The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

The Old Woman in the Wood

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

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.

A stately family comes into the wilderness where they meet the same law that prevails in their city: the stronger feeds on the weaker. But here in the forest they suddenly stand on the other side and become victims themselves. Why does this great contrast exist between city and forest? Why does the family meet with this fate? Do we see a presumptuous aristocracy that has lost its grounding in nature? Even the maid seems completely lost in the wild, but, at least, she stays alive.

Who are the robbers in the forest? What do they kill and rob so that no human soul lives in the forest? And how can you leave this wild forest?

In many fairy tales, there are recurring motifs that are not only dramatic stages of a story, but also typical chapters of a person’s life. For example, there is the sheltered person, who suddenly finds himself in danger and fear, separated from everything he knows. Like our maid, who has been protected by her lordship, and which is now hungry and lonely on her own. But helpers show themselves in need, if a person has confidence and a good heart. Such helpers can also be the dangers themselves, because they force us on the way to transformation.

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 wilt 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.

What is this key that can unlock the outer shell of things? And, as in many fairy tales, gold plays a key role again.
Everything can be unlocked and helpful with the golden key of knowledge. What a beautiful symbol! There is one life in every creature whose nature is kind and healing, if it is allowed to unfold and be recognized.

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.”

After the quiet life and the retreat from the busy world, the girl has matured and is ready to take responsibility and act again.

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.

All the tests of courage were passed by the girl: she could be silent when it mattered, but could take action when she was hindered. She was neither distracted nor blinded by the precious treasure, but firmly pursued her goal, for her purpose was noble and pure.

What do we learn from the bird, who has the ring in his beak and sits in the witch’s cage? Maybe caught three times? The ring is caught in the beak of the greedy bird, the bird in the cage and the cage in the hand of the witch.

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.

And again this beautiful symbol: The right companion, the truth, was hidden in the tree and in the animal. Because it is just one life, that may show itself in many different forms. You can recognize this one life and connect with the truth, when you see through the magic of the witch.

Why a simple ring? It may point to the connection of the King’s son with a simple girl. It is this simplicity of the girl, that surrenders to God when all seems hopeless, and suddenly receives the help of nature and the spirit that lives in nature. Finally, the simplicity even frees the enchanted spirit, and in this case helps the king’s son to become ‘human’ again. How he lost his ‘humanity’ is not explained further in this fairy tale. However he somehow has fallen into the witch’s hands and perhaps has experienced a catastrophe similar to that of the noble family at the beginning of the story.

The ring is also a very old symbol, on the one hand for connection, if it encloses something, and on the other hand for eternity, because it is without beginning and end. Even today we know the marriage and friendship rings. In this case the prince’s ring was in the witch’s hands. This means he was associated with a dark power that had banished him to nature, from which he could only occasionally rise as a dove. The nature of this dark power remains relatively open, at least you should not give it an answer or do not get involved with it. It is played again with the male-female symbolism and the usual witch, which causes separation. Finally, the male is freed from the compulsive bonds of nature, and man and woman unite. Then they live a rich and happy life and never feel lonely anymore.

As in the beginning, a stately retinue set in the forest, at the end another stately retinue leaves the forest. And the girl, who was a servant before, is now the bride of the king’s son. What a wonderful change happened in the forest along the way…

Jorinda and Joringel - (topic: power of true love)
Iron John - (topic: making nature an enemy)
The Old Woman in the Wood (topic: change in nature)
Hansel and Grethel - (topic: defeating ego and desire)
Rumpelstiltskin - (topic: essence of nature and its spirit)
Mother Holle - (topic: essence of nature)
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was - (topic: essence of fear)
Little Red-Cap - (topic: essence of desire)
Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death - (topic: essence of death and reality)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /