Another Brother’s Grimm tale, The Three Little Men in the Wood is a story that I’ve heard before in another variation (where the girls meet not elves in the woods but a fairy, and a great deal more uncomfortable things result from speaking – like roses).
Anyway, you will probably recognize it soon enough also, for here is my summary:
Once upon a time there was a man whose wife had died and left him with a daughter, and a woman whose husband had died and left her with a daughter also. The girls knew each other, and sometimes went out walking together and then went to the woman’s house.
One day, the woman said to the man’s daughter, “Tell your father that I would like to marry him. If I do, you shall wash yourself in milk every morning, and drink wine, but my own daughter will wash herself in water and drink water.”
The girl went home and told her father what the woman had said. The man was troubled and said, “Ah, marriage is full of troubles – joys and torment. Let me think about it.” He thought at length and still could not decide, so he pulled off his boot and said, “Here, take my boot, which has a hole in the sole. Go up to the loft and hang it on the big nail there. Pour some water in my boot. If the water drains out, then I will not marry, but if the water stays in, then I will take a wife.”
The daughter, who was obedient, went upstairs and hung the boot. She poured in some water, which made the boot swell and closed the hole, filling the boot with water up to the top. The girl then told her father, who went up and saw for himself that the boot was full. He went out and wooed the widow woman, and they indeed married.
On the morning after the wedding, when the two girls woke, there was before the man’s daughter milk for washing and wine for drinking. The woman’s daughter had water for washing and for drinking. The second morning, it was the same, but on the third morning it was the man’s daughter who had water for washing and for drinking and the woman’s daughter who had milk for washing and wine for drinking. From then on, the water was for the man’s daughter and the milk for the woman’s daughter. The woman was unkind to her stepdaughter, and her treatment grew worse day by day. She was jealous of the stepdaughter, who was beautiful and loveable and kind, for her own daughter was ugly.
One winter day, the woman made a dress of paper and called her stepdaughter over. “You must put on this dress and go out into the woods to get me some strawberries. I must have some strawberries.”
“But it is winter! The ground is frozen and covered in snow! No strawberries could grow now!” exclaimed the astonished girl. “Besides, it is so cold, if I go in this paper dress I will surely freeze and be scratched by thorns and branches.”
“You must not contradict me,” the stepmother raged, “You may not show your face in here again until I have a basketful of strawberries!” Then the stepmother forced the girl to don the paper dress. She gave the girl a chunk of hard bread to last the day, secretly thinking that the girl would die of cold and hunger and would therefore be out of the stepmother’s way.
The girl, who was obedient, went out with the basket into the cold. She searched the wood but there was nothing but snow. She stumbled across a small house where three elves lived. The girl knocked on the door, wishing the elves a good day and wondering if she might warm herself by their fire.
“Come in,” the elves cried, ushering her near the stove where the girl could warm up. She took out her bread to eat and the elves said, “Give us some too.”
“Of course,” siad the girl, and she broke the bread in two and gave the elves half.
“Why are you out in the forest, in such a thin dress,” the elves asked her.
“I am looking for strawberries,” replied the girl, “for I am not to go home until I can take a basketful of strawberries to my stepmother.”
After she had finished her bread, the elves gave her a broom and said, “Sweep away the snow at the back door with this.” The girl obediently went to the back door and started to sweep. While she was gone, the elves looked at each other.
“What shall we give her, since she has been so kind to share her bread with us?” the elves asked each other.
“My gift shall be that she grows more beautiful every day,” said the first elf.
“My gift shall be that gold pieces shall fall out of her mouth every time she speaks,” said the second elf.
“My gift shall be that a king will take her for a wife,” said the third elf.
The girl, who was sweeping outside, heard none of this, for to her astonishment she found ripe red strawberries beneath the snow. She quickly gathered a basketful, and finishing her chore, went back inside. Thanking the men for their kindness, she shook hands with each of them and ran home to her stepmother.
The stepmother was surprised to see the girl home with the basket of strawberries. When the girl went in and said “Good evening” a piece of gold fell from her mouth! She told her stepmother what had happened in the woods, and as she spoke gold pieces fell from her lips until soon the whole room was full of gold.
The stepsister was jealous and wanted to go into the forest also to look for strawberries. The stepmother said, “No, no, my dear, it is too cold!” But the daughter would not give up, and at last the mother agreed. She dressed her daughter in a glorious fur dress and gave her soft bread and butter and cake to take with her.
The girl went into the forest and straight to the little house. The three little elves peeked out the door but the girl did not even greet them. Without speaking, she went awkwardly into the room and sat down by the stove to eat her bread and butter and cake.
