Der goldene Schlüssel

    I have said for a long time that “Der goldene Schlüssel” was my least favorite Grimm fairytale. It is, however, useful in a variety of ways. First of all, it is one of the shortest Grimm fairytales. This means that if you are a beginner trying to learn the German language, this is a great story to start out with. Because this story is so short, it is also great for text analyzation. Below the video, I have a breakdown of every sentence in the story with a grammar explanation for why it is phrased the way that it is and how to identify several parts of each sentence.

    Sentence #1:

    Zur Winterszeit, als einmal ein tiefer Schnee lag, musste ein armer Junge hinausgehen und Holz auf einem Schlitten holen. – In the wintertime, as a deep snow lay, a poor boy had to go out and get wood on a sled.

    In this sentence, we start with the time element, “Zur Winterzeit”. Normally, this means that we put our verb in second position, which means that “musste” should be the second element in the sentence, however, this time element is explained further in a subordinate clause. This clause pushes its verb to the end of the clause, because it starts with “als”. The subject of the clause is “ein tiefer Schnee”, which is why the verb “lag” is conjugated to the “er, sie, es” form in the simple past tense. The entire clause is separated off on each side by a comma. All of that means that everything up until the second comma is just there to set the time of the story.

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    Our conjugated verb for the main clause of this sentence, “musste” comes directly after the second comma for the reasons mentioned above. It is the simple past tense form of “müssen” for the “er, sie, es” form. This is because, “ein armer Junge” is the subject. Due to the use of a modal auxiliary, “müssen”, we have to put an infinitive of another verb at the end of the sentence. This particular sentence has two infinitives. There are actually two main clauses here, which are connected by the conjunction “und”. This means that we put the infinitive related to the first part directly before the “und”, “hinausgehen”, and we put the other one at the very end of the sentence in the second clause, “holen”.

    Since there isn’t anything other than the subject and time element in the first clause, the first clause is simply in the order of: time element, “Zur Winterzeit”; conjugated verb (modal auxiliary), “musste”; subject, “ein armer Junge”; and the non-conjugated verb (infinitive), “hinausgehen”.

    The clause after “und” starts as if it already had the modal auxiliary “musste” in front of it (because it was in the first clause). That means that we don’t have a verb after “und” until we get to the end of the sentence, “holen”. The thing that is being “gotten” in this sentence is the “Holz”, which makes that the direct object and accusative. The preposition “auf” is a two-way preposition (Wechselpräposition), which means that it could take either the accusative or dative cases. As you can tell from the word “einem”, this sentence uses the dative case. Because the wood is being carried on a sled instead of being put onto a sled in this sentence, you have to use the dative case. Two-way prepositions use the accusative case when there is motion and the dative case when there is not. This clause does not use motion.

    The only other thing of merit to mention in this sentence is the “-er” at the end of both “tiefer” and “armer”. For both of these instances, we have a masculine noun (der Schnee and der Junge) in the nominative case (both the subjects of their respective clauses) after an “ein-word”. That means that the adjective here has to have “-er” at the end of it.

    Sentence #2:

    Wie er es nun zusammengesucht und aufgeladen hatte, wollte er, weil er so erfroren war, noch nicht nach Haus gehen, sondern erst Feuer anmachen und sich ein bisschen wärmen. – Once he had searched it out and loaded up, he wanted, because he was so frozen, not yet go home, but rather first make a fire and warm himself a bit.

    This sentence is a bit difficult to translate into one English sentence. Any sane native English speaker would translate it into several sentences, but I wanted to keep it as closely related to the original as I could so we can dissect the grammar a bit. (Also, I might be insane.) Just as it was with the previous sentence, the best way to figure out what is going on in this sentence is to break it apart one clause at a time. For every comma there is a new part to dissect.

    The first clause in the sentence is actually two, but the second one is pretty simple and they are both part of one section of the sentence, so we will tackle them together. The clause starts with “wie”, which is a being used as a subordinating conjunction. This means that the conjugated verb goes to the end of the clause, which is why “hatte” is directly before the comma. If we look at the subject and the verbs by themselves, we could rearrange the sentence to see “er hatte es nun zusammengesucht und aufgeladen.” This shows us the clause is in the past perfect (Plusquamperfekt). We conjugate “haben” as we would in the simple past tense and use a past participle at the end of the sentence. Don’t forget that if you have a separable prefix like “zusammen” in your past participle, you need to put the “ge-” between the prefix and the rest of the past participle (e.g. zusammengesucht).

