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The Old Woman in the Wood
Grimm Märchen

The Old Woman in the Wood - Fairy Tale by the Brothers Grimm

Reading time for children: 8 min

A poor servant-girl was once travelling with the family with which she was in service, through a great forest, and when they were in the midst of it, robbers came out of the thicket, and murdered all they found. All perished together except the girl, who had jumped out of the carriage in a fright, and hidden herself behind a tree. When the robbers had gone away with their booty, she came out and beheld the great disaster. Then she began to weep bitterly, and said, „What can a poor girl like me do now? I do not know how to get out of the forest, no human being lives in it, so I must certainly starve.“ She walked about and looked for a road, but could find none. When it was evening she seated herself under a tree, gave herself into God’s keeping, and resolved to sit waiting there and not go away, let what might happen. When, however, she had sat there for a while, a white dove came flying to her with a little golden key in its mouth. It put the little key in her hand, and said, „Dost thou see that great tree, therein is a little lock, it opens with the tiny key, and there thou wilt find food enough, and suffer no more hunger.“ Then she went to the tree and opened it, and found milk in a little dish, and white bread to break into it, so that she could eat her fill. When she was satisfied, she said, „It is now the time when the hens at home go to roost, I am so tired I could go to bed too.“ Then the dove flew to her again, and brought another golden key in its bill, and said, „Open that tree there, and thou willt find a bed.“ So she opened it, and found a beautiful white bed, and she prayed God to protect her during the night, and lay down and slept. In the morning the dove came for the third time, and again brought a little key, and said, „Open that tree there, and thou wilt find clothes.“ And when she opened it, she found garments beset with gold and with jewels, more splendid than those of any king’s daughter. So she lived there for some time, and the dove came every day and provided her with all she needed, and it was a quiet good life. Once, however, the dove came and said, „Wilt thou do something for my sake?“ – „With all my heart,“ said the girl. Then said the little dove, „I will guide thee to a small house; enter it, and inside it, an old woman will be sitting by the fire and will say, ‚Good-day.‘ But on thy life give her no answer, let her do what she will, but pass by her on the right side; further on, there is a door, which open, and thou wilt enter into a room where a quantity of rings of all kinds are lying, amongst which are some magnificent ones with shining stones; leave them, however, where they are, and seek out a plain one, which must likewise be amongst them, and bring it here to me as quickly as thou canst.“ The girl went to the little house, and came to the door. There sat an old woman who stared when she saw her, and said, „Good-day my child.“ The girl gave her no answer, and opened the door. „Whither away,“ cried the old woman, and seized her by the gown, and wanted to hold her fast, saying, „That is my house. No one can go in there if I choose not to allow it.“ But the girl was silent, got away from her, and went straight into the room. Now there lay on the table an enormous quantity of rings, which gleamed and glittered before her eyes. She turned them over and looked for the plain one, but could not find it. While she was seeking, she saw the old woman and how she was stealing away, and wanting to get off with a bird-cage which she had in her hand. So she went after her and took the cage out of her hand, and when she raised it up and looked into it, a bird was inside which had the plain ring in its bill. Then she took the ring, and ran quite joyously home with it, and thought the little white dove would come and get the ring, but it did not. Then she leant against a tree and determined to wait for the dove, and, as she thus stood, it seemed just as if the tree was soft and pliant, and was letting its branches down. And suddenly the branches twined around her, and were two arms, and when she looked round, the tree was a handsome man, who embraced and kissed her heartily, and said, „Thou hast delivered me from the power of the old woman, who is a wicked witch. She had changed me into a tree, and every day for two hours I was a white dove, and so long as she possessed the ring I could not regain my human form.“ Then his servants and his horses, who had likewise been changed into trees, were freed from the enchantment also, and stood beside him. And he led them forth to his kingdom, for he was a King’s son, and they married, and lived happily.

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Backgrounds to fairy tale „The old woman in the wood“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm in their famous anthology, „Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ (Children’s and Household Tales). As with the other fairy tales in their collection, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm sought to preserve the German folklore by gathering stories that were passed down through generations in the oral tradition.

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ tells the story of a young girl who finds herself alone in a forest after the death of her family. She encounters an old woman living in a small hut in the woods. The old woman turns out to be a witch who forces the girl to work for her. Eventually, the girl discovers a way to escape her situation and finds happiness and love.

The origins of „The Old Woman in the Wood“ are uncertain, as the tale could have evolved over time through regional folklore and storytelling. The Brothers Grimm’s inclusion of the story in their collection has helped preserve the tale and ensure that it continues to be shared and enjoyed by future generations.

The fairy tale explores themes such as resilience, kindness, the consequences of greed, and the power of resourcefulness. Like many other fairy tales, „The Old Woman in the Wood“ offers moral lessons and insights into human nature while entertaining readers with its fantastical elements.

