Feast of Fish
An Examination of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Local Folk Lore
by H. C. Anderson
Frau Trude is mentioned only briefly by name in Grimm’s Fairy Tales, in the tale of . However, what is little known is that she is also mentioned in three (and possibly four) other tales, although not by name: , , and . The four tales together tell the story of how she was brought to this world, plagued the population, and was finally thwarted by a clever young girl. The fifth is controversial, but if true, tells of how she sought revenge upon the youth, only to be defeated once more by the young girl.
Interestingly, the story of Frau Trude begins with her name as “Frau Holle” which was originally interpreted as “Mother Hulda”, but more strictly translates to “Woman Hell” – thus, “woman who came from the underworld”. After her displeasure with this world, she chooses to go by the name “Frau Trude”, which translates to “Woman Try” – “Woman who tests”.
The story of Frau Trude begins with the tale of .
This tale tells of a widow with one ugly, lazy, and spoiled daughter, and one pretty, industrious, and overworked step daughter. The pretty daughter was made to work the spindle each day until her fingers bled. One day she dropped the spindle into the well, and her mother threatened to punish her if she did not retrieve it.
The poor girl jumped into the well, wishing all the while to be freed from her slavery, and awoke in Mother Hulda’s realm. She helped Hulda with many tasks, whereupon Hulda returned her home covered in gold. The mother, thinking her own daughter should have received the gold, sent the lazy daughter to the well. But the lazy daughter would not help with any of the chores, and so was returned home covered in pitch that would never come off.
This is mostly true, except that the lazy daughter never actually entered the well. Instead, she slept beside it, and then returned home. When asked why she did not receive any gold, she said that Hulda had worked her nearly to death, and then told her she had already given all her gold to the pretty daughter and that now the pretty daughter must give her half.
At that, Hulda appeared and declared her a liar. To prove it, she asked that the gods curse the lazy daughter to show their anger. Secretly, she cast an evil spell, whereupon the lazy daughter was beaten black and blue by invisible forces. Fearing public ridicule, the parents covered the girl with pitch to disguise the bruises. However, every morning the girl was beaten again, so the bruises never healed and the parents continued to cover her with pitch until the day she died. Meanwhile, Mother Hulda took the pretty girl to the city where the girl purchased a home and lived in luxury to the end of her days.
Transformation to Frau Trude
Confused, now, of the nature of people on this strange world, Mother Hulda took on the guise of a beggar woman. In this guise, she tested the population, only to find that while a few individuals were kind and decent folk, the majority were greedy and uncaring. Furthermore, she found that children could be horribly cruel. Her opinions were fully substantiated by the particularly cruel actions of a young boy, as described in the tale .
On a particularly chilly night, she came to a house, and approaching the door saw a young boy warming himself by the fireplace. He spoke kindly to her, saying: “Come, old mother, and warm yourself”. She purposely moved closer and closer to the flames, eventually moving so close that her clothing caught on fire. Rather than warn her, he said nothing and watched with a smile as her clothing went up in flame and the old woman began burning to death.
Seeing that the boy would not help, and instead was quite amused by her plight, she ran from the house and extinguished the flames before being injured too greatly. From that moment on she was convinced that human kind is inherently evil, and children are the most purest manifestations of that evil.
She resigned herself to living as a hermit deep in the forest, calling herself Frau Trude. However, invariably, children would find her home and cause all manner of mischief: from raiding her gardens and stealing her chickens, to vandalizing her home. Having no patience for such criminal behavior, she had no qualms with killing the children, and subsequently eating them so as “not to waste good flesh”. And if accosted by parents, she would cast magics to curse their crops, livestock, and livelihoods, even to the point of causing them to contract horrible and painful fatal diseases.
tells the tale of one obstinate young girl that would not listen to her parents, and went to the woman’s cottage even though warned of the dangers. When Frau Trude caught the girl spying through her windows, and then lying about her actions, she turned the girl into a piece of firewood and threw her onto the fire.
Frau Trude Defeated
is the (possibly) final tale of her story in Grimm’s, but it was not actually her end. This tale tells of the children who happened upon her cottage innocently, and found it to be an irresistible trap of delectable sweets.
Once caught, Frau Trude kept them hostage, caging and fattening the boy while using the girl as a slave. When Frau Trude was ready to eat them both and tried to trick the girl into leaning into the oven to more easily shove her in, the girl turned the trick against her and shoved her into the oven instead. The girl then freed her brother and they fled home, leaving the old woman to burn to death in the oven.
Frau Trude’s Final Defeat
A Local tale describes how the two children returned to the cottage a few years later. Curious what had become of the old woman, they opened the oven only to find a pile of white ashes. Thinking it would be a funny prank, and as young boys do, the brother spooked his sister. Startled, she jumped back toward the oven. In doing so, she brushed her doll across the ashes, whereby the spirit of Frau Trude entered the girl’s doll and came to life once more. Frantic and fearful, the girl threw the doll into the furnace, and the two children fled the cottage – unfortunately, leaving the furnace door open. Frau Trude sought vengeance for the torment she had suffered, determined to hunt down the children and kill the whole family (father and two children).
Once she found their home, she made plans to murder them in their sleep, one-by-one, over the course of three nights. The father was the first to die, followed by the brother. The girl, frantic and afraid, told the huntsman next door of her plight. That night, he hid in the girl’s closet to protect her. Much later, Frau Trude entered the room silently, riding a dark black cat. The cat stealthily leaped onto the bed, making no noise at all. Concerned that the huntsman may not have noticed, the clever young girl immediately sat up and began asking her questions in a loud voice: why are your eyes so bright? why is your voice so deep? why are your teeth so sharp?
As the girl distracted Frau Trude, the huntsman sneaked up from behind and grabbed the cat by the tail. Quickly lifting the cat from the bed, he swung his axe, chopping off both the cat’s tail and the doll’s head with one swift stroke. The cat disappeared in a puff of smoke. The body of Frau Trude fell to the ground lifeless. But the head continued to scream.
They tried every manner to destroy them. They hacked at the body, stomped on the head, and threw them both into the fireplace. but neither fire, blade, nor bludgeoning could damage the doll further. So they gathered up the pieces separately, wrapping them firmly in cloth, and took them to the local Wise Woman. Some say that Frau Trude can never truly be killed, as she comes from the underworld where life and death have no meaning. Some say the Wise Woman rejoined the pieces, and enslaved Frau Trude to grant her wishes. Others say the pieces were sent far away, to a distant land, to ensure she could never again torment the population. Regardless, this is where the tale truly ends!
A Possible Lost Reference
Although it cannot be confirmed, It is rumored that the tale of Frau Trude’s Defeat was transformed into the tale of .
There are many similarities between the story of and Gretel from .
- The mother sends the girl into the woods
- The girl is tricked by the wolf and delayed in the woods
- The girl encounters the wolf in bed
- The girl questions the wolf about its facial features
- The huntsman arrives and states he has been searching for the wolf
- The huntsman defeats the wolf and saves the girl
Additionally, Scholars point to local tales of a tiny witch that rode a black cat and lived in the woods. Many people were attacked while taking the path through the woods to the neighboring town. And at night, the two would prowl the village, peeking through windows and even entering homes as if searching for something. Huntsmen searched for the witch, but always returned unsuccessful. The witch frightened the village for nearly three weeks, but then mysteriously vanished from local folk lore.
Scholars believe that the “cat-riding witch” may have been morphed into the “wolf” described in , pointing to the wolf’s very human characteristics and the witch’s sudden disappearance.