Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away, lived a poor woodcutter called Betty, and her second (or possibly third) husband, whose name unfortunately was never recorded for posterity’s sake. No great tragedy, as it happens.
Betty the woodcutter has two children: Gretel, a bright young lady, and Hansel (shortened to Hans), who (being a Star Wars fan) refuses to answer to anything but Hans Solo.
As our story opens, we find Betty and her family cinching in their belts. An economic recession has hit the region. Jobs are scarce, money’s too tight to mention, and the local population have rejected fashionable new trend of woodburners and gone back to cheap coal to heat their homes (despite a recent galaxy-wide deal to reduce CO2 emissions, agreed in neighbouring Never-Never land).
With the drop in demand for logs, the family’s disposable income has been – well, axed – and sacrifices have to be made. The children’s pocket money is reduced and Betty is forced to sell the cow at the market (only managing a handful beans as payment in kind: or is that another story?). They take it on the chin – unlike the second/third husband, who (as a Stepfather in a fairy tale) is, of course, wicked. When the family can no longer affor to pay for the second/third husband’s subscription to Wicked Step-Parent Weekly, things come to a nasty head.
‘Look, Betty,’ says the second/third husband, ‘I’m done playing second fiddle to your brats. It’s them or me.’
Betty wavers, but such is her rather obsessional love for her second/third husband (who was quite a catch, and still looks young and fresh – and does a mean lasagne) that she reluctantly gives in to his fool-proof, applaudably evil plan, of leading her two children deep into the forest and abandoning them there.
But our clever Gretel, who keeps a close eye on her stepfather given his reading choices, overhears this brutal ultimatum. She creeps back to her/Hans’ bedroom, picking her way carefully over his collection of white-painted wooden stormtroopers carved by her mother (Gretel knows from experience how much their tiny guns hurt when you step on them barefoot) and wakes her sleeping brother.
‘Hans,’ she begins.
‘Hans Solo,’ he interrupts immediately, putting his hands over his ears. ‘Hans Solo, my name is.’
‘Hans Solo,’ Gretel goes on, closing her eyes briefly, ‘we are in trouble. Mum’s given in to stepfather’s evil plan to get rid of us.’
‘Oh no!’ Hans says, distressed. ‘I bet it’s because he wants my stormtrooper collection. Or the lifesize Darth Vader mum is working on for me.’
‘You know about that?’ Gretel says, startled. ‘That was supposed to be a surprise.’
‘Know everything, I do,’ Hans pronounces, in his best Yoda impression. ‘Be wise to listen to Hans Solo, you would.’
‘Ok, ok,’ Gretel replies, thinking hard. ‘Listen. About that stormtrooper collection. Will you lend it to me, to keep us alive?’
Hans reluctantly agrees, wondering what his sister has up her sleeve. In fact, it is the stormtrooper collection that she carefully inserts up her sleeve: and as the poor children are led deep into the woods, Gretel throws behind her a tiny gleaming carving at strategic intervals.
A few hours later, as dusk begins to fall, they arrive at a clearing.
‘Right then,’ second/third husband says, after an understandably awkward silence, ‘Mummy and I are just going for a little, er, look at that pretty little, er, pond thing, over there. You two stay put and gather flowers. Or something.’
Gretel glares at her mother, but Betty looks down at her feet, avoiding her daughter’s reproachful look. The second/third husband leads Betty back along the path, and it’s ciao, padres.
Night falls fast: but Gretel has done her homework, and a full moon appears, lighting up the trail of small white stormtroopers like diamonds on a flight path. Gretel follows them, with Hans close behind her, murmuring lovingly to the stormtroopers as he tucks each one carefully into his coat pocket.
Gretel and Hans arrive home early morning, tired and dirty. The second/third husband is out shopping, having planned a celebratory lasagne as Betty’s reward for choosing him over her offspring. Betty is delighted to see her children and welcomes them back with mumbled excuses, which Gretel haughtily ignores, going straight to her room to finish the essay on sustainable forestry she had been working on before being kidnapped: it’s due the next day.
The stepfather arrives home, whistling (Abba/The Winner Takes It All). But his merriment quickly turns to amazement and then rage upon discovering the children have found their way home. Betty, however, has finally seen the light. She tells the second/third husband she will never abandon her children again; and he slinks angrily to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal.
