The Hermit in Lore: Fairy Tales

If the characters in fairy tales represent psychological archetypes, then hermits should be identifiable characters in these traditional stories, among the kings, princesses, witches, rival siblings, sorcerers, talking animals, and fools. But many standard collections do not include hermits: Edgar Taylor, Wilhelm Hauff, Joseph Jacobs, Basile's Pentamerone, Burton's Arabian Nights, Perrault. Of the collections, only Grimm has one very important representation, and Andrew Lang has half a dozen.

There are two distinct types of collected fairy tales. Those collected from folkloric sources like the  Grimm brothers Jakob (1785-1863) and Wilhelm (1786-1859) -- and to some degree Andrew Lang (1844-1912) -- are called scientific collections because of their raw and unedited nature. Fairy tales composed intentionally as belle lettres are known as art fairy tales loosely fitting the requirements of the genre. Art fairy tales are best represented by Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875) and his imitators. In Andersen is one valuable story featuring a hermit. A "successor" to Andersen is Godfried Jan Arnold Bomans (1913-71), who also has a representative story featuring a hermit.

The titles in Lang that include a hermit character approximate best the medieval and later Western perception of the hermit as sage and magician -- not a Christian so much as a Celtic druid or equivalent, not unlike the archetype of the tarot (which see.) The hermit in Lang is not a wanderer or proselytizer but a contemplative and a true solitary. The hermit offers advice to visitors when asked but his wisdom or insight is purposely  limited to the questioner's need or capacity.

In the Sicilian tale "How the Hermit Helped to Win the King's Daughter," the hermit only helps the kind-hearted brother of the typical three rival brothers, this one the third in birth-order, as is the usual depiction of siblings. "I gave you my help," explains the hermit, "because you had pity on those that were in need. And when you are in need yourself, call upon me, and I will come to you." The need here referred to is of magical intervention.

In the French story "Princess Rossette":

The queen heard that in a great forest near the castle there was an old hermit, who lived in a hollow tree, and that people came from far and near to consult him.

In this story, the hermit foretells the future not through any device or sorcery but as plain advice about what to do to avert misfortune.

Similar advice-giving is found  in two other tales. In the Romanian tale "Little Wildrose," an "old hermit with a white beard" is found reading a book in a cave. He offers advice on how the protagonists, an elderly childless couple, can have a child, given to them by a fairy. In the Breton story "The Castle of Kerglas," the hero learns how to overcome an evil sorcerer on the advice of the "hermit of Blavet," who, however, does not appear in the story.

Several Grimm tales also include hermits in traditional roles of giving advice or contriving moral lessons. In "Brother Frolick," the picaresque hero has completed a lifetime of adventures and visits a hermit "who was known to be a pious man" for advice about getting to heaven. The hermit tells him that there are two roads, one broad and pleasant leading to hell, and a second narrow and rough leading to heaven. Brother Frolick thinks to himself, "I should be a fool if I were to take the narrow, rough road."

The hermit in "The Hut in the Forest" is an "old gray-haired man." "His white beard fell down over the table almost as far as the ground." The hermit regards the third-born sibling of the woodcutter's daughters in a familiar plot involving a prince trapped into the form of an animal by a witch's spell. Perhaps as interesting as the conventional plot is the wilderness isolation of the woodcutter, his wife, and three daughters, and the perennial dangers of enormous forests to the imagination of common people. A nearly identical plot is spun in "The Old Woman in the Wood."

But the most important representation of the hermit is Grimm's "The Three Green Twigs," with elements of the Christian supernatural as well as the magic of the traditional fairy tale. Here the hermit is clearly Christian and the story refers to prayer, sin , repentance, and God. Attach a hermit's name to the protagonist and this story is an artful hagiographical tale, so representative of a particular image of hermits.


"Ole the Tower Keeper" is Hans Christian Andersen's artful conception of the hermit. In this story, the wilderness setting and the pious sagacity is banished. Ole is a secular, talkative old man, worldly-wise and stubborn. As Andersen puts it: "a chatty, jolly fellow who seemed to say whatever came into his head yet had so many serious thoughts concealed deep in his heart." Ole had wanted world success but lost his position as schoolmaster's assistant and parish clerk deputy because of his quarrelsomeness.

So he turned his back on everybody and finally became a hermit. But in a big city, hermitage with a livelihood is to be found only in the church tower, so up it he went.

The narrator provided the tower keeper with books, and one book in particular becomes the topic of the first of two visits described: a book about pebbles, really a kind of evolutionary geology book. Ole waxes eloquent and ironic on how much of a valuable perspective he has gained from the book, putting human beings into their proper perspective over the millennia. The visit, not unexpectedly, is full of digressions, always returning to the topic of human pride and folly.  The second visit takes up the topic of New Year's drink and how each glass progressively worsens the lot of the imbiber. The digression here pokes fun at writers, who hold a kind of witches' Sabbath on New Years Eve, sharing their cynicism and deceptions as journalists and editorialists.

And that, says the narrator, was that: "If you want to hear more, we will have to pay him another visit."

Godfried Bomans (1913-71) writes a variety of tales of a very sardonic nature. "The Rich Blackberry Picker" features a hermit who is a fool.

There was no one else living in the wood and so the blackberry picker thought he was alone in the world. However, this belief in no way affected his high spirits. He would sing the merriest songs at the top of his voice, without pause, except at night, because that was when he had to sleep -- and that is a good excuse. But apart from that, it was impossible to imagine a happier man.

The naiveté of the hermit comes from his cheerful optimism, his concept of nature, his perception of a world devoid of other people. To him, the morning dew clinging to grass and flowers is like diamonds and pearls. The ponds in the mirror the shapes of trees and sky. The sunlight at dawn produces shimmering colors like a mosaic. And the tall trees of the forest form a great vaulted cathedral, with singing birds a beautiful choir and the nightingale a soloist.

One day a traveler stops in the forest and at the hermit's hut to beg a repast. The traveler shares the table with the blackberry picker and offers the hermit a gold coin for his trouble.

But that is when the trouble begins, because the hermit-fool refuses the coin, countering that he has riches to spare. The traveler coaxes the details from him: diamonds, pearls, mirrors, mosaics. The astonished traveler's greed is aroused. He demands to see the riches. It is night and the hermit-fool explains that his treasures cannot be seen in the dark, but he invites the traveler to stay until morning. No, replies the traveler. "I'm going right off. I'm an explorer and this is my greatest discovery. I'm going to tell everybody."

The rest of the tale churns inexorably forward. The mob of city-dwellers appears at the berry-picker's hut the next morning demanding the treasure. The hermit-fool points to the meadows and its jewels but the mob, led by the mayor, is mocked. The mayor answers angrily that what the hermit sees is merely the dew. The mirrors? Just ponds. The cathedral colonnades? Just trees. The music? Just birds.

The ending is, of course, tragic and predictable -- we omit it here for its gruesomeness. Despite the story's sardonic theme, however, "The Rich Blackberry Picker" is a sharp critique of materialist culture and a warning to those -- idealists or solitaries -- to safeguard their insights like pearls before swine, to be guileless (to extend the biblical metaphors) as doves. Here, perhaps, is a psychological insight as good as any ancient archetype.


The works of Grimm and Lang are widely available on the Web. As examples, the complete Grimm can be found at among other places. The complete Lang is available at Hans Christian Andersen is reproduced in full at, which includes an addendum to the original two visits in "Ole, the Tower Keeper." For Bomans, "The Blackberry Picker" is included in his The Wily Witch: & Other Fairy Tales. Owens Mills, MD: Stemmer House, 1977.