Hansel and Gretel was first collected and recorded by the Grimm brothers in the early part of the nineteenth century. The tale is similar to many children and ogre tales that have been known throughout Europe for many centuries. The version the Grimms collected came from storyteller Dortchen Wild in the town of Cassel. Wild later became Wilhelm Grimm's wife.
Many scholars attribute the story's success to the children's opera written by Humperdinck in 1893. The opera is a lighter version of the tale since it completely omits the children's abandonment in the wood by their parents. However, the opera was a tremendous success from its first production in Munich. It is still produced on occasion a hundred years later and several recordings of performances are available for listening and viewing.
The earlier literary tales which bear the closest resemblance to Hansel and Gretel are of French origin. First, Charles Perrault's "Le petit Poucet" (1697) closely resembles Hansel and Gretel in its first half since the parents abandon the children in the woods. A year later, Madame d'Aulnoy's "Finette Cendron" appeared in her Les Contes nouveaux, ou les fetes a la Mode. Her story tells of three princesses who are abandoned by their parents in the woods and find their way to a giant's house. Finetta, the heroine, leaves trails of items to find her way out of the forest, but is foiled on her third attempt when pigeons eat the peas she drops along her path. Later, she burns the giant in his giant oven.
One of the earliest versions of the tale translated into English appeared in 1853 in an anonymous collection of the Grimm tales published by Addey and Co. A copy of that version can be found in Iona and Peter Opie's Classic Fairy Tales.
Hansel and Gretel is still one of the best known fairy tales today, only eclipsed by the likes of Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast. One of my favorite modern versions is the picture book illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky, the Caldecott winner for his Rapunzel, with the text adapted by Rika Lesser. I had the privilege of viewing some of Zelinsky's paintings in person one summer while visiting Simmons College. The work is beautiful and fortunately modern technology allows the published book to appear almost as sumptuous as the real paintings. Lesser's poetical version of the tale is also a treat.