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Hansel and Gretel

Hänsel und Gretel

Retold by Stuart Oswald using historical texts and his own time honoured memories of being told this truly historical tale.

All material used here are the copyright of their respective owners.

This document is for educational purposes only.


Once upon a time,

Leaving home

Back to the wilderness

Heathens

Sanctuary

Wicked witch

Walpurgisnacht

Their passage

Word from the Author

My connection with Hansel and Gretel

Contact me

Symbolism and Interpretations

Questions


Once upon a time,

Next to a great forest there lived a poor woodcutter with his wife and two children. The boy's name was Hansel and the girl's name was Gretel. The woodcutter had come upon such hard times that he could barely provide the daily bread for for his wife and his two children.

One evening as he was lying in bed worrying about his problems, his wife said to him, "Listen, my man, early tomorrow  we can take the two children, give each of them a little piece of bread, then lead them deep into the dark forest, make a fire for them, and leave them there, for we can no longer feed ourselves let alone them.".


        "No, woman," said the woodcutter, "I cannot bring myself to abandon my own children alone in the woods to the wolves and bears that would quickly tear them to pieces.".


        "If you don't do it," said the woman, "all of us will starve to death,". She gave him no peace until he said yes with a heavy heart, for he loved his sweet little children dearly.


        However, the two children were still awake from hunger and had heard everything that their mother had said to their father.


        Gretel cried bitter tears and said to Hansel, "It is over with us!" "Be quiet, Gretel," said Hansel, "and don't worry. I know what to do.".


        And as soon as the adults had fallen asleep, he quietly got out of bed, pulled on his jacket, opened the lower door, and crept outside.


        The moon was shining brightly, and the white pebbles in front of the house were glistening like the stars in the sky. Hansel crouched down and filled his pockets with them, as many as would fit.


        Then he went back to Gretel and said, "Don't worry, Gretel. I have plan. Sleep well. God will surely not forsake us.". Then he went back to bed and to sleep.

Leaving home

At daybreak, just before sunrise, the mother came and woke the two children. "Get up, you lazy children! We are going into the woods today to fetch wood." Then she gave them each a thin slice of bread, saying, "Here is something for midday. Don't eat it any sooner than that, for you'll not get any more.".


        Gretel put their bread under her apron, because Hansel's pockets were full of stones. Then they all set off together into the woods.


        After they had walked a little way, Hansel began stopping again and again and looking back toward their house.


        The father said, "Hansel, why are you repeatedly stopping and looking back? Pay attention now, and keep up with us.".


        "Oh, father," said Hansel, "I am looking at my white cat that is sitting on the roof and wants to say goodbye to me.".

The mother added, "You fool, that isn't your cat. That's the morning sun shining on the chimney.".

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However, Hansel had not been looking at a cat but instead had been dropping the shiny pebbles from his pocket onto the path they were walking.


        When they arrived in the middle of the woods, their father said to them, "You children gather some wood, and I will make a fire so you won't freeze.".


        Hansel and Gretel gathered together some twigs, a pile that seemed to them, as high as a small mountain.


        Their father set lite to the twigs, and when the flames were burning well, their mother said, "Lie down by the fire and rest. We will go into the woods to cut wood. Wait here, when we are finished, we will come back to collect you.".

Hansel and Gretel sat by the fire. When midday came each one ate their little piece of bread.

Because they could hear the blows of an ax, they thought that their father was nearby. However, it was not an axe! It was a log that he had been tied to a dead tree and that the wind was blowing back and forth against its hollow trunk. Evening came, their eyes grew weary and could not keep them open, then they fell sound asleep. While they slept, no wolves or bears came near as if being protected by the angels themselves.

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When they finally awoke, it was night. Gretel began to cry and said, "How will we get out of these woods and back home?".
Hansel comforted her, "Wait a little until the moon comes up, then we will find our way.".

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After the full moon had come up, Hansel took his sister by her hand.


