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Literature / The Three Little Men in the Wood

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"The Three Little Men in the Wood" (German: Die drei Männlein im Walde) is a German Fairy Tale collected by The Brothers Grimm and published in their Children and Household's Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) collection. It is the number 13 tale.

A widow with a daughter persuaded the daughter of a widower to persuade her father to marry the widow. Then she oppressed her stepdaughter. Finally, she sent her into the winter woods with orders to gather strawberries. There, she met three little men, who asked what had happened to her, asked her to share her food, and then asked her to sweep off their back step. When she went, they decided she would grow more beautiful every day, have gold fall from her mouth when she spoke, and marry a king. Also, while she swept, she found strawberries.

Her arrogant stepsister insisted on going after the strawberries. She was rude to the little men and refused to share her food. So they cursed her to grow uglier, have toads drop from her mouth, and die a miserable death. She never found strawberries.

The furious stepmother sent her stepdaughter to rinse yarn in the frozen river. A king saw her and took her off to marry her. They had a baby. The stepmother and her daughter came to the castle, threw the queen out of the window and into a stream, and put the daughter in her place. The stepmother refused to let the king see her, and blamed the toads on her illness.

A scullion, however, saw a duck swim up and ask what happened in the castle. Then she became a woman again and nursed the baby. On her third visit, she told the scullion to tell the king to swing his sword three times over her while on the threshold. This brought her back to life.

At the baby's christening, the king asked the stepmother what punishment should be inflicted on someone who threw someone in the water. She said, "The wretch deserves nothing better than to be taken and put in a barrel stuck full of nails, and rolled down hill into the water." So the king had it done to her and her daughter.

Full text here, here, here and here.

Compare with "Brother and Sister", "Mother Holle", "St. Joseph in the Forest", and Russian tale "The White Duck".

In the Aarne–Thompson–Uther Index, it is a Type 403B, "The Black and the White Bride" and 480, "The Kind and the Unkind Girls".

Tropes included:

