The Three Little Men in the Woods
There was once a man whose wife died. There was also a woman whose husband died. They lived in the same village. The man had a daughter, and the woman also had a daughter. The girls were good friends and often went out walking together. After one such walk, they went to the woman’s house. The woman said to the man’s daughter, “Listen, tell your father that I would like to marry him. If he agrees, I will fill a bathtub with milk for you every morning, which will make your skin softer and softer and more and more beautiful. And I will give you wine to drink every evening. But my own daughter will get only water for her bath, and only water to drink.”
The girl went home and told her father what the woman had said. The man said, “What should I do? Marriage is a joy but also a hassle. That she would treat you so kindly makes the idea a better one, but I still cannot decide.” He thought for a long time, but could make no decision. He pulled off one of his boots, and said to his daughter, “Take this boot. It has a hole in the bottom of it. Take it upstairs, hang it on the big nail, and then pour water into it. If it holds the water, then I will marry her, but if it runs through, I will not.”
The girl did as she was asked. The water made the hole in the boot come together and seal up. The boot became full to the top and leaked no water. She told her father this. Then he himself went up, and when he saw that she was right, he went to the woman and asked her to marry him, and the wedding was celebrated.
The next morning, when the two girls got up, the woman filled the bathtub with milk for the man’s daughter, and later gave her wine to drink. And the woman gave her own daughter only water to wash herself with, and only water to drink. On the second morning, however, the woman gave both girls only water to bathe in and only water to drink. And on the third morning, she gave the man’s daughter only water for bathing and water to drink, but for her own daughter, she made a bath of milk and gave her wine to drink with her dinner. And so it continued.
The woman became bitterly unkind to her stepdaughter, and day by day treated her worse and worse. The woman was also jealous because her stepdaughter was beautiful and lovable, and her own daughter was ugly and mean.
Once, in winter, when everything was frozen as hard as stone, and every hill and valley was covered with snow, the woman made a dress of paper, called her stepdaughter, and said, “Here, put on this dress and go out into the woods. Fill this basket full of strawberries. I suddenly want to eat some.”
“Good heavens!” said the girl. “Strawberries don’t grow in winter! The ground is frozen, and the snow has covered everything. And why do I have to go in this paper dress? It is so cold outside that your breath freezes! The wind will blow through the dress, and the thorns will tear it off my body.”
“You will disobey me?” screamed the stepmother. “Get out right now, and do not come back until you have the basketful of strawberries!” Then the stepmother gave her a little piece of hard bread, and said, “This will last you for a day.” But the stepmother silently thought, “She will die of cold and hunger outside, and I will never have to see her again!”
The girl was obedient. She put on the paper dress, and went out with the basket. Far and wide there was nothing but snow, and not a green blade of grass was to be seen. When she got into the woods she saw a small house out of which three little men looked at her through a window. She wished them good morning, and knocked gently at the door. They cried, “Come in!” She entered the room and sat down on a bench by the stove, where she began to warm herself and eat her bread for breakfast. The little men said, “Please give us some of your bread.”
“Of course” said she, and divided her bit of bread in two, and gave them half.
They asked, “What are you doing here in the forest in the winter time, in only a paper dress?”
“Ah,” she answered, “I have to look for a basketful of strawberries, and I can’t go home until I can take them with me.”
When she had eaten her bread, they gave her a broom and said, “Take this and sweep away the snow outside the back door.” When she was outside, the three little men said to each other, “What should we give her? She is so nice, and she shared her bread with us.”
Then said the first, “My gift is that she will grow more beautiful every day.”
The second said, “My gift is that gold coins will fall out of her mouth every time she speaks.”
The third said, “My gift is that a good king will come and marry her.”
The girl did as the little men had asked her, and swept away the snow behind the little house with the broom. And what did she find but real ripe strawberries, which came up dark red out of the snow! In her joy she quickly gathered her basketful, thanked the little men, shook hands with each of them, and ran home to bring her stepmother what she had wanted so much.
When she went in and said good evening, a piece of gold at once fell out of her mouth. Then she explained what had happened to her in the woods, but with every word she spoke, gold coins fell from her mouth, until very soon the whole room was covered with them.
“Now look at her,” cried the stepsister, “She thinks she is better than us, throwing gold all over the place like that!” But she was secretly jealous, and wanted to go into the forest also to look for strawberries. The mother said, “No, my dear little daughter. You might die from the cold.” However, after her daughter cried and complained, the mother finally said okay, made her a warm and beautiful dress of fur, and gave her bread and butter and cake to take with her.
