The Three Little Men in the wood is an original adaptation of the Grimm’s fairy tale. This iteration was adapted from the edition titled Grimm’s Fairy Tales, edited by Frances Jenikins Olcott, published by the Penn Publishing Company in 1922. An original version of this publication can be viewed here.
Discussion questions and resources for teachers are located at the bottom.
The Three Little Men in the Wood
Adapted by Nathan A. Hansen
Anilla was told her mother was, to put it simply, beautiful. She had no memory of her, but was told her papa would pick her mother wildflowers every day they were in bloom on his way back home from the fields. Each day, upon delivery, he would whisper in his wife’s ear, “They’re radiant in the sun, but their beauty fades. Each day I’m with you, yours deepens.” Although they were poor, their love was the envy of the entire town. Everyone had a story that illustrated it’s depth that they readily told Anilla as she was growing up.
When Anilla’s mother died in childbirth, her father didn’t stop bringing the flowers home. He would bring them home, throw them in the fire, take off his boots, and wipe his tears away leaving muddy streaks across his cheeks. As years passed, the tears lessened and the muddy streaks disappeared.
Cunhilda’s mother, Husa, had always envied Anilla’s parents relationship. She had hoped that her husband would be as loving as Anilla’s father, but he wasn’t.
Cunhilda’s father drank and diced in town until late in the night, then would come home and demand Husa fulfill her “wifely duties.” If Husa resisted, he would beat her unconscious and do whatever he wanted anyway.
Good news rarely comes rapping on one’s door in the hours before sunrise. But the day the man from the tavern came and told Husa that her husband had been stabbed and died, over a dice game, was the first time Cunhilda had ever seen her mother weep tears of joy.
While Cunhilda and Anilla were acquainted, they weren’t close. Close in age, yes, but claiming they were close in anything else would be a falsehood. Everyone in town knew it. The girls knew it too. That’s why everyone was puzzled at what transpired.
Cunhilda came up behind Anilla while she was walking through town to buy some flour. As she approached she said, “Anilla, my mother would like to talk to you if you have a moment.”
Anilla turned in surprise; she was even more surprised when she saw it was Cunhilda who uttered the invitation. She thought about it for a moment and, having some time before she needed to be home, decided there was no harm in finding out what the woman wanted to talk to her about. So, she followed Cunhilda home to speak with her mother.
Anilla was warmly received. “Welcome Anilla, would you like some wine?” asked Husa as she ushered the girl across the threshold of her door.
“Yes, thank you.” It was rare for Anilla to be offered wine; her father couldn’t afford it very often.
The mother brought two cups of wine and loaf of bread for them to share, set them on the table, and motioned for Anilla to sit.
She did. Leaving Cunhilda standing awkwardly in her own home.
“Cunhilda, would you excuse us for a moment?” the mother asked.
Cunhilda nodded and went back outside.
The mother looked at Anilla. It looked like she hadn’t bathed in days. She grabbed the loaf of bread, broke off a substantial portion, and handed it to the girl. She watched as Anilla ate the bread and drank her wine.
“I always envied the way your father treated your mother.”
Anilla looked at the woman.
“He was always so tender and attentive, so caring. My husband was anything but those things.”
Anilla had heard the stories about Husa’s husband in town.
“When my husband passed, this farm was left in my care and I have need of a man to help me care for it.”
“Papa is very busy in the fields. I don’t know if he will have time to help you care for your farm.”
The mother laughed. “Girl, you misunderstand me. I’m not looking for a man to employ; I’m looking for a husband.”
Anilla had never considered what it may be like if papa had remarried.
The mother broke off another piece of bread, handed it to Anilla, and topped off the wine in her glass. “Listen Anilla, tell your father that I would like to marry him.” She looked Anilla up and down and considered her condition. “If we marry, you will wash yourself in milk every morning and drink wine. My own daughter will wash in water and slake her thirst plainly.”
Anilla ate the bread, finished her wine, and left, heading back to town to buy the flour.
That evening Anilla told papa of the proposal. It had been a long time since her mother had died and her father considered the offer. He confided in his daughter, “Marriage to someone you love is a joy, but to someone you don’t it can be torment. You have no mother, and that is something to consider. What would you like me to do?”
Anilla spoke with papa about how much she loved him, how having the farm would make it so he didn’t have to work for someone else, and how having a mother would be good for her, but her father couldn’t escape the thought that he loved her mother so much that no one else could compare. And what would people say about him if he married a widow?
