I'm leafing through my grandfather's copy of Grimms, looking for a fairy tale to translate. I want a happy one--not the come-through-trials-and-tribulations and end-up-happily-ever-after kind, but a story that's happy-go-lucky from beginning to end.
This one has the special treat of an at-home portrayal of the devil--in case you ever wondered how the devil relaxes in the evening after a day of wreaking mayhem. I'll give you a hint: he has an itchy head.
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
There was once a poor woman who gave birth to a son, and since he had a caul it was prophesied that at fourteen years old he would marry the king's daughter.
--Cauls were a feature in novels as late as Dickens and Hardy. Folklore held that if a child was born with a piece of amniotic membrane over its head, it would be lucky throughout life. In some cases cauls were auctioned off in the belief that good fortune might still be attached to the skin. Nowadays, I guess it gets plucked away without comment. My computer spell-checker doesn't even recognize caul as a word. In the Grimms it's called "Glückshaut" or "lucky skin".
Shortly after the boy was born, the king happened to pass through the village. He asked the people for news, and since no one knew he was the king, they told him that a child had been born with a caul. "He will be lucky for the rest of his life. It's foretold that at fourteen years old, he will marry the king's daughter."
The king, who didn't like this prophesy, visited the parents and with a friendly manner said: "You poor people, let me take your child and I will care for it."
At first the parents were unwilling, but since the stranger offered them so much money for the child, they thought: It's a lucky child. Everything will turn out for the best. And so they agreed and gave the king their child.
--parents who give away, sell or lose their children are a recurring feature in Grimms. I'll have to watch a Walt Disney rewrite of a Grimms to see how they gloss over this.
The king put the child in a box and rode away until he came to deep water where he threw the box in. There, he thought, I've rid my daughter of this nobody.
The box, however, did not sink. It floated like a little boat. Not even a drop of water got in. It floated until it was two miles from the king's capital city, where it got caught in the weir of a mill.
--a weir is a low dam built across a river to control the flow or raise the water level. At that time it would have been made of stones--nothing like modern-day concrete structures for hydro-electric projects. And yes, the word in Grimms is Meilen, not Kilometer. Germany did not go metric until 1868-1872. Germany, in fact, wasn't a country until 1871. Before that, it was a collection of dukedoms and principalities.
The miller's apprentice happened to see the box and drew it in with his hook, hoping to find treasure. When he opened it, there was a hale and hearty, beautiful boy. He brought the child to the miller and his wife, who had no children and were delighted: "God has blessed us!" They took care of the foundling and he grew up to be a good boy.
It happened then that one day, during a storm, the king took shelter in the mill and asked the miller and his wife if the boy was their son. "No," they said, "he's a foundling. Fourteen years ago a box that was floating down the river got caught in the weir, and our apprentice pulled it from the water."
The king realized that the boy must be the child he'd thrown in the water. "Good people," he said, "could your boy not bring a letter to the queen? I'll give him two pieces of gold in payment."
--they should have been suspicious. Why did the king phrase the sentence as a negative? And two pieces of gold is way-ay-ay-ay too much payment for carrying a letter. But fairy tales would never advance if it weren't for the obliging simplicity of gullible characters.
The couple told the boy to get ready, and the king wrote a letter: "As soon as this boy arrives with this letter, kill and bury him, and have it all done before I return home."
--peremptory, don't you think? Isn't this a letter to his wife?
The boy set off on his errand but got lost along the way, and in the evening found himself in the forest. Through the trees, in the darkness, he saw a light which he followed to a small house. He walked in and startled an old woman who was sitting by the fire alone. "Where do you come from and where are you going?"
"I come from the mill and I must go to the queen to give her a letter. But I got lost in the forest and would like to sleep here tonight."
"You poor boy, this is a robbers' house and when they come home, they will kill you."
"I don't care who's coming," said the boy. "I'm not afraid. I'm so tired that I can't walk another step." He lay down on a bench and fell asleep.
Soon after the robbers came home and asked angrily who the strange boy was.
"Oh, he's an innocent child who got lost in the woods and who has to bring the queen a letter. I let him stay because I felt sorry for him."
The robbers found the letter, opened it and read how the boy, as soon as he stood before the queen, would be killed.
The hard-hearted robbers felt pity for the boy, tore the letter and wrote another that said that as soon as the boy arrived, he should be married to the king's daughter.
--Isn't that a great drawing of three big meanies having a thunderstruck moment of understanding and compassion? Fritz Fischer's illustrations complement these stories so well!
They let the boy sleep until morning and when he woke, gave him the letter and showed him the way to the palace.
When the queen read the letter, she ordered a magnificent wedding feast to be prepared and married the lucky boy to the king's daughter. Since the boy was handsome and friendly, the king's daughter was happy and satisfied to be his wife.
But then the king arrived in his castle again and saw that the prophecy had been fulfilled and the lucky boy was married to his daughter. "What happened?" he asked. "That's not what I ordered in my letter." The queen handed him the letter and said he could see for himself what was written. He read it and realized the letter had been exchanged with another. He asked the boy what had happened to the letter he'd entrusted him with. Why had he brought a different letter?
