There was once a series of posts about the Grimms’ fairy tales, which fell asleep for a hundred years. A thicket of thorns grew up around it, and those few who remembered it at all supposed that it had succumbed to the writer’s usual inability to persevere with anything. Then suddenly, one cold winter’s day, the darkest of the year, a new post appeared, like a lovely rose blossoming. Hem.
All was not quite as it had been, however. The writer had belatedly noticed that all the fairy tales had already been posted on the internets, and so she decided that rather than hammer out her turgid retellings she would direct readers to a proper translation of the Grimms’ version, where they could enjoy the stories in their proper forms.
So, ‘The Three Little Men in the Forest’ can be read here, if you don’t have a copy or know it already.
(Arthur Rackham, ‘What did she find there but real ripe strawberries’, illustration for Little Brother and Little Sister and Other Tales by the Brothers Grimm, London: Constable and Co., Ltd., 1917; found here)
It’s a cheerful welding together of two sorts of story, but one that I have found curious. The first is called ‘the kind and unkind girls’ trope, and in it a good, kind girl is sent to do a menial, unpleasant or even dangerous task, meets a magical being to whom she is courteous and obliging, and receives a wonderful reward; her bad stepsister is then sent on the same errand, but because she is rude and horrible what she receives is suitably unpleasant and punitive. A famous example of this trope is in ‘Mother Holle’.
In ‘The Three Little Men in the Forest’, the wicked stepmother orders the good girl to wear a paper dress and go out into the snow to gather strawberries; far from perishing in the cold, she finds a cottage, shares her one piece of bread with the three little ‘elf-men’ who inhabit it, and clears the snow from their path good-humouredly. Consequently, she is bestowed with the gifts of growing more beautiful every day, having gold coins fall from her mouth when she speaks and marrying a king. The bad stepsister, on the other hand, is sent out in furs and with ‘buttered bread and cake’ to eat, but is so selfish and rude that the three little men punish her with the mirror of the good girl’s rewards: she will grow uglier each day, toads will leap from her mouth whenever she speaks and she will die a miserable death.
This trope functions in several ways: by splitting the young girl character into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ it can act as a rather clumsy reinforcement of ‘approved’ female qualities – obedience, kindness, generosity, diligence – contrasted with the terrible fate which might befall a lazy, saucy, bad-tempered wench. In particular, it highlights the virtue of obedience, which I would argue is the good girl’s main characteristic in the story: she is obedient to father, stepmother, little men and husband, in turn. The good sister’s virtues are rewarded with those features which make a girl most attractive in the marriage market: physical beauty (here reflecting inner beauty) and wealth – and with those gold coins falling from her lips, who will listen to what she actually says?
The girl character ‘splits’ again during the second trope, that of ‘the false bride’, which we saw in ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’. Interpreted like this, the girl’s identity is particularly unstable in this tale. Again, the revenant bride is rescued just in time, and in the first edition of the tales, so Joyce Crick tells us in the Oxford University Press edition, the wicked stepmother and stepsister were also left in the forest to be eaten by wild animals. The barrel of nails was added later, and Wilhelm Grimm justified it as having been described in a thirteenth-century chronicle from the Netherlands. The wicked stepmother inadvertently chooses it as her and her daughter’s punishment in reply to the king’s trick question at the end of the story. Why did Wilhelm change it? To distinguish it slightly from ‘Little Brother and Little Sister’?
(Charles Folkard, illustration, ‘The Three Little Men in the Snow’, illustration for Grimms’ Fairy Tales, London: A&C Black, 1911; from here)
It is of course the details which define this story and elevate it above a simple ‘type’: the paper dress, the strawberries in the snow, swilling the yarn in the icy river. It’s always winter before the king finds the good girl and marries her. The forest is the place of magic and testing, as in so many of the Grimms’ tales; for the good girl it is a refuge, benign; for the wicked, it is threatening, where beasts may devour them. But I think my favourite part is right at the beginning (from the OUP edition):
There was once a man whose wife had died, and there was a woman whose husband had died. Now the man had a daughter, and so did the woman. The girls knew each other, and one day they went for a walk together and afterwards went to the woman’s house. Then the woman said to the man’s daughter: ‘Listen, tell your father I would like to marry him, and when I do you shall wash yourself every morning in milk, and have wine to drink, but my own daughter shall have water to wash in and water to drink.’ The girl went home and told her father what the woman had said. The man said: ‘What shall I do? Marriage is a pleasure, but it’s also a torment.’ At last, because he couldn’t come to a decision, he took off his boot and said: ‘Take it up to the attic, hang it on the big nail there, and pour water into it. If it holds the water, I’ll take a wife again, but if the water runs out, I won’t.’ The girl did as she was told; but the water shrank the hole, and the boot was full to the brim. She told her father what had happened. Then he went upstairs himself, and when he saw that it was so he went to the widow and wooed her, and the wedding took place.
Irresponsible fathers are a feature of the Grimms’ tales, but this one is intriguing. He takes the widow’s promises of kindness to his daughter on trust, but not his own child’s observation of the boot: this he corroborates himself. He uses a boot with a hole in it – did he know this, and so really had decided not to marry? Or was he unaware of it, assuming the boot would probably hold the water, and thus quite keen on the widow? In either case, what did he hope to prove with the boot? Or again, was he, in a story where most of the characters lack any great cunning, incredibly stupid? And why in the attic, does he associate that with the head, the brain?
I’m not sure I’ve written all I want to write about this, or finished thinking about it. But life is short, so I’ll post it anyway. What do you make of it?
Next time: ‘Hansel and Gretel’.
(Black-and-white illustration by Kay Nielsen in Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925; found here)