Thursday’s Tale: The Old Woman in the Woods

Illustration by Arthur Rackham

It’s been a while since I featured a tale by the Grimms. “The Old Woman in the Woods” may be titled after an old woman, but the heroine is more of the standard Grimm type.

A poor servant girl, who I assume was lovely and humble and kind, was once traveling through a great forest with her master and mistress, when robbers came out of the trees and murdered everyone they found. Everyone died except the girl, who had jumped out of the carriage and hidden herself behind a tree. After the robbers had taken all the valuables and left, she came out of her hiding place and saw the horrible disaster. She began to weep, and said, “What can a poor girl like me do now? I don’t know the way out of the woods. No humans live here, so I’ll most certainly starve to death.”

She walked about looking for a path, but couldn’t find one. When evening fell she sat down beneath a tree. After she had sat there for a while, a white dove flew up to her with a little golden key in its beak. It put the little key in her hand, saying, “Do you see that large tree over there? A little lock is on it. Open it with this little key, and you will find food enough to still your hunger.” We all know by now to trust animal helpers, don’t we?

Then she went to the tree and unlocked it, and found milk in a little bowl and white bread. When she had eaten all she wanted, she said, “It is now the time when the hens at home go to roost, I am so tired that I would like to lie down in my bed as well.”

Then the little dove flew to her again, bringing another little golden key in its bill. It said, “Open that tree over there, and you will find a bed.”

She opened it, and found a beautiful white bed. She lay down, and fell asleep.

In the morning the little dove came for the third time, again bringing a little key. It said, “Open that tree over there, and you will find clothes.”

Upon opening it she found garments trimmed with gold and with jewels, more lovely than those of any princess. She lived there for some time, and the dove came every day, providing her with everything that she needed. It was a peaceful, good life.

Then one day the little dove came and said, “Will you do me a favor?”

“Gladly, with all my heart,” said the girl.

Then the little dove said, “I will lead you to a little house. Go inside, where an old woman will be sitting by the fireplace. She will say, ‘Good day.’ But on your life do not answer her, in spite of whatever she might do. Pass by her on her right-hand side where there is a door. Open it and you will enter into a room where there are all kinds of rings lying on a table. Some of these are some splendid ones with glistening stones. Leave them where they are and seek out a simple one which must be among them, then bring it here to me as quickly as you can.”

The girl went to the little house, and entered in at the door. An old woman was sitting there. When she saw the girl she glared at her and said, “Good day, my child.”

The girl did not answer, but approached the door.

“Where are you going?” cried the old woman, and grabbed her skirt, trying to hold her fast. She said, “This is my house, and no one can go in there if I do not want them to.”

But the girl said nothing, pulled away from her, and went directly into the room. On the table there was an enormous quantity of rings, which glistened and glittered before her eyes. She stirred through them looking for the simple one, but she could not find it. While she was thus seeking, she saw the old woman sneak by, trying to make off with a bird cage which she had in her hand. The girl went up to her and took the cage out of her hand. Lifting it up and looking inside it, she saw a bird with the simple ring in its beak.

She took the ring, and happily ran out of the house with it. She thought that the little white dove would come and get the ring, but it did not. Then she leaned against a tree, determined to wait for the dove. As she stood there, it seemed that the tree was becoming soft and flexible, and was letting its branches down.

Suddenly the branches wrapped themselves around her, and had become two arms. Looking around, she saw that the tree had turned into a handsome man, who embraced her and kissed her tenderly.

He said, “You have delivered me from the power of the old woman, who is a wicked witch. She had turned me into a tree, and for a few hours every day I was a white dove. As long as she possessed the ring I could not regain my human form.”

Then his servants and his horses, who had likewise been changed into trees, were freed from the magic spell as well, and were standing there beside him. Then they traveled to his kingdom, for he was a prince, of course, and they married, of course, and lived happily ever after.

The tree part was a bit surprising the first time I read it through. You gotta love a man who sends you into a witch’s house, I guess. I do wonder who all the other rings belonged to. Other princes still waiting to be rescued? She wasn’t really a very impressive witch. All she did was grab the girl’s skirt and then try to sneak out. Where was her magic? Where was her scariness?

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all. Feel free to join in.

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