Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2011 The Three Little Men in the Wood – Part One

 Edmund Dulac


One of the charms of fairy tales is their reminder of pagan thought. These reminders are vital if fairies, ogres and genies are to survive into the modern day. If we forget them, they will disappear. What then would become of the gnome that haunts my study?

I know he’s there. Usually in the vicinity of my copy of Jack Zipes’s “The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm”, wherever it may be setting. He pops out of sight the moment I look up. I can almost believe he is not real.

Pagan allusions in fairy tales often refer to earth, wind, fire and water, as well as the sun, moon and stars. As Maria Tater says in “The Annotated Brothers Grimm”, “These cosmic forces are central to the fate of the hero, and they often shape the course of events in ways that escape our attention.” The cosmic force in “The Three Little Men in the Wood” is water.

The tale starts with the future stepmother promising that the heroine will bathe in milk and drink wine while the stepsister will bathe in water and drink water; a situation that is soon reversed. Presently, water is poured into a boot to test the fates. The boot, despite a tiny hole in the sole, holds water.

Three times the stepmother tries to destroy the poor heroine. First she is driven out into the snow to search for strawberries, then forced out onto the frozen river to chop a hole in the ice and wash yarn, and finally flung from the castle window to fall into the river and drown.

In spirit form the girl returns to the castle as a duck swimming up the gutter drain. The villainous women meet their end inside a barrel rolled into the river. It is not unusual in these tales, so filled with paganism, to end the story with a Christian gloss; in this story, a baptism.

Water is generally taken as a symbol for the source of life, fertility, and the feminine aspect. Given the preponderance of water images, I might feel safe calling this a female-centric story.

Forgive me now, as I jump off the deep end. Water or no water, It’s a male-controlled story. There is hardly a Grimm story that is not.

At the heart of this story, two female aspects battle for dominance. One of them, the heroine, always supplicant, has the support of the male aspect. The male characters in the story are enablers, or at worst, they take sides. Her father, although he makes a bad choice then disappears, (common fare in fairy tales) sets in motion the events that lead to her success. The three little men heap good fortune upon her and heap curses upon her stepsister. The King rescues her, and performs the acts to return her to life. The stepmother and daughter have no such support. What does the heroine bear for all this effort? A son.

In the Greek pantheon the goddesses had power and a role to play, for good or for ill.  In Irish legend, the competition between queen Medb and her husband Ailill led to the deaths of Ireland’s greatest heroes of the Ulster Cycle. By the time the monotheistic religions replace the pagan religions, God is male in aspect; there are no goddesses. Although pagan thought is reflected in fairy tales, the former higher status of the feminine is not to be found. Fairy tale women may be put on a pedestal, but it is the fairy tale men who put them there.

Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2011 The Three Little Men in the Wood – Part Two

 John B. Gruelle

Strange Details

I enjoy telling “The Three Little Men in the Wood” partly because bobbing around within the tale are a number of peculiar events. Leaving one’s fate to a leaky boot is one. Washing yarn in a frozen river is another. Sent to find strawberries in the snow? Simply impossible.

The event that caught me was the drowned heroine’s transformation into a duck, instead of descending into death. I hadn’t come across this idea before. The word “motif” floated to the surface. I dove in, to search it out.

A good reason to join the National Storytelling Network is to have access to the Greenwood Folklore & Folklife database. I floated my mouse over to “Advance Search”, entering the word “duck” as keyword. I paddled by the North American Indian duck dance (may have to get back to that one) and let the list divert me to “A Guide to Folktales in the English Language” by  D. L. Ashliman, landing upon his summary of “The Black and the White Bride”, also in Grimm. A list of related stories followed the article, with “The White Duck” (Russian) and “The Bushy Bride” (Norwegian) among them.

