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hansel and grettel

Return to the fairy tales - book one


A retelling by J. Kearns

During a famine, two children are abandoned in a forest where they come upon a house made of cakes and candy.

here was once a very, very large forest, bigger than I could begin to describe or you could imagine, and all of the trees in it were very old. It wasn't the kind of forest that people had gone into already and cut down many of the trees and planted new ones that had grown up in their place. Anymore, this is the way it is with most forests, even deep within the woods the ancient trees have all been cut down and new ones grown in their place maybe several times over. The forest I'm talking about was called virgin forest because the trees in it had grown up with it since the forest came to exist, which was a long, long time ago. Most of the trees in the forest had never seen a man or been seen by men, that's how big this forest was. It stretched over the land like a great sea of trees.
On the outskirts of the forest there lived a poor woodcutter's family, which seems a very sensible place for a woodcutter's family to live. The family consisted of a husband and wife and two children, a young boy and his older sister. The boy was called Hansel, and the girl was called Grettel. The woodcutter had always been able to make just enough money for his family to live on, but then there was a great famine in the land and many, many people had a hard time getting any food at all, including this poor woodcutter and his family. Their situation had become so dire that every night they went to bed hungry, and their stomachs gnawed at them all day, and kept them awake all night long wishing for food, thinking of food, constructing great fantasies in their minds of feasts with meat and bread and cakes and pies that they spent all night eating and savoring, and eating some more. It was impossible not to think about food, and the woodcutter and his wife and children grew thinner and thinner, and more exhausted all the time from having almost nothing to eat.


One night, the woodcutter lay tossing and turning in his bed and, wondering how his family was to survive on so little food, he said to his wife, "What's to become of us? How are we to support our poor children? There isn't a day that we have enough food for even one person, and we are having to divide that between all four of us."
The wife was ready with her reply, as if she had been thinking about it for a long while. She said, "You know as well as I, there's only one thing to do. Early in the morning we'll take the children out into thick of the woods. There, we'll light a fire for them and give them each a piece of bread. Then, we'll go on to our work and leave them behind. They won't be able to find their way home and this wretched existence will soon be over for them."
The husband exclaimed, "No! We can't do that to the children, I haven't the heart for it. If they don't die first of hunger in the forest, they'll be killed by wild beasts."
  The wife said, "You fool, they'll die soon enough of hunger anyway, and not just them but the both of us as well. Have it your way and you may just as well chop wood for all our coffins. If we take the children into the forest, there's at least a chance someone who is able to feed them will find them and take them into their home. Besides," she added, "we can always have more children later."
The wife insisted on this plan but the woodcutter said he wouldn't hear of it.
The husband and wife weren't the only ones lying awake. The children, too, had not been able to sleep for hunger, and had heard every word.
Hansel wept bitterly, "That's it then. Our mother says we are to die."
"No, no, Hansel," Grettel reassured her younger brother. "Mother doesn't mean what she's saying, and father would never permit it, anyway. Don't you worry."
But despite Grettel's reassurances, when their parents had fallen asleep, the girl got up and quietly stole outside. The moon was also out, luminous and full, reflecting brilliantly on the white pebbles which lay in and by the stream which ran nearby the house. Grettel filled the pockets of her apron with as many of the stones as she could carry without its pockets tearing. Then she went back inside, climbed into bed, and said to Hansel, "Don't worry, little brother, and go to sleep. I have a plan."


