Hansel and Gretel are a young brother and sister threatened by a cannibalistic hag living deep in the forest in a house constructed of cake and confectionery. The two children save their lives by outwitting her.
The tale has been adapted to various media, most notably the opera Hänsel und Gretel (1893) by Engelbert Humperdinck and a stop-motion animated feature film made in the 1950s based on the opera.
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Read by: Kim Butler
Hard by a great forest dwelt a poor wood-cutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel. He had little to bite and to break, and once when great dearth fell on the land, he could no longer procure even daily bread. Now when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, hegroaned and said to his wife: «What is to become of us? How are we tofeed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even forourselves?» «I’ll tell you what, husband,» answered the woman,«early tomorrow morning we will take the children out into the forestto where it is the thickest; there we will light a fire for them, andgive each of them one more piece of bread, and then we will go to ourwork and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, andwe shall be rid of them.» «No, wife,» said the man, «I will not dothat; how can I bear to leave my children alone in theforest?—the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.» «O,you fool!» said she, «then we must all four die of hunger, you may aswell plane the planks for our coffins,» and she left him no peaceuntil he consented. «But I feel very sorry for the poor children, allthe same,» said the man.
The two children had also not been able to sleep for hunger, and hadheard what their stepmother had said to their father. Gretel wept bittertears, and said to Hansel: «Now all is over with us.» «Be quiet,Gretel,» said Hansel, «do not distress yourself, I will soon find a wayto help us.» And when the old folks had fallen asleep, he got up, puton his little coat, opened the door below, and crept outside. The moonshone brightly, and the white pebbles which lay in front of the houseglittered like real silver pennies. Hansel stooped and stuffed thelittle pocket of his coat with as many as he could get in. Then hewent back and said to Gretel: «Be comforted, dear little sister,and sleep in peace, God will not forsake us,» and he lay down again inhis bed. When day dawned, but before the sun had risen, the woman cameand awoke the two children, saying: «Get up, you sluggards! we are goinginto the forest to fetch wood.» She gave each a little piece ofbread, and said: «There is something for your dinner, but do not eat itup before then, for you will get nothing else.» Gretel took the breadunder her apron, as Hansel had the pebbles in his pocket. Then theyall set out together on the way to the forest. When they had walked ashort time, Hansel stood still and peeped back at the house, and didso again and again. His father said: «Hansel, what are you looking atthere and staying behind for? Pay attention, and do not forget how touse your legs.» «Ah, father,» said Hansel, «I am looking at my littlewhite cat, which is sitting up on the roof, and wants to say goodbye tome.» The wife said: «Fool, that is not your little cat, that is themorning sun which is shining on the chimneys.» Hansel, however, had not been looking back at the cat, but had been constantly throwing one ofthe white pebble-stones out of his pocket on the road.
When they had reached the middle of the forest, the father said:«Now, children, pile up some wood, and I will light a fire that you maynot be cold.» Hansel and Gretel gathered brushwood together, as high asa little hill. The brushwood was lighted, and when the flames wereburning very high, the woman said: «Now, children, lay yourselves downby the fire and rest, we will go into the forest and cut some wood.When we have done, we will come back and fetch you away.»
Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire, and when noon came, each ate alittle piece of bread, and as they heard the strokes of thewood-axe they believed that their father was near. It was not theaxe, however, but a branch which he had fastened to a withered treewhich the wind was blowing backwards and forwards. And as they hadbeen sitting such a long time, their eyes closed with fatigue, andthey fell fast asleep. When at last they awoke, it was already darknight. Gretel began to cry and said: «How are we to get out of theforest now?» But Hansel comforted her and said: «Just wait a little,until the moon has risen, and then we will soon find the way.» And whenthe full moon had risen, Hansel took his little sister by the hand, andfollowed the pebbles which shone like newly-coined silver pieces, andshowed them the way.
They walked the whole night long, and by break of day came once moreto their father’s house. They knocked at the door, and when the womanopened it and saw that it was Hansel and Gretel, she said: «You naughty children, why have you slept so long in the forest?—we thought you werenever coming back at all!» The father, however, rejoiced, for it hadcut him to the heart to leave them behind alone.
