Near the borders of a large forest dwelt in olden times a poor wood-cutter, who had two children—a boy named Hansel, and his sister, Grethel. They had very little to live upon, and once when there was a dreadful season of scarcity in the land, the poor wood-cutter could not earn sufficient to supply their daily food.
One evening, after the children were gone to bed, the parents sat talking together over their sorrow, and the poor husband sighed, and said to his wife, who was not the mother of his children, but their stepmother, "What will become of us, for I cannot earn enough to support myself and you, much less the children? what shall we do with them, for they must not starve?"
"I know what to do, husband," she replied; "early to-morrow morning we will take the children for a walk across the forest and leave them in the thickest part; they will never find the way home again, you may depend, and then we shall only have to work for ourselves."
"No, wife," said the man, "that I will never do. How could I have the heart to leave my children all alone in the wood, where the wild beasts would come quickly and devour them?"
"Oh, you fool," replied the stepmother, "if you refuse to do this, you know we must all four perish with hunger; you may as well go and cut the wood for our coffins." And after this she let him have no peace till he became quite worn out, and could not sleep for hours, but lay thinking in sorrow about his children.
The two children, who also were too hungry to sleep, heard all that their stepmother had said to their father. Poor little Grethel wept bitter tears as she listened, and said to her brother, "What is going to happen to us, Hansel?"
"Hush, Grethel," he whispered, "don't be so unhappy; I know what to do."
Then they lay quite still till their parents were asleep.
As soon as it was quiet, Hansel got up, put on his little coat, unfastened the door, and slipped out The moon shone brightly, and the white pebble stones which lay before the cottage door glistened like new silver money. Hansel stooped and picked up as many of the pebbles as he could stuff in his little coat pockets. He then went back to Grethel and said, "Be comforted, dear little sister, and sleep in peace; heaven will take care of us." Then he laid himself down again in bed, and slept till the day broke.
As soon as the sun was risen, the stepmother came and woke the two children, and said, "Get up, you lazy bones, and come into the wood with me to gather wood for the fire." Then she gave each of them a piece of bread, and said, "You must keep that to eat for your dinner, and don't quarrel over it, for you will get nothing more."
Grethel took the bread under her charge, for Hansel's pockets were full of pebbles. Then the stepmother led them a long way into the forest. They had gone but a very short distance when Hansel looked back at the house, and this he did again and again.
At last his stepmother said, "Why do you keep staying behind and looking back so?"
"Oh, mother," said the boy, "I can see my little white cat sitting on the roof of the house, and I am sure she is crying for me."
"Nonsense," she replied; "that is not your cat; it is the morning sun shining on the chimney-pot."
Hansel had seen no cat, but he stayed behind every time to drop a white pebble from his pocket on the ground as they walked.
As soon as they reached a thick part of the wood, their stepmother said:
"Come, children, gather some wood, and I will make a fire, for it is very cold here."
Then Hansel and Grethel raised quite a high heap of brushwood and faggots, which soon blazed up into a bright fire, and the woman said to them:
"Sit down here, children, and rest, while I go and find your father, who is cutting wood in the forest; when we have finished our work, we will come again and fetch you."
Hansel and Grethel seated themselves by the fire, and when noon arrived they each ate the piece of bread which their stepmother had given them for their dinner; and as long as they heard the strokes of the axe they felt safe, for they believed that their father was working near them. But it was not an axe they heard—only a branch which still hung on a withered tree, and was moved up and down by the wind. At last, when they had been sitting there a long time, the children's eyes became heavy with fatigue, and they fell fast asleep. When they awoke it was dark night, and poor Grethel began to cry, and said, "Oh, how shall we get out of the wood?"
But Hansel comforted her. "Don't fear," he said; "let us wait a little while till the moon rises, and then we shall easily find our way home."
Very soon the full moon rose, and then Hansel took his little sister by the hand, and the white pebble stones, which glittered like newly-coined money in the moonlight, and which Hansel had dropped as he walked, pointed out the way. They walked all the night through, and did not reach their father's house till break of day.
They knocked at the door, and when their stepmother opened it, she exclaimed: "You naughty children, why have you been staying so long in the forest? we thought you were never coming back," But their father was overjoyed to see them, for it grieved him to the heart to think that they had been left alone in the wood.
Not long after this there came another time of scarcity and want in every house, and the children heard their stepmother talking after they were in bed. "The times are as bad as ever," she said; "we have just half a loaf left, and when that is gone all love will be at an end. The children must go away; we will take them deeper into the forest this time, and they will not be able to find their way home as they did before; it is the only plan to save ourselves from starvation." But the husband felt heavy at heart, for he thought it was better to share the last morsel with his children.
