Once upon a time, on the edge of a great forest, there lived a very poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children, Hänsel and Gretel. His second wife often ill-treated the children and was forever nagging the woodcutter. The family had little enough to eat, and once there was a great famine in the land the man could no longer even get them their daily bread. “There is not enough food in the house for us all. There are too many mouths to feed! We must get rid of the two brats,” she declared. And she kept on trying to persuade her husband to abandon his children in the forest.
“Take them miles from home, so far that they can never find their way back! Maybe someone will find them and give them a home.” The downcast woodcutter didn’t know what to do. Hänsel who, one evening, had overheard his parents’ conversation, comforted Gretel.
“Don’t worry! If they do leave us in the forest, we’ll find the way home,” he said. And slipping out of the house he filled his pockets with little white pebbles, then went back to bed. All night long, the woodcutter’s wife harped on and on at her husband till, at dawn, he led Hänsel and Gretel away into the forest. But as they went into the depths of the trees, Hänsel dropped a little white pebble here and there on the mossy green ground. At a certain point, the two children found they really were alone: the woodcutter had plucked up enough courage to desert them, had mumbled an excuse and was gone. Night fell but the woodcutter did not return. Gretel began to sob bitterly. Hänsel too felt scared but he tried to hide his feelings and comfort his sister.
“Don’t cry, trust me! I swear I’ll take you home even if Father doesn’t come back for us!” Luckily the moon was full that night and Hänsel waited till its cold light filtered through the trees. The moon was shining bright as day, and the white pebbles glittered like new silver coins.
“Now give me your hand!” he said. “We’ll get home safely, you’ll see!” The tiny white pebbles gleaming in the moonlight showed the children their way home. They crept through a half-open window, without wakening their parents. Cold, tired but thankful to be home again, they slipped into bed.
Next day, when their stepmother discovered that Hänsel and Gretel had returned, she went into a rage. Stifling her anger in front of the children, she locked her bedroom door, reproaching her husband for failing to carry out her orders. The weak woodcutter protested, torn as he was between shame and fear of disobeying his cruel wife. The wicked stepmother kept Hänsel and Gretel under lock and key all day with nothing for supper but a sip of water and some hard bread. All night, husband and wife quarrelled, and when dawn came, the woodcutter led the children out into the forest. Hänsel, however, had not eaten his bread, and as he walked through the trees, he left a trail of crumbs behind him to mark the way. But the little boy had forgotten about the hungry birds that lived in the forest. When they saw him, they flew along behind and in no time at all, had eaten all the crumbs. Again, with a lame excuse, the woodcutter left his two children by themselves.
“I’ve left a trail, like last time!” Hänsel whispered to Gretel, consolingly. But when night fell, they saw to their horror that all the crumbs had gone. “I’m frightened!” wept Gretel bitterly. “I’m cold and hungry and I want to go home!”
“Don’t be afraid. I’m here to look after you!” Hänsel tried to encourage his sister, but he too shivered when he glimpsed frightening shadows and evil eyes around them in the darkness. All night the two children huddled together for warmth at the foot of a large tree. When dawn broke, they started to wander about the forest, seeking a path, but all hope soon faded. They were well and truly lost. On they walked and walked, till suddenly they came upon a strange cottage in the middle of a glade.
“This is chocolate!” gasped Hänsel as he broke a lump of plaster from the wall.
“And this is icing!” exclaimed Gretel, putting another piece of wall in her mouth. Starving but delighted, the children began to eat pieces of candy broken off the cottage.
“Isn’t this delicious?” said Gretel, with her mouth full. She had never tasted anything so nice.
“We’ll stay here,” Hänsel declared, munching a bit of nougat. They were just about to try a piece of the biscuit door when it quietly swung open.
“Well, well!” said an old woman, peering out with a crafty look. “And haven’t you children a sweet tooth?”
“Come in! Come in, you’ve nothing to fear!” went on the old woman. Unluckily for Hänsel and Gretel, however, the sugar candy cottage belonged to an old witch, her trap for catching unwary victims. The two children had come to a really nasty place
“We’ll get to work on that,” said Hansel, “and have a real feast. I’ll eat a piece of the roof. Gretel, you can eat some of the window–that will taste real sweet.”
Hänsel reached up and broke off a little of the roof, to see how it tasted, and Gretel went up to the windowpane and nibbled on it. Then a shrill voice called out from inside the house:
“Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?”
The children answered:
“It is not I; it is not I–
It is the wind, the child of the sky.”
And they went on eating without stopping. The roof tasted awfully good to Hänsel, so he tore off a great big piece of it, and Gretel pushed out a whole round windowpane, and sad down and really enjoyed it.
All at once the door opened, and a woman as old as the hills, leaning on crutches, cam creeping out. Hänsel and Gretel were so frightened that they dropped what they had in their hands. But the old woman just nodded her head and said: “My, my you dear children, who have brought you here? Come right in and stay with me. No harm will befall you.”