        They followed the pebbles that Hansel had dropped the morning before. They glistened on the ground in the moonlight like newly minted coins, leading them them on their way home.

They walked through the entire night, and as morning was breaking, they arrived back home at last.


        The father was overjoyed when he saw his children once more, because he had not wanted to leave them alone to the forest. The mother pretended that she too was happy, but secretly she was angry.

Back to the wilderness

Soon there was once again another great famine across the land, and one evening the children heard their mother say to their father, "Again we haven’t enough food for us all. We have only a half loaf of bread left, and then the song will be over for us all as we will starve. We are already skin and bones. We must get rid of the children. We will take them deeper into the woods, so they will not find their way out again. Otherwise there will be no help for us.".


        The man was very distressed, and again he thought it better to share his last bread with his children.


        But his wife would not listen to him, she scolded him, and criticised him.


        And because he had given in once before, he could not say no her this time as well.

The children were still awake and had overheard the conversation again.

When the adults were asleep, Hansel got up and wanted to gather pebbles as he had done the last time, but their mother had locked the door, and Hansel could not get out.

Still he comforted his Gretel and said, "Don't cry, Gretel. Sleep well. God will help us.".


        Early the next morning the woman came and woke the children from their beds. Again they each received their little pieces of bread, though this time it was even less than they had the last time.

On the way through the woods, Hansel crumbled the bread to small pieces in his pocket, and would often stop to throw the crumbs onto the ground as they went.


        "Hansel, why are you always stopping and looking around?", said his father. "Keep walking straight ahead and keep up.", he told Hansel.


        "Oh!, I can see my white pigeon sitting on the roof. It wants to say goodbye to me.", explained Hansel.

But their mother exclaimed, "You fool,", "that isn't your pigeon. That's the morning sun shining on the chimney.".


        But little by little Hansel kept stopping to drop the crumbs onto their path.


        The mother took them deeper into the woods than they had ever been before. Across valleys and over hills. Farther and farther, deeper and deeper into the dark forest.

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Once again a large fire was made, and the mother said to them, "Sit here, children. If you get tired you can sleep a little. We are going into the woods to cut wood. We will come and get you in the evening when we are finished.".


        At midday Gretel shared her bread with Hansel, because he had scattered all of his along their path.

Then they fell asleep, and evening passed, but no one came to collect the poor children.

Heathens

It was dark when they awoke, and Hansel comforted Gretel and said, "Wait, when the moon comes up I will be able to see the crumbs of bread that I had scattered, and they will show us our way back home."


        When the moon appeared they got up and looked around, but they could not find any of the crumbs! The many birds that live in the woods had pecked them all up.

Hansel thought that he would still be able to find the way home, and he and Gretel set forth, but they soon became totally lost in the wilderness of the great mysterious forest.

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They walked through the night and all through the next day, and then, exhausted, they fell asleep. When they awoke again, they walked for another day, but they just could not find their way out of the woods. All the while they had not encountered a soul or even a trodden path. They were truly lost in the wilderness.

By this time they were terribly hungry, for they had only eaten a few small berries and nuts that were about the ground. And because they were so tired that their little legs would no longer carry them, they lay down under a tree, kept each other warm and fell asleep for the third night in the forest.

It was already the fourth morning since they had left their father's house. They started walking again, but managed only to go yet deeper into the woods. If help did not come soon, they would surely perish.

Sanctuary

By midday they saw a gleaming snow-white bird sitting on a branch before them. It sang so beautifully that they stopped to listen. When it finished it stretched its wings and flew out in front of them. They followed it until they came to a little house! The bird sat on the roof, and when Hansel and Gretel approached, they saw that the small house was built entirely of bread with a roof made of cake, the houses was decked with sweets and the windows were made of clear sugar!


