Once upon a time there lived a poor woodcutter with his second wife and two children. The son was named Hansel and the daughter was named Gretel. They were very poor and when times got very tough and scarcity fell over the land, the woodcutter could no longer provide for his family. The woodcutter was very worried and could not sleep at night, tossing and turning. He said to his wife, “What will become of us? How will we feed our children, when we have nothing even for ourselves?”
“I have a solution,” said his wife, “Tomorrow we will take the children deep into the forest. We’ll light them a fire and give them each a piece of bread, and we will leave them there and go about our business. They will not be able to find their way home so we will not have to worry about them any longer.”
“How could I leave my children alone in the forest?” asked the husband, “They will be eaten by wild animals! No, I cannot do it.”
“Then you condemn us all to die of hunger,” argued the wife. She was very persistent, and would not give her husband peace until he agreed to her plan. The man felt very guilty and had many misgivings.
The two children overheard the adults talking, as they were so hungry they had not been able to sleep. Gretel wept bitterly.
“Hush,” said Hansel, “don’t worry, Gretel. I will find some way to help us.” He waited until the adults had fallen asleep then got up, put on his coat, and crept outside. The moon shone brightly on the white pebbles which lay in front of the house. Hansel scooped up as many pebbles as he could fit in the pockets of his coat. He went inside and told his sister to take comfort as he had a plan.
In the morning, before the sun had even fully risen, the mother came to wake the children. “Wake up!” she demanded, “We are going into the forest to fetch wood.” Then she gave them each a little piece of bread promising “This is for your dinner. Don’t eat it before then, because you’ll get nothing else!” Gretel put the pieces in her apron pocket, as Hansel was carrying the stones.
The family all walked together on the way to the forest. After a few moments, Hansel stopped and looked back at the house. This happened again and again. At last, the father asked, “Why do you keep stopping? What are you looking at?”
“I am looking at my little white cat,” replied Hansel, “He is sitting on the roof and wants to say goodbye.”
“You fool,” said the wife, “That is not your cat but the morning sun shining on the chimney. Keep up!”
Hansel was not looking at his cat, but had been regularly throwing one little white pebble at a time from his pocket on to the road.
At last, the family reached the middle of the forest. The father bade his children to fetch wood and make a pile. “I will make a fire so you won’t be cold,” he said.
Hansel and Gretel gathered a large pile of wood. The father set it alight, and the flames burned high. “Now, children, lay down by the fire to rest. We will go into the forest to cut wood. We will come back for you when we are done,” said the father.
Hansel and Gretel waited by the fire. At noon, they each at a little piece of bread. They could hear the a regular sound, which they thought was their father chopping wood. It was not their father, but a branch of wood that he had fastened to a tree so that the wind knocked it about.
The two children fell asleep, and when they woke at last, it was already night. Gretel was frightened and asked, “How are we ever to get out of the forest now?”
“Don’t worry. Wait until the moon has come out and then we will be able to find our way,” said Hansel. When the moon had risen, Hansel took his little sister’s hand and followed the trail of pebbles, which shone brightly in the moonlight.
By the time they reached the house, it was dawn. They knocked on the door and when the mother opened it she scolded, “You naughty children! Why did you sleep so long in the forest! We thought you were never coming back!”
The father rejoiced, for he loved his children and it had deeply saddened him to leave them behind.
After a little time, scarcity once again fell over the land and the family ran out of food once more. The children heard their mother saying, “Everything is eaten! We have only one half loaf of bread left and then nothing! The children must go – we will take them deeper into the wood so they will not find their way out. We shall otherwise die of hunger!”
The man was very saddened, and thought that his wife would be better to share the last mouthful with her children. But he was beaten down by her scolding and eventually once more agreed.
The children had overheard once again. When their parents were asleep, Hansel got up and put on his coat. He went to go collect pebbles but the door was locked and he could not get out. “Don’t worry, Gretel,” he said, “I will think of something.”
Just before dawn, the mother came to wake the children. They were given each a tiny piece of bread and led into the forest as before. As they walked, Hansel crumbled the bread in his pocket and dropped little pieces along the ground.
“Hansel, why do you keep looking back? Let’s go,” said the father.
“I am only looking back at my pigeon, which is sitting on the roof and saying goodbye,” said Hansel.
“You idiot,” said the mother, “that’s only the morning sun striking the chimney!”
The children were led deeper into the forest, to an area they’d never been before. They gathered wood and another fire was set.
“Sit here,” said the mother, “Rest a little. We are going into the forest to cut wood. In the evening we will come and get you.”
The children waited by the fire. At noon, Gretel shared her tiny piece of bread with Hansel as his was scattered along the way into the woods. They grew tired and fell asleep. It was dark night by the time they woke and Gretel was frightened.
“Don’t worry Gretel,” said Hansel, “We will wait until the moon rises and we will see the bread and follow it home.” The moon came up, but the children could find no crumbs. The birds that lived in the forest had eaten the crumbs of bread. “We will find a way,” said Hansel. The two children walked and walked but they could not find their way out of the forest. They walked the whole night and the whole day and grew very hungry and very tired. They found nothing to eat but a few berries. At last in the evening, they were so tired that they lay beneath a tree and fell asleep.