    Because our first clause was a subordinate clause, we have to start our second clause with the conjugated verb, which is why directly after the first comma we find the word “wollte”. The second clause looks incredibly short, because it only shows “wollte er” and then there is another clause, but the second clause really goes beyond that other clause that starts with “weil”. If we ignore what is between the next two commas (weil… war) then we can see the rest of our second clause. The whole clause would be “wollte er noch nicht nach Hause gehen”. This tells us that he didn’t want to go home yet. We have a modal auxiliary (wollen) conjugated in the simple past tense and an infinitive at the end of the clause (gehen), because of that modal auxiliary. If you only used the word “nicht” instead of “noch nicht” the meaning would change to “he didn’t want to go home”, which is clearly not the case. He just didn’t want to go home yet. Don’t forget that we use “nach Haus(e)” when we are going home, but we use “zu Haus(e)” when we are already there.

    The clause within our second clause tells us more about why he didn’t want to go home yet. We start with the subordinating conjunction “weil”, which pushes our conjugated verb, “war”, to the end of the clause. The word “so” is used just like it is in English here. It is being used as an adverb to describe the predicate adjective “erfroren”. Some people will explain this concept as the “Zustandspassiv” or the “sein-Passiv”. Basically, it is a construction using a form of “sein” (based on the tense used) with a past participle (in this case, “erfroren”) to show a state of being. Those who call this the “Zustandspassiv” will tell you that the word “erfroren” is a past participle, because of the use of the passive voice, but it is much simpler (although technically incorrect) to think of this as a past participle acting as a predicate adjective. If you were to replace the past participle “erfroren” with any other adjective, it would probably make just as much sense (e.g. weil er so kalt war) and no one would argue that it is in the passive voice. It seems counterintuitive to assume that this is anything other than an adjective, but this may help you to Google more examples of this by knowing that some people call it the passive.

    The last part after the last comma is an extension of the clause that started with “wollte”. That is why both of our infinitives “anmachen” and “wärmen” are at the end of their respective clauses. The conjunction “und” connects these two clauses and has no effect on word order. Since we already established our subject, “er”, at the beginning of that clause, we don’t need to restate it in these parts of the same clause. The word “sondern” means “(but) rather”. It is used to explain what he would rather do than go home. The word “erst” indicates the time when he wants to start the fire, which is “first”. The verb “wärmen” in the last clause is used as a reflexive “to warm oneself”. That is the reason for the use of the reflexive pronoun “sich”, which shows you that the subject, “er”, is warming himself instead of someone or something else.

    Sentence #3:

    Da scharrte er den Schnee weg, und wie er so den Erdboden aufräumte, fand er einen kleinen goldenen Schlüssel. – He scraped away the snow and when he had cleaned off the ground, he found a small golden key.

    Finally something relatively easy. The first clause could have been the end of the sentence, but because this is a German story, the author decided to add a comma and just keep on going. The word “weg” is being used as a separable prefix, which is why it is at the end of the first clause. Since we didn’t start the sentence with our subject, “er”, we have to put the verb in second position and move the subject to the spot after that. The snow in this clause is the direct object of the sentence, as it is the thing being cleared away, which makes it accusative. Masculine nouns, such as “der Schnee”, in the accusative case use the definite article “den”.

    Our second clause opens with the conjunction “und”, which is the only way that the author could get away with writing this sentence as long as he did without it sounding construed. After that we have another conjunction, but this one is a subordinating conjunction, which, again, pushes the conjugated verb to the end of the clause, which is why “aufräumte” is at the end before the next comma. You may be wondering why a separable prefix like “auf” is attached to the rest of the verb even though that verb is conjugated. This happens when the verb is moved to the end of the clause in a subordinate clause. Just roll with it. Again, we have an example of a masculine direct object, in this case “den Erdboden”. It follows the same rule that was explained in the previous paragraph.

    Because the first clause of this part of the sentence started with a subordinate clause, we have to have our conjugated verb of the next clause at the beginning of the clause, right after the comma. That is why we have the word “fand” next to the comma followed by our subject, “er”. The little golden key is the direct object of that clause, which is why we use “einen kleinen goldenen Schlüssel”.

