This month: fairy tales from ancient Egypt!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A fairy tale about food, or the lack of it: Hänsel and Gretel

The woodcutter and his family, Veneto, c. 1890.
Fratelli Alinari Museum of the History of Photography, Florence/Italy (Click on picture to enlarge.)

Grimm’s Fairy Tale No. 15: Hänsel and Gretel

A poor woodcutter lived with his wife and two children at the edge of a deep forest. The boy was named Hänsel and the girl Gretel. The man had nothing to eat or drink. Because a terrible famine ravaged the land, he could no longer find his daily bread. As he lay in bed that night thinking, he tossed and turned.

Sighing he said to his wife “What shall become of us? We cannot provide for our poor children because we don’t have anything for ourselves!”

“Listen husband,” the wife replied, “Tomorrow in the very early hours we shall take both children into the woods where the trees are the thickest. We shall light a fire and give them each a piece of bread. Then we shall go to work and leave them alone. They will not be able to find their way home and we shall be rid of them.”

“No wife,” the husband replied. “I won’t do it. How could I bring myself to abandon my own children in the forest? The wild animals would soon come and rip them to shreds.”

“Oh, you fool,” she replied, “Then all four of us must die of hunger; you should start now and mill the boards for our coffins.”

She did not leave him in peace until he consented. But the two children could not fall asleep because of their hunger and had heard everything that their step-mother had said to their father.

Gretel cried bitter tears and said to Hänsel, “Now we’re in trouble!”

“Be still, Gretel. Do not be afraid. I will do something to help us.”

And when the old folks had fallen asleep, he got up, put on his jacket, opened the lower part of the cottage door and slipped through it. The moon shone brightly and the white stones lying in front of the cottage glimmered like pennies. Hänsel knelt down and filled his jacket pockets with has many as he could cram inside. Then he returned home and said to Gretel, “Be comforted, dear sister, and sleep peacefully. God will not abandon us.” And he lay down again in bed.

When day was breaking but before the sun had risen, the woman came and woke both children. “Get up you lazy children. We shall go into the forest and cut wood.” Then she gave them each a piece of bread and said “You have something for your noon day meal, but don’t eat it before then, for you won’t be getting anything more.”

Gretel took the bread and placed it under her apron because Hänsel had the stones in his pocket. Then they all made their way into the forest. When they had walked a short distance, Hänsel stopped and looked back at the cottage again and again.

The father spoke “Hänsel, why are you looking back and staying behind. Pay attention and don’t forget to move your legs.”

“Oh father. I am looking for my white kitten, which is sitting on the roof and wants to say good bye to me.”

The woman spoke “Fool, that is not your kitten. It is the morning sun shining on the chimney.” But Hänsel was not looking for his kitten. Instead, he was dropping one of the smooth pebbles from his pocket onto the path.

When they had arrived in the middle of the forest, the father spoke. “Gather wood, children. I want to make a fire so that you are not cold.” Hänsel and Gretel gathered brushwood and made a small stack.

The fire was ignited and as the flame burned high, the woman said “Now lie down near the fire and rest. We shall go into the forest and cut wood. When we are finished, we shall return for you.”

Hänsel and Gretel sat down by the fire and when noon came, they each ate their little piece of bread. And because they heard the sound of an axe chopping wood, they believed their father was near. But it wasn’t the wood axe it was a branch, which their father had bound to a dead tree. And the wind blew it back and forth and it made a beating sound. Because they had sat still so long, their eyes fell shut in fatigue and they were soon fast asleep. When they finally awoke it was darkest night.

Gretel began to cry and said “How shall we now find our way out of the wood?”.

But Hänsel consoled her: “Wait a bit until the moon has risen. Then we shall find the way.” And when the moon rose, he took his little sister by the hand and followed the trail of pebbles. They lay there glistening like newly minted coins and showed the way. The children walked the entire night and as daylight was breaking, they arrived once more at their father’s house. They knocked on the door and when the woman opened and saw that it was Hänsel and Gretel, she spoke

“You evil children, why did you sleep so long in the forest? We thought you didn’t want to return ever again.” But their father rejoiced when he saw his children, because leaving them all alone had broken his heart.

