Front cover of a version of the story published in Japan for young learners of English as a foreign language.

"The Three Little Men in the Wood" (German: "Die drei Männlein im Walde"; also ublished in English as "The Three Little Men in the Woods", "The Three Little Men in the Forest", "The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest" and "The Three Dwarfs") is a German fairy tale. It is included in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales), the 1812 anthology of German folktales compiled by the Brothers Grimm.

The story's protagonist is a young woman who is cruelly mistreated by her abusive stepmother. When the wicked stepmother sends her into the forest to carry out a seemingly impossible task, the young woman meets the story's three titular elves.[1]. As a reward for the kindness that she shows them, each elf rewards the young girl by giving her a magical gift. One of those gifts is that she will marry a king. Even after the young woman marries the king and leaves home, her wicked stepmother continues to hate her and plots her downfall.

In their original footnotes to "The Three Little Men in the Wood", the Brothers Grimm acknowledge the tale's similarities to stories from the Italian author Giambattista Basile's early 17th century anthology The Pentamerone and to "Diamonds and Toads", the 1697 literary fairy tale by the French author Charles Perrault. Some elements of "The Three Little Men in the Wood" are presented in strikingly similar ways in other German folktales that are also included in Kinder- und Hausärchen.

"The Three Little Men in the Woods" has been adapted for British children's television.


Early 20th century illustration for the story by the British artist Anne Anderson.

An old widow with one daughter marries an old widower who also has one daughter. Before the wedding, the old woman promises to treat her stepdaughter even better than she treats her own daughter. She keeps that promise for a short while. Soon, however, she begins to mistreat and abuse the young woman. She comes to despise her stepdaughter and even tries to kill her.

On a winter's day when there is snow on the ground, the old woman tells her stepdaughter to go into the forest to fetch strawberries. Before she goes out, the stepdaughter is made to put on a dress made of paper and is given a single piece of stale bread to last her for the entire day. The old woman hopes that her stepdaughter will freeze to death while out on her fool's errand.

Three elves[1] who live in a small house in the forest see the stepdaughter. They invite her to come inside so that she can warm herself by their stove. The elves ask the stepdaughter to share her bread with them. She happily breaks the piece of bread in two and gives them half of it. When the elves ask her why she is in the forest, the stepdaughter tells them that she has been sent to gather strawberries. The elves give the young woman a broom and ask her to sweep the snow away from their backdoor. When the stepdaughter goes out, the elves decide to thank her for her kindness by each giving her a magical gift. The first elf's gift is that she will grow more beautiful every day. The second elf's gift is that a gold coin will fall from her mouth every time she speaks. The third elf's gift is that she will marry a king.

While she is sweeping away the snow, the stepdaughter finds a large amount of strawberries beneath it. She fills a basket with the strawberries and returns home. When she speaks, a gold coin drops from her mouth. She therefore has to tell the old woman and her daughter about the three elves.

1917 illustration for the story by the British artist Arthur Rackham.

The old woman's daughter wants to go into the forest too. The old woman makes her put on a fine dress of fur to protect her from the cold and gives her bread with butter and cake to eat. The three elves see the old woman's daughter and invite her into their house. She refuses to share her food with them and refuses to sweep away the snow from outside their backdoor. When she realizes that the elves are not going to give her anything, the old woman's daughter leaves their house. The elves decide that the unpleasant young woman needs to be punished. They each curse her. The first elf's curse is that she will grow uglier every day. The second elf's curse is that a toad will fall from her mouth every time she speaks. The third elf's curse is that she will die a miserable death.

The old woman gives her stepdaughter an axe and tells her to make a hole in the frozen lake so that she can wash some wool in it. The king happens to be passing in his carriage and sees the stepdaughter at the frozen lake. He feels sorry for the young woman who has to work so hard and is also struck by her beauty. He asks her if she will come with him to his palace. The young woman is delighted to be able to get away from her wicked stepmother and stepsister and happily agrees.

The king marries the stepdaughter and makes her his queen. A year later, she gives birth to a son. The old woman and her daughter manage to visit the queen. As soon as they are alone with her in her bedroom, they drag her out of bed and throw her out of a window. She falls into a river and drowns. The old woman's daughter pretends to be the queen by getting into the bed and having her head covered by the blanket. When the king returns, the old woman says that the queen is sick and that is the reason why toads instead of gold coins are falling from her mouth.

The king sees the young woman washing the wool. Illustration from the 1890 anthology The Red Fairy Book.

A few nights later, the queen's ghost swims up to the palace in the form of a duck and speaks to a kitchen boy. The kitchen boy tells her that everyone in the palace is asleep, including her baby. Taking on human form again, the ghost goes upstairs and cradles her baby. The ghost then takes on duck form again and swims away. The ghost appears on two more nights. On the third night, she tells the kitchen boy to fetch the king. She tells the king to wield his sword three times around her head. When the king does so, the queen takes on human form again and miraculously comes back to life.[2] The king decides to keep his wife's return to life a secret for a few days until after his son's baptism.

After the baptism, the king asks the old woman how a murderer who has thrown someone out of a window to drown in a river should be punished. The old woman says that the murderer should be put in a barrel with spikes on the inside of it and rolled down a hill into a river. She and her daughter are executed in just such a way.[3]


In the seventh episode of the first season of the British children's TV series Grim Tales, comedian and actor Rik Mayall tells a version of "The Three Little Men in the Wood'. The episode was first broadcast on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on May 26, 1989.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 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.
  2. "Brother and Sister", another German folktale that the Brothers Grimm include in their anthology, also includes the murder of a queen who has recently given birth by her stepmother and stepsister, the stepsister's impersonation of the queen by pretending to be sick in bed, the queen's return in the form of a ghost that speaks to a servant and cradles her baby and the ghost's miraculous return to life in front of her husband.
  3. A king also tricks a villainous woman into selecting her own form of execution in "The Goose Girl', another German folktale that the Brothers Grimm include in their anthology.

External links

  • Versions of "The Three Little Men in the Wood" in German and English on Wikisource.
  • Public domain audiobooks of "The Three Little Men in the Wood" in German and English on YouTube.
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