    Sentence #4:

    Nun glaubte er, wo der Schlüssel wäre, müsste auch das Schloss dazu sein, grub in der Erde und fand ein eisernes Kästchen. – Now he believed, where there was a key, there must also be a lock, dug in the ground and found an iron little box.

    The word “nun” at the beginning of the sentence translates as “now”, but more of a “in this particular situation” kind of “now” instead of a “at this time” kind of “now”. Since this is not the subject of this clause, the subject shows up after the conjugated verb.

    The second clause here starts with a question word, which acts as a subordinating conjunction, which is why “wäre” is at the end of that clause. This verb is used in the subjunctive 2, because it is a hypothetical situation and isn’t necessarily reality.

    Because the second clause was a subordinate clause and ended with the conjugated verb, the next clause has to start with the verb, just as the previous sentences did. The verb “müsste” is also conjugated in the subjunctive 2, as it is still a supposition instead of a fact. Contrary to what some people may think, the word “auch” is not misplaced here. Because it is necessary to tell us that it isn’t just the key that has to be there, but also the lock, we have to keep the word “auch” directly in front of the subject. Think of it as an adjective that isn’t use like normal adjectives. (Warning: This isn’t actually an adjective.) The infinitive “sein” is at the end of the sentence, because of the use of a modal auxiliary, as we saw in previous sentences.

    The last two clauses are connected by the conjunction “und” like we have seen in other sentences. Since the first clause in this series started with a subordinate clause, we still have to use our verb first in these two clauses. That is why both “grub” and “fand” are at the beginning of their respective clauses. The prepositional phrase “in der Erde” is in the dative case instead of the accusative case, because it answers the question “where is he digging” instead of “where to is he digging”. The “Kästchen” gives us our first example of a direct object that is neuter in this story. This shows us that the “ein-word” remains the same as it was in the nominative case, so we have to use the ending “-es” on the adjective “eisern” to show that the noun “Kästchen” is neuter. Don’t forget that any noun that ends with the suffix “-chen” is going to be neuter.

    Sentence #5:

    “Wenn der Schlüssel nur passt!” dachte er, “es sind gewiss kostbare Sachen in dem Kästchen.” – “If the key only fit!” he thought, “there are surely costly things in the little box.”

    Nothing complicated about this sentence. We start with a quote, which is an exclamation. This starts with the subordinating conjunction “wenn”, which pushes the conjugated verb, “passt”, to the end of the sentence. “Der Schlüssel”, of course, is the subject of that sentence.

    Because the first part was a quote, the part that says “dachte er”, has to start with the verb, which it does. This is then separated by a comma so that we can continue the quote.

    The last part of the quote confuses some people because of the conjugation of “sein”. It says “sind” here, because the predicate nominative, “Sachen”, is plural. This bothers some English speakers, because, to us, it looks like this sentences says “it are expensive things in the box”. While “es” is the subject of this sentence, it is important to realize that the “it” they are referring to is actually plural. That is also the reason that we use the adjective ending “-e” on “kostbar”. The two-way preposition (Wechselpräposition), “in” is used with the dative case here, because it is referring to the location of the things and not the destination of them.

    Sentence #6:

    Er suchte, aber es war kein Schlüsselloch da, endlich entdeckte er eins, aber so klein, dass man es kaum sehen konnte. – He searched, but there was no key hole there. Finally, he found one, but it was so small that one could hardly see it.

    There is no good way to translate this into English without using more than one sentence. I can’t even give you a good reason for why the German sentence isn’t split into more than one sentence. I’ll simply leave it as “in German you can do that”.

    The sentence starts with what should probably be a sentence of its own. The first clause of that is only two words long, “er suchte”. This could be a stand-alone sentence, but there is more needed to make it not boring. We add the coordinating conjunction “aber”, which doesn’t affect the word order, but does allow us to continue our sentence a bit more. Now we add a second clause that could work on its own. This one bothers English speakers, too, because it looks like it says “it was no key hole there”, which it sort of does actually say. Simply translate the word “es” as “there” and the problem disappears. Don’t forget that forms of “sein” will not take an accusative object. Instead we have a predicate nominative, “kein Schlüsselloch”. It is neuter and nominative, which is why we have “kein” instead of “keine” or “keinen”.