“Give us some,” cried the little men.
“No! There is hardly enough for myself, so how can I give it away?” said the girl.
When she was finished her food, the elves said, “Take the broom and sweep away the snow at the back door.”
“I am not your servant,” said the girl, “Sweep yourselves.” She saw then that they were not going to give her anything, so she went out the door to look for strawberries.
“She is so naughty and has a wicked, jealous heart. What shall we give her?” the elves asked themselves.
“I grant that she will grow uglier every day,” said the first elf.
“I grant that a toad shall spring out of her mouth with every word she says,” said the second elf.
“I grant that she may die a miserable death,” said the third elf.
The girl could find no strawberries outside so she stormed home. When she went to tell her mother what had happened, a toad leaped from her lips with every word. Everyone was seized with horror by her speech, and the girl strove to be silent always.
The stepmother was even more angry with her stepdaughter, and could think only of how to injure her stepdaughter. The stepdaughter’s beauty grew daily, and she remained kind and obedient. At last, the stepmother took boiled some yarn in a cauldron over the fire. When it was done, she flung the yarn over the girl’s shoulder, gave her an axe and told her to go rinse the yarn.
The poor girl went out to the frozen river and took the axe to cut a hole in the ice. As she hacked at the ice, a magnificent carriage came driving by, carrying the King. The carriage stopped, and the King, who was halted by the girl’s beauty, asked, “My child, what are you doing?”
She replied. “I am rinsing yarn, for my stepmother insisted.”
The King felt compassion for the girl, and said to her, “Will you go away with me and be my wife?”
“With all my heart,” said the girl, rejoicing to get away from her cruel stepmother and stepsister. She joined the King in his carriage, and they went to the palace. Their wedding was grand and celebrated with pomp and circumstance. After some time, the new Queen gave birth to a son.
The stepmother heard of the girl’s good luck, and came to the palace to visit. The King had one out, and when no one else was around, the stepmother and her daughter seized the Queen and threw her out of the window in to the stream which flowed underneath. Then the ugly daughter got into the Queen’s bed and covered up.
When the King came home he wished to see his wife, but the stepmother cried, “She must rest, you cannot see her today.” The King did not suspect, and did not return until the morning.
That night, a duck swam up and said to a kitchen boy who was by the door, “King, what are you doing? Are You awake or are you sleeping?
The kitchen boy did not reply, so the duck said, “And my guests, what about them?”
The kitchen boy said, “they are sleeping soundly.”
The duck then asked, “what of my little baby?”
“Asleep in his cradle,” answered the kitchen boy. Then the duck turned back into the Queen and went upstairs. She nursed her baby, made it’s bed, and tucked it in. Then the Queen turned back into a duck and swam away down the river.
In the morning, when the King came to check on the Queen and inquired after her health, the girl answered him, and as she spoke toads sprang from her mouth. The king was confused and alarmed, as previously gold had dropped from her lips, but the old woman assured him that the Queen was ill and he should leave her alone for now.
That night, the Queen again came and nursed her child as everyone was sleeping. She came again on the third night, and then she said to the kitchen boy, “Go tell the King to take his sword and swing it three times over me on the threshold.” The kitchen boy ran and woke the King, who came with his sword.
With the third pass over the duck, it was transformed once again into the Queen, and the King rejoiced to see his wife alive and healthy before him. She told him what had happened, and the King then hid her in another chamber.
The King then went to the stepmother and her daughter, still dressed as the false Queen, and asked, “What does a person deserve when they drag someone out of bed and throw them in the water?”
“Nothing better than to be put in a barrel of nails and rolled downhill into the water,” replied the stepmother.
“You have declared your own sentence,” replied the King. He ordered a barrel of nails to be brought, and the stepmother and her daughter were put inside. The top was fastened in place and the barrel rolled downhill into the water.
There is a great sense of similarity to many of the Grimm brother’s tales.
At least for this one, the good girl didn’t have prickly roses or sharp diamonds dropping out of her mouth, as well as gold. You have to wonder if the King married her, at least in part, to reap the benefits of the gold. But if it was real gold, why didn’t the girl just talk a lot and buy herself to a better place in life? The Grimm brothers must have missed the catch.
Always with the jealous stepmothers who have the ugly daughters. It’s super unfair that ugly = bad and beautiful = good in the world of the Brothers Grimm.
I’m definitely reminded of Ron Weasley’s backfiring curse (uuugh slugs) in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and think that toads would at least be able to jump away and would not be as slimy as slugs, hopefully. Ewww.