        They screamed with joy running right up to the house. Hansel said to Gretel,
"Let's help ourselves and eat all the sweets that we please,". "I'll eat a piece of the roof, and Gretel, you eat from the window. That will be sweet for you.".

Hansel reached up and broke off a little of the roof to see how it tasted and Gretel stood next to the windowpanes and was nibbling at them. Then all of a sudden, she heard a gentle voice calling out from inside the house:


Nibble, nibble, little mouse,
Who is nibbling at my house?

The children answered:


The wind,

the wind so wild,
blowing like,

the heavenly child.

They continued to eat, without being distracted. Hansel, who very much liked the taste of the roof, tore down another large piece, and Gretel poked out an entire round windowpane.

Suddenly the door opened! Hansel and Gretel were so frightened that they dropped what they were holding in their hands. But they saw a frail little woman, as old as the hills, creeping out from the door.

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The old woman shook her head and said, "Oh, you dear children, where have you come from? Do, come inside and stay with me a little. No harm will come to you."


        She took them each, either side of her, by the hand and led the poor, hungry and tired children into her house.


        Then she served them a rich meal: milk and pancakes with sugar, apples, and nuts. Afterward she made two nice little beds for them, decked in white.

Hansel and Gretel went to bed, thinking they were in heaven.

Wicked witch

But the old woman had only pretended to be friendly. She was in fact a wicked witch who was lying in wait for children.


        She had built her house of sweets to lure lost and hungry children to her, and if she captured a child, she would kill them, cook them, and eat them; and for her that will be a day to celebrate. Witches love the taste of innocent little children.

Witches have red eyes and cannot see very far, but they have a sense of smell that is as good as some animals, and can smell when humans are near.

        So she was overjoyed that Hansel and Gretel had found their way to her. "Now I have them. They will not get away from me.", cackled the witch.


        Early the next morning, before they awoke, she got up, went to their beds, and looked at the two of them lying there so peacefully innocent.


        "They will be a good mouthful," said the witch to herself under her breath.

Then she picked up Hansel and placed him into a small stall, when he awoke, he found himself in a cage with metal bars, locked up like a dog, where he could walk a few paceses. Cry as he might, there was no help for him.


        Then she shook Gretel and shouted, "Get up, you lazy girl! Fetch water. Go into the kitchen and cookup something to eat. Your brother is locked in that stall there. I want to fatten him up, and when he is nice and fat I am going to eat him!"


        Gretel was frightened and began to cry, but she had to do as the hungry witch demanded.


        From now Hansel was given the best things to eat every day, to fatten him up, but Gretel received nothing but crayfish shells.


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Every day the old woman came to the cage door and ordered, "Hansel, stick out your finger, so I can feel if you are fat enough to eat yet!"


        But clever Hansel stuck out a little bone, and the old witch, who had bad eyes and could not see the bone, and thought it was Hansel's finger, and she wondered why he just didn’t get fat.

Walpurgisnacht

Eventually, when four weeks had passed and Hansel was still no fatter, impatience overcame the witch, and she would wait no longer! She screamed to the Gretal, "Hurry up and fetch some water. Whether Hansel is fat or thin, tomorrow I am going to boil him and eat him!"

With a sad heart Gretel cried with tears streaming down her face as she fetched the water in which Hansel was to be boiled.

"Dear God, please help us," Gretel prayed. "If only those wild animals had devoured us in the woods, then we would have died together.". "Save your slobbering," said the witch. "It will not help you or your brother at all.".

        The next morning Gretel had to get up early, hang up and fill the kettle with water, and make a fire.


        "First we are going to bake,", explained the witch. "I have already made a fire in the oven and kneaded the dough.". Gretel stood in the kitchen and cried tears of blood and would not have to be boiling the water that would kill her dear brother; and she prayed, "Dear God, save us poor children.".


        Then the witch pushed poor Gretel outside to the oven, from which fiery flames were leaping.


        "Climb in," said the witch, "and see if the big oven is hot enough to put the bread in yet.".


