Hansel and Gretel
Once upon a time a vast forest covered a large area north of the Alps. Large trees grew so close together in places that the forest floor was perpetually in twilight. Wildlife abounded in the forest–birds, deer, wild boar, rabbits and hedgehogs and other creatures who lived on the forest floor. During the summer, mushrooms and berries grew in places where the sun filtered through the canopy of trees.
The countryside surrounding the forest was farmed by peasants. Small villages scattered here and there attended to their needs. The villagers—small shopkeepers, a miller, an inn keeper or too, a blacksmith, craftsmen who repaired farm equipment—made a living as their ancestors had for generations..
Large towns—Munich, Heidelberg, Nuremberg, Basel—were far away. Once a year, tax collectors from the closest feudal overlord would visit the villagers and peasants and collect what was due to the nobleman.
Everyone, rich or poor, tax collector or peasant, merchant or servant, travelling from one of the large towns to another always avoided the forest. No roads crossed the dark woods and there was never any effort to build them. Why? The peasants and villagers, just as their ancestors had been, were fearful of the forest. Stories passed from generation to generation told of witches who lived in the deepest, darkest parts of the woods. Witches cast spells and caused evil for those they disliked. They had a reputation for knowing the plant life and herbs which grew on the forest floor, and so a few brave souls, desperate to seek a cure for a loved one’s illness, would visit one of the old women who lived alone in the forest.
Occasionally a solitary young man, a stranger from far away on a journey to a distant town, entered the forest despite the warnings of the villagers to avoid the deep dark woods and take the circuitous route around the periphery of the forest. Whether foolhardy or brave, these young men never reappeared on the other side of the forest. What was their fate? An accident? An attack by a vicious wild boar? Or had they run afoul of one of the witches? No one knew.
One day, in a cottage in the deepest part of the forest, an old woman sat in her armchair beside the fireplace. She was knitting a shawl in the flickering light. Her eyesight had not dimmed with age. She had eyes like a hawk, small black eyes in a wrinkled face dominated by a big hook-shaped nose.
As usual a large black raven, the old crone’s pet, sat peacefully on her shoulder, brushing his plumage with his large beak, croaking with satisfaction when his owner gave him a tidbit of black bread. Curled up next to her was the woman’s other pet, a large black green eyed cat.
The old woman was in a bad mood. For a long time she’d only had thin watery barley soup to eat. She hadn’t had a juicy piece of meat for weeks, no, for months! This was no life for a witch! What could she do to remedy the situation?
Suddenly there was a knock on the door of the cottage.