Once upon a time, in a kingdom called Grimm, an old king lay on his deathbed. He was Hansel and Gretel’s grandfather—but he didn’t know that, for neither Hansel nor Gretel had been born yet.
Now hold on a minute.
I know what you’re thinking.
I am well aware that nobody wants to hear a story that happens before the main characters show up. Stories like that are boring, because they all end exactly the same way. With the main characters showing up.
But don’t worry. This story is like no story you’ve ever heard.
You see, Hansel and Gretel don’t just show up at the end of this story.
They show up.
And then they get their heads cut off.
Just thought you’d like to know.
The old king knew he was soon to pass from this world, and so he called for his oldest and most faithful servant. The servant’s name was Johannes; but he had served the king’s father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father so loyally that all called him Faithful Johannes.
Johannes tottered in on bowed legs, heaving his crooked back step by step and leering with his one good eye. His long nose sniffed at the air. His mouth puckered around two rotten teeth. But, despite his grotesque appearance, when he came within view, the old king smiled and said, “Ah, Johannes!” and drew him near.
The king’s voice was weak as he said, “I am soon to die. But before I go, you must promise me two things. First, promise that you will be as faithful to my young son as you have been to me.”
Without hesitation, Johannes promised.
The old king went on. “Second, promise that you will show him his entire inheritance—the castle, the treasures, all this fine land—except for one room. Do not show him the room with the portrait of the golden princess. For if he sees the portrait he will fall madly in love with her. And I fear it will cost him his life.”
The king gripped Johannes’s hand. “Promise me.”
Again Johannes promised. Then the wrinkles of worry left the king’s brow, and he closed his eyes and breathed his last.
Soon the prince was crowned as the new king. He was celebrated with parades and toasts and feasts all throughout the kingdom. But, when the revelry finally abated, Johannes sat him down for a talk.
First, Johannes described to him all of the responsibilities of the throne. The young king tried not to fall asleep.
Then he explained that the old king had asked him to show the young king his entire inheritance—the castle, the treasures, all this fine land. At the word treasures the young king’s face lit up. Not that he was greedy. It was just that he found the idea of treasures exciting.
Finally, Johannes tried to explain his own role to the young king. “I have served your father, and your father’s father, and your father’s father’s father before that,” Johannes said. The young king started calculating on his fingers how that was even possible, but before he could get very far, Johannes had moved on. “They call me Faithful Johannes because I have devoted my life to the Kings of Grimm. To helping them. To advising them. To under-standing them.”
“Understanding them?” the young king asked.
“No. Under-standing them. In the ancient sense of the word. Standing beneath them. Supporting them. Bearing their troubles and their pains on my shoulders.”
The young king thought about this. “So you will under-stand me, too?” he asked.
“No matter what?”
“Under any circumstances. That is what being faithful means.”
“Well, under-stand that I am tired of this, and would like to see the treasures now.” And the young king stood up.
Faithful Johannes shook his head and sighed.
They began by exploring every inch of the castle—the treasure crypts, the towers, and every single room. Every single room, that is, save one. One room remained locked, no matter how many times they passed it.
Well, the young king was no fool. He noticed this. And so he asked, “Why is it, Johannes, that you show me every room in the palace, but never this room?”
Johannes squinted his one good eye and curled up his puckered, two-toothed mouth. Then he said, “Your father asked me not to show you that room, Your Highness. He feared it might cost you your life.”
I’m sorry, I need to stop for a moment. I don’t know what you’re thinking right now, but when I first heard this part of the story, I thought, “What, is he crazy?”
Maybe you know something about young people, and maybe you don’t. I, having been one myself once upon a time, know a few things about them. One thing I know is that if you don’t want one to do something—for example, go into a room where there’s a portrait of an unbearably beautiful princess—saying “It might cost you your life” is about the worst thing you could possibly say. Because then that’s all that young person will want to do.
I mean, why didn’t Johannes say something else? Like, “It’s a broom closet. Why? You want to see a broom closet?” Or, “It’s a fake door, silly. For decoration.” Or even, “It’s the ladies’ bathroom, Your Majesty. Best not go poking your head in there.”