So papa decided to leave it up to fate. He took off his work boot and handed it to Anilla. “Take this boot. It has a hole in the sole. Go upstairs to the loft and hang it on a nail, then pour water into it. If it still holds water by morning, I will marry again.”
Anilla did as papa requested. She hung the boot and poured in the water filling it to the top. She stood and watched as the water running out the hole slowed to a trickle, then a drip, and then stopped. She peered into the boot and it was still three-quarters full of water. When papa woke up, the boot held water. He dumped it out and slid on the soggy shoe. Anilla watched as he walked toward Husa’s house leaving a single wet footprint in the dust along the way.
The marriage took place and was celebrated by the town. Everyone was happy to see something good happen for Anilla’s father and getting a farm of his own to run was thought to be a blessing.
The day after the wedding, Anilla was bathed in milk and drank wine with dinner. Cunhilda helped her bathe and noticed that when she was cleaned up, she was every bit as beautiful as her mother was rumored to be. Envy and anger grew in Cunhilda with each day Anilla was bathed in milk and with every sip of water Cunhilda took while Anilla was given wine until, one day, when Cunhilda saw that Anilla’s father was in the bull’s pen with his back turned to the bull, filling the water trough with his bucket. Cunhilda took a nearby willow switch and slapped it hard against the rump of the bull. It raged toward Anilla’s father and the bull’s horn pierced him in the leg.
Papa managed to make it out of the pen and hobble his way back to the house, never knowing what Cunhilda did. Husa looked at the large puncture from the horn, cleaned it the best she could, applied some salve, and bandaged it before she laid papa down to rest. Papa never got out of that bed again. He took a fever and the wound began to smell rancid and ooze puss. His leg discolored, then his torso, then he died.
Husa mourned her loss. Not more than three weeks after her second wedding, her second husband died. She no longer had a man to work the farm and was instead saddled with the burden of taking care of another daughter. The townspeople took pity on her, but they thought her unlucky, so they limited their interactions with her. She couldn’t get men to work the farm out of fear that they too would die for associating with the twice-widowed woman.
The day after Papa died, Anilla and Cunhilda bathed each other with water. The next day, Husa prepared a milk bath. Anilla prepared to enter it and was chided. “This bath is for Cunhilda. Put your clothes on and go feed the pigs.”
Anilla was astonished. She stood there, naked, not knowing what to do. She had never fed pigs.
“What’s the matter with you? Do you have mud in your ears? Get dressed and go feed the pigs.”
Anilla started to say, “But I don’t know how to feed pigs,” but was cut short when Husa swung a willow switch and struck her in her naked behind leaving a red welt. She ran out of the room crying to go put on her clothes and figure out how to feed the pigs.
Seasons passed one after the other. Anilla learned to work the farm herself. Her once alabaster skin tanned in the sun and her beautiful hands became calloused. Husa beat her whenever she was upset. She didn’t even have to be upset at Anilla. The smallest incident anywhere in Husa’s life could direct a torrent of rage toward Anilla. She bore scars from beatings with switches, the most prominent one was across her left cheek. It stood keloid and red against her tanned skin and sullied her beauty. She was meagerly fed and clothed in rags while her stepmother and sister ate heartily and wore fine clothes.
On a bitter cold, stone-hard, winter’s day when snow covered the hills, Husa called Anilla to the table. Anilla knew better than to try and sit so she stood there in her threadbare dress.
The woman spoke. “I want you to fetch me a basketful of strawberries—I have a fancy for some.”
Anilla, thought about the last time she tasted a strawberry. It was a few summers ago now when papa brought some that he found on his walk home from the fields. They were bitter and sweet at the same time. Together they sat at their little table in the old house eating them. Papa laughed while Anilla giggled. The memory transported Anilla away from her current situation.
“Alas!” said Anilla, “no strawberries grow in winter! The ground is frozen, and besides the snow has covered everything.”
Husa slapped her.
“Am I to go out in this threadbare dress? It is so cold that one’s very breath freezes! The wind will blow right through my tattered holes, and the thorns will tear it from my body.”
The woman grabbed a long wooden spoon and hit Anilla in the face. Anilla felt the skin raise and then saw a drop of blood fall on the floor.
“Will you contradict me again?” said the woman. She grabbed a scrap of hard bread and thrust it into Anilla’s hand. “This should last you the day. See that you go, and do not show your ugly face again until you have a basket full of strawberries.”
Husa hoped Anilla would die of cold and hunger outside and would never again be seen. Secretly, Anilla thought that may be a good option too, so she obeyed the woman, grabbed the basket, and left.
