Thoughts on “The Three Little Gnomes in the Forest”
This story begins as a basic lesson in etiquette: when your stepmother sends you out into the wintery forest in nothing but a paper dress, be kind to the strange little men who offer to let you warm up by their fire, and share what meager lunch has been given you. As a reward, you’ll not only be given the impossible thing your stepmother sent you out to fetch in the first place (strawberries in winter), but you’ll also grow more beautiful every day, have gold pieces fall from your mouth when you speak, and you’ll soon be married to a king. If you’re nasty and ill-tempered to the little men, like the stepmother’s own daughter, and won’t share your lunch of cake and meat, then you’ll be cursed with ever-increasing ugliness, toads will leap from your mouth whenever you open it, and you’ll be doomed to die a miserable death. Simple manners and common sense.
Of course, what starts out as an especially whimsical and cruel story of fairy tale child abuse (she’s so creative, this stepmother! A paper dress! Strawberries in the snow!) continues to spin its wheels, and we’re given a second half very similar to “Brother and Sister,” in which the stepmother and her now hideous daughter attempt to kill the first daughter, now made a queen, and pass the stepsister off in her place. The ghost of the queen appears three times to servants in the castle (in this story, as a little duck who swims past the castle) before she is brought to life again by her husband, and the stepmother and her daughter do indeed die a terrible death as punishment.
Having not read this tale is years, I’d forgotten all the stuff about the daughter becoming a queen, and then a ghost-duck. What I did remember, and what still delights me about this story, is the paper dress. Somehow that image, of the suffering little girl sent out into the snow in a paper dress to look for strawberries, seems more akin to the world of Hans Christian Andersen than it does the grim Grimms—it’s cruel, but also a little funny, and so unexpected. It seems less like a punishment a grown-up would think of (though I have absolutely no doubts as to its cruelty factor) than something a kid would imagine as both a game and a punishment—like “dressing up” in rags to play a pauper. Illustrations for this tale don’t shake that for me, either, especially Arthur Rackham’s depiction of an elaborate, multi-layered newsprint skirt and matching jacket. As a kid reading these stories, I would absolutely have tried to make myself a get-up like that, so I could go wander in the backyard and play at feeling lost, unwanted, and unloved—then, of course, come inside for dinner and bed as soon as I got tired.