Any of those would have been perfectly sufficient, as far as I can tell.
But he didn’t say any of those things. If he had, none of the horrible, bloody events to follow would ever have happened.
(Well, in that case, I guess I’m glad he told the truth.)
“Cost me my life?!” the young king proclaimed with a toss of his head. “Nonsense!” He insisted he be let into the room. First he demanded. But Johannes refused. Then he commanded. Still Johannes refused. Then he threw himself on the floor and had a fit, which was very unbecoming for a young man the king’s age. Finally, Faithful Johannes realized there was little he could do. So, wrinkling his old, malformed face into a wince, he unlocked and opened the door.
The king burst into the room. He found himself staring, face-to-face with the most beautiful portrait of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life. Her hair looked like it was spun from pure gold thread. Her eyes flashed like the ocean on a sunny day. And yet, around her lips, there was a hint of sadness, of loneliness.
The young king took one look at her and fainted dead away.
Later, in his room, he came to. Johannes hovered over his bed. “Who was that radiant creature?” the king asked.
“That, Your Majesty, is the golden princess,” Johannes answered.
“She’s the most beautiful woman in the world,” the young king said.
And Johannes answered, “Yes, she is.”
“And yet she looked almost sad. Why is that?”
Johannes took a deep breath, and replied, “Because, young king, she is cursed. Every time she has tried to marry, her husband has died; and it is said that a fate worse than death is destined for her children, if ever she should have any. She lives in a black marble palace, topped with a golden roof, all by herself. And, as you can imagine, she is terribly lonely and terribly sad.”
The king sat straight up in his bed and grabbed the front of Faithful Johannes’s tunic. And though he stared into the old man’s face, he saw only the princess’s ocean-bright eyes and her lips ringed with sadness. “I must have her,” he said. “I will marry her. I will save her.”
“You may not survive,” Johannes said.
“I will survive, if you help me. If you are faithful to me, if you under-stand me, you’ll do it.”
Johannes feared for the young king’s life. But he had under-stood the young king’s father, and his father’s father, and his father’s father’s father before that. What could he say?
Johannes sighed. “I’ll do it.”
It was widely known that in all the golden princess’s days of loneliness, the only thing that gave her any modicum of happiness was gold. So Johannes told the king to gather all of the gold in the kingdom and to command his goldsmiths to craft the most exquisite golden objects that the world had ever seen. Which soon was done.
Then Johannes disguised himself and the king as merchants and loaded a ship with the golden goods. And they set off for the land of the golden princess.
As their ship’s prow split the sea, Johannes tutored the king in his part: “You’re a gold merchant, Your Majesty. The princess has always loved gold, but these days, it is the only thing that gives her any joy. So when I bring her to the ship, charm her not only with your gentle manners and fine looks, but also with the gold. Then, perhaps, she will be yours.”
When they landed, the king readied the ship and tended to his merchant costume, while Johannes, carrying a few golden objects in his bag, made his way to the towering ramparts of black marble where the golden princess lived. He entered the courtyard, and there discovered a serving girl retrieving water from a well with a golden bucket.
“Pretty maid,” he said, smiling his kind but unhandsome smile, “do you think your lady might be interested in such trifling works of gold as these?” And he produced two of the finest, most exquisite golden statuettes that man’s hand has ever made.
The girl was stunned by their beauty. She took them from Johannes and hurried within. Not ten minutes had elapsed before the golden princess herself emerged from the castle, holding the statuettes in her hands. She was as gorgeous as her portrait—more so in fact—and as she greeted Johannes, her golden hair flashed in the light and her ocean-blue eyes danced with pleasure. Still, around her lips there was sadness.
“Tell me, old man,” she said, “are these really for sale? I’ve never seen anything so beautiful, so fine.”
Faithful Johannes bowed. “But there is more, fair princess, much more. My master’s ship is full of such wonders. And they can be yours, if you will just accompany me down to the harbor.”
The princess hesitated for a moment—since her last husband-to-be had died, she had not set foot outside the palace. But the allure of the gold was too strong. She threw a shining traveling cloak over her shoulders and followed Johannes to the boat.