    After the word “da”, we could have started a new sentence, but the author decided it fit well enough to the rest of it to just continue after a comma instead. It is a way to make things more suspenseful, which is kind of the point of this Märchen. We start with the time element, as we have done in so many other clauses in this story. The verb is then in second position and the subject comes after that. You will notice that we used the word “eins” here instead of “einen” or “eine”. That is because “eins” is being used as a pronoun to refer back to “das Schlüsselloch”. You can use other “ein-words” as pronouns, but the only one that uses “eins” is the neuter form in either the nominative or accusative case.

    After that clause, there is another one that really barely counts as a clause, because it doesn’t have a verb or subject in it. This is actually just a lead up to the next clause. It says “but it was so small”, which begs the old stand-up comedy gag “How small was it?”

    This leads us to the clause that starts with the subordinating conjunction “dass”. This pushes the conjugated verb to the end of the clause after the infinitive “sehen”. The word “kaum” means “hardly” in English and is used to show that something was difficult or nearly not at all done. “Man” is used as the collective “they, one, or you” form, which requires the “er, sie, es” form of the verb.

    Sentence #7:

    Er probierte und der Schlüssel passte glücklich. – He tried and the key fit luckily.

    This is definitely the simplest sentence in the entire story. It only has two clauses and they are connected by a coordinating conjunction, which means we don’t have any word order funny business. We start with the subject, which means our verb is in the second position. The first clause goes: subject, verb and the second clause goes: subject, verb, adverb. There really isn’t anything complicated going on here.

    Sentence #8:

    Da drehte er einmal herum, und nun müssen wir warten, bis er vollends aufgeschlossen und den Deckel aufgemacht hat, dann werden wir erfahren, was für wunderbare Sachen in dem Kästchen lagen. – He turned once and now we have to wait until it is completely unlocked and he opened the lid. Then we will find out what kind of wonderful things were in the little box.

    This sentence is not only one of the most infuriating sentences in the story, because of its irritating cliffhanger phrasing, but also because of the grammar used in it. The first clause is pretty straight forward. We started with the word “da”, which just means “there” or “upon that” indicating that he did this after he found the hole. The verb “herumdrehen” just means “to turn” and uses the separable prefix at the end of the clause.

    The next thing we see is a comma that separates the first clause from the second followed by “und”. This conjunction doesn’t change the word order, as it is a coordinating conjunction. The word “nun” acts as our time element at the beginning of the clause and therefore our subject “wir” has to be after the conjugated modal auxiliary, “müssen”. The infinitive, “warten”, is at the end of that clause, because of the use of the modal auxiliary.

    The next clause starts with the word “bis”, which is being used as a subordinating conjunction. This pushes the conjugated verb to the end of the clause. Unlike previous sentences, however, the conjugated verb goes to the very end even though we are using more than one verb. That is because both “aufgeschlossen” and “aufgemacht” use a form of “haben”, so there is no need to say it twice. We just put “hat” at the end of the entire clause and use the past participles of both “aufschließen” and “aufmachen” at the end of their respective clauses. The word “vollends” just tells us how much the box was unlocked. Apparently, he unlocked it completely. The direct object of the next clause is “den Deckel”, which is indicated by the use of the definite article “den” instead of “der” for the masculine accusative form.

    After those clauses, we have another clause that starts with a time element, but follows the normal word order rules, because it is not a part of a subordinate clause. This is simply: time element, modal auxiliary, subject, infinitive.

    The next clause is another subordinate clause, because of the use of “was”. This pushes the conjugated verb, “lagen”, to the end of the sentence. The combination of “was” and “für” make up the English phrase “what kind of”. The things that follow are used as the subject of the sentence, which is why “lagen” is conjugated to the plural form. Again, we see the use of “in”, a two-way preposition (Wechselpräposition), with the dative case, because it shows location and not motion.

    I hope you enjoy this type of textual dissection. If you would like to see more of this type of thing or even see it in a video format, you can comment below. If you have a poem or short story you would like to have me do this to, you can comment that below, too.

    Der goldene Schlüssel

    Herr Antrim

    Herr Antrim is a German teacher with over 10 years of teaching experience. In 2011 he started his successful YouTube Channel "Learn German with Herr Antrim". In 2015 he created this website to enhance the German language lessons he was providing on YouTube. He is now the author of his own e-book, "Beginner German with Herr Antrim". He has also been featured on numerous blogs and other sites.