        But once Gretel was inside, the witch intended to close the door, and bake her in the hot oven, to eat her with Hansel as well! That is what the wicked witch was thinking..


        However, God let Gretel know this and so she said, "I don't know how to do that. First show me.".

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"You brainless girl," said the witch! "The opening is big enough. See, I myself could get in." And she crawled up, stuck her head into the oven. Then Gretel gave her an almighty shove, pushing the witch right into the burning cauldron of fire inside the oven. Then quickly she closed the iron door and secured it with an iron bar.

The witch began to scream, howl and wail frightfully, trying to get out. But Gretel ran, and the godless witch fanned and burned amid the raging flames of the closed oven!

Their passage

Gretel ran straight to her brother Hansel, unlocked his cage, and cried out, "Hansel, we are saved. The old witch is dead!". Then Hansel jumped out, like a bird freed from its cage! How happy they were! They threw their arms around each other's necks, jumping and dancing with joy, and kissing and hugging one another. They were overjoyed to be free again.


        Because they now had nothing to fear from the burnt witch, they went through her house. In every corner were chests of pearls, diamonds, silver and gold.


        "These are better than pebbles," said Hansel, filling his pockets. Gretel replied, "I will take some home with me as well," and she filled her apron full.

"But now we must leave," said Hansel, "and get out of these evil-woods."

        After walking a few hours they arrived at a swollen gushing stream. "We cannot get across," said Hansel. "I cannot see a walkway or a bridge.". "There are no boats here either," answered Gretel, " but seemingly like an angel there is a beautiful radiant swanling swimming towards us. If I ask him, perhaps he will help us across.".

She called out:

Swanling, swanling,
Here stand Gretel and Hansel.
Neither a walkway nor a bridge,
Take us onto your white back.

The swanling came up to them, Hansel asked his sister to sit with him. "No,", answered Gretel. "That would be too heavy for the swanling. He should take us across one at a time.".


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That is what the good animal did, and when they were safely upon the other side, and had walked on a little while farther, the woods grew more and more familiar to them, and finally they saw their father's house in the distance. Then they began to run, rushing inside, and throwing their arms around the father's neck with love in their hearts.

        Their father had not had one happy hour since he had left his children in the woods. However, their mother had also died. Gretel shook out her apron, scattering pearls and precious stones across the room, and Hansel added to them by throwing one handful after another out from his pockets.

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In each other's embrace, all their cares in the world were at an end, to hunger no more, and they lived happily together ever after.

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My tale is done,
A mouse has run.

And whoever catches it can make for himself from it a large, large fur cap.


Word from the Author

This should be a favourite story to many of us adults. However, there are a vast array of versions and translations of this story available with frankly none of which being a good translation or adaptation (in my opinion). In 2012 after seeking a written version to read with my own child, I set about sourcing the best version that held true to my own memories. Memories of my being told orally in German by my Mother and Grandmother, who themselves received this tale from my great grandmother who in turn received it from our forefathers stemming from the Bohemian Forest (Böhmerwald), never with a book in sight - passed orally through our generations down to me. A historically mysterious region between Bavaria and the Czech, akin to the great forest of the tale itself, no later than the 18th century and certainly much earlier to that also. To date I have not found a version or translation that meets the mystery and fright that I encountered from this story as a child. I set about producing this light work to assist anyone else seeking an authentic translation with a relevant contemporary meaning to expressions therein. The story is meant to be scary, warn and educate its audience. There are a great deal of symbolisms and metaphors that are not immediately apparent. I ask that when you read this tale to any young mind, you emphasis the evil motive of the witch and the cruel necessity of their mother. Be sure to rejoice with the good news at the end and assure that all is well again.