Far and wide there was nothing but snow. Not a green blade to be seen. In fact, there were few colors at all save for the holly that grew at the edge of the woods so she went off in that direction.
Not long after she had entered the woods, she smelled the welcoming aroma of wood smoke. Shivering she stumbled in the direction it came from. What was left of her dress was wet from the snow melting against her body and the hem had refrozen into a cudgel that slammed her shins with each step. She managed to collect some rosehips from the thorny canes along the path, but her arms were torn bloody by the thorns as she passed. The blood that soaked into her already dirty dress wasn’t even noticeable.
As the smell of the smoke grew nearer, she heard the sound of chopping wood. Eventually, she came to a little house that had a dwarf standing outside splitting wood to feed the fire. When he saw Anilla he thought a spirit may have been wandering the woods. All of the color from her skin had been leached out by the cold.
Anilla wasn’t sure what she was seeing either. She wasn’t sure if the little man was real or a vision caused by her condition. She greeted him warmly all the same. “Hello, I’m Anilla. Pleased to meet you.” She did her best to curtsy.
The dwarf looked at her while the head of his axe rested in the snow. “Are you all right miss?” He left the axe, moved toward her, and took her hand. “Won’t you come inside?”
“You are too kind master dwarf,” Anilla replied.
The dwarf led her to the door. Anilla was so far gone that she knocked on the door before the dwarf opened it and ushered her in. Inside were two more dwarfs who were surprised to see the young woman. While the one from outside, the largest of the three, led her to a bench by the fire, the other two went about getting a blanket and heating some water.
“What are you doing out here in the cold with such a thin dress?” asked one of the Dwarfs while he was rubbing her hands to try and warm them.
The dwarfs looked at each other. The smallest one looked in her basket and saw the rose hips. He tipped the basket so the others could see. The dwarf heating the water grabbed a few and put them into the water he was heating. It was the closest thing to a tea they could offer. They removed her wet dress and wrapped her in the dry blanket.
As Anilla warmed, she became more like herself and remembered that she had the small piece of hard bread. She reached to where the pocket should be on her dress to get it and noticed she was naked. She closed the blanket about her tighter and asked where her dress was. The dwarves pointed to a hook behind her where the dress was now hanging and dripping on the floor as the ice embedded in it melted. She stood, walked to it, and reached into the pocket retrieving the bread. The moisture had softened it. She broke the piece into quarters and handed a piece to each of the dwarves.
The dwarves asked her what she was doing out in the cold again. And again, the reply from Anilla was, “collecting strawberries.”
The dwarves looked at each other, then at the pieces of bread in their hands, and simultaneously ate them. It had been a long time since anyone had shown them any kindness.
Anilla expanded her response, “I can’t go home until I have my basket filled with strawberries.”
The largest dwarf walked up to her, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Rest here a while miss. Warm up and we will talk again soon” and he walked out of the room with the other dwarves following.
In the next room, the three dwarves contemplated their situation. It was obvious when they removed the frozen and wet dress from Anilla that she had been abused for a long time. Her scars were prominent and the fresh scratches on her arms and bloody cheek made for a sad sight indeed. It was also apparent that this young woman was gentile and kind. She willingly shared the last of her bread with them, a kindness that the dwarfs had rarely seen. They decided they would help her with her strawberries in one final test of her character when her clothes were dry and she was rested.
When the dwarves came back into the main room, Anilla was laying on the floor in front of the fire sleeping. Her color was beginning to return and her blanket had fallen down from her shoulders exposing her scarred breasts. The dwarves saw how starkly the reddened scars stood out on her tanned skin. They collectively reached down, grabbed the edge of the blanket, covered her back up, and let her rest.
When Anilla woke, she found her dress hanging on a hook near the fire. It was dry. She looked around and didn’t see the dwarfs so she stood up, shed the blanket, and put her dress back on. She sat for a moment and poured the last bit of the rosehip tea out of the kettle. As she was drinking it, the dwarfs came back into the room.
“Thank you for your kindness, master dwarfs.”
“You’re welcome.” They said in unison.
Then the medium-sized dwarf spoke. “Would you do us one final favor before you leave miss?”
“Anything,” replied Anilla.
The dwarf reached to the side of the fireplace and grabbed a broom. “Would you sweep away the snow by the back door?”
