Hard by a great forest, dwelt a poor woodcutter with his wife and his two children. The boy was called Haensel and the girl, Grethel. He had little to bite and to break; and once when great scarcity fell on the land, he could no longer procure daily bread.
Now, when he thought over this by night in his bed, and tossed about in his anxiety, he groaned and said to his wife, “What is to become of us? How are we to feed our poor children, when we no longer have anything even for ourselves?”
“I'll tell you what, Husband,” answered the woman, “early to-morrow morning we will take the children out into the forest to where it is the thickest; there we will light a fire for them, and give each of them one piece of bread more. Then we will go to our work and leave them alone. They will not find the way home again, and we shall be rid of them.”
“No, Wife,” said the man, “I will not do that. How can I bear to leave my children alone in the forest?—the wild animals would soon come and tear them to pieces.”
“Oh, you fool!” said she. “Then we must all four die of hunger. You may as well plane the planks for our coffins.”
And she left him no peace until he consented. “But I feel very sorry for the poor children, all the same,” said the man.
The two children had also not been able to sleep for hunger, and had heard what the woman had said to their father.
Grethel wept bitter tears, and said to Haensel, “Now all is over with us.”
“Be quiet, Grethel,” said Haensel, “do not distress yourself, I will soon find a way to help us.”
And when the old folk had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his little coat, opened the door below, and crept outside. The moon shone brightly, and the white pebbles, which lay in front of the house, glittered like real silver pennies. Haensel stooped and put as many of them in the little pocket of his coat as he could possibly get in.
Then he went back and said to Grethel, “Be comforted, dear little Sister, and sleep in peace. God will not forsake us,” and he lay down again in his bed.
When day dawned, but before the sun had risen, the woman came and awoke the two children, saying, “Get up, you sluggards! we are going into the forest to fetch wood.” She gave each a little piece of bread, and said, “There is something for your dinner, but do not eat it up before then, for you will get nothing else.”
Grethel took the bread under her apron, as Haensel had the stones in his pocket. Then they all set out together on the way to the forest. When they had walked a short time, Haensel stood still and peeped back, and did so again and again while61 he was throwing the white pebble-stones one by one out of his pocket onto the road.
When they had reached the middle of the forest, the father said, “Now, Children, pile up some wood, and I will light a fire that you may not be cold.”
Haensel and Grethel gathered brushwood together, as high as a little hill. The brushwood 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 have done, we will come back and fetch you away.”
Haensel and Grethel sat by the fire, and when noon came, each ate a little piece of bread; and, as they heard the strokes of the wood-axe, they believed that their father was near. It was, however, not the axe, it was a branch which he had fastened to a withered tree which the wind was blowing backward and forward. And as they had been sitting such a long time, their eyes shut with fatigue, and they fell fast asleep.
When at last they awoke, it was already dark night. Grethel began to cry and said, “How are we to get out of the forest now?”
But Haensel comforted her, and said, “Just wait a little, until the moon has risen, and then we shall soon find the way.”
And when the full moon had risen, Haensel took his little sister by the hand, and followed the pebbles which shone like newly-coined silver pieces, and showed them the way.
They walked the whole night long, and, by break of day, came once more to their father's house. They knocked at the door; and when the woman opened it and saw that it was Haensel and Grethel, 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, however, rejoiced, for it had cut him to the heart to leave them behind alone.
Not long afterward, there was another famine in all parts, and 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 an end. The children must go, we will take them farther into the wood, so that they will not find their way out again. There is no other means of saving ourselves!”
The man's heart was heavy, and he thought “it would be better for you to share the last mouthful with your children!” The woman, however, would listen to nothing that he had to say, but scolded and reproached him. He who says A must say B, likewise, and as he had yielded the first time, he had to do so a second time also.
The children were, however, still awake and had heard the conversation. When the old folk were asleep, Haensel again got up to go out and pick up pebbles. But the woman had locked the door, and Haensel could not get out. Nevertheless he comforted his little sister, and said, “Do not cry, Grethel, go to sleep quietly, the good God will help us.”
Early in the morning, came the woman, 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, Haensel crumbled his in his pocket, and often stood still and threw a morsel on the ground, and little by little, threw all the crumbs on the path.
The woman led the children still deeper into the forest, where they had never in their lives been before. Then a great fire was again made, and the mother said, “Just sit there, you Children, and 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 and fetch you away.”
When it was noon, Grethel shared her piece of bread with Haensel, who had scattered his by the way. Then they fell asleep, and evening passed, but no one came to the poor children.
They did not awake until it was dark night, and Haensel comforted his little sister and said, “Just wait, Grethel, until the moon rises, and then we shall see the crumbs of bread which I have strewn. They will show us our way home again.”
When the moon came, they set out, but they found no crumbs, for the many thousands of birds, which fly about in the woods and fields, had picked them all up. Haensel said to Grethel, “We shall soon find the way,” but they did not find it.
They walked the whole night and all the next day, from morning till evening, but they did not get out of the forest, and were very hungry, for they had nothing to eat but two or three berries, which grew on the ground. And 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 did not come soon, they must die of hunger and weariness!
