Hansel and Gretel

At the edge of a large forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. The little boy’s name was Hansel, and the little girl’s was Gretel. There was never much to eat in the house, and once, in the time of famine, there wasn’t even enough bread to go around. One night the woodcutter lay in bed thinking, tossing and turning with worry. All at once he sighed and said to his wife: “What’s to become of us? How can we feed our poor children when we haven’t enough for ourselves?” His wife answered: “Husband, listen to me. Tomorrow at daybreak we’ll take the children to the thickest part of the forest and make a fire for them and give them each a piece of bread. Then we’ll leave them and go about our work. They’ll never find the way home again and that way we’ll be rid of them.” “No, Wife,” said the man. “I won’t do it. How can I bring myself to leave my children alone in the woods? The wild beasts will come and tear them to pieces.” “You fool!” she said. “Then all four of us will starve, You may as well start planing the boards for our coffins.” And she gave him no peace until he consented. “But I still feel badly about the poor children,” he said.

The children were too hungry to sleep, and they heard what their stepmother said to their father. Gretel wept bitter tears and said: “Oh, Hansel. We’re lost.” “Hush, Gretel,” said Hansel. “Don’t worry. I’ll find a way.” When the old people had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his little jacket, opened the bottom half of the Dutch door, and crept outside. The moon was shining bright, and the pebbles around the house glittered like silver coins. Hansel crouched down and stuffed his pockets full of them. Then he went back and said to Gretel: “Don’t worry, little sister. Just go to sleep, God won’t forsake us,” and went back to bed.

At daybreak, before the sun had risen, the woman came and woke the two children. “Get up, you lazybones. We’re going to the forest for wood.” Then she gave each a piece of bread and said: “This is for your noonday meal. Don’t eat it too soon, because there won’t be any more.” Gretel put the bread under her apron, because Hansel had pebbles in his pocket. Then they all started out for the forest together. When they had gone a little way, Hansel stopped still and looked back in the direction of their house, and every so often he did it again. His father said: “Hansel, why do you keep looking back and lagging behind? Wake up and don’t forget what your legs are for.” “Oh, father, ” said Hansel, “I’m looking for my white kitten; he’s sitting on the roof, trying to bid me goodbye.” The woman said: “You fool, that’s not your white kitten. It’s the morning sun shining on the chimney.” But Hansel hadn’t been looking at his kitten. Each time, he had taken a shiny pebble from his pocket and dropped it on the ground.

When they came to the middle of the forest, the father said: “Start gathering wood, children, and I’ll make a fire to keep you warm.” Hansel and Gretel gathered brushwood till they had a little pile of it. The brushwood was kindled and when the flames were high enough the woman said: “Now, children, lie down by the fire and rest. We’re going into the forest to cut wood. When we’re done, we’ll come back and get you.”

Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire, and at midday they both ate their pieces of bread. They heard strokes of an axe and though their father was nearby. But it wasn’t an axe, it was a branch he had tied to a withered tree, and the wind was shaking it to and fro. After sitting there for some time, they became so tired that their eyes closed and they fell into a deep sleep. When at last they awoke, it was dark night. Gretel began to cry and said: “How will we ever get out of this forest?” But Hansel comforted her” “Just wait a little while. As soon as the moon rises, we’ll find the way.” And when the full moon had risen, Hansel took his little sister by the hand and followed the pebbles, which glistened like newly minted silver pieces and showed them the way. They walked all night and reached their father’s house just as day was breaking. They knocked at the door, and when the woman opened it and saw Hansel and Gretel, she said: “Wicked children! Why did you sleep so long in the forest? We thought you’d never get home.” But the father was glad, for he had been very unhappy about deserting them.

A while later the whole country was again stricken with famine, and the children heard their mother talking to their father in bed at night: “Everything has been eaten up. We still have half a loaf of bread, and when that’s gone there will be no more. The children must go. We’ll take them still deeper into the forest, and this time they won’t find their way home; it’s our only hope.” The husband was heavy- hearted, and he thought: “It would be better if I shared the last bite with my children.” But the woman wouldn’t listen to anything he said; she only scolded and found fault. Once you’ve said yes, it’s hard to say no, and so it was that the woodcutter gave in again.

