Fairy Tale Tuesday No.81 – The Three Dwarves

This Grimm brothers story introduces us to a widow and a widower, whose respective daughters are friends. The widow proposes to her neighbour, assuring him that if they marry his child will ‘wash in milk and drink wine’ – essentially, that she shall have the best in everything. It’s a big decision. To avoid actually making it, the widower hangs an old boot on a nail and has his daughter pour water through it. If it holds water, he’ll marry; if the water drains out, he won’t. Chance takes the widow’s side, so the wedding goes ahead.

It’s already plain this is not a love match. Most likely the widow was too poor to support herself, though that’s not stated explicitly. Whatever her reasoning, she rapidly recants on her bargain. On the first day of their living together, the man’s daughter literally washes in milk and drinks wine, while her stepsister has only water; on the next day, they both have water; on the third day their positions are entirely reversed. This is only the beginning of a passive-aggressive campaign on the widow’s part against her stepdaughter. One day in the middle of winter she sends the girl out to pick strawberries, equipping her with a cloak of paper that will do absolutely no good against the freezing weather.

Of course, there are no strawberries to be found, but the girl finds something better: a little cottage in the woods where three philanthropic dwarves happen to live. Sharing out a small crust of bread that was intended to last her all day, the girl explains her problem. The dwarves send her outside with a broom to sweep snow from the back door and while she is absent discuss what had best be done to fix her situation. According to the word of the first dwarf, she will become more beautiful every day. The second arranges that a golden coin will fall from her lips with every word she speaks, and the third that she will marry a king. To cap off the morning’s surprises, the girl discovers a bed of ripe strawberries hidden under the snow. She thanks the dwarves politely, fills her basket and returns home.

It’s something of a shock to her family when gold starts spilling out of her mouth. The widow’s daughter immediately decides to go strawberry-hunting herself and goes forth in a fur cloak with a well-packed picnic. Coming across the same cottage as her stepsister, this girl handles the meeting with a staggering absence of tact. Not only does she barge her way inside without an invitation, she refuses to share a crumb of her breakfast and still expects a reward. When it becomes clear that won’t happen, she flounces outside with the broom, leaving the dwarves to settle her fate. They are not in a generous mood this time. She shall grow uglier each day, frogs shall fall from her mouth when she speaks, and she’ll die miserable. She doesn’t find any strawberries, either.

These are not the ideal ingredients for familial harmony. Furious at the ever-growing discrepancy between the two girls, the widow sends her stepdaughter out into the cold on another errand, this time to drag a net through the icy waters of a nearby pond. While she works a carriage draws up and a king invites her to come home with him. She’s beautiful and inexhaustibly wealthy; what better bait for an opportunistic monarch? A wedding is held immediately and a year later the girl gives birth to a son.

Her life is perfect now, yes? Well, no. The widow and her daughter arrive at the palace to visit the new mother and the first moment they are alone with her, throw her out a window into the river. Her stepmother then tries to pass her own daughter off as the young queen. There are a few flaws with this plan, like the fact that she talks in frogs. Despite the widow’s assurances that this is all due to illness, the king is a little suspicious.

Soon afterwards a kitchen boy sees a duck on the river, calling out for the king. She takes the form of the real queen, comes up to feed her child, then swims away again as a duck. The next night the same thing happens. On the third night she has the servant take a message to the king, instructing him to come and pass his sword three times over the duck. When this is done, the young queen is restored to her real shape, but the king doesn’t want his unwelcome guests to know that just yet.

On the day his child is to be christened, he brings up the subject of drowning and asks what fate should befall a murderer. “Nothing could be more proper,” the stepmother replies, “than to put such a one into a tub, stuck round the nails, and to roll it down the hill into the water.” Thus she settles her own execution, and that of her daughter.

What interests me about this quite depressing story is the amazing correlation between it and several other fairy tales I’ve reviewed. Considered from the right angle, they could all happen along the same timeline. The three dwarves could have remained in their cottage after their brothers left to live with Snow White; the three heads in the well could then belong to them, after one angry stepmother or another got sick of their interference. Also, if the prince in ‘The Goose Girl’ is this girl’s son, the fake bride in that story might reference execution via barrel to validate herself. And what if a few word frogs escaped death, going forth to find their true destiny as princes or soothsayers? IT ALL MAKES SENSE.

Possibly I think about these things too much.

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2 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Tuesday No.81 – The Three Dwarves

  1. I just reread this story last night. It’s actually one of my favorites for its use of good/bad things come in threes. I’ve been enchanted by the shoe that swells and closes its holes since I was a child. The image has stuck in my mind, and I’m always reminded of it when I think of the improbable coincidences that drive fairytale plots forward.

    Thanks so much for writing these synopsizes. I’m really enjoying them!

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