“Of course,” said Anilla as she took the broom. She opened the back door. The snow was deep but she started her work enthusiastically. She thought about how the motion must have been similar to the one papa used frequently in the fields and soon she had cleared the area away from the dwarfs’ back door. As she turned to go back inside she noticed that there on the ground were red ripened strawberries. She kneeled in front of them in awe and heard the door open behind her. The largest dwarf brought Anilla her basket and said, “Make sure to come back inside before you leave.”
After Anilla picked her basket full of strawberries, she went inside as asked. The dwarves were sitting there with a coat of rabbit skins that would keep Anilla warm in the cold and protect her from the thorns in the forest. Anilla knelt before the dwarves and handed each of them a strawberry. “Thank you again,” she said. They put the coat on her and asked her to put up the hood before she left. She kissed each one of them softly on their cheek and quietly went out the door.
When Anilla closed the front door behind her, the dwarfs looked at each other again. They decided the strawberries and coat were not enough for this wonderful young woman and each would bestow on her an additional gift.
The largest dwarf spoke first, “My gift is that every day she shall grow more beautiful.”
The two other dwarfs nodded in agreement.
The middle-sized dwarf spoke next. “My gift is that in reward for her kind remarks, a gold piece shall fall from her mouth every time she speaks.”
The smallest dwarf spoke last. “My gift is that she should find a love more pure than has ever been found.”
When Anilla arrived back home with the basket of strawberries and the fur coat, Husa was infuriated. She tried to beat Anilla with a broom handle, but the fur coat absorbed the blows and the basket of strawberries was strewn across the floor. Cunhilda came into the room and saw the strawberries on the floor and then Anilla wearing the coat. She ran over and stripped the coat from Anilla’s frame.
“Where did you get this?” Cunhilda held up the coat.
Anilla opened her mouth to explain and a piece of gold fell out, rattled on the floor, and eventually settled among the strawberries. The stepmother bent down and picked it up. She eyed the piece of gold. Cunhilda saw her mother eying it and said, “Look at Anilla’s pride, throwing about gold in that way!” She grabbed the broom handle and pummeled Anilla with it. With each blow, Anilla cried out in pain and a new gold piece hit the floor. Soon the floor was covered.
Cunhilda looked at the gold on the floor in envy and made Anilla tell her about her trip through the woods. Figuring if she took the same path, she too could spew gold whenever she spoke.
Cunhilda put on the fur coat and went to the door.
“No, my dear little daughter. It is too cold, you might die of cold” yelled Husa.
Cunhilda chided her mother saying, “If that poor rat of a stepdaughter can survive the cold, so will I.”
“At least take some bread with you.” Husa handed her daughter a loaf of bread, butter, and cake wrapped in a sheepskin and then cried as her daughter went out into the cold not knowing if she would ever see her again.
Cunhilda went straight into the forest and followed Anilla’s footsteps to the dwarfs’ house. She walked up to the door and opened it. There sat the dwarfs by their fire.
The startled dwarfs thought it was Anilla at first because the young woman standing in their home was wearing the fur coat they had given her. When the young woman lowered the hood, they saw there was no kindness in the young woman’s eyes and understood what had happened.
Without looking at or speaking to the dwarfs, Cunhilda awkwardly entered the room and seated herself by the fireplace. She took out her sheepskin filled with bread, butter, and cake and started eating.
“Miss, would you be kind enough to share some of your bread?” The largest dwarf asked.
“There’s not enough for me, why would I give it away to other…,” she looked at the tiny men. “Why would I give it away to you?”
The dwarfs watched her eat everything. The littlest one poured her a cup of rosehip tea.
Cunhilda took a sip and asked, “Don’t you have any wine?”
“No,” was the simple reply.
When she was done drinking, the medium-sized dwarf asked Cunhilda, who had still neglected to introduce herself, if she would be willing to sweep the snow away from the back door.
Without moving to even go look, Cunhilda replied, “Sweep for yourselves. I am not your servant.”
The dwarfs sat in silence. Cunhilda looked around the room and saw no strawberries and nothing of importance, status, or any indication of wealth. She determined the dwarfs had nothing to give, so as abruptly as she entered their home; she left, leaving the door open behind her.
The largest dwarf got up and closed the door. As he was returning to his seat he asked, “What sort of gifts should we bestow on someone so naughty, wicked, and envious of heart?”
The littlest dwarf said, “I grant that her ugliness of heart be represented by the ugliness of her body.”
The medium-sized dwarf said, “I grant that every word she says represents the hideousness of her courtesy.”
The largest dwarf thought for a moment and said, “I grant that she die a miserable death, never knowing love.”
The three dwarfs nodded in agreement and went about their evening.