But the children were awake; they had heard the conversation. When the old people had fallen asleep, Hansel got up again. He wanted to pick some more pebbles, but the woman had locked the door and he couldn’t get out. But he comforted his little sister and said: “Don’t cry, Gretel. Just go to sleep, God will help us.”

Early in the morning the woman came and got the children out of bed. She gave them their pieces of bread, but they were smaller than the last time. On the way to the forest, Hansel crumbled his bread in his pocket. From time to time he stopped and dropped a few crumbs on the ground. “Hansel,” said his father, “why are you always stopping and looking back? Keep moving.” “I’m looking at my little pigeon,” said Hansel. “He’s sitting on the roof trying to bid me good-bye.” “Fool,” said the woman. “That’s not your little pigeon, it’s the morning sun shining on the chimney.” But little by little Hansel strewed all his bread onto the ground.

The woman led the children still deeper into the forest, to a place where they had never been in all their lives. Again a big fire was made, and the mother said: “Just sit here, children. If you get tired you can sleep awhile. We’re going into the forest to cut wood, and this evening when we’ve finished we’ll come and get you.” At midday Gretel shared her bread with Hansel, who had strewn his on the ground. They fell asleep and the afternoon passed, but no one came for the poor children. It was dark night when they woke up, and Hansel comforted his little sister. “Gretel,” he said, “just wait till the moon rises; then we’ll see the breadcrumbs I strewed and they’ll show us the way home.” When the moon rose, they started out, but they didn’t find any breadcrumbs, because the thousands of birds that fly around in the forests and fields had eaten them all up. Hansel said to Gretel, “Don’t worry, we’ll find the way,” but they didn’t find it. They walked all night and then all day from morning to night, but they were still in the forest, and they were very hungry, for they had nothing to eat but the few berries they could pick from the bushes. And when they were so tired their legs could carry them no farther, they laid down under a tree and fell asleep.

It was already the third morning since they had left their father’s house. They started out again, but they were getting deeper and deeper into the forest, and unless help came soon, they were sure to die of hunger and weariness. At midday, they saw a lovely snowbird sitting on a branch. It sang so beautifully that they stood still and listened. When it had done singing, it flapped its wings and flew on ahead, and they followed until the bird came to a little house and perched on the roof. Whne they came closer, they saw that the house was made of bread, and the roof was made of cake and the windows of sparkling sugar. “Let’s eat,” said Hansel, “and the Lord Bless our food. I’ll take a piece of the roof. You, Gretel, had better take some of the window; it’s sweet.” Hansel reached up and broke off a bit of the roof to see how it tasted, and Gretel pressed against the windowpanes and nibbled at them. And then a soft voice called from inside”

“Nibble nibble, little mouse,

Who’s that nibbling at my house?”

The Children answered:

“The wind so wild,

The heavenly child,”

And went right on eating. Hansel liked the taste of the roof, so he tore off a big chunk, and Gretel broke out a whole round windowpane and sat down on the ground to enjoy it. All at once, the door opened, and an old woman with a crutch came hobbling out. Hansel and Gretel were so frightened they dropped what they were eating. But the old woman wagged her head and said: “Oh, what dear children! How ever did you get here? Don’t be afraid, come in and stay with me. You will come to no harm.” She took them by the hand and led them to her house. A fine meal of milk and pancakes, sugar, apples, and nuts was set before them. And then two little beds were made up clean and white, and Hansel and Gretel got into them and thought they were in heaven.