Alas: revenge is a dish best served hot, and the second/third husband lines the lasagne with sleeping pills. Once Betty, Gretel and Hans have succumbed to the heavy dose, the second/third husband drags the unconscious forms of his stepchildren to the cart, clicks to the horse, and takes them once again deep into the forest (thinking en route that it was a shame he missed the last installment of How To Get Rid of Your StepChildren in last week’s Wicked Step-Parent Weekly: this scheme is feeling a little repetitive, twice in two days).
When they get to the clearing, the children are stirring. The second/third husband rolls them out of the cart, and they get to their feet. Gretel is blinking, confused, but Hans is already wide awake, with a strange grin on his face. As in the second/third husband’s view, Hans is a bit simple, he doesn’t think much of it.
‘Right,’ he says, relieved. ‘End of the road for you.’
‘I can’t see a road,’ Hans says, looking around him.
‘It’s figurative, Hans,’ Gretel mutters.
‘Hans SOLO!’ Hans cries, stamping his foot. ‘Hans Solo, you will call me!’
The second/third husband, with the obligatory evil cackle, pulls out his iphone, loads up SpaceWaze (he doesn’t have a great sense of direction, despite being male), and turns the cart around to head home.
With the turn-left-at-the-next-rhodendron still audible, Gretel turns to her brother.
‘Hans Solo,’ she sighs, ‘we are once more in trouble.’
‘Pessimistic you are!’ cries Hans. ‘Not really sleeping was I! Breadcrumb trail I have laid! Saved we are!’
Gretel stares at him in dismay, and then shakes her head.
‘Great initiative, little bro,’ she says, ‘but breadcrumbs?’
Hans chases after the cart, but of course the breadcrumbs have been eaten by the forest’s fauna. The children are stuck, once more. Gretel curses herself for being stupid enough to scoff her stepfather’s (admittedly delicious) lasagne, and for never teaching Hans to think properly. She watches her brother wandering aimlessly around the clearing, still trying to find the breadcrumbs, muttering about being someone’s father; and then suddenly she spies a light, shining soft and yellow, through the trees.
Hurrah, they are saved!
Gretel hurries towards the light, calling to her brother, and the two happy children discover a tiny cottage…
… made entirely out of Haribo!
Now, young Gretel may be a straight-A student and tipped to become WoodCutter Monthly’s youngest-ever editor, but all heroines must have an achilles’ heel, and Gretel’s is her sweet tooth. Her Haribo craving is particularly strong at this point in our tale, since her meagre pocket money of recent weeks has not been enough for her weekly packet of Tangfastics.
Gretel’s usually excellent judgement, then, melts away at the sight of such delight: she rushes in, drooling slightly at this point. They are both tucking into the windowsill on the side of the house (rather ingeniously built of layers of Star Mix) when a tiny old man, but with startling black hair to go with his greying eyebrows, appears at the window.
Gretel, chewing, jumps back in fright, pulling Hans with her; but the old man pops up beside them outside of the house – as if by magic.
‘My children,’ he says, in a wizened/old/spooky sort of way, ‘I see you are enjoying yourselves: nothing could give me greater pleasure. But tell me: have you tried the new purple crocodiles yet? If not, follow me.’
He toddles off inside the house. The mention of Haribo’s latest line is too much, once again, for Gretel’s usually cool head: she follows, mouth watering, Hans trailing after her.
But, of course, no sooner have they stepped inside the little cottage than the door slams shut behind them; and with a loud bang, Hans disappears from Gretel’s side and reappears in a child-size cage in the back of the dark room.
Gretel realises she has fallen into a trap, the second in two days – the way to a girl’s heart is, after all, through her stomach – and curses herself once more. She spins to face the wizard. Despite his clearly advanced years (she wonders whether the European Working Time Directive excludes wizards and witches?) the little old man sports gleaming black hair and bright white teeth. But Gretel is not fooled: she has seen her stepfather’s Just For Men hidden in his washbag (alongside the miracle-whitening toothpaste, delivered by Wicked Step-Parent Weekly in exchange for six coupons, and 99pence postage and packaging).
Gretel, her sweet-tooth folly now behind her, considers her situation.