The girl went into the forest and straight up to the little house. The three little men looked out the window again, but she did not greet them. She didn’t look at them or speak to them, but just went into the house, sat down by the stove, and began to eat her bread and butter and cake.
“Please give us some of it!” cried the little men.
But she replied, “There is not enough for myself, so how can I give it away to other people?” When she had done eating, they said, “Here is a broom for you, sweep the snow away for us outside by the back door.”
“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 outside to look for strawberries. Then the little men said to each other, “What shall we give her? She is so naughty, and has a wicked heart. She will never do a nice thing for anyone.”
The first said, “My gift is that she will grow uglier every day.”
The second said, “My gift is that a toad will jump out of her mouth every time she says something.”
The third said, “My gift is that she will die a miserable death.”
The naughty girl looked for strawberries outside, but she found none and she went angrily home. After she arrived home, she opened her mouth, and was about to tell her mother what had happened to her in the woods. With every word she said, a toad jumped out of her mouth, so that everyone felt afraid and wanted to get away from her.
Then the stepmother became more and more angry, and all she could think about was how to hurt the man’s daughter, who was becoming more and more beautiful every day. Eventually, she took a huge pot, set it on the fire, and boiled noodles in it. When they were cooked, she threw the boiling hot noodles around the girl’s neck and shoulders, which burned her painfully. Then the stepmother gave her an axe, and told her to go out on the frozen river, cut a hole in the ice, and rinse the noodles.
Again, the girl was obedient. She went out on the river and cut a hole in the ice. While she was cutting the hole, a fancy carriage came driving up, in which sat the King. The carriage stopped, and the King asked, “My child, who are you, and what are you doing here?”
“I am a poor girl, and my stepmother sent me here.” The King felt sorry for her, and when he saw that she was so very beautiful, he said to her, “Will you come away with me?”
“Ah, yes. With all my heart,” she answered, for she was glad to get away from the mother and sister.
So she got into the carriage and drove away with the King, and when they arrived at his castle, the wedding was celebrated with great happiness, dancing, and feasting, and the little men attended as honored guests. When a year was over, the young Queen had a son.
When the stepmother heard that her stepdaughter was now a queen, she came with her daughter to the castle and pretended to be happy and friendly. Once, however, when the King had gone out, and no one else was there, the wicked woman grabbed the Queen by the head. And the wicked woman’s daughter grabbed the Queen by the feet. They lifted her out of bed, and threw her out of the window into the river which flowed by. Then 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. You cannot see her now, she is very sick and has a fever. You must let her rest today.” The King believed this, and came back again the next morning. As he talked with his wife, whenever she answered him, a toad leaped out, not a gold coin as before. The King was much surprised and worried, but the old woman said that this happened because of the fever and would soon get back to normal.
During the night, however, one of the palace kitchen servants saw something in the shape of a duck come swimming out of the stream and toward the castle. The duck called into a window:
“King, what are you doing now? Are you asleep or are you awake?”
The King was sleeping and gave no answer. Then the duck asked:
“And my guests, What are they doing?”
The kitchen boy said:
“They are sleeping soundly, too.”
Then the duck asked another question:
“What is he doing, that little baby of mine?”
“Sleeping in his cradle fine.”
Then the duck turned herself back into the Queen. She went upstairs, nursed the baby, tucked him back into his bed, and then became a duck again and swam away down the river.
She came back in this way for two nights. On the third night, the duck said to the kitchen boy, “Go and tell the King to take his sword and swing it above my head three times.” Then the servant ran and told this to the King, who came with his sword and swung it three times over the duck. At the third time, his wife stood before him just as alive, strong, and healthy as she had been before.
The King was full of great joy, but he kept the Queen hidden in a room until the Sunday when the baby was having his birthday. And at the party, the King asked everyone, “What does a person deserve who drags another out of bed and throws them in the water?”
“Such a terrible person,” answered the old woman, “deserves to be taken and put in a barrel stuck full of nails, and rolled down hill into the water.”
“Then,” said the King, “you have decided your own punishment.” And he ordered such a barrel to be brought, and the old woman to be put into it with her daughter, and then the top was hammered on, and the barrel rolled down hill until it went into the river.
Adapted by Jim Reynolds
From “The Three Little Men In The Wood”
Collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm
Notes: I have adapted the story from the traditional versions linked above to somewhat simplify and modernize the vocabulary and grammar structures for younger readers and English learners.
The earlier versions had the stepmother boiling yarn in a cauldron and sending her stepdaughter to cut a hole in the river ice to rinse the yarn. I substituted boiling and rinsing noodles because I thought few young readers or English learners today would be familiar with the traditional process.