I can’t very well do fairy tales in October without doing the most popular tale with a witch. For this story, I use the 1857 final edition, but as a special bonus, you can see how the original 1812 version compares to the 1857 version of Hansel & Gretel.
Evil is Stupid
Both the witch and the evil step-mother (pretty much all step-mothers are evil in fairy tales, just look back at Cinedrella) demonstrate an inability to come up with and execute any kind of real plan. The step-mother falls back on abandoning the children in the woods, and the witch allows herself to be trapped in her own oven. Clearly they did not receive Ph.D.s from an institution like Dr. Evil did.
Children are More Clever than Adults
Hansel is able to concoct a plan to get them back out of the woods, while Gretel tricks the witch into the oven. They also prove themselves to be level-headed and think through their problems when the need arises. This is especially telling of Gretel who spends most of her time in the story clutching to Hansel and crying, but when the need and opportunity arose, she demonstrated she was just as clever. Moreover, she showed insight regarding the weight on the duckling, which Hansel overlooked.
There Must Be Happily Ever After
The story goes out of its way to ensure a happy ending. The witch is burned to a crisp, the step-mother died off-stage, the father welcomes back his loving children, and they have all the wealth they need to ensure that they’ll never go hungry or want for anything again. The story becomes gutted because the conflicts are so easily resolved. This sets a pattern for many of the revised stories that offer the happy ending in favor of something more stark. Consider the original version of Red Riding Hood that has no woodsman. The happy ending stories were more popular selling, which drove the changes (buncha sellouts!).
The story is very sparse when it comes to explanations and logic. Granted that magic and the supernatural changes things some, but it’s very difficult to explain the house of bread, cake, and sugar glass. Why is it there? What’s its purpose so deep in the woods? It seems as if its only function is that of a plot device to entice Hansel and Gretel with something fantastic. It’s hard to believe that such a house would continue to exist when so many birds pecked up Hansel’s bread crumbs.
Moreover, why does the witch have so much wealth in her house? Where did she come by it? Do witches really earn that much for what they do? Is this a tradeoff for becoming godless (since the story goes out of its way to mention that is what she is)? Why leave it sitting around her house? Did she somehow conjure it? For what purpose?
The explanation is left simply at: she’s a witch. Witches have such things because they enter into dark pacts with dark powers. No further explanation is necessary.
While the father is not overtly evil like the step-mother, he nonetheless is not a very good character. At the very least he is completely spineless. He can take no action except what is given him by his wife. He expresses regret at leaving the children, but at no point does he ever fight for them. In fact, he must be considered passively evil because of his complicity in abandoning his children. He selfishly chose his own continued existence over that of his children, which would go against the strong Christian morality the story is trying to convey by declaring the witch Godless and having Hansel repeatedly rely on God for help.
Cannibalism . . . or Pedophilia
Eating and devouring can easily be construed as a metaphor for sexual acts. So the warning message about strangers extends beyond those who would do basic physical harm (by robbing, beating, or eating) to the psychological trauma of rape. This is especially true when it comes to regarding witches who were thought to engage in sexual acts with the devil or demons to get their powers. So readers (especially adults, but possibly the children as well) would take away from this story that witches—who were always outsiders in remote locations—would rape children.
With this interpretation in mind, the logic behind the cake and candy house now makes sense as a lure for wayward children. This story likely serves as the inspiration for the modern incarnation of the warning “Don’t take candy from strangers,” with the implicit message to adults being that abducted children will be sexually molested.