  • Back from the Dead: The Queen is revived when the King swings his sword over her ghost three times.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: One of the heroine's rewards for her kindness is to grow more beautiful with each passing day; whereas her mean-spirited, selfish and lazy stepsister is punished to become progressively uglier.
    "What shall we give her as she is so good, and has shared her bread with us?" Then said the first, "My gift is, that she shall every day grow more beautiful."
    "What shall we give her as she is so naughty, and has a wicked envious heart, that will never let her do a good turn to any one?" The first said, "I grant that she may grow uglier every day."
  • Cain and Abel: The stepsister becomes tremendously jealous of her sister and participates in her murder.
  • Curse: The stepsister becomes thrice-accursed for her selfishness and laziness.
  • Don't Go in the Woods: The protagonist does not want to go to the woods near her house because she would freeze to death. They are also inhabited by dangerous magical beings.
  • Doting Parent: The woman's "dear little daughter" is given milk to wash in and wine to drink every day when she awakens. Likewise, the woman will not let her go out in the woods without wearing a "splendid fur coat", and without giving her bread, butter, and cakes to eat on the way.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: The evil stepmother and her daughter are "put into a barrel stuck full of nails, and then rolled downhill into the water."
  • The Fair Folk: The titular characters seem to be some kind of leprechauns or dwarves: they are magical, tiny humanoid creatures who live in the woods and are willing to reward or punish humans who stumble upon their home.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: When the king asks the stepmother how she would punish someone who drags another person out of their bed and throws them in the water, the stepmother describes an awful punishment. Then the king replies she has spoken her own sentence.
  • Impossible Task: The stepmother orders the main character to go out into the woods in the dead of winter and not return without a basketful of strawberries, expecting her to freeze to death.
  • Kill and Replace: The stepmother murders the main character and attempts to replace her with her own daughter.
  • No Name Given: None of the characters are referred to by name.
  • Offing the Offspring: The stepmother attempts to murder the main character several times.
  • Original Position Fallacy: After his son's baptism, the king asks his mother-in-law what should be done to someone who drags another person out of their bed and throws them in the water. When the old woman answers "to be taken and put in a barrel stuck full of nails, and rolled down hill into the water", the king reveals he knows how and by whom his wife was murdered, and she has just pronounced her own sentence.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: The murdered queen's spirit haunts the castle, taking the shape of a duck while she swims up the gutters where she was thrown in, and reverting to her human shape when she visits her baby.
  • Parental Favoritism: The stepmother has her birth daughter completely pampered and spoiled whereas she hates her stepsister to death.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: The King asks the stepmother what should be done with someone who murders another person by throwing them into the water. The woman suggests a particularly painful execution, unaware that she is choosing her own sentence.
    The king was elated, but he kept the queen hidden in a room until the Sunday when the baby was to be baptized. At the baptism he said, "What does a person deserve who drags someone out of bed and throws him into the water?"
    The old woman answered, "The scoundrel deserves nothing better than to be put into a barrel stuck full of nails, and then rolled downhill into the water."
    Then the king said, "You have pronounced your own sentence."
    He ordered such a barrel to be brought. The old woman and her daughter were put into it, and the top was hammered shut. Then the barrel was rolled downhill until it fell into the river.
  • Pride: The stepsister's pride and jealosy causes her to try to duplicate the results of seeking strawberries in the winter woods.
  • Rags to Royalty: The main character is an abused peasant who gets married to a king.
  • Reptiles Are Abhorrent: The stepsister is punished by having a toad hop from her mouth every times she speaks.
    And when she opened her mouth, and was about to tell her mother what had happened to her in the wood, with every word she said, a toad sprang out of her mouth, so that every one was seized with horror of her.
  • Rule of Three:
    • The main character stumbles upon three little men.
    • Both girls get three rewards or curses placed upon them.
    • The queen's ghost is seen three times.
    • The king must swing his sword three times to bring his wife back.
  • Secondary Character Title: The three little men's only role is to reward and punish the main character and her stepsister, respectively.
  • Secret Test of Character: The stepdaughter is polite, sharing her food with the little men and acceding to their requests, and the daughter is not. The former is rewarded with beauty, gold, a wealthy groom, and strawberries. The latter is punished with ugliness, unpleasantness, and loneliness. And she has no strawberries.
  • Snipe Hunt: The stepmother orders the main character to go out in the woods—in the dead of winter—and to not return without a basket of strawberries. Although her stepdaughter protests that there are no strawberries to be found in winter, the woman, who hopes the poor girl will freeze to death, ignores her cries and shoves her out of the door.
  • Spoiled Brat: When the stepsister goes to meet the little men, she barges into their house without knocking on the door and without giving them a greeting and sits herself down by their oven. When she starts eating her lunch, the little men ask her to share her food, but she refuses to give them any. When they ask her to sweep their back door, she tells them she is not their housemaid. Finally, when she sees that they were not going to giving her anything, she leaves without saying goodbye and without realizing that her entitled, rude behaviour has gotten them mad.
  • Step Servant: The Wicked Stepmother oppresses her stepdaughter until she sends her into the woods on an Impossible Task to kill her.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Rather than ingratiating herself with her stepdaughter and enjoying the perks of becoming the king's mother-in-law, the stepmother murders and tries to replace the queen with her own daughter. Even if the queen's ghost had not haunted the castle, the king would have discovered their hoax before long.
  • We Used to Be Friends: The main character and her eventual stepsister were friends and used to play together in the woman's house before their parents' marriage. It is unknown why the stepsister came to hate the former so much, although her mother might have simply poisoned her daughter’s mind against the main character after the marriage.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • The main character's father vanishes completely from the story after marrying his second wife.
    • The titular characters are not mentioned again after cursing the stepdaughter.
  • Wicked Stepmother: The stepmother sends her stepdaughter into the woods on an impossible task to kill her. When she returns, having won magical rewards with her good manners, she sends her daughter after and is furious when her ill-tempered daughter is justly punished. When the stepdaughter marries the king, she tries to murder her and replace her with her own daughter.