But the old woman had only pretended to be so friendly, really she was a wicked witch who lay in wait for children, and had built the house of bread and sugar just to lure them inside. Witches have red eyes and can’t see far, but they have a keen sense of smell, like animals, so that they can tell whenever human beings are near. When a child came into her power she would kill it, cook it, and eat it. She took both of them by the hand and led them into her little house. Then she set nice food before them–milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts. After that she made up two beautiful white beds for them, and Hänsel and Gretel lay down in them and thought they were in heaven. Would be a real feast for her.
Early in the morning, before the children were awake, she was already up, and when she saw both of them fast asleep and looking so darling, with their rosy fat cheeks, she muttered to herself: “That will be a nice bite!” Then she seized Hänsel with her shrivelled hands and shut him up in a little cage with a grating in the lid, and locked it; and scream as he would, it didn’t help him any. Then she went to Gretel, shook her till she woke up, and cried, “Get up, you lazy creature, fetch some water and cook your brother something good. He has to stay in the cage and get fat. As soon as he’s fat I’ll eat him.” Gretel began to cry as if her heart would break, but it was all no use. She had to do what the wicked witch told her to do.
Now the finest food was cooked for poor Hänsel, but Gretel got nothing but crab shells. Every morning the old woman would creep out to the cage and cry, “Hänsel put your finger out so I can feel whether you are getting fat.” But Hänsel would put out a bone, and the old woman’s eyes were so bad that she couldn’t tell that, but thought it was Hansel’s finger, and she just couldn’t understand why he didn’t get fat.
When four weeks had gone by and Hänsel still was as thin as ever, she completely lost patience, and was willing to wait no longer. “Come on Gretel, hurry up and get some water! Whether he’s fat or think, tomorrow I’ll kill Hänsel and cook him.”
Oh, how the poor little sister did grieve as she had to get the water, and how the tears ran down her cheeks.
“Light the oven,” she told Gretel. “We’re going to have a tasty roasted boy today!” A little later, hungry and impatient, she went on: “Run and see if the oven is hot enough. First we’ll bake,” said the old woman. “I’ve already heated the oven and kneaded the dough.” She pushed poor Gretel up to the oven, out of which the flames were already shooting up fiercely. “Crawl in,” said the witch, “and see whether it’s got hot enough for us to put the bread in. And when Gretel was in, she’d close the oven and Gretel would be baked, and then she’d eat her too. But Gretel saw what she was up to, and said: “I don’t know how to. How do I get inside?”
“Goose, Goose!” cried the witch angrily, “the oven is big enough–why, look, I can even get in myself,” and she scrambled up and stuck her head in the oven. Then Gretel gave her a tremendous push, so that she fell right in, and Gretel shut the door and fastened the bolt. Oh, then she began to howl in the most dreadful way imaginable, but Gretel ran away, and the wicked witch burned to death miserably.
Gretel ran to set her brother free as fast as she could, opened the cage, and cried, “Hänsel, we are saved!” The old witch is dead!” Hänsel sprang out like a bird from its cage when the door is opened. How they did rejoice, and throw their arms around each other’s necks, and dance around and kiss each other! Since there wasn’t anything to fear, they went inside the witch’s house. They ate some more of the house, until they discovered amongst the witch’s belongings, a huge chocolate egg. Inside laid a casket of gold coins and precious stones. “These are better than pebbles” said Hänsel, and stuck as many in his pocket as he could. “The witch is now burnt to a cinder,” said Hänsel, “so we’ll take this treasure with us.”
They filled a large basket with food, stuffed the precious stones and coins in their pockets, and set off into the forest to search for the way home. This time, luck was with them. A little white duck came to their aid as they tried to cross a wide lake. The little white duck carried them, one by one, safely, to the other side. Pretty soon they came to a wood that kept looking more and more familiar, and at last in the distance they saw their father’s house. Then they started to run, burst into the living room, and threw themselves on their father’s neck. Since he had left the children in the forest, he had not had a single happy hour. Their father said, weeping, “Your stepmother is dead. You are with me now, my dear children!” The two children hugged the woodcutter. Gretel shook out her apron, and pearls and precious stones rolled all over the room, and Hänsel threw down out of his pocket one handful after another.
“Look, Father! We’re rich now . . . You’ll never have to chop wood again and we’ll never be hungry again.” And they all lived happily together ever after.
Jacob Grimm, born in Hanau on 4 January 1785 and died in Berlin on 20 September 1863. Wilhlem Grimm, born in Hanau on 24 February 1786 and died in Berlin on 16 December 1859. They both wrote “Tales for kids and relatives” (1812) and “German popular legends” (1816). Their works of philological recovery initiated the studies on German linguistics and culture. In 1819 they began a “German Grammatik” which they did not finish; even so it has of transcendental importance in German philology. Their stories gather oral traditional tales of the German culture, and other versioned ones.