It was now three mornings since the children had left their house. They began to walk once more but they were terribly hungry and weary. At midday, they saw a beautiful white bird that sat on a branch and sang a delightful song. The children stopped to listen and when the bird was done it flew off. The children followed the bird until they reached a queer little house.
The house was made of bread and cakes, with clear sugar windows. “Look, Gretel,” said Hansel, “We can have a meal at last! I will eat some of the roof and you can have some of the window.” Hansel reached up and broke off a piece of the roof, and Gretel leaned against the window to taste the panes.
“Nibble, nibble, gnaw,” said a voice, “Who is nibbling at my little house?”
“The wind,” answered the children, who then went on eating. Hansel though the roof was very nice indeed, and tore off a big piece of it. Gretel pushed out a whole windowpane and sat down happily to eat it.
Suddenly, the door opened and a very very old woman came lurching out on crutches. Hansel and Gretel were so scared they dropped what they were holding.
“Oh my dears,” said the old woman, “who has brought you here? Come in and stay with me. Nothing will harm you here.” She then took them by the hand and led them into her house. The children sat down at the table, and the old woman gave them a good meal, with mild and pancakes, sugar, apples and nuts. When they were full, she took them to two pretty little beds covered in clean white sheets. Hansel and Gretel lay down happily and went to sleep.
The old woman was really a nasty witch, who had built her house of bread in order to lure children there. When she had a child in her power, she killed it and then cooked and feasted on it. Witches have red eyes and cannot see far but they have good noses and can scent like beasts.
In the morning, before the children were even awake, the witch looked them over and said to herself, “What a feast!” Then she grabbed Hansel and carried him into a little stable where she locked him up. Scream and cry as he might, he was trapped and too far for Gretel to hear. Then the witch came and shook Gretel awake and cried, “Get up you lazy girl! Go and fetch some water and cook something good for your brother! He is in the stable outside and I want him to get nice and fat. When he is fat, I will eat him!”
Gretel began to weep but she was forced to do what the witch told her. She cooked the best food for Hansel, but Gretel was allowed only to eat scraps and crab shells. Every morning, the witch went to the stable and cried, “Hansel, stretch out your finger so I may feel if you will soon be fat.” Hansel, who was clever, held out a little bone to her, and the old woman, who could not see it, thought it was Hansel’s finger. The old woman was astonished that Hansel was not getting any fatter and after four weeks she grew impatient.
“Gretel,” she ordered, “go fetch some water. Whether Hansel is fat or thin, I will eat him tomorrow.”
Poor Gretel wept as she fetched the water. She cried and lamented and the old woman hushed her impatiently.
In the morning, Gretel was made to go out and hang up the cauldron with the water, then light a fire under it.
“First, we will bake,” said the old woman, “For I have the oven all hot and have kneaded the dough.” The witch led Gretel to the oven, where flames were darting out. “Get in,” said the witch, “You must see if it’s properly hot for the bread.” The witch planned to shut the oven door and bake Gretel inside, so she would eat her too.
Gretel suspected the witch and said, “I do not know how to do it! How do you get in?”
“You fool,” said the witch, “It is easy enough. Look, the door is big enough that I could even get in myself.” Then the witch stuck her head in the oven door to show. Gretel gave the witch a big push, which drove her far into the oven. Quickly, Gretel slammed the door shut and fastened the bolt. The witch began to scream and moan but Gretel ran away and the witch was burnt to death.
Gretel ran to her brother and opened the door to the stable. “We are saved,” she cried, “The old witch is dead!” Hansel jumped out of the stable and they rejoiced. With no fear, the two went into the witches house. Stored in every corner were chests filled with pebbles and jewels. Hansel filled his pockets and Gretel filled her apron pockets full.
“Now we must go,” said Hansel, “and escape the witch’s forest.” So the two left and walked for two hours. They came upon a great lake.
“We cannot go over this water,” said Hansel, “for there is no footpath nor bridge.”
“There aren’t any boats,” supplied Gretel, “but look, there is a white duck swimming. I will ask her if she will help.” Gretel then called to the duck, “Little duck, little duck, can you help me? Hansel and Gretel are waiting, you see! There’s not a plank or bridge or boat in sight, so please take us on your back so white!”
The duck swam up and Hansel seated himself on her back. He told his sister to sit by him but Gretel refused because they would be too heavy. So the duck took them across one at a time. They thanked her, and walked on. The forest became more familiar, until at last they saw their father’s house. The two ran the remaining distance, bursting into the door and throwing themselves into their father’s arm.
The man had not known happiness since the children left. His wife had died, and he had mourned their children.
“Look, papa,” said Gretel, and she emptied her apron of pearls and jewels. Hansel added the stones from his pocket. All the anxiety was lifted from the father, and they all lived happily ever after.
Ahh, Hansel and Gretel. The deliciously scary gingerbread house in the woods. Clever Hansel and quick-thinking Gretel! This is one of my favourites!