A cruel stepmother sends her stepdaughter with a paper dress out into the winter cold. She is to find ripe strawberries under the snow. She finds… something else!
The Three Little Men in the Woods is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a stepmother and two daughters. The stepdaughter is kind and gets blessed by the three little men in the woods. The daughter is unkind and gets cursed. When the stepdaughter becomes Queen they kill her. She returns and they get what they deserve.
A man and a woman marry
Once upon a time there was a man whose wife died. This man had a daughter. There was also a woman whose husband died. She also had a daughter. The girls knew each other and went out walking together.
Afterwards they came to the woman in her house. She said to the man’s daughter, “Listen, tell your father that I would like to marry him. Then you will get to wash yourself in milk every morning and to drink wine, whereas my own daughter will have to wash herself in water and drink water.”
The girl went home and told her father what the woman had said. The man said, “What shall I do? Marriage is a joy and also a torment.”
When he couldn’t decide, he pulled off his boot and said, “Take this boot, it has a hole in the sole of it. Go with it up to the loft, hang it on the big nail, and then pour water into it. If it holds the water, then I will again take a wife, but if it runs through, I will not.”
The girl did as she was ordered. The water drew the hole together and the boot became full to the top. She informed her father how it had turned out. Then he himself went up. When he saw that she was right, he went to the widow and asked her and the wedding was celebrated.
The stepmother becomes more and more unkind
The next morning when the two girls got up, there stood milk before the man’s daughter to wash herself in and wine for her to drink. For the woman’s daughter there was water to wash herself with and water for drinking.
On the second morning however, there was water for washing and water for drinking before the man’s daughter as well as before the woman’s daughter.
On the third morning there was water for washing and water for drinking for the man’s daughter. However there was milk for washing and wine for drinking for the woman’s daughter. And so it stayed.
The woman was very unkind to her stepdaughter. Every new day she did her best to treat her even worse than the day before. She was also envious, because her stepdaughter was beautiful and lovable, while her own daughter was ugly and repulsive.
The stepdaughter is send out for strawberries
Once in the winter, when everything was frozen as hard as a stone, and hill and vale lay covered with snow, the woman made a dress of paper. She called her stepdaughter and said, “Here, put on this dress and go out into the wood. Fetch me a little basket full of strawberries, I really want some.”
“Good heavens!” said the girl, “no strawberries grow in winter! The ground is frozen and besides that the snow has covered everything. And why am I to go in this paper dress? It is so cold outside that one’s very breath freezes! The wind will blow through the dress, and the thorns will tear it off my body.”
“Are you standing up to me again? Go and don’t show your face here again without a basket full of strawberries!”
The stepmother gave her a little piece of hard bread and added, “This will last you a whole day.” But she thought, “You will die outside of cold and hunger, and I will never see you again.”
The young woman was obedient, put on the paper dress and went out with the basket. Far and wide there was nothing but snow. Not a green blade to be seen.
The stepdaughter meets the three little men
When she got into the wood she saw a small house out of which peeped three little men. She greeted them and knocked on their door. They called out, “Come in,” and she entered the room and seated herself on the bench by the stove, where she began to warm herself and eat her breakfast.
They said, “Give us some too.”
“Of course,” she said and divided her bit of bread in two and gave them the half.
They asked her, “What are you doing in the forest in winter time, in your thin dress?”
“Ah,” she answered, “I am supposed to look for a basket full of strawberries. I cannot come home without them.”
When she had eaten her bread they gave her a broom and said, “Sweep away the snow at the back door with it.”
The three little men give gifts to the stepdaughter
When she was outside, the three little men said to each other, “What shall we give her? She is so good, she even shared her bread with us.”
The first said, “My gift is that she shall every day grow more beautiful.”
The second said, “My gift is that gold pieces shall fall out of her mouth every time she speaks.”
The third said, “My gift is that a king shall come and take her to be his wife.”
Meanwhile the girl was doing what the little men had told her, sweeping away the snow behind the little house with a broom. To her surprise she found real ripe strawberries. They emerged quite dark red from under the snow. Happy she quickly filled her basket.
She thanked the little men, shaking hands with each of them. Then she ran home to take the strawberries to her stepmother who had longed for them so much.
When she went in and said good evening, a piece of gold fell from her mouth. She told them what had happened to her in the woods. With every word she spoke, gold pieces fell from her mouth. Very soon the whole floor was covered with them.
“Now look at her arrogance,” cried her stepsister, “throwing about gold in that way!”
The daughter also goes into the woods
Secretly she was envious of her and wanted to go into the forest also to seek strawberries. The mother said, “No, my dear little daughter, it is too cold, you might freeze to death.”
When her daughter let her have no peace, the mother at last yielded and made her a magnificent dress of fur. She was obliged to put it on, and her mother gave her bread-and-butter and cake to take with her.
She went into the forest, straight up to the little house. The three little men peeped out again. She did not greet them. Without looking around at them and without speaking to them, she went awkwardly into the room. She seated herself by the stove and began to eat her bread-and-butter and cake.
“Give us some too,” said the little men.
She replied, “There is not enough for myself. How can I give it away to other people?”
