From The Three Little Men in the Wood

One of my Christmas presents was The Annotated Brothers Grimm Bicentennial Edition and I am loving it. The introduction and prefact have some great insights into why we love fairytales, why they have such lasting power. I’ve already looked at several Grimm tales over the couple of years I’ve been doing this feature, but there are so many more, so I thought I’d look some of those in this collection over the next month or so.

Today’s story, “The Three Little Men in the Woods,” is a farily typical story. It’s one of those stories with two girls, one good and kind who is rewarded and one mean and selfish who is punished. There’s also a requisite evil step-mother. It’s also a very watery tale, with water being an important part of the turning points.

A woman offered marriage to a widower with a daughter, saying that her own daughter would drink water and wash in water, while the man’s daughter would drink wine and wash in milk. The man gave his daughter a boot with a hole in it, and told her to take it to the barn and fill it with water; if it held the water, he would remarry, and if not, he would not. The water pulled the hole together, and the boot held it, so he remarried. Which is of course quite a reasonable way to make a life decision.

The woman kept her promise on the first day; the second day, both girls drank and washed in water; the third day and after, the stepdaughter drank and washed in water, while the woman’s daughter drank wine and washed in milk. The wife made the stepdaughter’s life miserable in any way she could. One winter day, the stepmother ordered her stepdaughter to wear a dress of paper and seek strawberries in the wood, giving her only a piece of hard bread to eat, figuring she would freeze to death in the cold.

While in the wood, the girl met three little men. She politely asked permission to come into their home, which they gave. Inside, she sat by the fire and began to eat the bread. The three men said, “Give us some, too!” and so, having a kind heart, the girl did. She told them why she was out in the woods in the cold. The little men directed her to sweep the back steps, and she did so, and – to her great surprise – found the strawberries she had been searching for. The little men wanted to reward the girl for her kindness, so they each spoke a wish: one declared that she should grow more beautiful every day, the other declared that a gold piece should fall from her mouth whenever she spoke, and the third declared that a king would marry her.

The girl returned home and told her family what had happened. Of course, the step-sister wanted the same fortune for herself. Her mother, however, would not allow her child into the cold wood, but the daughter insisted, so the mother gave her warm clothing and good food to take with her. The girl found the same little men, but refused to either share her food or sweep the back steps. The little men wanted to punish her for her selfishness and one declared that she would grow more ugly every day, the other declared that a toad should fall from her mouth whenever she spoke, and the third declared that she would die a miserable death.

One day, the stepmother boiled yarn and gave it to her stepdaughter, ordering her to chop a hole in the ice on the river and rinse it. While the stepdaughter did this, a king saw her and asked what she was doing. “I am a poor girl, and I am rinsing yarn.” The king was taken with her beauty, so he took her with him to marry her and make her his queen. Within a year, the young queen had a son. The evil stepmother called on her, but as soon as she had a chance, she and her daughter threw the young queen out the window and into a stream, and the stepmother put her own daughter in her place. The stepmother told the king that the queen had a fever which caused the toads to fall from her mouth instead of the gold pieces.

But a duck swam up to the castle and asked after the king, the guests, and the baby. A kitchen boy answered that they were sleeping. When the duck heard this, it transformed into the young queen herself. She went to nurse her baby, then transformed back into a duck. She did this for two nights; on the third night, she told the scullion to have the king swing his sword over her three times, on the threshold. This turned her back into her human form again. The king hid her until the baby’s christening, when he asked the stepmother what should be done with someone who threw someone into the water. The woman said that they deserve no less than to be put in a barrel stuck full of nails and rolled down the hill into the water. The king declared that the stepmother and her evil daughter had named their own fate and the two were executed in that fashion.

We can always count on the Grimms to hand out just rewards/punishments. I’m not quite sure how the queen turns into a duck, aside from the magic of fairytales. I like that fairytales have their rules they almost always follow. The heroine will be rewarded and get her happily ever after while those who stood in her way will be punished.

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


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