Interpretations to fairy tale „The old woman in the wood“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ can be interpreted in various ways, examining themes of resilience, kindness, and resourcefulness. Here are some common interpretations of the fairy tale:

Resilience in adversity: The story focuses on the young girl’s ability to endure and overcome her challenging circumstances, highlighting the importance of resilience in the face of adversity. Despite her difficult situation, the girl remains determined and hopeful, ultimately finding a way to escape and achieve happiness.

Kindness and compassion: The girl’s kindness and compassion play a crucial role in her eventual escape from the old witch. By showing kindness to the animals in the forest, she gains their trust and assistance, demonstrating the power of kindness in forging connections and receiving help when needed.

The consequences of greed: The old woman in the wood represents greed and selfishness, forcing the girl to work for her without any concern for the girl’s well-being. The old woman ultimately faces the consequences of her actions, reinforcing the moral lesson that greed and selfishness can lead to one’s downfall.

The power of resourcefulness: Throughout the story, the young girl demonstrates her resourcefulness in overcoming obstacles and finding solutions to her problems. This interpretation emphasizes the importance of being resourceful and creative in dealing with difficult situations and achieving one’s goals.

Inner strength and personal growth: The girl’s journey in the woods and her encounters with the old woman and the animals help her discover her inner strength and resourcefulness. This interpretation highlights the importance of personal growth, self-discovery, and the development of one’s abilities in the face of challenges.

These interpretations of „The Old Woman in the Wood“ showcase the enduring power of fairy tales to explore themes of resilience, kindness, and personal growth while providing engaging and thought-provoking stories.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „The old woman in the wood“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is not as well-known or widely adapted as some other Brothers Grimm fairy tales, but it has still inspired various adaptations and reinterpretations in different media forms. Some examples include:

Literature: Authors have reimagined the story in their own words, modifying or expanding upon the original tale to create new versions for modern audiences. For example, „The Old Woman in the Wood“ has been included in anthologies of retold or adapted fairy tales, presenting the story with contemporary language and illustrations to appeal to modern readers.

Theater: The story has been adapted into stage productions, such as children’s theater, puppet shows, or musicals, offering audiences a chance to experience the tale in a live performance setting. These adaptations may involve changes to the plot, characters, or dialogue, allowing theater artists to explore the themes and messages of the story in new ways.

Art: The fairy tale has inspired visual artists to create illustrations, paintings, or sculptures that depict scenes or characters from the story. Artists like Arthur Rackham, Walter Crane, and others have included illustrations of „The Old Woman in the Wood“ in their collections of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, bringing the story to life through their unique artistic styles.

Film and Television: While there are no major film or television adaptations specifically dedicated to „The Old Woman in the Wood,“ elements of the story, such as the young protagonist facing adversity and discovering her inner strength, have been incorporated into various movies and TV shows, often as part of an anthology series or as a subplot within a larger narrative.

These adaptations of „The Old Woman in the Wood“ showcase the enduring appeal of fairy tales and their ability to inspire creative reinterpretations across different mediums.

Adaptions of the fairy tale „The old woman in the wood“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is a classic fairy tale that has inspired numerous adaptations in various forms of media. Here are a few notable adaptations:

„Hansel and Gretel“ (1893): This famous opera by Engelbert Humperdinck is based on the Grimm brothers‘ version of „The Old Woman in the Wood“. It tells the story of two siblings who get lost in the woods and encounter a witch who tries to eat them. The opera has become a classic in its own right and has been adapted into many different versions over the years.

„Hansel and Gretel“ (1937): This animated film by Walt Disney Productions is a loose adaptation of both „The Old Woman in the Wood“ and „Hansel and Gretel“. It tells the story of two children who get lost in the woods and encounter a witch who wants to eat them. The film is notable for its use of music and memorable characters, including the wicked witch.

„The Juniper Tree“ (1986): This film by Nietzchka Keene is a dark and haunting adaptation of „The Old Woman in the Wood“. It tells the story of a young girl who is murdered by her stepmother and is reincarnated as a bird. The film is notable for its eerie atmosphere and unconventional storytelling.

„Into the Woods“ (1987): This musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine is a modern take on several classic fairy tales, including „The Old Woman in the Wood“. It tells the story of a baker and his wife who go on a quest to reverse a curse that has left them childless. Along the way, they encounter characters from various fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood and the Witch.

„Grimm Tales for Young and Old“ (2012): This collection of short stories by Philip Pullman includes a retelling of „The Old Woman in the Wood“. Pullman’s version is faithful to the original story but adds his own unique voice and perspective. The collection has been praised for its literary quality and its ability to capture the timeless appeal of the Grimm brothers‘ tales.

Summary of the plot

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that tells the story of a young girl who finds herself alone in a forest after her family dies in an accident. While wandering in the woods, she comes across a small hut inhabited by an old woman. The old woman turns out to be a witch who forces the girl to work for her, performing various tasks and chores.

One day, the witch sends the girl to fetch a secret item from a hidden chamber. Inside the chamber, the girl finds a bird in a cage and a tree with golden leaves. The bird advises the girl to take the cage and a leaf from the tree, which she does.

