What happens to you when you read?
What happens to you when you read?

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1 Stories: what do you remember?

Human beings are avid consumers of stories, whether they are in the form of large formal stories such as novels, or plays, or in the form of much smaller and more diffuse stories, such as soap operas or gossip. Stories also appear to be important, more broadly, to the ways in which we communicate. For example, Bruner (1990) points out that people quickly and instinctively learn what makes up a story, and even young children quickly learn that describing run-of-the-mill events, during which nothing unusual happens, does not do much to engage their audience.

Remember the story of ‘Hansel and Gretel’? This German fairy tale was collected and published in Grimms’ first collection of tales in 1812. It is a story many of us may remember having read to us as children or finding on book-shelves at school. In this activity you will try to identify the events that form part of this familiar story.

Activity 1 Remembering a story

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes for this activity.

This activity depends on some memory or knowledge of the story – so if you don’t remember it at all, perhaps ask someone you know if they do and see if they can tell you about it. The activity should work well by asking them about their memory of the tale.

Some of the following story elements come from widely accepted versions of the tale of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, and others are things that we have made up. Your task is to try and identify which are part of the story the Grimm brothers made famous.

Take a look at the elements of the story below, and decide whether you think they belong in the story.

Hansel and Gretel’s parents were farmers, who had lost their all their corn.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is b.

When the witch first hears Hansel and Gretel nibbling at her house, they trick her into thinking they are just the sound of the wind.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is a.

Hansel and Gretel are led deep into the woods by their parents who take the children into the thickest part of the forest and leave them.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is a.

Hansel and Gretel were able to escape because the witch had very poor hearing.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is b.

Hansel laid a trail of white pebbles to help them find his way back home.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is a.

Hansel and Gretel became lost in the forest, because they had set off to find food for their mother who was unwell.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is b.

Hansel fooled the witch into thinking he was too thin to eat by pretending a bone he found in his cage was his own finger.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is a.

Hansel was tipped off to the witch’s plans when he saw other children that had been turned into pies on her shelf.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is b.

To get to the gingerbread house Hansel and Gretel had to cross a river made from honey wine.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is b.

The children found the witch’s cottage by following a beautiful white bird.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is a.

Hansel fell asleep after drinking magical sleeping syrup, Gretel stayed awake and overheard the witch’s plans because she did not like syrup and only pretended to drink it.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is b.

The children were returned home by a swan, that ferried them across an expanse of water.

a. 

In the story


b. 

Not in the story


The correct answer is a.

Discussion

It is likely that you found the task quite difficult as all of the elements sound like they plausibly could have happened in a fairy tale. While you might remember that the gist of the story is that Hansel and Gretel were lost in a forest and came across a Gingerbread House with a witch in it, you might not remember much more detail than that. After all you may not have heard the story for many years. The following are elements that do pretty much always feature in the story of Hansel and Gretel:

  • Hansel fooled the witch into thinking he was too thin to eat by pretending a bone he found in his cage was his own finger.
  • The children were returned home by a swan, that ferried them across an expanse of water.
  • Hansel and Gretel are led deep into the woods by their parents who take the children into the thickest part of the forest, and leave them.
  • The children found the witch’s cottage by following a beautiful white bird.
  • Hansel laid a trail of white pebbles to help him find his way back home.
  • When the witch first hears Hansel and Gretel nibbling at her house they trick her into thinking they are just the sound of the wind.

Of course, as is the case with many fairy stories, there are also different versions of this tale. The Grimm brothers did not write ‘Hansel and Gretel’ from scratch themselves. When tales have been told for generations, sometimes across large geographical areas, before being collected and published in a book, there are bound to be details that are added or lost. Versions can also change over time. Some writers dramatically re-write fairy stories, as in Angela Carter’s collection of short stories (The Bloody Chamber, 1979) based on stories such as ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and ‘Bluebeard’. It’s possible to find versions of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ where the Swan is a duck, and in some versions there is no swan at all; instead the children’s father just finds them in the forest. In other versions the white bird that leads Hansel and Gretel to the witch does not feature and in yet others the mother of the children is their step-mother instead.

If you are interested in the different versions of Hansel and Gretel you can look at this resource to make some comparisons [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Remember to open this link in a new tab or browser, and then return to the course when you are ready.

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