But the old woman had only pretended to be so kind. Actually she was a wicked witch, who waylaid children and had built her house out of bread to entice them. She killed, cooked, and ate any child who fell into her hands, and that to her was a feast day. Witched have red eyes and can’t see very far, but they have a keen sense of smell like animals, so they know when humans are coming. As Hansel and Gretel approached, she laughed her wicked laugh and said with a jeer: “Here come two who will never get away from me.” Early in the morning, when the children were still asleep, she got up, and when she saw them resting so sweetly with their plump red cheeks, she muttered to herself: “What tasty morsels they will be!” She grabbed Hansel with her scrawny hand, carried him to a little shed, and closed the iron barred door behind him. He screamed for all he was worth, but much good it did him. Then she went back to Gretel, shook her awake and cried: “Get up, lazybones. You must draw water and cook something nice for your brother. He’s out in the shed and we’ve got to fatten him up. When he’s nice and fat, I’m going to eat him.” Gretel wept bitterly, but in vain; she had to do what the wicked witch told her.

The best of food was cooked for poor Hansel, but Gretel got nothing but crayfish shells. Every morning the old witch crept to the shed and said: “Hansel, hold out your finger. I want to see if you’re getting fat.” But Hansel held out a bone. The old woman had weak eyes and couldn’t see it; she thought it was Hansel’s finger and wondered why he wasn’t getting fat. When four weeks had gone by and Hansel was skinny as ever, her impatience got the better of her and she decided not to wait any longer. “Ho there, Gretel,” she cried out. “Go and draw water and don’t dawdle. Skinny or fat, I’m going to butcher Hansel tomorrow and cook him.” Oh, how the little girl wailed at having to carry the water, and how the tears flowed down her cheeks! “Dear God,” she cried, “oh, won’t you help us? If only the wild beasts had eaten us in the forest, at least we’d have died together.” “Stop that Blubbering,” said the witch. “It won’t do you a bit of good.”

Early in the morning, Gretel had to fill the kettle with water and light the fire. “First we’ll bake,” said the old witch. “I’ve heated the oven and kneaded the dough.” And she drove poor Gretel out to the oven, which by now was spitting flames. “Crawl in,” said the witch, “and see if it’s hot enough for bread.” Once Gretel was inside, she meant to close the door and roast her, so as to eat her too. But Gretel saw what she had in mind and said “I don’t know how. How do I get in?” “Silly goose,” said the old woman. “The opening is big enough. Look. Even I can get in.” She crept to the opening and stuck her head in, whereupon Gretel gave her a push that sent her sprawling, closed the iron door and fastened the bolt. Eek! How horribly she screeched! But Gretel ran away and the wicked witch burned miserably to her death.

Do we recognize ourselves in this tale of daughters and mothers?
Illustration by Theodor Hosemann

Gretel ran straight to Hansel, opened the door of the shed, and cried: “Hansel, we’re saved! The old witch is dead.” Hansel hopped out like a bird when someone opens the door of its cage. How happy they were! They hugged and kissed each other and danced around. And now that there was nothing to be afraid of, they went into the witch’s house and in every corner there were boxes of pearls and precious stones. Hansel stuffed his pockets full of them and said: “These will be much better than pebbles,” and Gretel said: “I’ll take some home too,” and filled her apron with them. “We’d better leave now,” said Hansel, “and get out of this bewitched forest.” When they had walked a few hours, they came to a body of water. “How will we ever get across,” sad Hansel. “I don’t see any bridge.” “And there’s no boat, either,” said Gretel, “but over there I see a white duck. She’ll help us across if I ask her.” And she cried out:

“Ducking, Duckling, here is Gretel,

Duckling, Ducking, here is Hansel,

No bridge or ferry far and wide-

Duckling, come and give us a ride.”

Sure enough, the duck came over to them and Hansel sat down on her back and told his sister to sit beside him. “No,” said Gretel, “that would be too much for the poor thing; let her carry us one at a time.” And that’s just what the good little duck did. And when they were safely across and had walked a little while, the forest began to look more and more familiar, and finally, they saw their father’s house in the distance. They began to run, and they flew into the house and threw themselves into their father’s arms. The poor man hadn’t had a happy hour since he had left the children in the forest, and in the meantime his wife had died. Gretel opened out her little apron, the pearls and precious stones went bouncing around the room, and Hansel reached into his pockets and tossed out handful after Handful. All their worries were over, and they lived together happily in pure paradise. My story is done, see the mouse run; if you catch it, you may make yourself a great big fur cap out of it.

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