The young king, in his disguise as a merchant, greeted her. Her beauty was so stunning, her sadness so apparent and so tender, that he nearly fainted again. But somehow he did not, and she smiled at him and invited him to show her all the treasures he had brought to her fair land.
As soon as they had descended below the deck, Johannes hurried to the captain of the ship, and, in whispered tones, instructed him to cast off from shore and set sail for home immediately.
Now, my young readers, I know just what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Hmmm. Stealing a girl. That’s an interesting way of winning her heart. Allow me to warn you now that, under any other circumstances, stealing a girl is about the worst way of winning her heart you could possibly cook up.
But, because this happened long ago, in a faraway land, it seems to have worked.
For the golden princess came back up to the deck and saw that her land was far away from her. At first she did indeed protest, and fiercely, too, that she’d been carried away by lowborn merchants. But when one of the “merchants” revealed himself to be a king, and revealed that, in addition, he was madly in love with her, and when, besides, Johannes assured her that, if she really wanted to, she could go home, but she couldn’t take the gold if she did, the princess realized that in fact the young king was just the kind of man she would like to marry after all, and decided that she’d give the whole matrimony thing one last shot.
And they all lived happily ever after.
Are there any small children in the room? If so, it would be best if we just let them think this really is the end of the story and hurried them off to bed. Because this is where things start to get, well . . . awesome.
But in a horrible, bloody kind of way.
As the ship plowed through the purple sea, the new lovers made moon-faces at each other up near the bow. Faithful Johannes was sitting near the back of the ship, admiring the success of his plan, when he noticed three ravens alight on a mast beam.
The first raven motioned with his beak at the king and princess. “What a lovely couple those two make,” he said.
And the second said, “Yes. Too bad they won’t stay that way.”
The first said, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” the second replied, “when the ship gets to land, a beautiful chestnut stallion will canter up to the group, and the king will decide to ride it back to the castle. But if he does, he will be thrown from its back and die.”
“Good God, that’s horrible!” said the first raven. “Is there nothing anyone can do?”
“Oh, there is,” said the second raven. “Someone could kill the horse before the king mounts it. But what good is that? For if someone did it, and told why he did it, he would be turned to stone, from the tips of his toes to the knobs of his knees.”
“To stone?” asked the first raven.
“To stone,” answered the second.
The third raven, who’d been listening quietly, cut in at this point. “It gets worse, you know,” he said. “If, by some chance, the two lovers escape that danger, another lies ahead. For when they arrive at the gates of the castle, a beautiful bridal gown, made of pure gold, will be laid out on a bed of purple flowers. The princess will want to wear it, of course. But if she touches it she will be consumed by a ball of fire and burn to a cinder right there on the spot.”
“Good God, that’s terrible!” cried the first raven. “Is there nothing anyone can do?”
“Oh, there is,” said the third raven. “If someone were to pick up the dress before she could, and throw it in the fire, the princess would live. But what good is that? For if someone did it, and told why he did it, he would be turned to stone, from the knobs of his knees to the core of his heart.”
“To stone?” repeated the first raven.
“To stone,” confirmed the third.
“Nor is that all,” said the second raven morosely. “For if the two lovers avoid that tragedy, a final one awaits. When they are married and begin the wedding dance, the new queen will swoon, and fall to the floor, and die.”
“Good God, that’s the worst thing yet!” cried the first raven. “Is there nothing anyone can do?”
“Oh, there is,” said the third. “If someone were to bite the new queen’s lip and suck three drops of blood from it with his mouth, she would live. But what good is that? For if someone did it, and told why he did it, he would be turned to stone from the core of his heart to the top of his head.”
“To stone?” said the first.
“To stone,” replied the second.
“To stone,” echoed the third.
And with that, the three ravens shook their black beaks, sighed sadly, and flew away.
Faithful Johannes buried his head in his hands, for he had heard all. He knew what he would have to do, and that it could not come to good.
