Once upon a time there was a miller and his wife who had a lovely daughter named Letta. Not long after she came of age, a suitor arrived at the mill, asking for Letta to be his wife. The suitor appeared very rich, and the millers could find no fault with him, so they gladly promised their daughter to him. They were a poor family, and the millers wanted their daughter to be well provided for.
The bridegroom visited the mill often in the months leading up to their wedding, bringing Letta golden rings and lockets and jewels. Her parents were delighted at the luxury their daughter would soon live in, but Letta was frightened. She did not trust her bridegroom, and whenever she thought of him her body shuddered in horror. She would spend her nights dreading the thought of being his wife.
One evening, her bridegroom said to her, “You are engaged to marry me, but you have never once paid me a visit. You need to come and visit my home before you are to live with me.”
She replied, “I don’t know where your house is. You have told me that you live deep in the dark woods, and I am afraid of becoming lost, and never finding it.”
He replied, “Next Sunday you must come out to visit me at my home. I have already invited dear friends who are yearning to meet you. I will leave you a trail of ashes through the woods, so you may find my house without becoming lost in the woods.”
The next Sunday, Letta left early in the morning to visit her bridegroom. She was filled with dismay at the thought of visiting him. As she was preparing to leave, she filled her pockets with peas and lentils and beans, so she could leave a trail to mark her way home.
As her bridegroom had promised, at the entrance to the forest was a trail of ashes. She followed the trail, and at every step she would scatter the peas and lentils and beans from her pockets. She walked all day, and as the sun was setting she was deep in the heart of the forest. In front of her was a lonely house, dark and foreboding. She could see no one there, and no lights were on to greet her. She stepped onto the porch to peer in through a dirty window, and could see no one inside.
Suddenly a voice called out: Turn back, turn back, young bride. This is a house of death.
Startled, she looked up, and saw a little brown bird hanging in a cage on the porch. It cried out again: Turn back, turn back, young bride. This is a house of death.
She was frightened at what the bird had said, but could see nothing but for going inside. She was afraid of becoming lost in the dark woods, she was afraid of disappointing her parents, and she was afraid of the wrath of her bridegroom if she did not come as he had asked.
Letta opened the door, and carefully stepped into the house. It was dark and filthy and damp. Cobwebs draped from the ceiling, and the house smelled of decay. As she walked from room to room, the house seemed entirely empty of life. She finally went into the cellar, when she heard many large foot-steps above her, and a young woman screaming. She quickly jumped behind some barrels, and curled up small and quiet in her hiding place.
She watched a group of robbers–including her bridegroom–drag a young woman down the basement stairs. They threw her to the floor, and forced her to drink three glasses of wine; one white, one yellow, and one red. As her lips touched the glass of red wine, her heart broke and she fell over dead.
The men ripped off the young woman’s clothes, threw her upon a table, and chopped her body into pieces. They then sprinkled salt on her, and began to eat her. Letta shuddered and shook, for she saw what fate her bridegroom had planned for her.
One man noticed a gold ring on the dead woman’s finger. He tried to pull the ring off, but it did not come. In his haste and greed he took a large ax and chopped the finger off. The finger flew into the air, over the barrels, and onto Letta’s lap. The man stood to look for it, but the others called him back to finish eating. “Come eat,” they declared, “this girl is quite tasty, and that finger will still be there in the morning.”
Letta sat trembling behind the barrels for many hours, until finally the robbers finished eating, and fell asleep on the floor. She carefully stepped around them, and quiet and quick as a mouse, fled from the house.
The ashes that her bridegroom had left were blown away in the night wind, but she could see the moon glimmering off of the peas and lentils and beans she had left to mark her path. She flew into the forest, and arrived at her parent’s mill as the sun was rising. She told them everything she had seen, but they were loathe to believe her. They told her that she had become lost in the woods, and had dreamt what she saw. Letta then showed her parents the murdered woman’s finger, and their faces became gray with the horror of what the bridegroom had planned for their daughter.
The next day the bridegroom was due for another visit, and the millers prepared for his arrival. They gathered all their relatives and acquaintances, and made it appear as if they were gathered for a party to celebrate Letta’s upcoming wedding. When the bridegroom arrived they greeted him, and had him sit at the table next to his future bride. All the guests were asked to tell a story, and they went from person to person, sharing a small tale.
Finally they came to Letta, and she said: “As you all know, I was supposed to visit my sweetheart’s home last night. Along the way I must have fallen asleep, for I had the strangest of dreams. I will now share with you my dream.
I dreamt that I was walking in the woods when I came to a strange and dark house. This house was supposed to be the home of my bridegroom, so I was confused when I saw how dreary and decayed this home was, and not at all what I expected. A little brown bird was in a cage on the porch of that house, and it called out to me, “turn back, turn back young bride. This is a house of death.” Since this was nothing but a dream, I continued, and entered the house. I walked from room to room, until I came to the cellar. As I entered the cellar, I dreamt that I heard a great commotion in the room above me, and a woman screaming. I hid behind some barrels, and I saw a group of robbers drag a woman down into the basement. They gave her three kinds of wine to drink; white, yellow, and red. When she drank the last glass, she fell down dead. I then dreamt that they cut her into small pieces, and ate her flesh. One of the robbers saw a small ring on her finger, and he took an ax, and chopped the dead woman’s finger off. The finger flew across the room, and fell into my lap. And here is that finger.”
With that, Letta pulled the finger out of her pocket, and laid it on the table for all the guests to see. Through Letta’s story, her bridegroom had become pale, and sat quiet next to her. When she pulled out the finger, he gasped and tried to flee. The guests at the party grabbed him, and threw him to the ground, and kicked him until he died. They then chopped the robber bridegroom into pieces, and fed his body to their pigs.
This story is a traditional brother’s Grimm Tale, titled The Robber Bridegroom. I used the version posted at D.L. Ashliman’s Folklinks site.
Source: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Der Räuberbräutigam, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children’s and Household Tales — Grimms’ Fairy Tales), final edition (Berlin, 1857), no. 40.
Translated by D. L. Ashliman. © 2001-2002.
The Grimms’ source: Marie Hassenpflug (1788-1856) and other sources.
This was one of my favorite Grimm’s stories as a child, and I was so excited to share my version. My favorite aspect of it then–and now–is the strength of the female character. Despite the best of intentions of her parents, she knew that something was terribly wrong, and followed her instincts. She escaped from danger, and brought the evil man she was to marry to justice.
I made a few changes to the original story. The first was that I gave the main character a name, as I felt that was an important aspect of her character which was not in the original. Letta is a traditional germanic name, which means light. I also removed the character of the “old woman,” as I did not think she was necessary. In the original, she helped the “pretty young bride” understand the danger she was in, and helped her escape. I preferred to give Letta more agency, and allow her to escape on her own.
Another aspect which appealed to me was that the “evil” in this particular story is completely human, and they are defeated through human power as well. The only magical aspect is the talking bird. I also find it intriguing to compare the “evil” of the cannibals to the “goodness” of the townspeople, who through mob violence killed the robber bridegroom.