Year of the Witch: The Old Woman in the Forest

This week we are briefly going to acknowledge that the Grimm brothers exist, and I do mean briefly, because this is a very short fairy tale. The version comes from my 2007 edition Vintage Grimm: The Complete Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes. It opens with what is probably the worst day in the life of a young servant; she’s travelling through a large forest with her employers when their party is ambushed by robbers. It is a scene of slaughter. The maid escapes by fleeing the carriage as soon as the violence begins and hiding among the trees. When the robbers have taken all the valuables they can find and vanished, the maid sobs in despair. Not only is she surrounded by corpses, she’s lost in the forest and in real danger of starvation.

For lack of anything else to do, she starts walking. Nightfall comes and she collapses under a tree, only to be accosted by a white dove that is carrying, of all things, a golden key in its beak. It drops the key in her hand. “Do you see that large tree over there?” the dove instructs the maid. “You’ll find a little lock on it, and if you open it with this key, you’ll find plenty of food in it.”

That’s incredibly helpful, thank you random dove. The maid duly opens the tree, finds bread and milk, and eats her fill. No sooner has she thought wistfully of a comfortable bed than the dove returns with another key and directs her to a different tree, which conceals – tada! – a comfortable bed. Taking a pragmatically Alice in Wonderland approach to the evening’s events, the maid curls up to sleep. The dove greets her in the morning with yet another key, which opens up a fabulous wardrobe. Days pass and the dove continues to look after the maid’s interests, appearing to have taken her on as something of a pet.

One day, out of the blue, the dove asks for a favour. It tells the maid that there is a cottage, and in the cottage there is an old woman; the maid must enter the cottage and ignore the old woman’s greeting, walking straight by her to a door on the right. Inside will be a room, the dove explains, with a pile of magnificent rings – the maid must find a simple ring among them and bring it to the dove.

The maid is very willing to help her friend. The cottage is there; so is the old woman, sitting by the fire. She greets the maid quite civilly, but when the maid proceeds past her, the old woman grabs her skirt. “This is my house,” the old woman points out. “Nobody’s allowed to go in there if I don’t want them to.” She’s bang-on right and I am immediately very uncomfortable with this situation. The maiden, however, is on a mission. She pulls away and plunges into the room on the right, where she sees the rings the dove told her about. The specific ring the dove wants is a lot trickier to locate. Suddenly the maid spots the old woman trying to sneak away, which she might have managed to do if not for the bird-cage in her hand. The maiden grabs the cage and inside there is a bird with the ring in its beak.

The maid runs off with the ring, expecting to find the dove straight away, but it does not come to her as usual. She leans against a tree to wait and all of a sudden the tree puts its branches around her in an embrace straight out a horror movie. The maid turns around – the story does not state if she is screaming at this point – and discovers that the tree has turned into a handsome young man. He tells her that the old woman was a witch who had transformed him into a tree. There’s shades of ‘Tam Lin’ in that. “For a few hours every day I was a white dove,” the young man continues. “As long as she possessed the ring, I couldn’t regain my human form.”

Other trees around them turn into his servants and horses. They then leave the significantly depleted forest and travel to the young man’s kingdom, because obviously he is a prince, this kind of thing does tend to happen in royal circles. The maid marries him and they live happily to the end of their days.

There is no explanation whatsoever of the events that led to the curse but the witch does survive the end of the story, and that’s rare enough in a Grimm brothers tale that I will take it.

4 thoughts on “Year of the Witch: The Old Woman in the Forest

  1. Funny enough, I recognize this story from an episode of Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics, a show from when I was little. The only differences being the dove was an owl and the witch lived in a castle and set up a lot of creepy traps for the girl.

    • I had never heard of this show before, and now I must chase up that episode! Thank you for alerting me to its existence, I love finding out about fairy tale adaptations.

      • You’re welcome! It was made in Japan and imported with an English dub and narrator that can render it ridiculous more often than not, but it rarely sugarcoats any of the scary details from the stories it adapts. In some cases like The Dancing Princesses and Bluebeard they make it even more gruesome! While it hasn’t aged well, I have a fondness for it due to nostalgia and for showcasing lesser known stories.

      • Clearly I need to see the Twelve Dancing Princesses episode as well! I am very fond of that fairy tale, enough to read at least five different retellings and to write one of my own. I grew up on Jim Henson’s ‘The Storyteller’, which remains a thing of wonder, and it delights me there’s another fairy tale themed show in the world.

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