Their parents have no food anymore and bring their two children, Hansel and Gretel, into the forest to die. Will they ever see them again?
Hansel and Gretel is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about two siblings. Their parents have no food and leave them behind in the forest. The first time they find their way back using white pebbles, but the second time they are captured by a witch. They kill the witch before she eats them and return home with riches.
There is not enough food
A poor woodcutter lived with his wife and two children near a great forest. The boy was called Hansel and the girl Gretel.
They did not have much to eat, and when there was a great famine in the land, he could no longer buy their daily bread. At night he was thinking this over in bed, tossing and turning. He groaned and said to his wife, “What will happen to us? How can we feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?”
“I’ll tell you what we need to do, husband,” his wife answered, “Early in the morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest. We will light a fire for them. We will give each of them a piece of bread. And then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not be able to find the way back home, and we will be rid of them.
“No, wife,” the man said, “I will not do that. How could leave my children alone in the forest? With the wild animals, who surely would come and tear them to pieces!”
“You are a fool!” she said, “We will all four of us die of hunger. You can start making the planks for our coffins.”
She left him no peace until he consented. “I feel very sorry for the poor children though,” said the man.
The two children could not sleep because they were so hungry. They heard the conversation between their stepmother and father. Gretel wept bitter tears and said to Hansel, “Now all is over with us.”
Hansel has a plan
“Be quiet, Gretel,” Hansel said, “don’t get upset, I will find a way to help us.”
When the parents had fallen asleep, he got up, took his coat, opened the door and sneaked outside. The moon shone brightly and the white pebbles which lay in front of the house glittered like real silver coins. Hansel stooped and put as many of them as he could in the pocket of his coat.
He went back, said to Gretel, “Don’t worry, dear sister, sleep well, God will be with us” and lay down in his bed.
In the early morning, before the sun had risen the woman came and awoke the two children. “Get up, you sluggards! We are going into the forest to fetch wood.”
She gave each a little piece of bread and said, “Here, something for your dinner. Don’t eat it too soon, because you will not get anything else.”
The family goes to the forest
Gretel carried the bread under her apron, because Hansel’s pockets were already full of stones. They all set out together on the way to the forest.
Every time when they had walked a little, Hansel stood still and looked back at the house. His father said, “Hansel, what are you looking, why are you staying behind? Focus on where we are going, and use those legs.”
“Ah, father,” said Hansel, “I am looking at my little white cat. She is sitting on the roof and wants to say goodbye to me.”
The wife said, “Fool, that is not your little cat, that is the morning sun which is shining on the chimneys.”
Of course Hansel had not been looking at the cat, but was constantly throwing one of the white pebbles out of his pocket on the road.
When they had reached the middle of the forest, the father said, “Now, children, gather some wood, and I will light a fire that you may not be cold.”
Hansel and Gretel gathered brushwood together, a pile as high as a little hill. It was lighted and when the flames were burning very high, the woman said, “Now, children, lay yourselves down by the fire and rest, we will go into the forest and cut some wood. When we are done, we will come back to get you.”
Hansel and Gretel are left alone and find the way back
Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire. When noon came each ate a little piece of bread. They heard the strokes of the axe and believed that their father was still near. It was however not the axe, it was a branch which he had fastened to a withered tree. The wind was blowing it backwards and forwards.
When they had sat there a long time, their eyes shut and they fell asleep. When they awoke it was already dark night. Gretel began to cry. She said, “How are we to get out of the forest now?”
Hansel comforted her and said, “Just wait a little, until the moon has risen. We will soon find the way.”
When the full moon had risen, Hansel took his little sister by the hand. They followed the pebbles which shone like newly-coined silver pieces and showed them the way.
They walked the whole night long. By the break of dawn they arrived again at their father’s house. They knocked on the door. When the woman opened 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 were never coming back at all!”
The father inwardly rejoiced, for it had cut him to the heart to leave them behind.
Again hunger knocks at their door
Not long afterwards there was once more great scarcity in the region. The children heard their mother saying at night to their father, “Everything is eaten again. We have one half loaf left and after that there is nothing more. The children must go. We will take them farther into the wood, so that they will not find their way out again. It is the only way of saving ourselves!”
The man’s heart was heavy. He thought “it would be better if you shared the last mouthful with your children.”
The woman would not listen to anything he said. She scolded and reproached him. He who says A must say B, and so, as he had yielded the first time, he also yielded the second time.
The children were still awake and heard the conversation. When their parents were sleeping, Hansel got up again. He wanted to go out and pick up pebbles as he had done before. But the woman had locked the door and Hansel could not get out. Nevertheless he comforted his little sister, and said, “Do not cry, Gretel. Sleep well, the good God will help us.”