‘We are poor,’ she begins, decisively. ‘There’s no point kidnapping us; no-one will pay the ransom.’
‘Ha!’ cackles (obligatorily) the wizard, ‘I don’t want money; I want food. My wand is faulty – it can only produce Haribo, and I’m allergic to them. But that’s all over now – your brother will be good to eat, before too long.’
At this, the little wizard dances a sort of jig. Gretel glances at her brother. Her brother looks back at her in surprise: he was not expecting the cage or cannibalistic dancing wizard, and would quite like to go home now, please, to his stormtroopers.
The jig over, the wizard wheezes at Hans,
‘What is your name, little lad?’
‘Hans Solo, call me you can,’ replies Hans, with a little less gusto than usual.
‘Hans Solo?’ repeats the wizard. He turns to Gretel. ‘Isn’t that a Star Wars character?’
‘Yes,’ Gretel says. ‘But his real name is Hans.’
‘HANS SOLO!’ Hans shouts, rattling the cage. ‘Answer to Hans Solo, only, I will!’
The wizard looks at the two children a little warily, as if regretting his choice of hostage.
‘Oh well. Beggars can’t be choosers. Enough small talk. Here’s the deal. While your brother gets fat enough to eat, you are going to clean for me, and do the shopping. I’ve got gait; my doctor has me on bed rest.’
‘I just saw you do a jig,’ Gretel replies dubitatively. ‘People on bed rest don’t dance.’
The wizard clears his throat. ‘One evil jig per fairy tale. Contractual arrangement. No excuses.’
‘Whatever,’ Gretel replies sullenly (she is, after all, a teenager). ‘I’m not waiting on you.’
‘Aha!’ exclaims the wizard says grandly, ‘if you do not, I will cut off both of your heads, right now.’
‘With a lightsaber?’ calls Hans, excitedly, from the cage.
‘A lightsaber?’ says the wizard. ‘No, with my wand, idiot boy!’
Now, we all know that only members of the same family are allowed to tell each other they are idiots. And as much as Hans irritates Gretel on a daily basis, Gretel does not take kindly to strangers calling her younger brother names.
‘Don’t speak to my brother like that,’ Gretel snaps, irritated both by the insult and the whole being-tricked-by-evil-fairy-tale-characters-twice-in-48-hours thing.
‘While you’re under my roof, I’ll speak to him however I like,’ says the wizard. He has had enough already of this smart-mouth; he has never had any time for Hermione Granger boffins. He lifts his wand, but before he can utter the beginning of an Avada Kadavra, Gretel lands a right hook worthy of Floyd Mayweather, and down goes the wizard, in a perfect KO.
(Gretel, you see, is not just brains, but braun: she also holds the junior lightweight title for her village).
Gretel frees her brother. They poke around the wizard’s fridge, and find a couple of M+S meals for one, which they heat up with a flick of the wand. Then they return outside, fill their pockets with as much Haribo as they can peel from the walls, door, and roof (not forgetting the new Purple Crocodiles, which even better than Gretel dreamed they could be) and set off into the sunrise. They discover a Getting Started button on the wand, and activate the GPS to guide them home. The Getting Started menu, handily, provides them with a basic tutorial in retaliatory measures for wicked StepParents, and by the time they arrive back, they have memorised the spell they need to rid them forever of Betty’s second/third husband. Spell duly performed, the evil stepfather vanishes in a puff of smoke; and then they wake their drowsy mother.
Once Gretel has had a stern chat with Betty about priorities in life, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, they all live happily ever after. The economy picks up, and woodfire burners become the fashion once more, providing Betty with ample work and income and preventing dangerous fossil fuel emissions from coal. With the extra money, Betty takes on an assistant, giving her a better work-life balance and time to finally finish the life-size carving of Darth Vader for Hans Solo (as well as a wooden carry-case for the stormtroopers, to prevent Gretel from stepping on them again).
As for Gretel: our heroine becomes (as foreseen) the Woodcutter Monthly young and brilliant editor. She writes much-admired pithy philosophical articles about the sound (or not?) of trees falling alone in the middle of a wood, which eventually bring her national fame, and an offer from Haribo to become their Goodwill Ambassador (which she gladly accepts, mainly for the lifetime supply of any variety).