Let me here confess the spotty nature of my research. I haven’t read Grimm cover to cover, therefore, had not read “The Black and the White Bride”. Nor have I read Andrew Lang’s colored Fairy Books cover to cover, nor Francis Child’s five volumes of English and Scottish ballads, etc, etc. I dive in at random or to find a particular tale; then come back up for air.

While submerged in the Greenwood database, I saw a reference to the white duck in “Hansel and Gretel”. Never gasp under water. I came to the surface sputtering. One strange detail gained clarity.

In “The Three Little Men in the Wood” and similar variants, the young queen, after being drowned, returns as a duck in an attempt to care for her child. In “Hansel and Gretel”, the children are trying to find their way home after their ordeal, and are aided by a white duck that carries them across the lake that bars the way. Who is that duck other than the spiritual remains of their mother?

Everyone knows the story of “Hansel and Gretel”, but unless they read the Grimm version they will not know about the white duck. The grocery store versions of “Hansel and Gretel” routinely edit out the duck.

Let us admit, a duck can not carry a child across a lake. Unless there is something particularly charming about the image, there is no reason to keep it in the story. The spiritual mother helping her children on the last leg of their journey is lost.


We, as a society, don’t understand the language of fairy tales. We understand body language. We understand the language of our politicians, and how to read between their lines. We understand the language of sit-coms, and recognize the one-liner, knowing why it is there. We don’t understand the language of fairy tales, and why nonsense and impossibilities are not nonsensical nor impossible.

  1. Be kind to your web footed friends, for a duck may be somebody’s mother.



Fairy Tale of the Month: June 2011 The Three Little Men in the Wood – Part Three

Colored Memory

The Three Little Men in the Wood” contains a number of abiding images, the gentlest of them being the strawberries in the snow. This story, along with its Slovakian companion, “Strawberries in Winter”, are Cinderella variants, although I don’t know of any other Cinderella stories involving strawberries.

As an impossible task, it comes up in a number of stories, especially the farther north we search. The Norse goddess Frigga uses strawberries in which to hide the souls of dead infants, smuggling them into the afterlife. Connections were made in medieval times between this member of the rose family (really not a fruit) and the Virgin Mary, even though the strawberry is not mentioned in the Bible.

As an image, the contrast of a lush, red strawberry, a favorite spring treat, hidden under the cold, white, relentless snow of winter, evokes an immediate sense of magic and delight for most readers.

Not for me.

I am stopped by a color scheme that conceals its true nature. In Grimm’s ghastly tale “The Juniper Tree”, the childless wife, while standing under a juniper tree peeling an apple, cuts her finger. Drops of her blood fall onto the snow. Not being able to take her eyes from the sight, she declares, “Oh, if only I had a child as red as blood and as white as snow.” The granting of her wish leads to attempted abortion, decapitation, cannibalism and death by crushing.

My personal feeling about the pairing of red and white goes deeper. I grew up in an old, stone, Pennsylvania farmhouse. The thick stone walls allowed for an inner and outer door with room to stand between the two. The two doors and space cut down on drafts and conserved heat during the winter. The modern adaptation is an inner door with glass panes and an outer storm door.

Sometime after my mother’s death, I had a dream. I am standing in that space between the two doors. On the inside is my mother calmly talking to me. Outside, racing across the field, is a pack of white dogs with red ears. I know, as one knows things in dreams, they are coming for my mother. I am struggling to keep both doors shut, which, for reasons I can’t understand, proves difficult. As the dogs near, I manage to hold both closed, trapping myself in a sort of limbo.

Years later, when I became interested in folklore and mythology, I sat one evening on my living room couch reading Robert Graves’ “Three White Goddess”. He talked about the hounds of hell—white dogs with red ears. Since then I have often encountered white creatures with red ears from beyond the veil in Irish and English legends, but I know I had not run across them before that night.

Where does foreknowledge come from? Is racial memory coloring our storytelling? For me, red and white have diabolical undertones, even if they rest on innocent strawberries and the clean, cold snow.

Your thoughts?