When she had finished eating, they said, “We have a broom for you, sweep all clean for us outside by the backdoor.”
“Humph! Sweep for yourselves,” she answered, “I am not your servant.”
When she saw that they were not going to give her anything, she went out by the door.
The three little men give ‘gifts’ to the daughter
The little men said to each other, “What shall we give her? So naughty, with such a wicked envious heart, that will never let her do good to any one?”
The first said, “My gift is that she may grow uglier every day.”
The second said, “My gift is that at every word she says, a toad shall spring out of her mouth.”
The third said, “My gift is that she may die a miserable death.”
The young girl looked for strawberries outside. She found none and went angrily home.
She opened her mouth and was about to tell her mother what had happened to her in the woods. But with every word she said, a toad sprang out of her mouth. Every one was seized with horror of her.
The stepmother became more enraged. She thought of nothing but how to do every possible injury to the man’s daughter, who became more beautiful every day.
At last she took a cauldron, set it on the fire and boiled yarn in it. After that she flung the yarn on the poor girl’s shoulder. She gave her an axe and told her to go to the frozen river, cut a hole in the ice and rinse the yarn.
The stepdaughter meets the King
She obeyed, went to the river and cut a hole in the ice. While she was doing that, the splendid carriage of the King came driving up. It stopped and the King asked, ”My child, who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I am a poor girl and I am rinsing yarn.”
The King felt compassion. When he saw that she was so very beautiful, he said to her, “Will you come with me?”
“Ah, yes, with all my heart,” she answered, for she was glad to get away from the mother and sister.
She got into the carriage and drove away with the King. When they arrived at his palace, the wedding was celebrated in a spectacular way. Just as the little men had granted her.
After a year, the young Queen bore a son. When the stepmother heard of her great good fortune, she came with her daughter to the palace and pretended that she wanted to pay her a visit.
The Queen is killed
Once however, when the King had gone out, and no one else was present, the wicked woman seized the Queen by the head. Her daughter seized her by the feet and they lifted her out of the bed. They threw her out of the window into the stream which flowed by.
The ugly daughter laid herself in the bed and the old woman covered her up over her head. When the King came home again and wanted to speak to his wife, the old woman cried, “Hush, hush, that can’t be now, she is lying in a violent perspiration; you must let her rest today.”
The King suspected no evil and did not come back again till next morning. He talked with his wife and she answered him, but with every word a toad leaped out, whereas formerly a piece of gold had fallen out. He asked what had happened. The old woman said that she had got that from the violent perspiration and would soon lose it again.
A duck comes up to the kitchen boy
During the night the kitchen boy saw a duck come swimming up the gutter. It said,
“King, what are you doing now?
Are you sleeping or awake?”
The kitchen boy stayed silent. The duck said,
“And my guests, What do they do?”
To which the kitchen boy said,
“They are sleeping soundly, too.”
Then the duck asked,
“And my little baby, what does she do?”
“She’s in her crade, sleeping too.”
She went upstairs in the form of the Queen, nursed the baby, shook up its little bed and covered it over. Then she swam away down the gutter in the shape of a duck.
This happened two nights in a row. On the third night, she said to the kitchen boy, “Go and tell the King to take his sword and swing it three times over me on the threshold.”
The kitchen boy ran and told this to the King. He came with his sword and swung it thrice over the spirit. At the third time, his wife stood before him strong, living, and healthy as she had been before.
The stepmother and daughter pronounce their own judgment
The king was overjoyed, but he kept the Queen hidden in a chamber until the Sunday, when the baby was to be christened. When the baby was christened he said, “What does a person deserve who drags another one out of bed and throws him in the water?”
“Such a wretched person deserves nothing better,” answered the old woman, “than to be taken and put in a barrel stuck full of nails and rolled downhill into the water.”
“You have pronounced your own sentence,” the King said. He ordered such a barrel to be brought and the old woman to be put into it with her daughter. The top was hammered on and the barrel rolled downhill until it went under into the river.
Tips for Telling
- Who are those three little men? Elves, gnomes, dwarfs? When you can imagine their little house and how they look, your listeners can too. Take some time to see them in your imagination or draw them on paper.
- The contrast in this story is between good and evil, between giving and selfish. While this is fine for young children, for teens and adults it is a bit predictable. Shake it up by enlarging this contrast to the extreme, telling about little quirky things and using humor.
- A king comes by and the daughter immediately jumps in his carriage, marries and is pregnant a year later. Wow, things go fast in fairy tales! What are your feelings about that? Without stepping outside of the fairy tale, a quick remark or a look can tell a lot to your listeners.
All Questions Answered
It was written down by the Brothers Grimm. They head this tale from a woman called Dortchen Wild. It was a tale being told in the oral tradition.
The Brothers Grimm collected this story and wrote it down in 1812. It was later expanded with material from other storytellers.
It is also known as ‘The Three Little Men in the Wood’, ‘The Three Little Men in the Forest’ and ‘The Three Dwarfs’.
In the Brothers Grimm’s original German text the three little men are called Hauleännerchen, large-headed dwarfs that are said to live in caves in forests and to steal unbaptized children. Various translators have translated them as either gnomes, dwarves or elves.