My connection with Hansel and Gretel

I would like to share with you now a photo from my own family. The lady is my great grandmother, her name was Hilde. She came from deep within the Böhmerwald. She had seventeen children fifteen of which made it past their infanthood. Her husband coincidentally was a woodcutter. But unlike the story you have just read, they were not hard up and had plenty to eat. Preserving a vast array of traditional foods for long hard winters within the forest. The young man photographed here is one of her sons and the younger boy and girl are only two of her many grandchildren. I have never met them and I know that my great grandmother’s offspring and spread themselves far and wide across the globe. I don’t actually know their names. But, I have always wondered about this pair in this photo. Without maliciousness or attempting to sound crass or slander my dear great grandmother, I like to think of this pair as my Hansel and Gretel and picture them in my mind when hearing this Hansel and Gretel story.

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Contact me

Any comments, suggestions or queries regarding any part of this tale and its additional material please contact me through this link here: stuartoswald.com/contact.


Symbolism and Interpretations

Hansel and Gretel (sometimes Grethel) is a famous fairy tale from the collection of brothers Grimm. It has amazing history and offers many astonishing interpretations. I would be most grateful if anyone the wiser had further symbolisms or interpretations to share with me. I would be happy to revise this offering with your evaluated contribution.

The story about Hansel and Grethel is full of symbols and they offer numerous explanations.

We'll try to briefly explain only few of them to give you the clue about the impressive depth in this famous fairy tale. Some other symbols, like the forest setting, are explained in this analysis of Red Riding Hood.

Forest - Most of the people in medieval or pre-medieval times lived near forests. People's existence was closely related to wood from practically forever, but forests also represent the unknown, and serious, danger. In psychoanalysis a forest symbolizes the unconsciousness.

Bread - its representation of life is clear. The scarcity of bread is a direct threat of death. Bread crumbles in Hansel and Gretel and shows how fragile and insecure their lives were. But looking at the connection of bread with wheat and its life cycle bread can also be understood as a symbol of resurrection.

White pebbles - they represent innocence. Ancient Greeks used such stones the at anonymous voting and the meaning was: not guilty. Analytical psychologists interpret them as the children's denial to be changed. They went into the woods to be transformed but white pebbles help them to come back. When they lose the access to them (their mother had locked their door), there is no way back anymore.

Oven - it is a representation of a womb. It offers a possibility of birth (or in this case rebirth), but also death if an already born person gets back in (refuses to grow up).

Birds - there are numerous mentions of the birds in the fairytale of Hansel and Gretel. Boy lies he is looking at the pigeon (can represent home) when they are leaving home, birds eat the crumbs to prevent kids returning home for the second time and a bird leads them to the witch's hut. A bird's bone is important element helping the kids surviving a few days in captivity. Finally a bird (it is a duck in some and a swan in other versions) helped Gretel and Hansel to get home. Birds can symbolise freedom, prophecy, joy, immortality and human spirit. This story has all of these. Needless to add birds have white colour to emphasize their spiritual mission.

Water - after the transformation (Hansel and Gretel actually grow up in the witch's house) kids must pass the water if they want to get home. This alludes death (think about Hades in Greek mythology) but also rebirth (think about baptism in Christianity).


Questions

Along the way a number of questions have been asked. I attempt to answer them and summarise my answers where possible. Please understand that I am speaking from my own experience with this tale and some of the answers hold more weight with my handed down version of this story. You are free to contact me with any suggestions, additional information or mere corrections.

Q. Who is the older, Hansel or Gretel?

  1. There is no right or wrong to this, as age is not mentioned. Common school of thought however alludes to Gretel being the younger. From me being told the story from young, I was always of the opinion that they were of equal age. Later, my thinking evolved into believing they were twins. I suppose you are free in making this up for yourselves.

Q. Where is this story from?

  1. For me it is a very traditional German tale and as far as I feel it, its origin is quintessentially Germanic. There is analysis that this tale’s themes were prevalent in the balkans. However, no proof is offered. Nor is it likely that such categorical proof is possible.

