A poor woodcutter lived with his two children, Hansel and Gretel, beside a large forest. The children’s mother had died but, after a time the woodcutter married again.
There was never much to eat in the house, but then came the famine and there wasn’t even enough bread for the four of them.
One night, the woodcutter lay in bed, tossing and turning with worry. He sighed and said to his wife, “What will happen to us? How can we feed my poor children when we have barely enough for ourselves?”
His wife answered, “Listen. Tomorrow we’ll take the children deep into the forest and give them each a piece of bread. Then we’ll leave them there. They’ll never find the way home, and that way we won’t need to feed them.”
“No wife,” said the man, “I won’t do it. How could I leave my children alone in the woods? While animals would come and tear them to pieces.”
“You fool!” She said. “Then all four of us will starve.” And she gave him no peace until he agreed.
The children were too hungry to sleep, so they had overheard their stepmother. Gretel began crying and said, “Oh, Hansel. There’s no hope for us.”
“Don’t worry, Gretel,” said Hansel, “I’ll find a way.”
When the grown-ups were asleep, he got up, put in his jacket and crept outside. The moon was shining bright, and the pebbles on the ground glittered like silver coins, Hansel stuffed his pockets full of them.
At day break, the stepmother came and woke the children. “Get up, you lazy children. We’re going to the forest for wood.” Then she handed them each a piece of bread and said, “ This is for your lunch. Don’t eat it too soon; there won’t be any more.” Gretel put the bread in her apron, because Hansel had his pockets full of pebbles.
Then they all set out for the forest. But Hansel kept stopping and looking back. Each time he turned, he took a shiny pebble from his pocket and dropped it on the ground.
When they came to the middle of the forest, their father said, “Start gathering wood, children, and I’ll make a fire to keep you warm.”
Hansel and Gretel gathered twigs till they had a good pile. The fire was lit and, when the flames were high enough, the stepmother said, “ Now, children, lie down here and rest. We’re going into the forest to cut wood. When we’re done, we’ll come back for you.”
Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire, and at midday they ate their pieces of bread. They heard strokes of an axe, it was a branch he had tied to a dead tree, so it would sound like chopping when the wind blew it to and fro.
After some time, they were so tired that their eyes closed and they fell asaeep. When at last they awoke, night had fallen. 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 silver pieces and showed them the way home.
They walked all night and reached their father’s house as day was breaking. When the stepmother opened the door and saw them, she cried, “Wicked children! Why did you stay so long in the forest?” But their father was overjoyed, for he had been very unhappy since leaving them.
Time passed and the famine continued. The children heard their stepmother talking to their father in bed, “Everything has been eaten; we have only half a loaf of bread left. The children must go. We’ll take them even deeper into the forest, and this time they won’t find their way home. It’s our only hope.”
The husband was heavy hearted. He thought it would be better to share his last bite with his children. But the stepmother wouldn’t listen and only scolded him. Once you’ve said yes, it’s hard to say no, and so the woodcutter gave in again.
The children were awake and heard the conversation. When the grown-ups were asleep, Hansel got up again. He wanted to gather more pebbles, but the stepmother had locked the door so he couldn’t get out. Still, he comforted his little sister, saying, “Don’t cry, Gretel. God will help us.”
Early in the morning, the stepmother came and got the children out of bed. She gave them their pieces of bread, but this time smaller then before. On the way through the forest, Hansel kept turning back and dropping a few breadcrumbs on the ground.
The stepmother led the children to a place deep in the forest, where they had never been before. Again they made a fire, and she said, “Just sit here, children. If you get tired you can sleep. We’re going to cut wood, and this evening when we’ve finished, we’ll come and get you.”
At midday, Gretel shared her bread with Hansel, as he had scattered his on the grounds. They fell asleep and the afternoon passed, but no one came for the poor children.
It was after dark when they woke, and Hansel comforted his sister. “Gretel,” he said, “just wait till the moon rises. Then we’ll see the breadcrumbs I scattered and they’ll show us the way home.”
When the moon rose, they set out, but they didn’t find any breadcrumbs because all the birds of the forest had eaten them 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, and they were very hungry, for they had eaten only a few berries they picked from the bushes. When they were so tired their legs could carry them no further, they lay down under a tree and fell asleep.