Not long afterwards, there was once more great dearth throughout the land, and the children heard their mother saying at night to their father: «Everything is eaten again, we have one half loaf left, andthat is the end. The children must go, we will take them fartherinto the wood, so that they will not find their way out again; thereis no other means of saving ourselves!» The man’s heart was heavy, andhe thought: «It would be better for you to share the last mouthful withyour children.» The woman, however, would listen to nothing that hehad to say, but scolded and reproached him. He who says A must say B,likewise, and as he had yielded the first time, he had to do so asecond time also.
The children, however, were still awake and had heard theconversation. When the old folks were asleep, Hansel again got up, andwanted to go out and pick up pebbles as he had done before, but thewoman had locked the door, and Hansel could not get out. Neverthelesshe comforted his little sister, and said: «Do not cry, Gretel, go tosleep quietly, the good God will help us.»
Early in the morning came the woman, and took the children out oftheir beds. Their piece of bread was given to them, but it was stills maller than the time before. On the way into the forest Hanselcrumbled his in his pocket, and often stood still and threw amorsel on the ground. «Hansel, why do you stop and look round?» said the father, «go on.» «I am looking back at my little pigeon which issitting on the roof, and wants to say goodbye to me,» answered Hansel.«Fool!» said the woman, «that is not your little pigeon, that is themorning sun that is shining on the chimney.» Hansel, however littleby little, threw all the crumbs on the path.
The woman led the children still deeper into the forest, where theyhad never in their lives been before. Then a great fire was againmade, and the mother said: «Just sit there, you children, and when youare tired you may sleep a little; we are going into the forest to cutwood, and in the evening when we are done, we will come and fetch youaway.» When it was noon, Gretel shared her piece of bread with Hansel,who had scattered his by the way. Then they fell asleep and eveningpassed, but no one came to the poor children. They did not awake untilit was dark night, and Hansel comforted his little sister and said:«Just wait, Gretel, until the moon rises, and then we shall see thecrumbs of bread which I have strewn about, they will show us our wayhome again.» When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs,for the many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods andfields had picked them all up. Hansel said to Gretel: «We shallsoon find the way,» but they did not find it. They walked the wholenight and all the next day too from morning till evening, but they didnot get out of the forest, and were very hungry, for they had nothing to eat but two or three berries, which grew on the ground. And as theywere so weary that their legs would carry them no longer, they laydown beneath a tree and fell asleep.
It was now three mornings since they had left their father’s house.They began to walk again, but they always came deeper into the forest,and if help did not come soon, they must die of hunger and weariness.When it was mid-day, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on abough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listenedto it. And when its song was over, it spread its wings and flew awaybefore them, and they followed it until they reached a little house,on the roof of which it alighted; and when they approached the littlehouse they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, butthat the windows were of clear sugar. «We will set to work on that,’said Hansel, «and have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, andyou Gretel, can eat some of the window, it will taste sweet.» Hanselreached up above, and broke off a little of the roof to try how ittasted, and Gretel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes.Then a soft voice cried from the parlour:
«Nibble, nibble, gnaw, Who is nibbling at my little house?»
The children answered:
«The wind, the wind, The heaven-born wind,»
and went on eating without disturbing themselves. Hansel, who likedthe taste of the roof, tore down a great piece of it, and Gretelpushed out the whole of one round window-pane, sat down, and enjoyedherself with it. Suddenly the door opened, and a woman as old as thehills, who supported herself on crutches, came creeping out. Hansel andGretel were so terribly frightened that they let fall what they had intheir hands. The old woman, however, nodded her head, and said: «Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? do come in, and staywith me. No harm shall happen to you.» She took them both by the hand,and led them into her little house. Then good food was set before them,milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterwards two prettylittle beds were covered with clean white linen, and Hansel and Gretellay down in them, and thought they were in heaven.