Q. Why the many references to God?

  1. Truth is that in print they were added by the Grimms. The second truth is that Europeans were very spiritual like all civilisations. Europe through to Scandinavia became Christian as far back as the middle ages. Thus it is fair to say that considering this as an actual tale from the people who themselves were living in and practising their faith in deep Christian societies or at the very least spiritual at the edges of where this tale is estimated to have originated from, have a Christian theme (Good/Evil) and references to prayer is totally in keeping with the civilisation of the time and even through to our own civilisation as it is today.

Q. Is there a hint of sex?

  1. No

Q. Why does the doorway to Hansel and Gretel’s room have a lower door.

  1. This is in keeping with a stable or barn. Further to this, such doors open outwards and would be secured closed/locked with an iron bar from the outside. I think this might further symbolism with how the witch was also locked within her space with an iron bar come to come to her fate within the oven.

Q. Why does this version include the swan on their journey across the water instead of the duck.

  1. Good question. I have always been told it was a swan. I think it might be because swans were the animal of favour in Bavaria. This comes about after their own King Ludwig II, a king sometimes referred to as the swan king. The king was an important aspect to all his subjects and his infatuation with swans most probably rubbed off on my story tellers. I admit a duck would have been in keeping with a more established traditional telling of the story. However this is a personal time honoured account of the story that was passed on to me orally. With that it is to be expected that the tellers not reading from text would have adapted the story. It is their right to do so as well. As any story told, ultimately belongs to the storyteller.

Q. Can we look at Gretel as a figure for modern feminism.

  1. If you wish. Although that may not be doing the character of our Gretel justice. My view of her is that she loves her brother and received strength from him when herself and Hans needed it, with her repaying his strength when he and they together needed it to overcome their collective predicament. They are typical brother and sister looking out for each other as a team. I think the story is obviously above gender politics and speaks more of a healthy brother and sister relationship. They are equals in their own right.

Q. Is the woman the real mother of Hansel and Gretel or a step-mother?

  1. This doesn’t need to be as complicated as some make it out to be. I always was of the understanding that she was indeed their maternal mother. Just a horrid one, that by our standards today quite possibly couldn’t do that to her own children. It is possible that mothers could do such a thing to their own children as we hear from time to time in our own and others’ societies. Then couple that we the terrible famines that happen throughout human history. There are reports that families were driven to such measures as is the case in this tale. Some reports even go as far as cannibalism. So yes, I am happy to conclude that she was most probably their maternal mother. Even if she was indeed their stepmother the children will still most probably have referred to her as their mother. I believe I have reflected this term from my memory correctly in the telling of the story here.

Q. Is the mother or the witch metaphorically one and the same?

  1. Proud to say that this is something that I figured out in my early years. I remember questioning it of my story tellers but getting little grins and evasive remarks. I can in my heart say that the mother is the witch. Now, that’s not to say that I think she dashed over to another house that she made of cake and fed them loads of food because back in her other house they were dying of starvation. The mother was for them the hand of the punishing famine a genuine witch to themselves and their happiness. Their woe of the lives went at the same time as their mother and the witch reached their demise.

Q. Were they really taken to the woods to fend for themselves?

  1. No, is the short answer.
  2. Yes, is the long answer (in their minds).
    They were taken on this horrifying ordeal especially for such young, innocent and easily led minds. I’d say they journeyed in and around the woods, and the feelings of dashed joy and despair were actually all within their home with it’s confines of hunger and despair. Their home life was most probably in this situation metaphorically the cage that hansel was trapped in in the witches lair. Gretel felt more distanced but coped better mentally. Nevertheless, for them the mother was the cause of all their family’s woes. Not as the breadwinner but as the bread giver, denying them their daily bread. Denying them love and care. Their father not being wholeheartedly on his wife’s side, pitched them against their mother.

Q. What is the moral of the story?

  1. When the need is greatest, God the Lord puts out His hand.
  2. Don’t trust strangers.