting a child to be broken, such cruelty is all around us and this is a ghastly reminder.

This is both a rich post and a beautiful poem. I liked so much that you have seen "The Tempest's" Ariel as female, now. In my early theatre time, I wanted to be Ariel and Puck.
It just wouldn't happen. And now I could be a witch or an angry queen, but I really don't have a theatre group, now. "Prodegy," is lovely. I wrote a poem about a witch who tried to save such a boy, and sent it out only once.

How wonderful to be here, in magic land, connecting and carrying one.

You're welcome. Thanks for taking the trouble to read/watch/comment.

Thanks. Yes, that's part f it.

Thanks, Charles, I'll hunt it down.

Hi Phyllis

Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful comments and personal experience/perspective! I deeply appreciate them --and yes, we are in magic land here with all the art, text and ideas!

Again thank you!

Dear Terri,

By coincidence, I posted about Hansel and Gretel and Gaiman's exceptional version on my March children's literature blog...http://barkingplanet.typepad.com I also excerpted/linked your wonderful writings from Myth and Moor.
Thank you,

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