It was not long after when there was despair in every corner of the house. The children heard how the mother spoke to the father at night in bed “Everything has been eaten. We only have half a loaf of bread. After that, the song is over. The children must go; we shall bring them deeper into the woods so that they cannot find their way out again. Otherwise, nothing can save us.”

The man was sorely troubled and he thought ““It is better to share your last morsel with your children. But the woman would not listen to what he said and scolded him and accused him. And so it was: whoever agrees once, must agree again. Because the woodcutter had given in the first time, he had to give in a second time also.

But the children were awake and had heard their parents’ conversation. Hänsel got up and wanted to gather pebbles again, but when he went to the door, he found the woman had locked it and he could not get out. But he comforted his little sister and said “Do not cry, Gretel, and go to sleep. Sleep peacefully, dear God will help us.”

Early the next morning the woman came and got the children out of bed. They both received their little crust of bread, but it was even smaller than before. On the path, Hänsel broke it into crumbs in his pocket. He often stood still and threw the crumbs on the ground. “Why are you always stopping, Hänsel, and looking around? Go your way,” the father said.

“I am looking for my little dove, which is sitting on the roof and wants to say goodbye,” Hänsel said.

“You fool,” the mother said. “That isn’t a dove, that is the morning sun shining on the chimney.” But Hänsel crumbled all of his bread and threw the crumbs on the path.

The woman led them even deeper into the woods to a place she had never seen in her entire life. Once again an enormous fire was made and the mother said “Stay here children and when you are tired, you may sleep a bit. We will go into the forest and chop wood. In the evening, when we are finished, we shall return and fetch you.”

When it was noon, Gretel shared her bread with Hänsel, who had scattered his pieces over the path. Then they fell asleep and evening came, but no one returned for the poor children. They awoke in the darkest night and Hänsel consoled his sister and said “Wait Gretel until the moon rises. Then we will see the bread crumbs, which I scattered. They will show us the way home.”

When the moon had risen, they started out but they could not find any crumbs. The many thousands of birds, who fly in forest and field, had pecked them all away.

Hänsel said to Gretel “We will find the way.” But they did not find it. They walked an entire night and day from morning until evening, but they never came out of the forest. They were enormously hungry because they only found a few berries lying on the ground. And because they were so tired, they lay down under a tree and went to sleep.

It was now the third morning since they had left their father’s house. They started to walk again but only found themselves deeper and deeper in the wood. If help did not arrive soon, they would soon fade away.

When it was noon, they saw a beautiful, snow-white bird sitting on a branch. It sang so beautifully that they stopped and listened. When it was done, it beat its wings and flew away. They followed until they reached a little house and the bird landed on its roof. When the children came very close, they saw that the cottage was built of bread and covered with cake. But the windows were made of bright sugar.

“Let’s dig in,” Hänsel said, “and have a blessed meal. I will eat a piece of the roof, Gretel you can eat from the window, it’s sweet.” Hänsel reached up and broke off a bit of the roof to try how it tasted. Gretel stood in front of the window and nibbled at the panes. A fine voice called from inside the cottage

“Crunch, crunch, crouse!
Who’s nibbling on my little house?”

The children replied

“It’s the wind,
The wind so wild,
The heavenly child,”

And they continued eating with abandon. Hänsel, who thought the roof tasted very good, tore off a large piece and Gretel pulled out a large, round window pane, sat down and enjoyed the food. At once the door fell open and there stood a woman as old as the hills. She supported herself on a crutch and walked out slowly. Hänsel and Gretel were so afraid that they let their morsels drop from their hands. But the old woman shook her head and said “Dear children, who brought you here? Come inside and stay with me. You shall not be harmed.” She took both by the hand and led them inside her little house. There, a splendid table was prepared with ample food, milk and pancakes with sugar-sweets, apples and nuts. Afterward they were led to two pretty little beds made up in white. Hänsel and Gretel lay down and thought they were in heaven.