Cunhilda stumbled back in through the door of her home late at night. Her mother was sleeping in a chair by the fire hoping her daughter would return and when she did she was elated. She took Cunhilda’s coat off, sat her in front of the fire, and then put another piece of wood on. When she saw Cunhilda looked disappointed, she asked what happened.
As soon as Cunhilda went to open her mouth she started choking. Eventually, to Husa’s great horror, a frog hopped out of Cunhilda’s mouth. The mother understood what had happened, put a blanket over Cunhilda, and told her not to speak, to just get some rest.
As the weeks progressed, Anilla’s scars disappeared and her tan subsided. She had also become adept at hiding the pieces of gold that appeared every time she went to speak. Cunhilda, on the other hand, became less fair and the more she felt bad about it, the quicker it happened. Culhilda couldn’t speak without a frog appearing so she just stopped trying to talk.
Husa, angry about what had happened to Cunhilda, would attempt to manifest her anger on Anilla. She would beat her unconscious, and each time she did, Anilla would wake up the next day fairer than the day before, without so much as a bruise.
One day, the stepmother was dying yarn. Thinking that it would also dye Anilla’s skin she pulled it up out of the boiling cauldron and threw it across Anilla’s shoulders. She said, “Go grab the axe, take that down to the frozen river, cut a hole in the ice, and rinse that yarn.”
Anilla quietly grabbed the axe and started her trek down to the river. She laid the red yarn on the white snow. Her shoulders and her dress were stained from the dye. She took the axe and started chopping at the ice. In the noise from the river and the axe chopping at the ice, she failed to hear the sled pull up behind her. It wasn’t until the man was only a few yards away that she noticed him.
“Whoa there miss, I wouldn’t dare come any closer to a young woman wielding an axe.” The man held his hands open and spread them wide.
Anilla looked up and saw the face of a striking young man, slightly older than she was now.
The man saw the beauty that no amount of red dye would be able to hide. “Who are you and what are you doing here miss?”
Anilla’s eyes met the man’s and they each saw the tenderness and kindness each of their souls possessed. She responded, holding her hand up to catch the gold piece before the man could see it, “I’m a poor girl out here rinsing yarn.”
The man looked at the yarn and then at the hole. Anilla looked at the man and then at the guards on horses that surrounded his sled.
“Would you like to come out of this cold with me?”
“I would, but my yarn…” She hid that gold piece in her cheek.
The man reached his foot over to the pile of yarn and kicked it into the hole Anilla chopped, “What yarn?”
Anilla looked into his eyes and saw that he didn’t kick the yarn out of malice but out of kindness and he was reaching his hand out for hers. She placed her red-stained hand in his and followed him to his sled.
After hours had passed, Husa sent Cunhilda down to the river to see what was taking Anilla so long. When Cunhilda got to the river, she saw the axe laying in the snow, the hole that was chopped, and the red stain where the yarn was set, but no Anilla. She grabbed the axe and started back up the hill to the house when she slipped and the head of the axe cut into her leg.
Cunhilda was able to hobble back to the house. Knowing that her daughter wouldn’t tell her what happened on account of the frogs, Husa didn’t ask. She looked at the large cut from the axe, cleaned it the best she could, applied some salve, and bandaged it before she laid Cunhilda down to rest. Cunhilda never got out of her bed again. She took a fever, the wound began to smell rancid and ooze puss. Her leg discolored, then her torso, then, after weeks of agony, she died.
Questions for Discussion
- Comparing the original work by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm (click here) with this interpretation, what liberties were taken by the writer for this piece?
- What do you think was the intent of the original story by the Brothers Grimm?
- Do you think the liberties taken for this interpretation stayed true to the intent of the Brothers Grimm?
- Did this interpretation add or remove any other socially relevant commentary that wasn’t present in the original?
- How do you think a modern audience reacts to the way each piece is written, and what aspects of storytelling contribute to those reactions?
- Chose a story from one of the Brothers Grimm’s classic works and make your own adaptation.
- Write a five-paragraph essay discussing your view of using classic works to inspire new adaptations. Do you think the practice does or doesn’t provide a cultural benefit?
- Write a five-paragraph essay about why you think the Brothers Grimm chose to leave their characters nameless, and why the author of this interpretation chose to name some of theirs.
- Write a five-paragraph essay about the cultural attitudes presented toward those who are considered outsiders and how they have either extended or changed in our contemporary culture.
Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. “The Three Little Men in the Wood.” Grimm’s Fairy Stories, Jan. 1922, pp. 67–70. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=22498233&site=lrc-live.