Using several revamped Grimms’ fairy tales, the author weaves a story about Hansel and Gretel and their quest to find their true home. The narrator frequently adds his own quirky opinion, warning about the gruesome scenes that lie ahead and inserting ironic comments.
The narrator begins with the story of a servant named Johannes, who has been faithful to the royal family for many years. He “under-stands” them, meaning he supports them by bearing their pains and troubles. When a young king falls for a woman destined to bring him sorrow, the faithful servant helps the king get his queen. In doing so, however, Johannes makes a number of sacrifices that lead to his own demise. When the king and queen realize what Johannes has done on their behalf, they erect a statue of him in their room so they will never forget to be grateful to him.
The king and queen go on to have twins named Hansel and Gretel. One day, the statue of Johannes speaks to the king. It tells him Johannes may live again, but only if the king will kill his children and smear their blood on the statue. The grief-stricken king feels so indebted to Johannes that he kills his own children. Johannes, alive again, also brings the children back to life.
As Hansel and Gretel ponder what their father did, they begin to fear he might do it again. They decide to run away. First, they find refuge in a home with a baker woman who feeds them heartily. When she eventually tries to cook them, they trap her in the oven instead. Feeling dismayed over being betrayed by another parent figure, they move on.
A man and wife with seven sons then invite Hansel and Gretel to live with them. They have always wanted a little girl. The father grows angry with his sons when they fail to do what he’s asked, and he off-handedly says he wishes they would all turn into birds and fly away. When this actually happens, and all seven sons become swallows, Gretel can see the parents’ overwhelming sorrow. She also feels responsible, since her arrival at the house brought about the strife that caused the father’s anger.
Gretel takes Hansel, and the two go on a lengthy quest to find and free the sons. In the process, Gretel even cuts off her own finger to use as a key that will unlock the bird-boys’ prison. The birds become boys again. They invite Hansel and Gretel to return home with them, but the children refuse.
Next, Hansel and Gretel find a lush, beautiful forest. They promise a tree they will take only what they need of the wonderful things living and growing there. But Hansel develops a lust for hunting that soon overtakes him. The more he sheds the blood of other creatures, the more Hansel transforms into a creature himself. Finally, a hunter shoots him and carries him from the forest. Gretel believes he is gone forever.
Gretel moves on to another town where she lives with an old woman. Gretel falls for a handsome young man and does all she can to get his attention. He has a magical piece of twine that allows him to heal people. Despite the old woman’s warnings, Gretel goes to the man’s house in the woods. There, she learns he is a warlock who tears out the souls of young girls before dismembering and eating their bodies. She escapes and exposes him to the town. Gretel takes the man’s magical cord before the townspeople cook him with snakes in a boiling cauldron of oil.
Meanwhile, the hunter skins his creature and realizes there is a boy beneath the fur. The bloody, naked boy is somehow still alive. A wealthy Lord and Lady take Hansel in. He leads a fine life, until the Lord gets into debt gambling with the Devil. The Lord pays back his debt by giving Hansel to the Devil. Hansel is ordered to report to hell in a few days.
Before that time comes, a strange old man tells Hansel that the Devil will have no power over a person who has three of the Devil’s golden hairs. The old man helps Hansel get to hell, where Hansel finds his way to the Devil’s house. The Devil lives with his grandmother. Hansel manages to lock the grandmother in the attic. Then he disguises himself as the grandmother.
He extracts three golden hairs from the Devil’s head, freeing himself from eternal damnation. He also tricks the Devil into becoming a ferryman for all eternity. The old man, who is dying, reveals he is Johannes. He tells Hansel how he under-stood the boy’s parents, and he says Hansel and Gretel must kill the dragon that is ravaging their kingdom.
Hansel travels on in search of Gretel. They finally have a tearful reunion and tell each other about all of the places they’ve been since they parted. They decide they must return to the palace to find their parents. The king and queen are sorry for all they did and are thrilled to see their children again. It’s quickly evident that the children’s rough experiences have changed them. They can’t laugh or open up easily. The king and queen try to give them space. When the children say they are going to gather an army to kill a dragon, their parents are dubious because they’re only children. Hansel and Gretel remind them of the horrible things they’ve seen that have made them grow up quickly.
The children make a plan. They will bring carts of gold and wine into the woods to lure the dragon. They also garner the support of a small army of civilians to help them attack the dragon once they’ve cornered it. Their efforts don’t go as planned, and a number of those in the army are killed. The dragon drinks the wine and becomes tipsy, giving Gretel and three ravens the ability to fight him. Ultimately, he escapes.
As the defeated children return to the castle, they discuss how the dragon seemed to anticipate their moves. They suddenly realize the king is the dragon. Hansel beheads his father, and they destroy the dragon living within him. Gretel uses the warlock’s magic cord to bring her father back to life. Now that the king is himself again, the children are able to forgive their parents. They finally feel like they can tell the king and queen about their wanderings. The king decides he is no longer worthy to lead the country after his inadvertent destruction as the dragon, so he gives the crown to Hansel. The queen gives hers to Gretel, and the children become rulers of the land.