When it was midday, they saw a beautiful Snow-White Bird sitting on a bough, which sang so delightfully that they stood still and listened to it. And 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 alighted.
When they came quite up to the little House they saw that it was built of bread and covered with cakes, but that the windows were of clear sugar.
“We will set to work on that,” said Haensel, “and have a good meal. I will eat a bit of the roof, and you, Grethel, can eat some of the window; it will taste sweet.”
Haensel reached up and broke off a little of the roof to try how it tasted. Grethel leant against the window and nibbled at the panes. Then a soft voice cried from the room:
Nibble, nibble, gnaw!
Who nibbles at my door?
but the children went on eating without disturbing themselves. Haensel, who thought the roof tasted very nice, tore down a great piece of it. Grethel pushed out the whole of one round window-pane, sat down, and enjoyed herself with it.
Suddenly the door opened, and a very, very old woman, leaning on crutches, came creeping out. Haensel and Grethel were so terribly frightened that they let fall what they had in their hands.
The Old Woman, however, nodded her head, and said, “Oh, you dear Children, who has brought you here? Do come in, and stay with me. No harm shall happen to you.”
65 She took them both by the hand, and led them into her little house. Then she set good food before them, milk and pancakes, with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterward she covered two pretty little beds with clean white linen, and Haensel and Grethel 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, and who had built the little bread house in order to entice them there. When a child fell into her power, she killed it, cooked, and ate it; and that was a feast-day with her.
Witches have red eyes, and cannot see far, but they have a keen scent like the beasts', and are aware when human beings draw near. When Haensel and Grethel came into her neighborhood, she laughed maliciously, and said mockingly, “I have them, they shall not escape me again!”
Early in the morning before the children were awake, she was up. And when she saw both of them sleeping and looking so pretty, with their plump red cheeks, she muttered to herself, “That will be a dainty mouthful!”
Then she seized Haensel with her shrivelled hand, carried him into a little stable, and shut him in with a grated door. He might scream as he liked, that was of no use!
Then she went to Grethel, shook her till she awoke, and cried, “Get up, lazy thing, fetch some water, and cook something good for your brother. He is in the stable outside, and is to be made fat. When he is fat, I will eat him.”
Grethel began to weep bitterly. But it was all in vain, she was forced to do what the wicked Witch ordered her.
And now the best food was cooked for poor Haensel, while Grethel got nothing but crab-shells. Every morning the woman crept to the little stable, and cried, “Haensel, stretch out your finger that I may feel if you will soon be fat.”
When four weeks had gone by she was seized with impatience and would not wait any longer. “Ho, there! Grethel,” she cried to the girl, “be active, and bring some water. Let Haensel be fat or lean, to-morrow I will kill him, and cook him.”
Ah! how the poor little sister did lament when she had to fetch the water, and how her tears did flow down over her cheeks! “Dear God, do help us,” she cried. “If the wild beasts in the forest had but devoured us, we should at any rate have died together!”
“Just keep your noise to yourself,” said the Old Woman, “all that won't help you at all.”
Early in the morning, Grethel had to go out and hang up the cauldron, full of 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 Grethel out to the oven, from which flames of fire were darting.
“Creep in,” said the Witch, “and see if it is properly heated, so that we can shut the bread in.” And when once Grethel was inside, she intended to shut the oven and let her bake in it, and then eat her, too.
But Grethel saw what she had in her mind, and would not creep in. “Silly Goose,” said the Old Woman; “the door is big enough. Just look, I can get in myself!” and she crept up and thrust her head in. Then she fell over into the oven and was miserably burnt to death.
Grethel, however, ran as quick as lightning to Haensel, opened his little stable, and cried, “Haensel, we are saved! The old Witch is dead!”
Then Haensel sprang out like a bird from its cage, when the door is opened for it. How they did rejoice and embrace each other, and dance about and kiss each other! And as they had no longer any need to fear her, they went into the Witch's house, and in every corner there stood chests full of pearls and jewels.
“These are far better than pebbles!” said Haensel, and thrust into his pockets whatever could be got in.
And Grethel said, “I, too, will take something home with me,” and filled her pinafore full.
“But now we will go away,” said Haensel, “that we may get out of the Witch's forest.”
When they had walked for two hours, they came to a great piece of water. “We cannot get over,” said Haensel, “I see no foot-plank, and no bridge.”
“And no boat crosses either,” answered Grethel, “but a white duck is swimming there. If I ask her, she will help us over.” Then she cried:
Little Duck, little Duck, dost thou see,
Haensel and Grethel are waiting for thee?
There's never a plank, nor a bridge in sight,
Take us across on thy back so white.
The duck came to them, and Haensel seated himself on her back, and told his sister to sit by him. “No,” replied Grethel, “that will be too heavy for the little duck. She shall take us across, one after the other.”
The good little duck did so, and 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 length, they saw from afar their father's house. Then they began to run, rushed into the parlor, 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.
Grethel emptied her pinafore until pearls and precious stones ran about the room, and Haensel threw one handful after another out of his pocket to add to them. Then all trouble was at an end, and they lived together in perfect happiness.
My tale is done, there runs a mouse, whosoever catches it, may make himself a big, big fur cap out of it!