Now it was the third morning since they had left their father’s house. They started out again, but wandered even 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, singing so beautifully that they stood still and listened. Then it flapped it’s wings and flew on ahead, and they followed until the bird came to a little house and perched on the roof.
Coming closer, they saw that the house was made of gingerbread, and the roof was made of cake and the windows of sparkling sugar. “let’s eat some,” said Hansel. “I’ll take a piece of the roof. You, Gretel, try some of the window. It looks 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 them, then a soft voice called from the inside, “Nibble, nibble, little mouse, who’s that nibbling at my house?”
The children answered, “It is only the wind, so wild.” And they carried on eating. Hansel so liked the taste of the roof, he broke off a big chunk, and Gretel took out a whole windowpane and sat down on the ground to enjoy it.
All at once, the door opened, and an old woman came hobbling out. Hansel and Gretel were so frightened, they dropped what they were eating. But the old woman nodded her head and said, “Oh, what dear children! However did you get here? Don’t be afarid, come in and stay with me.”
She took them by the hand and led them into her house. A fine meal of milk and pancakes, sugar, apples and nuts was set before them. 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 kind. She was really a wicked witch who tempted children in and then killed, cooked, and ate them up. She had built her house out of gingerbread to entice them. Witches have red eyes and can’t see very far, but they have a keen sense of smell and know when humans are coming.
Early the next morning, the witch got up, and when she saw the children sleeping, she muttered to herself, “What tasty morsels they will be!” She grabbed Hansel with her scrawny hand, carried him to a little shed and bolted the door. He screamed as loud as he could, but no one heard him.
Then the witch went back to Gretel, shook her awake and cried, “Get up, lazy, selfish child. You must fetch water and cook something for your brother. He’s locked in the shed and we will fatten him up. When he’s nice and plump I shall eat him,” Gretel wept bitterly, but she had to do what the wicked witch told her.
Every morning the witch went to the shed and said, “Hansel, hold out your finger. Let’s feel how fat you are getting.” But Hansel held out a bone. Because she couldn’t see well, she thought it was his finger. She wondered why he stayed so thin.
When four weeks had gone by the the boy was skinny as ever, she decided not to wait any longer. “Gretel,” she cried out. “Fetch water and don’t dawdle. Skinny or fat, I’m going to cook Hansel up tomorrow.”
The little girl wailed, and tears flowed down her cheeks! “Dear God,” she cried, “won’t you help us?”
“Stop that blubbering,” said the witch. “It won’t do you a bit of good.”
Early in the morning, Gretel had filled the kettle with water and lit the fire. “First we’ll do some baking,” said the witch. “I’ve heated the oven and kneaded the dough.” And she took poor Gretel out to the oven, which by now was spitting flames.
“Crawl in,” she said, “and see if it’s hot enough for bread.”
The witch was going to close the door on Gretel and roast her, so she could eat her too. But Gretel guessed what she must be thinking and said, “I don’t know how to get in.”
“Silly goose,” said the witch. “The door is big enough. Look. Even I can get in.”she crept to the oven and stuck her head in. At that moment Gretel gave her a great push, closed the iron door and fastened the bolt. How horribly the witch screeched as she burnt to death.
Gretel ran straight to Hansel, opened the door of the shed, and cried, “Hansel, we’re saved! The witch is dead.”
Hansel hopped out like a bird freed from a cage. How happy they were! They hugged and kissed each other and danced around. Now there was nothing to be afraid of, they went into the witches house and in every corner they found boxes of pearls and precious stones. Hansel stuffed his pockets full of them saying, “These will be much better then pebbles.” Gretel, too, filled her apron with them.
“We’d better leave now,” said Hansel, “and get out of this bewitched forest.”
They walked a long way, and came to a body of water. “How will we get across?” said Hansel. “There’s no bridge.”
“And no boat either,” said Gretel. “But over there I see a white duck. She’ll help us.” She cried out, “Duckling, please give us a ride.”
Sure enough, the duck came to them and took them across, one at a time.
When they were safely over and had walked on some way, the forest looked more and more familiar, and finally they saw their home in the distance. They began to run. They flew into the house and threw themselves into their fathers 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 her little apron, and the pearls and precious stones went bouncing around the room. Hansel reached into his pockets and tossed out handful after handful. Now all their worries were over, and they lived together happily ever after.