The old woman was so cordial but in fact she was a witch who lay in wait for children. She had only built the house of gingerbread to lure them in. When one fell under her power, she killed it, cooked and ate it. And this was her feast day. Witches have red eyes and cannot see far, but they have a keen sense of smell. Like animals, they notice when people approach. When Hänsel and Gretel came close, she laughed scornfully “Now I have you and you shall not escape again.” Early in the morning before the children awoke, she was already up and when she saw them resting so peacefully, with full red cheeks, she murmured to herself “They shall be tasty morsels.” She grabbed Hänsel in her boney hand and put him in a stall and locked him in with a barred door. Cry as he may, it didn’t help him. Then she went to Gretel and shook her awake and called “Get up, you lazy bones! Fetch water and cook a good meal for your brother. He is sitting outside in the stall and will fatten up. When he is plump enough, I shall eat him.” Gretel began to cry bitterly but it was all for naught. She had to do what the evil witch commanded.

Now the best food was prepared for Hänsel, but Gretel got nothing but empty crab shells. Every morning the old woman crept to the little cage and called “Hänsel, stick out your finger so that I can feel whether you shall soon be fat.” But Hänsel extended a little bone and the old woman, who had weak eyes, could not see and thought it was Hänsel’s finger. She was amazed that he was not gaining weight. When four weeks had passed and Hänsel remained lean, impatience overcame the witch and she would not wait any longer. “Now, Gretel,” she called to the maiden, “Be quick and carry water. Hänsel may be fat or lean, but tomorrow I shall slaughter and cook him.”

Ach, how the poor little sister wept and wailed when she carried the water. The tears flowed from her eyes and fell down her cheeks. “Dear God, do help us,” she cried “If only the wild animals had devoured us in the woods, then at least we would have died together.”

“Spare me your blather,” the old woman said “None of it will help you now.”

Early in the morning Gretel had to go out and fill the pot with water and hang it over the fire. “First we shall bake,” the old woman said. “I have already heated the oven and kneaded the dough!” She pushed poor Gretel out to the oven, from which the flames of fire could already be seen lapping the edges. “Creep inside,” the witch said and see whether the oven is hot enough so that we can push the bread inside.” When Gretel was inside, she would shut the oven door and Gretel would roast inside and then she would also eat her. But Gretel noticed what she had in mind and said “I don’t know how I could do that. How will I get inside?”

“Dumb goose,” the old woman said. “The opening is large enough. Don’t you see, I could slip in myself,” and she crawled forward and put her head in the oven. Gretel gave her a shove so that she fell in and closed the iron door and lowered the latch. Hu! She began to scream horribly. But Gretel ran away and the godless witch burned to death miserably.

Now Gretel ran to Hänsel and opened up the little door of his stall and cried “Hänsel we are saved, the old witch is dead!” Hänsel jumped out like a bird free of its cage when the door is opened. How happy they were, hugged each other, jumped around and kissed! And because they no longer needed to fear, they went to the house of the witch and in every corner they found boxes with pearls and beautiful gems.

“These are much better than pebbles,” Hänsel said, and filled his pockets with as many as he could.

Gretel said “I also want to bring something home,” and filled her apron full.

“But now, let us leave,” Hänsel said, “so that we get out of the witch’s forest.” They had only walked a few hours when they reached an enormous body of water. We can’t pass over and there is also no bridge.”

“And no ship sails here,” Gretel answered, “but a white duck is swimming and if I ask, she might help us cross.” They called,

Little duck, little duck,
Hänsel and Gretel stand
Where no plank or bridge land.
So take us on your little white back.”

The duck came and Hänsel sat on its back and then asked his sister to sit beside him. “No,” Gretel replied “It will be too heavy for the duck. He shall bring us over one after another.” And the good animal did just that. When they were happily on the other side and had walked a time, the forest began to seem more familiar to them. Finally they spied from afar the house of their father. They began to run, pushed through the door and rushed inside. There they fell around their father’s neck. The man hadn’t had a happy hour since he left his children in the forest. But his wife had died. Gretel shook out her apron pockets and pearls and bright gems bounced around the room. Then Hänsel threw one handful after another out of his pocket. Their sorrow and misfortune had ended. Now they lived together in pure joy.

My story is over and there runs a mouse. Whoever can catch it, can make a big, big fur cap.


Read more about the fairy tale:

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/reading-hansel-and-gretel-journey-of.html


http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/09/reading-hansel-and-gretel-stepmother.html

http://www.fairytalechannel.com/2009/10/god-is-bread-in-this-german-legend.html

Translation copyright fairytalechannel.com
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