The girl’s kindness towards the animals in the forest leads them to help her escape from the witch’s clutches. They warn her about the witch’s plan to kill her, and with their assistance, the girl manages to flee. The bird in the cage turns out to be a prince who had been cursed by the witch, and the golden leaf has the power to break the curse.

Once free from the witch’s control, the prince and the girl fall in love and get married, living happily ever after. „The Old Woman in the Wood“ is a story that emphasizes themes of resilience, kindness, and resourcefulness, as the young girl overcomes adversity to find happiness and love.


Backgrounds to fairy tale „The old woman in the wood“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, in their famous book „Grimms‘ Fairy Tales“ (originally titled „Children’s and Household Tales“ or „Kinder- und Hausmärchen“ in German). The collection was first published in 1812 and went through several revisions and expansions, with the final edition being published in 1857.

The Brothers Grimm were German academics, linguists, and cultural researchers who collected and published a vast number of folktales from various regions, intending to preserve the cultural heritage and oral traditions of the German-speaking people. Many of their collected tales have since become famous worldwide, including „Cinderella,“ „Snow White,“ „Hansel and Gretel,“ and „Rapunzel.“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is not as widely known as some of the other Grimm stories, but it shares some common themes and motifs with other fairy tales, such as the transformative power of love, the importance of inner strength and resilience, and the idea of breaking enchantments or curses.

The story also reflects elements of the broader European folklore tradition, including the recurring motif of helpful animals or magical creatures guiding and assisting the protagonist in their journey. Moreover, the tale highlights the significance of folk wisdom and moral values, such as faith, kindness, and determination, in overcoming adversity and achieving personal growth.

Interpretations to fairy tale „The old woman in the wood“

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ can be interpreted in various ways, with key themes and messages embedded in the story:

Faith and resilience: The servant-girl’s faith in God and her determination to survive, despite the dire situation she finds herself in, demonstrate the importance of resilience and belief in overcoming adversity.

The power of kindness and gratitude: The girl’s willingness to help the white dove, even though she doesn’t know what the consequences will be, emphasizes the importance of kindness and gratitude. Her kindness is rewarded when the prince is freed from the enchantment.

The danger of superficiality: The girl is tasked with finding a plain ring among a collection of valuable, shiny rings. This can be interpreted as a metaphor for recognizing true value and beauty beyond outward appearances. The plain ring is the key to breaking the enchantment, showing that sometimes the most ordinary-looking things can have the most significant impact.

The importance of inner strength and wisdom: The girl’s ability to resist the old woman’s attempts to distract and manipulate her highlights the importance of staying true to one’s values and focusing on the task at hand. This message underscores the significance of inner strength and wisdom in overcoming obstacles and achieving one’s goals.

Transformation and redemption: The story conveys the idea of transformation and redemption, as the enchanted prince is freed from the witch’s curse, and the servant-girl’s life changes dramatically when she marries the prince. This theme reflects the idea that positive change and growth are possible, even in the most challenging circumstances.

Overall, „The Old Woman in the Wood“ presents a tale of resilience, faith, kindness, and the power of inner strength to overcome obstacles and bring about positive change.

Summary of the plot

„The Old Woman in the Wood“ is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that follows the story of a poor servant-girl who survives a robbery in the forest that results in the death of her employers. Lost and alone, she prays for help and is aided by a white dove who provides her with food, shelter, and clothes through the use of golden keys that unlock trees containing these provisions.

One day, the dove asks the girl for a favor in return: to enter a small house occupied by an old woman and retrieve a plain ring among many other valuable ones. The girl complies, ignoring the old woman’s attempts to engage her in conversation and stop her from entering the house. She finds the old woman trying to sneak away with a birdcage containing the desired ring and retrieves it.

Expecting the dove to take the ring, the girl waits by a tree. The tree then transforms into a handsome man who reveals that he was under the spell of the old woman, a wicked witch. The girl’s actions broke the enchantment on the man, his servants, and his horses, who had all been turned into trees. The man, a prince, takes the girl to his kingdom, and they marry and live happily ever after.

Informations for scientific analysis

Fairy tale statistics
NumberKHM 123
Aarne-Thompson-Uther-IndexATU Typ 442
TranslationsDE, EN, DA, ES, PT, HU, IT, JA, NL, PL, RU, TR, VI, ZH
Readability Index by Björnsson33.9
Flesch-Reading-Ease Index79.5
Flesch–Kincaid Grade-Level8.5
Gunning Fog Index11.6
Coleman–Liau Index6.9
SMOG Index8.6
Automated Readability Index9.6
Character Count4.655
Letter Count3.557
Sentence Count36
Word Count921
Average Words per Sentence25,58
Words with more than 6 letters77
Percentage of long words8.4%
Number of Syllables1.104
Average Syllables per Word1,20
Words with three Syllables32
Percentage Words with three Syllables3.5%
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