At day's break, before the sun was up, the woodcutter went off to his work. After he was gone, the children's mother woke Hansel and Grettel. "Lazy-bones, get up," she ordered them, "we're all going to the forest to fetch wood." She urged them to hurry with dressing, and gave them each a bite of bread, saying, "Look, here is bread for your lunch. Isn't that nice? When have you last had so much to eat."
And Grettel, as the pockets of her apron were filled with stones, put both shares of bread in Hansel's pockets.
Then the mother led Hansel and Grettel out into the woods. After they had walked a little, Grettel stood still and looked back at the house. Finally, after she had done this several times, the mother called out, "Grettel, what are you looking at back there? Stay with us; I don't want you lost."
"Oh!" said Grettel, "I won't be lost, I can still see the house. I'm looking at our white kitten. It's sitting on the roof, waving us farewell."
The mother replied, "Fool, that isn't your kitten. That's the morning sun shining on the chimney."
But Grettel hadn't been stopping to only dawdle and look back at the house. Every time she had stopped, she had dropped one of the white pebbles out of her apron onto the path.
When they had walked for a long time, the mother said, "Now, gather some wood and kindling, so I can light a fire to keep you warm."
Hansel and Grettel gathered brush, wood and twigs, but as they were tired from never having enough food, and from having walked so far, it took them a little longer than it would stronger children. When they had heaped up enough, their mother set the fire, then said, "Now, lie down by the fire, children, and rest. Your father is over yonder a little ways, and I'm going to help him work. When we're finished, we'll come back and fetch you. But on no account are you to come and find us, because the forest is a big place and you may get lost."
Hansel and Grettel sat down beside the fire and waited for their mother. When the sun was high in the sky, Hansel said, "Grettel, do you think mother would be mad at us if we went ahead and had our lunch? I'm hungry."
"Don't you worry," Grettel said, "It's noon. Time for lunch."
Hansel and Grettel ate their bread. Then, being quite tired, the two settled down for a nap. Their hunger pangs eased slightly by their lunch, they soon had fallen asleep.


When the children woke up, the sun had set and it was pitch dark but for a few red embers which still burned in the fire. "Oh Grettel," Hansel said, "what has happened to mother and father? Do you think they're lost? Why haven't they come for us?"
"Dont you worry," Grettel told Hansel. "Soon the moon will be up and we'll be able to find our way home."
When the moon had risen, it was a wonderfully huge, full moon, the kind of rare moon that seems almost too big for the sky to hold. "See, these are our guides home," Grettel said to Hansel, pointing out the pebbles she had dropped on the ground, which shone bold and bright in the moonlight. Then, taking Hansel by the hand, Grettel guided Hansel home.
Traveling by moonlight, following the pebbles, their journey took them so long that the sun was rising when they reached home. Their father, upon seeing them, exclaimed, "You're safe!" But their mother scolded, "Wicked children, staying all night out in the wood! When we went to look for you, you were nowhere to be found. I suppose you thought it was a good trick on us. Well, I was worried sick and didn't get a bit of rest all night, nor did your father who has been out looking for you all this while! He only just returned and is exhausted or else he'd give you the whipping you deserve. Now, go to bed and don't ever think about doing this again. "
After that, things were better as the famine in the land lessened, and there was more food to be had for all. But it was only a short respite from disaster, for very soon again the little food there'd been was gone, and the children heard their mother say to their father one night, "Everything is eaten up once more. We have only half a loaf of bread in the house, and when that's done it's all up with us. We can't provide for ourselves, much less the children. To watch them growing thinner by the day is a torment to me. We would be doing them a favor to take them deep into the wood and let the will of the forest end this life of misery for them."
The man scolded his wife, saying, "Surely it would be better to share our last bite of bread with our children," and she shut up about the matter.
Still, Grettel remembered her mother's previous deviousness, and when she thought her parents were asleep she got up to go outside and collect shiny pebbles from the stream, which would guide them safely through the maze of the woods home, as they had done last time. But she was no sooner at the door than her mother was suddenly there, barring it.