Just as the ravens had foretold, after the ship landed and the king and his wife-to-be had been greeted by all the servants and courtiers of the castle, a beautiful chestnut stallion cantered up to the group. The king, taken with the beast’s beauty, announced that it would bear him in triumph back to the castle. But before he could mount it, Johannes slipped onto its back, drew a blade, and cut the horse’s throat, soaking its silken coat with warm, red blood. It collapsed to the ground in a heap.
Cries of shock went up from the crowd. The other servants, who had never loved misshapen Johannes, whispered, “To kill the king’s new stallion! Treason! Treason!”
The king looked back and forth between Johannes and the dead horse. Johannes’s face had no expression. At last, the young king said, “Johannes was faithful to my father and to my father’s father and to my father’s father’s father before that. He has always under-stood us. So I will under-stand him. If he does it, it must be right.”
Not another word was said about the subject, and the party proceeded, afoot, back to the palace.
When they arrived at the gate they saw a beautiful golden bridal gown, lying on a bed of purple roses.
“Oh! I shall wear it in the wedding!” the queen-to-be exclaimed, running to take hold of the marvelous garment.
But before she could reach it, Johannes grabbed it from the flower bed and strode into the great hall, where he threw it into the fire.
Again, the party was taken with cries of shock and dismay. The servants huddled together and whispered, “Treason! Treason!”
But the king hushed them. “Johannes has always been faithful to me and my family. So I will be faithful to him. If he does it, it must be right.”
The young king and golden princess were married the very next day. The princess looked particularly beautiful, her ocean-blue eyes brimming with joy. But Johannes watched anxiously.
They moved to dance, and the music began. But they had not taken two steps when the new queen suddenly swooned and fell to the ground. Before anyone else could move, Johannes swept in, lifted her to his chest, and carried her out of the hall.
He hurried through empty hallways, carrying the new queen in his arms, to a narrow, winding staircase that led to the highest turret in the castle—his private chamber. When they arrived, he placed her carefully on the floor, bent over her, and, with his two rotten teeth, bit her lip until he drew blood. Then, ever so tenderly, the unhandsome man sucked three drops of blood from her lip with his mouth.
The queen began to stir. But just then, the king burst into the room. He had followed Johannes all through the palace and had watched at a crack in the door as Johannes—his once faithful Johannes—had done something unspeakable to his new queen.
“Treason!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Treason!” The other servants quickly ran to their king’s aid.
“King!” Johannes said. “Please! Trust me!”
“Take him to the dungeons!” the young king shouted. “Tomorrow, he dies!”
The next day, Johannes was led from the dungeons to the top of a funeral pyre. There he was tied as a torch was readied to set the great stack of hay and tinder on fire.
The king watched with his new queen at his side. She had fully recovered from the day before. But both wore black, and their faces were somber. “He was like a father to me,” the young king said. The queen took his hand.
The executioner lit his torch and brought it to the pyre, its sparks leaping eagerly at the dry tinder. Behind the king, the jealous servants muttered and smiled to one another.
But just before the executioner could set the pyre alight, Johannes called out, “King! To whom I have been faithful, and to whose father, and father’s father, and father’s father’s father I was faithful before that. Will you allow me to speak before I die?”
The young king sadly inclined his head and said, “Speak.”
And so Johannes spoke. He told of seeing the three ravens on the ship. He told of hearing them speak. He told of their prophecy of the chestnut stallion.
And as he told it, he turned to stone, from the tips of his toes to the knobs of his knees.
All the spectators gasped. But Johannes went on.
He told of the ravens’ prophecy of the bridal gown.
And as did, he turned to stone, from the knobs of his knees to the core of his heart.
In the crowd, mouths fell open.
Finally, he told of the ravens’ prophecy of the wedding dance.
And when he had, he turned to stone, from the core of his heart to the top of his head.
And he died.
A great wail went up from all assembled. For they had learned, too late, that Johannes had been faithful to the very end, and had given his life for his king.
The king and the queen, in an effort to honor his memory, took Faithful Johannes, grotesque even in stone, and placed him beside their bed so that every morning when they woke up, and every evening when they lay down, they would be reminded of his faithfulness, and the great debt they owed him.