The old woman had only pretended to be so kind; she was in realitya wicked witch, who lay in wait for children, and had only built thelittle house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child fellinto her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it, and that was afeast day with her. Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but theyhave a keen scent like the beasts, and are aware when human beingsdraw near. When Hansel and Gretel came into her neighbourhood, shelaughed with malice, and said mockingly: «I have them, they shall notescape me again!» Early in the morning before the children were awake,she was already up, and when she saw both of them sleeping and lookingso pretty, with their plump and rosy cheeks she muttered to herself:«That will be a dainty mouthful!» Then she seized Hansel with hershrivelled hand, carried him into a little stable, and locked him inbehind a grated door. Scream as he might, it would not help him. Thenshe went to Gretel, shook her till she awoke, and cried: «Get up,lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for yourbrother, he is in the stable outside, and is to be made fat. When heis fat, I will eat him.» Gretel began to weep bitterly, but it wasall in vain, for she was forced to do what the wicked witch commanded.
And now the best food was cooked for poor Hansel, but Gretel got nothing but crab-shells. Every morning the woman crept to the littlestable, and cried: «Hansel, stretch out your finger that I may feel ifyou will soon be fat.» Hansel, however, stretched out a little bone toher, and the old woman, who had dim eyes, could not see it, andthought it was Hansel’s finger, and was astonished that there was noway of fattening him. When four weeks had gone by, and Hansel stillremained thin, she was seized with impatience and would not wait anylonger. «Now, then, Gretel,» she cried to the girl, «stir yourself,and bring some water. Let Hansel be fat or lean, tomorrow I will killhim, and cook him.» Ah, how the poor little sister did lament when shehad to fetch the water, and how her tears did flow down her cheeks!«Dear God, do help us,» she cried. «If the wild beasts in the foresthad but devoured us, we should at any rate have died together.» «Justkeep your noise to yourself,» said the old woman, «it won’t help youat all.»
Early in the morning, Gretel had to go out and hang up the cauldronwith the water, and light the fire. «We will bake first,» said the oldwoman, «I have already heated the oven, and kneaded the dough.» Shepushed poor Gretel out to the oven, from which flames of fire werealready darting. «Creep in,» said the witch, «and see if it is properlyheated, so that we can put the bread in.» And once Gretel was inside,she intended to shut the oven and let her bake in it, and then shewould eat her, too. But Gretel saw what she had in mind, and said: «Ido not know how I am to do it; how do I get in?» «Silly goose,» saidthe old woman. «The door is big enough; just look, I can get inmyself!» and she crept up and thrust her head into the oven. ThenGretel gave her a push that drove her far into it, and shut the irondoor, and fastened the bolt. Oh! then she began to howl quitehorribly, but Gretel ran away and the godless witch was miserablyburnt to death.
Gretel, however, ran like lightning to Hansel, opened his littlestable, and cried: «Hansel, we are saved! The old witch is dead!’Then Hansel sprang like a bird from its cage when the door isopened. How they did rejoice and embrace each other, and dance aboutand kiss each other! And as they had no longer any need to fear her,they went into the witch’s house, and in every corner there stoodchests full of pearls and jewels. «These are far better thanpebbles!» said Hansel, and thrust into his pockets whatever could begot in, and Gretel said: «I, too, will take something home with me,’and filled her pinafore full. «But now we must be off,» said Hansel,«that we may get out of the witch’s forest.»
When they had walked for two hours, they came to a great stretch ofwater. «We cannot cross,» said Hansel, «I see no foot-plank, and nobridge.» «And there is also no ferry,» answered Gretel, «but a whiteduck is swimming there: if I ask her, she will help us over.» Then shecried:
«Little duck, little duck, dost thou see, Hansel and Gretel are waiting for thee? There’s never a plank, or bridge in sight, Take us across on thy back so white.»
The duck came to them, and Hansel seated himself on its back, and toldhis sister to sit by him. «No,» replied Gretel, «that will be tooheavy for the little duck; she shall take us across, one after the other.» The good little duck did so, and when they were once safely across and had walked for a short time, the forest seemed to be more and more familiar to them, and at length they saw from afar their father’s house. Then they began to run, rushed into the parlour, and threw themselves round their father’s neck. The man had not known one happy hour since he had left the children in the forest; the woman,however, was dead. Gretel emptied her pinafore until pearls and precious stones ran about the room, and Hansel threw one handful after another out of his pocket to add to them. Then all anxiety was at an end, and they lived together in perfect happiness. My tale is done,there runs a mouse; who so ever catches it, may make himself a big fur cap out of it.