"What are you doing up?" her mother said. "Go back to bed and don't let me catch you trying to get out the door again. A child outside at this hour can only be up to no good."
So Grettel went back to bed where Hansel was weeping, for he too had heard his parents talking. "Sleep peacefully and don't worry," Grettel told him, "I have a plan."
At dawn, the woman roused the children, saying, "Lazy-bones, get up," and had them dress. She gave them each a bit of bread which wasn't even as large as a biscuit, hardly any larger than a quarter. Then she led them into the forest.
On the way into the wood, Grettel crumbled her bread in her apron, then every little while she stopped and dropped a crumb on the ground.
"Grettel, what are you looking at back there," her mother called. "Stay with us. I don't want you getting lost."
Grettel replied, "I can see the roof of the house. On it there's a little pigeon which looks as if it is waving me farewell."
"Fool!" her mother replied, "that isn't a pigeon, it's the morning sun shining on the chimney."
This time, the woman led Hansel and Grettel far deeper into the forest than she had before. Deeper than they had ever been in the forest in all their lives. After she lit a fire for them, she said, "Just sit down there, children, and if you're tired you can sleep a bit. Your father has gone on ahead to work, and it's too far for you to walk. I'm going to go help him cut wood, and in the evening, when we're finished, I'll come back to fetch you."
At midday, Hansel shared his bit of bread with Grettel, for she had strewn all her own along the path and had nothing to eat. Then, their hunger eased a little by the bread, the children fell fast asleep.
When they awoke, it was pitch dark, the fire long gone out. Grettel comforted Hansel, saying, "Don't worry. When the moon rises, then we shall see the bread-crumbs I scattered along the path, and they will guide us back to the house just like the pebbles did last time." But when the moon had risen, and the children got up and went to look for the crumbs, they found none. Not a single one. The birds of the woods had eaten them all.
Grettel reassured Hansel that they would find their way out of the wood anyway.


All night they wandered, then the entire day they walked, from morning till nightfall, and still they were unable to find their way out of the forest. When they were so tired that their legs refused to carry them any longer, they lay down beneath a tree, famished, having had nothing to eat but a few tiny berries they found growing on the ground, and they treated each other with tales of feasts heaped high with meat and potatoes in deep dishes of gravy, and tables filled with cakes and pies. At last, the exhausted pair fell asleep, Grettel cuddling Hansel on her shoulder.
On the third morning, Hansel and Grettel again began to look for a path that would take them out of the forest, but it seemed the trees only became thicker and thicker around them. Already, it was noon, and as they were sitting down to rest, a little snow-white bird flew up, perched on a branch just above their heads and entertained them with a song. After the bird had sang a little, it flew to a tree a short distance away, where it perched on a branch and again sang its song. When the bird flitted away again, enticed, the children followed.
Before long, they came to a little house, on the roof of which the snow-white bird perched.
"We're saved," Hansel exclaimed, then sighed in awe, for, drawing closer, the children saw that the cottage was made of cakes, its roof of cookies, while its window was transparent sugar. "Oh, Grettel," Hansel whispered, "can this be real? Certainly the bird who led us here is an angel and has saved our lives. Have you ever seen anything so magical and beautiful?"
Amazed, Hansel stretched out his hand and took a bit of fudge brownie window ledge, while Grettel climbed upon a water barrel to break off a large piece of sugar cookie roof tile that was all covered with brightly colored, sugar-spangled gum drops. She had always loved gum drops and sugar cookies.
Immediately, a shrill voice called out from inside the cottage:

Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who's that nibbling at my house?

But the children were so hungry they paid no attention, Hansel devouring a panel of apple streudel shutter, and Grettel's teeth crackling a whole section of sugar window-pane she'd broken out.
Suddenly, the door to the cottage opened and there appeared on the stoop ancient Famine leaning on a crooked cane. Hansel and Grettel were so terrified that they let what they had in their hands fall, but instead of scolding them, Famine gave them a smile as sweet as the candy and cake and cokies they'd let fall to the ground.


