This is one of those titles that feels familiar. A little research and there's a Eudora Welty novel of the same name from 1942 based on the Grimm tale, and a Broadway musical based on the book from the mid 1970's. And the plot summaries are nothing at all like the Grimm tale.
Part campfire story, part Sweeney Todd, the story takes some of the more familiar Grimm elements (good girl, disingenuous suitor, talking birds, trail of food to find one's way home) and puts some grisly twists in for good measure.
A miller has a beautiful daughter whom he intends to marry off to the best suitor he can find. Having found one and agreed on the marriage the wedding date is set. The daughter, with no say in the matter, is skeeved out by the guy, though she nor anyone else can figure out why. She avoids her hubby-to-be as much as possible and with the wedding drawing near he insists she come visit him at his little place in the country.
She leaves a trail of peas and lentils as she makes her way into the woods. Upon finding the house she lets herself in and finds it mostly empty, save for a caged bird that sings out a warning that this is a house of robbers and she should leave. But does she?
A quick aside here: I've noticed that when robbers are mentioned in Grimm tales they tend to be something a little more serious than burglars or the stand-and-deliver highwaymen I tend to associate with stories from this era. When the Brothers Grimm say robber it might be best to substitute and assume the word sociopath or psychopath, depending on the nature of their intent. For our purposes here, the bridegroom may be a bit of both.
Exploring the house further she finds room after empty room until letting herself down into the basement where an old crone is tending a fire. The woman reiterates the bird's warning, that this is a den of robbers, and that if she stays any longer they will be home and will eat her. Too late, the robbers (the girl's future husband among them) return home with another young woman. The girl hides behind a barrel in the corner and stays hidden in fright as the men give their current catch three glasses of wine (one white, one red and one yellow) which has the effect of killing her, making me wonder just exactly what kind of wine they're talking about. Once dead, the men proceed to hack her up and prepare her for the old woman to make into a stew. One of the robbers eyes a ring on the dead girl's finger and, unable to remove it, hacks the finger off with an axe. The finger flies across the room and lands in the lap of the terrified girl behind the barrel. Quickly thinking, the old woman diverts their attention from the finger ("It'll still be there in the morning!") and proceeds to drug them with wine so they pass out. When the coast is clear the old woman helps the girl escape, using this opportunity to finally break whatever servitude she herself had with the robbers.
Back home the daughter tells her father all, which not only shocks him but underscores what a bad judge of character he is. So the wedding goes as planned, with all parties invited and attending. The bridegroom is miffed that she didn't come to his house as arranged, but no matter, they can go there after the wedding. Folks gathered around the table are telling stories and the girl is implored to tell one herself. She tells of a dream, of a house in the forest, with a bird that sings out warnings, and a crone in the basement. The story is very solemn for so happy an occasion and she keeps reassuring her breidegroom "It was only a dream." Except, at the very end, when she gets to the point of the murdered maiden and her finger flying across the room, the girl stands up and like a storyteller around a campfire holds up the finger and says "And here it is!" Cue the locals who surround the robbers and take the to the magistrate for a quick summary execution.
There is an older variant of this story that shows up in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and a story called Mr. Fox which covers a lot of the same territory. The story of Perrault's Bluebeard is also mentioned, and it's interesting that there are these stories of murderous louts going back several hundred years. According to a Wikipedia entry on the matter there is an Ozark variant that ends with "the heroine resolved never to marry and never did, because she had concluded men were bad; she just stayed with her own family, who were happy to have her." The cite on this last one comes from Angela Carter, no stranger to the fairy tale or of strong feminist heroines. And I really should get around to reading Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride sometime to see the scenario flipped.
Again, the most striking aspect of this fairy tale is that these men referred to as robbers are in fact cannibals, that they literally prey on young women and seem to have some guile at culling them from safety. My latest time machine fantasy now includes a stop during Grimm's day to see this story told and get reactions from the children it was told to, assuming it was told to children at all. In the days before television and movies -- and even books during the mid 19th century -- adults would have had to entertain themselves as well.
I'm suddenly finding myself mulling over the mental image of Quintin Tarrantino going back to 1840 in the time machine and seeing him in an inn telling stories to the locals. That's actually a bit scarier than cannibal robbers right now.