His wife would listen to nothing he said, but continued to reproach him, and as he had given way to her the first time, he could not refuse to do so now. The children were awake, and heard all the conversation; so, as soon as their parents slept, Hansel got up, intending to go out and gather some more of the bright pebbles to let fall as he walked, that they might point out the way home; but his stepmother had locked the door, and he could not open it. When he went back to his bed he told his little sister not to fret, but to go to sleep in peace, for he was sure they would be taken care of.
Early the next morning the stepmother came and pulled the children out of bed, and, when they were dressed, gave them each a piece of bread for their dinners, smaller than they had had before, and then they started on their way to the wood.
As they walked, Hansel, who had the bread in his pocket, broke off little crumbs, and stopped every now and then to drop one, turning round as if he was looking back at his home.
"Hansel," said the woman, "what are you stopping for in that way? Come along directly."
"I saw my pigeon sitting on the roof, and he wants to say good-bye to me," replied the boy.
"Nonsense," she said; "that is not your pigeon; it is only the morning sun shining on the chimney-top."
But Hansel did not look back any more; he only dropped pieces of bread behind him, as they walked through the wood. This time they went on till they reached the thickest and densest part of the forest, where they had never been before in all their lives. Again they gathered faggots and brushwood, of which the stepmother made up a large fire. Then she said, "Remain here, children, and rest, while I go to help your father, who is cutting wood in the forest; when you feel tired, you can lie down and sleep for a little while, and we will come and fetch you in the evening, when your father has finished his work."
So the children remained alone till mid-day, and then Grethel shared her piece of bread with Hansel, for he had scattered his own all along the road as they walked. After this they slept for awhile, and the evening drew on; but no one came to fetch the poor children. When they awoke it was quite dark, and poor little Grethel was afraid; but Hansel comforted her, as he had done before, by telling her they need only wait till the moon rose. "You know, little sister," he said, "that I have thrown breadcrumbs all along the road we came, and they will easily point out the way home."
But when they went out of the thicket into the moonlight they found no breadcrumbs, for the numerous birds which inhabited the trees of the forest had picked them all up.
Hansel tried to hide his fear when he made this sad discovery, and said to his sister, "Cheer up, Grethel; I dare say we shall find our way home without the crumbs. Let us try." But this they found impossible. They wandered about the whole night, and the next day from morning till evening; but they could not get out of the wood, and were so hungry that had it not been for a few berries which they picked they must have starved.
At last they were so tired that their poor little legs could carry them no farther; so they laid themselves down under a tree and went to sleep. When they awoke it was the third morning since they had left their father's house, and they determined to try once more to find their way home; but it was no use, they only went still deeper into the wood, and knew that if no help came they must starve.
About noon, they saw a beautiful snow-white bird sitting on the branch of a tree, and singing so beautifully that they stood still to listen. When he had finished his song, he spread out his wings and flew on before them. The children followed him, till at last they saw at a distance a small house; and the bird flew and perched on the roof.
But how surprised were the boy and girl, when they came nearer, to find that the house was built of gingerbread, and ornamented with sweet cakes and tarts, while the window was formed of barley-sugar. "Oh!" exclaimed Hansel, "let us stop here and have a splendid feast. I will have a piece from the roof first, Grethel; and you can eat some of the barley-sugar window, it tastes so nice." Hansel reached up on tiptoe, and breaking off a piece of the gingerbread, he began to eat with all his might, for he was very hungry. Grethel seated herself on the doorstep, and began munching away at the cakes of which it was made. Presently a voice came out of the cottage:
"Munching, crunching, munching,
Who's eating up my house?"
Then answered the children:
and went on eating as if they never meant to leave off, without a suspicion of wrong. Hansel, who found the cake on the roof taste very good, broke off another large piece, and Grethel had just taken out a whole pane of barley-sugar from the window, and seated herself to eat it, when the door opened, and a strange-looking old woman came out leaning on a stick.
Hansel and Grethel were so frightened that they let fall what they held in their hands. The old woman shook her head at them, and said, "Ah, you dear children, who has brought you here? Come in, and stay with me for a little while, and there shall no harm happen to you." She seized them both by the hands as she spoke, and led them into the house. She gave them for supper plenty to eat and drink—milk and pancakes and sugar, apples and nuts; and when evening came, Hansel and Grethel were shown two beautiful little beds with white curtains, and they lay down in them and thought they were in heaven.
But although the old woman pretended to be friendly, she was a wicked witch, who had her house built of gingerbread on purpose to entrap children. When once they were in her power, she would feed them well till they got fat, and then kill them and cook them for her dinner; and this she called her feast-day. Fortunately the witch had weak eyes, and could not see very well; but she had a very keen scent, as wild animals have, and could easily discover when human beings were near. As Hansel and Grethel had approached her cottage, she laughed to herself maliciously, and said, with a sneer: "I have them now; they shall not escape from me again!"
