When you think of fairy tales, the first thing that often comes to mind is a story that features a hero or heroine (one who is either brave from the start or starts out as being a hapless soul only to overcome a huge hurdle in life), a hopeless situation, a villain and a happily-ever-after.

While there are certainly bad things that happen in these tales of yonder, the ones we’re often subjected to are the toned-down, Disneyfied versions that have somehow become the face of these stories.

And with good reason because in actuality, the uncensored versions (while still mostly retaining their pleasant endings), are far darker than the saccharinely sweet narratives that are more commonplace today.

In fact, given that themes such as incest, graphic descriptions of violence and sexual undertones have appeared in more than a few of the original versions of the story, parents around the world are probably better off knowing that these tamer versions are at the forefront of children’s literature.

If you’re like me however, and appreciate where the origins of these tales come from, you might be interested in Gretel and the Dark, a recently published book by debut author Eliza Granville.

The novel, which is set in a concentration camp, explores fairy tales as a vehicle and metaphor during a young girl’s struggle for survival.

To give you more of an idea of the concepts explored in the novel, Eliza tells us a little more about how fairy tales have influenced and shaped her story.
Fairy tale and the Holocaust

My novel Gretel and the Dark is set partly in Ravensbrück, a concentration camp which was situated 90km north of Berlin and held mainly female prisoners.

Women and children from twenty-three nationalities were forced to live there, only some of whom were coincidentally Jewish.

It was this uniqueness among the camps that prompted me to place my protagonist here, and I did so in the knowledge that minimal recognition is accorded to non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Krysta is the daughter of a murdered German Nazi doctor.

I wanted her to be a truly marginal figure, strange even before her story is told.

Already traumatised by the nature of her double parental loss, she belongs to both worlds, that of the perpetrators and that of the victims … or, perhaps, to neither.

But how to write about a place of such horror?

How to maintain an oppressive and chilling atmosphere without including explicit details of violent acts?

In opting for an oblique method of recounting Krysta’s experiences, through fairytales, nursery rhymes and folk superstitions, I hoped not only to beguile readers – through the implied ‘once upon a time’ and the suspension of disbelief it seems to invite – but also to explore life inside Ravensbrück from a child’s pragmatic viewpoint.

I wanted to avoid dwelling on the hardships endured and refrain from giving descriptions of the extreme violence meted out to prisoners or presenting repellent images unless these were absolutely necessary.

Using some of the more disturbing elements and refrains from  fairy tales, and notably from Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen (a volume the Nazi party called ‘the most important work among our sacred texts’, and recommended every household should own during the Third Reich) gave me a medium ‘once removed’ through which to convey the atrocities being committed in the camp.

But I also had anxieties about using fairy tales in a narrative centred on a concentration camp, and of particular concern was that it might be seen as trivialising the lives and deaths of those who endured such an experience.  

I was reassured by the works of other authors who have used this medium to illuminate aspects of the dark years of Nazi enchantment.

Foremost among these was Jenny Erpenbeck’s haunting Visitation; part fairy tale, part poetry, part record of superstitious local customs, it is a delicately handled tale of Germany’s serially displaced ghosts told by means of a house and its inhabitants.  

It was, however, The Erl King by Michel Tournier – a dark, twisted fairy story aimed at adults – that provided the most valuable encouragement to me, with its savage incorporation of folklore, myth and legend, chaos and chance, interspersed with fairytale-inspired strokes of good fortune.

Its protagonist, a short-sighted, self-obsessed French giant, becomes a collaborator, enmeshed by the Nazi world of ancient heroes and spurious mystical symbols, one moreover who threatens to out-ogre the ogres before his final act of redemption.

After reading it, I was left with a sense that history, even that of the Holocaust, can never be understood as anything other than a tangle of fairy tales, myth, propaganda, lies – plus the retrospective justifications and wish-fulfilments with which individuals attempt to comfort themselves and with which societies invoke their own national agendas.

My characters Daniel and Krysta never formulate a survival plan while in the camp.

Their determination to stay alive is expressed in their mutual promise not to grieve for their lost loved ones until an indefinite ‘later’, but even more so in their constant retelling of stories, particularly adaptations of Hansel and Gretel, in which they fantasise about gruesome victories over their oppressors.

(For as G. K. Chesterson says in his essay The Red Angel: ‘Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey’.)

The way the children adapt this fairytale as part of their survival strategy shows us something of the malleable nature of the genre, a facet which ensures its survival.

Many of today’s fairy tales are evolved from centuries-old stories that have appeared, with variations, in multiple cultures around the world: they are of the folk hence they must travel with them, acting as a type of social currency.

We know that fairy tales travelled into the concentration camps: Berthe Meijer writes of being told such tales by Anne Frank in Bergen Belsen towards the end of the war. Stories are possessions not easily taken from us.

The tales also travelled out of the camps. Since the end of the war, Holocaust survivors and their descendants – in such anthologies as Nothing Makes You Free – have repeatedly used the framework of traditional fairy tales as a basis for memoirs of their incarceration, casting Nazis as witches, stepmothers and ogres, with survivors as wily heroes.

Thus the metaphors of the fairy tale and the Holocaust blend.

The fairy tale, then, not only speaks of the means of surviving but epitomises survival itself.  And as a form which has overcome countless vicissitudes by constantly reinventing itself, it seemed to me the perfect vehicle for the survival story that is Gretel and the Dark.

About the book:
Vienna, 1899. Josef Breuer - celebrated psychoanalyst - is about to encounter his strangest case yet. Found by the lunatic asylum, thin, head shaved, she claims to have no name, no feelings - to be, in fact, not even human.

Intrigued, Breuer determines to fathom the roots of her disturbance.

Years later, in Germany, we meet Krysta. Krysta's Papa is busy working in the infirmary with the 'animal people', so little Krysta plays alone, lost in the stories of Hansel and Gretel, the Pied Piper, and more.

And when everything changes and the real world around her becomes as frightening as any fairy tale, Krysta finds that her imagination holds powers beyond what she could have ever guessed...

Check out the trailer below:



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