Hansel and Gretel are taken into the forest
Early in the morning the woman came and took the children out of their beds. Their bit of bread was given to them, but it was still smaller than the time before.
On the way into the forest Hansel crumbled his bread in his pocket. He often stood still and threw a morsel on the ground.
“Hansel, why are you stopping and looking around?” said his father, “come on.”
“I am looking back at my little pigeon which is sitting on the roof. She wants to say goodbye to me,” answered Hansel.
“Simpleton!” said the woman, “that is not your little pigeon, that is the morning sun that is shining on the chimney.”
Hansel continued and little by little threw all the crumbs on the path.
The woman led the children deeper and deeper into the forest, to a place where they had never been before. A great fire was made again, and the mother said, “Just sit there, you children. When you are tired you may sleep a little; we are going into the forest to cut wood. In the evening when we are done, we will come to get you.”
Hansel and Gretel are lost in the forest
When it was noon, Gretel shared her piece of bread with Hansel, who had scattered his by the way. They fell asleep. Evening came and went, but no one came to get the poor children. They did not awake until it was dark night. Hansel comforted his little sister and said, “Just wait, Gretel, until the moon rises. We shall see the crumbs of bread which I left. They will show us our way home again.”
When the moon came they set out, but they found no crumbs. The many thousands of birds which fly about in the woods and fields had picked them all up.
Hansel said to Gretel, “We shall soon find the way,” but they did not find it. They walked the whole night and all the next day too from morning till evening, but they did not get out of the forest. They were very hungry for they had nothing to eat but two or three berries, which they found on the ground. As they were so weary that their legs would carry them no longer, they lay down 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 got deeper into the forest. If help would not come soon, they would die of hunger and weariness.
A bird brings them to the gingerbread house
When it was midday they saw a beautiful snow white bird sitting on a bough. It sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened. When it had finished its song, it spread its wings and flew away before them. They followed it until they reached a little house, on the roof of which it sat down.
When they came up to the little house they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes. The windows were made of clear sugar.
“Oh, that’s something for us,” said Hansel, “we will have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, and you, Gretel, can eat some of the window. It will be sweet.”
Hansel reached up above and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted. Gretel leaned against the window and nibbled at the panes.
Suddenly a soft voice cried from the room,
“Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?”
The children answered,
“The wind, the wind,
The heaven-born wind,”
and went on eating like nothing happened.
Hansel thought the roof tasted very nice and tore down a great piece of it. Gretel pushed out the whole of one round window-pane, sat down, and enjoyed herself.
The children meet the witch
Suddenly the door opened. And a very, very old woman, who supported herself on crutches, came creeping out. Hansel and Gretel were so terribly frightened that they let fall what they had in their hands.
The old woman nodded her head and said, “Oh, you dear children, who has brought you here? Do come in. Stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.”
She took them both by the hand and led them into her little house. Good food was set before them. Milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts.
Afterwards two pretty little beds were covered with clean white linen. Hansel and Gretel lay down in them and thought they were in heaven.
The old woman had only pretended to be so kind. She was really a wicked witch, who lay in wait for children. She had only built the little house of bread in order to entice them there. When a child would fall into her power, she would kill it, cook and eat it; a real feast.
Now, witches have red eyes and cannot see far, but they have a good smell like the beasts and can smell human beings drawing near. When Hansel and Gretel came into her area, she had laughed maliciously, and had said mockingly, “I have them, they shall not escape me again!”
The wicked witch shows her true darkness
Early in the morning before the children were awake she was already up. When she saw both of them sleeping and looking so pretty, with their plump red cheeks, she muttered to herself, “That will be a tasty mouthful!”
She seized Hansel with her shriveled hand. She carried him into a little stable and locked him in with a grated door. All his screaming was useless.
She went to Gretel, shook her till she was awake, and shouted, “Get up, you lazy thing, fetch some water. And then cook something good for your brother. He is in the stable outside and we need to fatten him up. When he is fat I will eat him.”
Gretel began to cry and cry, but that didn’t matter. She was forced to do what the wicked witch ordered her.
The best food was cooked for poor Hansel, but Gretel got nothing but crab shells.
Every morning the woman crept to the little stable and cried, “Hansel, stretch out your finger. I want to feel if you are already getting fat.”
Smart Hansel stretched out a little bone to her and the old woman, who had dim eyes, could not see it, and thought it was Hansel’s finger. She was astonished that there was no way of fattening him.
After four weeks of Hansel staying thin she was seized with impatience and would not wait any longer. “Go, Gretel,” she shouted to the girl, “be active, and bring some water. Whether Hansel is fat or Hansel is lean, tomorrow I will kill him and cook him.”