Well, not really.
More like, The Beginning. For it is here that the tale of Hansel and Gretel truly begins.
The king and the queen soon had a pair of beautiful twins, a girl and a boy. They named the boy Hansel and the girl Gretel. They were the light of their parents’ lives. Hansel was dark like his father, with black curly hair and charcoal eyes. Gretel was fair like her mother, with hair that looked like it was spun from pure gold thread and eyes that shone like the sea. They were happy children, full of play and mischief and joy. So happy were they, in fact, that they nearly made their parents forget the faithful servant who had saved their lives, and how they had betrayed him.
Nearly. But not quite.
And one day, as the king played with Hansel and Gretel at the foot of his bed, and the queen was off in chapel praying, he began to cry. “He under-stood me,” the king said, “though I did not under-stand him.” He fell to the foot of the statue and wept. When his tears touched the stone, something miraculous happened. Johannes spoke.
“There is a way, king,” the stone Johannes said, “to rescue me from this rock, if you truly wish it.”
“Oh, I do!” the king cried. “I’ll do anything! Anything!”
And Johannes said . . .
There are no young children in the room, right? You’re certain? Okay . . .
And Johannes said, “You must cut off the heads of your children, and smear my statue with their blood. And then, and only then, will I return to life.”
Remember what I told you would happen when Hansel and Gretel finally showed up?
The king collapsed on the bed, weeping. But he felt he had no choice. “You under-stood me always, no matter what,” he said. “So I will under-stand you.” He stood, beckoned Hansel and Gretel to his side, drew a sword from its place on the wall, and cut off their heads. Their lifeless bodies dropped to the floor.
The king took their blood on his hands and smeared it on the statue. Just as he had foretold, Johannes returned to life, covered in the children’s blood. And the king, despite the blood, and through his tears at his own children’s deaths, threw his arms around his faithful servant, Johannes.
Johannes smiled his sweet, crooked smile and said, “You have under-stood me, at the greatest cost.” And he placed little Hansel’s head back on his body, and little Gretel’s head on hers, and instantly they began to leap and play as if nothing had happened, and as if they were not covered in blood. And the king threw his arms around them, and then again around Johannes, and they all laughed with joy.
For just then, the king heard the queen’s footsteps echoing in the hall. He looked at Johannes, back from the dead, and their children, covered in blood. “Quickly!” he said, and hurried them all into a wardrobe.
When the queen came into the room, he asked her how her prayers had gone. And she replied, “I can barely pray. I think only of Johannes, and how we failed him.”
And the king replied, “What if I told you, dear queen, that there was a way to repay our debt to Johannes, and to bring him back to life, but that it was a terrible way, and it would cost us everything that is most dear to us. What would you say?”
“Anything!” the queen cried. “Anything we can do, we must do! We owe it to him!”
“Even if it meant killing our two children?” the king asked.
The queen gasped. She fell to the floor and wept bitterly. At last she said, “I would never do it. I could never do it. But I know we should. We owe him our lives.”
“Thank God you said that!” the king exclaimed. “And that’s why . . . ” As he said this, he opened the wardrobe doors, and out came their two beloved children, all covered in blood, followed by a living, breathing Johannes. The queen screamed and fainted. The king threw a basin of water in her face, and she woke up and screamed again. Then the king explained it all to her, and she wept and laughed and threw her arms first around her children and after around Johannes, and then she held them all at once and wept and laughed some more.
You see, the way the Brothers Grimm tell it, that is the end. But it isn’t really. Not at all.
For as the king recounted what had happened to his wife, Hansel and Gretel heard. And understood.
Late that night, they lay in their beds, unable to sleep.
“Hansel,” Gretel said.
“Did you hear what Father said?”
“He cut off our heads to save that ugly old man.”
Hansel was silent.
“And Mommy was glad that he did. Do you think they hate us?”
Hansel was silent still.
“I think we should run away,” Gretel said. “In case they want to do it again.”
“That’s just what I was thinking,” Hansel answered. “Just what I was thinking. . . .”