She said, "Oho! you dear children, who led you here, so deep in the forest?" The children unable to answer, their voices lost to them with fear, the old woman went on. "All's well that ends well. I can see it's hunger that has led you to me; you're half starved weakened by your journey. Please, come in and eat and rest. I'm only too happy to have you as guests at my table."
Then, taking them both by the hand, Famine brought them into the house, and laid our for them a fantasy for famished dreams. There were tall glasses full of cold, frothy milk, and sugared pancakes with apples and nuts, cinnamon rolls and strawberry tarts, and cream-filled pastries iced with chocolate. When they'd had their fill, they found two beautiful little beds made with soft sheets, and piled with warm, down comforters stood ready for them. Hansel and Grettel lay down in their fresh, clean bedclothes, their stomachs full, their fears banished. Their heads no sooner hit their feather pillows than they were fast asleep.
Early the next morning, Grettel opened her eyes, and saw there, in a cage in the corner of the room, was her brother! While he was still sleeping peacefully, Famine had traded his bed for the cage, which had been hidden under blankets, and locked him inside.
"You Lazy-bones, get up!" Famine ordered Grettel, shaking her. "Fetch water and cook something for your brother. You both were half-starved and wanted nothing more than to eat until your bellies burst? You'll be pleased to hear your brother's going to eat until he is so sick of food he'll never want to see another bite. By then he will have fattened up nicely, and won't I have a grand feast for myself."
When the children began to cry, Famine only laughed the harder. "Did you think you could nibble on my house and not pay for it by having me nibble on you? If your parents find you a burden, take solace in the knowledge that at least your little lives haven't altogether counted for nothing. As I promised, I'm more than happy to have you at my table. "
Grettel saw that it was no use to plead for mercy; she had to do what Famine demanded.


  The best food was cooked for poor Hansel, but Grettel got nothing but small crayfish-shells as Famine had no plans to eat her, wanting the girl instead for a maid. Every morning Famine hobbled over to Hansel's cage, and cried, "Boy, put out your finger so I may feel how fat you're getting." And every morning, Famine exclaimed, "Fie, not done yet! What's taking so long, I can't imagine."
With Grettel's coaching, Hansel always stretched out a chicken bone, and Famine, whose eyes were dim, couldn't see how she was being deceived. Thinking that the bone was Hansel's finger, she wondered why he fattened so slowly and grumbled over what he cost her in sweets, fruits, nuts, cakes and cookies.
When four weeks had passed, the old Sugarhouse Woman finally lost patience. She was hungry, and decided she would go ahead and eat Hansel even if he was puny. She couldn't see that the boy had actually filled out nicely, and showed no trace of ever having been near starvation, his cheeks nice and round and rosy.
"Hi, Grettel," Famine called to the girl, "be quick and draw me some water. Tomorrow, I feast."
Needless to say, Grettel sobbed as she drew the water from the well. "If only we had been found first by the wild beasts of the forest and devoured by them, it would have been better than this," she cried.
The next morning, Grettel was woken up early, and instructed to hang up the kettle full of water and light the fire. Famine also had Grettel light the oven, for since Hansel had remained so boney, the old woman had decided she would eat Grettel as well. Of course, she didn't tell Grettel this. Instead, she told Grettel, pushing her toward the oven, "I will bake some bread to eat with your brother. You crawl in the oven to see if it's heating properly, and when the bread's done baking I'll give you a nice thick slice with a handsome slice of butter on it." When Grettel bent over to check inside the oven, Famine intended to shove her in and slam the door shut.
Grettel guessed the old woman's intentions, and said simply, "I don't know how to do it."
Famine asked, "What do you mean, you don't know how to do it?"
"I don't know how to do it," Grettel said.
Again, Famine asked, "What do you mean, you don't know how to do it? Climb into the oven, girl, and tell me if it's hot."
"I don't understand," said Grettel. "How do I get in?"


Enraged, Famine exclaimed, "You fool! The opening is big enough. See, I could get in myself." And so saying, she bent over and poked her head into the oven. Grettel, seizing the keys to Hansel's cage from Famine's belt, gave her a great shove from behind that sent Famine right in the oven, quickly shut the iron door, and drew the bolt. The oven was already quite hot, and Famine screamed horribly. It was a wretched sound, and one can scarce imagine how she had tolerated the shrieks of all the children she had likely baked in that same oven.
Grettel unlocked the cage in which Hansel had been imprisoned, and he hopped out. Free, the children fled outside.
Hansel and Grettel set out to find a path which would lead them out of the forest, and presently it seemed that the wood became more and more familiar to them. When they came finally to the edge of the forest, the two children looked on in amazement as the dry, withered fields disappeared, and in their place arose hill after hill of cereals and vegetables of all kinds. Now that Famine Maker was dead, the land was fruitful again and produced enough food for all.
And it was like that for many years thereafter, due to the bravery of Grettel and her brother Hansel.

Retelling by J. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm.

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