Oh, how the poor little sister cried when she had to fetch the water. A river of tears flowed down over her cheeks.
“Dear God, help us,” she cried. “If only the wild beasts in the forest had devoured us, we would have died together.”
“Keep your wailing to yourself,” said the old woman, “it won’t help you.”
The killing of the witch
Early in the morning Gretel had to go out and hang up the cauldron with water and light the fire. “We will bake first,” said the old woman, “I have already heated the oven and kneaded the dough.”
She pushed poor Gretel out to the oven, from which flames of fire were already darting out. “Get in,” said the witch, “and see if it is properly heated so that we can put the bread in.”
Once Gretel was inside, she intended to shut the oven and let her bake in it. She wanted to eat her too. But Gretel saw what she had in her mind and said, “I do not know how I am to do it; how do you get in?”
“Silly goose,” the old woman said, “The door is big enough; just look, I can get in myself!” and she crept up and thrust her head into the oven. Gretel gave her a push that drove her far into the oven, shut the iron door and fastened the bolt.
Oh! The witch began to howl quite horribly, but Gretel ran away and the godless witch was miserably burnt to death.
Hansel and Gretel are going home
Gretel ran like lightning to Hansel, opened his little stable, and cried, “Hansel, we are saved! The old witch is dead!”
Hansel sprang out like a bird from its cage when the door is opened. They rejoiced, they embraced each other, they danced, they kissed. With the witch gone, their fear was gone. They went into her house and in every corner there stood chests full of pearls and jewels.
“These are far better than pebbles!” Hansel said and filled his pockets as full as possible. Gretel said, “I, too, will take something home with me,” and filled her apron. “Now we will go,” Hansel said, “let’s get out of this witch’s forest.”
They had walked for two hours and came to a big water. “We cannot get over,” Hansel said, “There is no foot plank and no bridge.”
“And no boat crosses either,” Gretel answered, “but a white duck is swimming there; if I ask her, she will help us over.” Then she cried,
“Little duck, little duck, can you see,
Hansel and Gretel, waiting for thee?
Nowhere a plank, or a bridge in sight,
Take us across on your back so white.”
The duck came to them and Hansel seated himself on its back. He told his sister to sit by him. “No,” Gretel replied, “that will be too heavy for the little duck; she shall take us across one after the other.” The good little duck did so.
When they were once safely across and had walked for a short time, the forest seemed to be more and more familiar to them. At last they saw from afar their father’s house. They began to run, rushed into the garden and threw themselves into their father’s arms.
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 apron until the floor was filled with pearls and precious stones. Hansel threw one handful after another out of his pocket to add to them.
All anxiety was gone and they lived together in perfect happiness.
Now my tale is done. Hey, there runs a mouse. Whosoever catches it may make himself a big fur cap out of it.
Tips for Telling
- For most people in the world the idea that your parents leave you in the woods is very cruel. It is important that the issue in the beginning is clear: what to do when there is no food? Don’t go too fast when telling the beginning of this fairy tale.
- The scene with the duck was added in later versions by the Brothers Grimm. When telling, you can leave it out if you want, it is not needed for the story.
- Is the mother in the beginning of this fairy tale their stepmother? There is some confusion in the text. A lot of stepmothers in the fairy tales from the collection of the Brothers Grimm were mothers in the first versions of these stories. In a time when a lot of children have a stepmother I find it personally difficult to tell stories of unkind uncaring stepmothers. I also don’t like the contrast between the father and the mother in this version of the fairy tale. And so I make choices in the way I tell this story to a live audience. You should make your own choices.
All Questions Answered
It was written down by the Brothers Grimm. They had various sources for this widespread folktale. It was told long before it was written down.
The Brothers Grimm included this story in 1812 in the first edition of their collection. In subsequent editions they edited the fairy tale, adding scenes and changing wording.
It’s a story about how to survive in difficult times. Stay together, don’t panic, but use your wits. That will help you survive tough times.
In the middle ages there were real famines, in which children were abandoned and sometimes even eaten. The roots of this fairy tale could very well be in one of these horrific events.
The parents of Hansel and Gretel were very poor. In a time of famine, there was not enough food for all of them. In desperation to save themselves they left them in the forest. The only alternative would be that all of them would have to see the others die.
No, the witch wants to eat them, but she does not succeed. Instead she gets baked in her own oven and they escape.
Gretel kills the witch in the oven and frees Hansel. Together they plunder the house of the witch and escape with pearls and precious stones. They cross a lake on the back of a duck and return home to their father, where they live happily ever after.
More useful information
- “Hansel and Gretel” on Wikipedia
- Annotations to this fairy tale on SurLaLune Fairytales
- Comparison of different versions of Hansel and Gretel