Early in the morning, before the children were awake, she was up, standing by their beds; and when she saw how beautiful they looked in their sleep, with their round rosy cheeks, she muttered to herself, "What nice tit-bits they will be!" Then she laid hold of Hansel with her rough hand, dragged him out of bed, and led him to a little cage which had a lattice-door, and shut him in; he might scream as much as he would, but it was all useless.
After this she went back to Grethel, and, shaking her roughly till she woke, cried: "Get up, you lazy hussy, and draw some water, that I may boil something good for your brother, who is shut up in a cage outside till he gets fat; and then I shall cook him and eat him!" When Grethel heard this she began to cry bitterly; but it was all useless, she was obliged to do as the wicked witch told her.
For poor Hansel's breakfast the best of everything was cooked; but Grethel had nothing for herself but a crab's claw. Every morning the old woman would go out to the little cage, and say: "Hansel, stick out your finger, that I may feel if you are fat enough for eating." But Hansel, who knew how dim her old eyes were, always stuck a bone through the bars of his cage, which she thought was his finger, for she could not see; and when she felt how thin it was, she wondered very much why he did not get fat.
However, as the weeks went on, and Hansel seemed not to get any fatter, she became impatient, and said she could not wait any longer. "Go, Grethel," she cried to the maiden, "be quick and draw water; Hansel may be fat or lean, I don't care, to-morrow morning I mean to kill him, and cook him!"
Oh! how the poor little sister grieved when she was forced to draw the water; and, as the tears rolled down her cheeks, she exclaimed: "It would have been better to be eaten by wild beasts, or to have been starved to death in the woods; then we should have died together!"
"Stop your crying!" cried the old woman; "it is not of the least use, no one will come to help you."
Early in the morning Grethel was obliged to go out and fill the great pot with water, and hang it over the fire to boil. As soon as this was done, the old woman said, "We will bake some bread first; I have made the oven hot, and the dough is already kneaded." Then she dragged poor little Grethel up to the oven door, under which the flames were burning fiercely, and said: "Creep in there, and see if it is hot enough yet to bake the bread." But if Grethel had obeyed her, she would have shut the poor child in and baked her for dinner, instead of boiling Hansel.
Grethel, however, guessed what she wanted to do, and said, "I don't know how to get in through that narrow door."
"Stupid goose," said the old woman, "why, the oven door is quite large enough for me; just look, I could get in myself." As she spoke she stepped forward and pretended to put her head in the oven.
A sudden thought gave Grethel unusual strength; she started forward, gave the old woman a push which sent her right into the oven, then she shut the iron door and fastened the bolt.
Oh! how the old witch did howl, it was quite horrible to hear her. But Grethel ran away, and therefore she was left to burn, just as she had left many poor little children to burn. And how quickly Grethel ran to Hansel, opened the door of his cage, and cried, "Hansel, Hansel, we are free; the old witch is dead." He flew like a bird out of his cage at these words as soon as the door was opened, and the children were so overjoyed that they ran into each other's arms, and kissed each other with the greatest love.
And now that there was nothing to be afraid of, they went back into the house, and while looking round the old witch's room, they saw an old oak chest, which they opened, and found it full of pearls and precious stones. "These are better than pebbles," said Hansel; and he filled his pockets as full as they would hold.
"I will carry some home too," said Grethel, and she held out her apron, which held quite as much as Hansel's pockets.
"We will go now," he said, "and get away as soon as we can from this enchanted forest."
They had been walking for nearly two hours when they came to a large sheet of water.
"What shall we do now?" said the boy. "We cannot get across, and there is no bridge of any sort."
"Oh! here comes a boat," cried Grethel, but she was mistaken; it was only a white duck which came swimming towards the children. "Perhaps she will help us across if we ask her," said the child; and she sung, "Little duck, do help poor Hansel and Grethel; there is not a bridge, nor a boat—will you let us sail across on your white back?"
The good-natured duck came near the bank as Grethel spoke, so close indeed that Hansel could seat himself and wanted to take his little sister on his lap, but she said, "No, we shall be too heavy for the kind duck; let her take us over one at a time."
The good creature did as the children wished; she carried Grethel over first, and then came back for Hansel. And then how happy the children were to find themselves in a part of the wood which they remembered quite well, and as they walked on, the more familiar it became, till at last they caught sight of their father's house. Then they began to run, and, bursting into the room, threw themselves into their father's arms.
Poor man, he had not had a moment's peace since the children had been left alone in the forest; he was full of joy at finding them safe and well again, and now they had nothing to fear, for their wicked stepmother was dead.
But how surprised the poor wood-cutter was when Grethel opened and shook her little apron to see the glittering pearls and precious stones scattered about the room, while Hansel drew handful after handful from his pockets. From this moment all his care and sorrow was at an end, and the father lived in happiness with his children till his death.