"I know nothing about that," said the boy. "Someone must have switched it in the night when I was sleeping in the woods."
Full of anger the king said: "You're not getting my daughter so easily! Whoever marries her has to go to hell and bring me three golden hairs from the devil's head. Only if you can bring me that, can you keep my daughter." The king hoped that would rid him of the lucky boy forever.
The boy answered: "I'll get the golden hair. I'm not afraid of the devil." And off he set on his quest.
The path brought him to a large city where the watchman at the gate asked what trades he understood and what he knew. "I know everything," said the boy.
"Then you can do us a favour," said the watchman. "Can you tell us why our fountain that used to flow with wine has dried up and doesn't even give us water now?"
"That you'll find out," said the boy. "Just wait until I return."
The boy continued on his way and arrived at another city, where the watchman quizzed him on what trades he understood and what he knew.
"I know everything," said the boy.
"So can you do us a favour then, and tell us why our tree that used to bear golden apples doesn't even grow leaves anymore?"
"That you'll find out. Just wait until I return."
The boy went farther and came to a lake he had to cross. The ferryman asked what kind of trade he had and what he knew.
"I know everything," said the boy.
"So do me a favour and tell me why I have to ferry this raft back and forth and can never be rid of the task?"
"That you'll find out," said the boy. "Just wait until I return."
On the other side of the water the boy saw the entrance to hell.
It was dark and sooty. The devil wasn't home but his grandmother was sitting in a broad armchair. "What do you want?" she said--abrupt but not mean.
"I would really like to get three golden hairs from the devil's head," the boy said, "or I won't be able to keep my wife."
"That's asking a lot. If the devil comes home and finds you here, you're already dead. But I feel sorry for you. Let me see if I can help you." She changed him into an ant and said, "Crawl into the folds of my skirts. That way you'll be hidden."
"Yes," he said, "this is great, but listen, there are three things I need to know." He told her about the well that used to be full of wine and now was completely dry, the tree that used to bear gold apples and now didn't even have leaves, the ferryman who wanted to be released from his continual back and forth route.
"Those are hard questions," she said, "but you stay still and quiet and listen to what the devil says when I pull out the three golden hairs."
In the evening the devil came home. He'd hardly stepped inside when he noticed that the air wasn't clean. "I smell... I smell human flesh! Something's not right here." He looked in all the corners but couldn't find anything.
His grandmother scolded him: "I've just swept and put everything right, and you have to throw everything upside-down again. You and your human flesh up the nose! Sit down and eat your supper."
After he'd eaten and drunk, he was tired and lay his head in his grandmother's lap and asked her to delouse him a little.
--this is the only fairy tale I've ever read where lousing is not only mentioned but plays a role in plot development.
It didn't take long before he fell into a doze, breath whistling and snoring. The old woman grabbed a golden hair, tore it out and lay it next to her.
"Ouch!" screamed the devil. "What's the matter with you?"
"I had such a bad dream and then I grabbed your hair."
"What then did you dream?" asked the devil.
"I dreamt of a well in a marketplace that used to run with wine and now it's dry. There's not even water in the well. Why could that be?"
"Huh," the devil said. "If only they knew. There's a toad under a stone in the well, and if they kill it, then the well will be full of wine again."
The grandmother began to pick through his hair for lice again until he fell asleep and was snoring so that the windows trembled.
Then she ripped out the second hair.
"Hey! What's up with you?" screamed the devil.
"Don't take it wrong. I didn't know what I was doing. I was dreaming."
"What did you dream now?" he asked.
"I dreamt there was a kingdom where a fruit tree stood that used to bear gold apples and now not even a leaf will grow on it. What could be the cause of that?"
"Huh, if only they knew," said the devil. "There's a mouse gnawing at its roots, and if they kill the mouse, the tree will bear gold apples again, but if the mouse keeps gnawing, the tree will wither up and die. But leave me alone now with your bad dreams. If you wake me up again, I'll box your ears, I will."
The grandmother calmed him down, scratching his head and finding the lice, until he fell asleep and was snoring again. Then she took hold of the third golden hair and tore it out.
The devil jumped in the air, screamed and threatened to hit her, but she calmed him down again, saying, "What can I do if I have bad dreams?"
"So what did you dream?" he asked because he was curious.
"I dreamt of a ferryman who complains that he always has to go back and forth across the water. What can he do to be free?"
"The idiot!" said the devil. "All he has to do is put the rudder in the hand of the next person who wants to cross the water. Then he'll be free."
Since the grandmother had ripped out the three golden hairs and gotten the answers to the three questions, she let the old dragon in peace and he slept till the morning.
Once the devil had left, the old woman took the ant out of her skirts and changed him into a boy again. "There you have your three golden hairs, and you must have heard what the devil said in answer to your questions."
"Yes," said the boy. "I won't forget."
"So you're on your way again," she said.
He thanked her for her help and left hell feeling pleased that he'd been so successful.
When he got to the ferryman, he asked him to take him across the water before he gave him his answer. On the other side, he gave him the devil's advice.
When he came to the city, he told them about the mouse they needed to kill. In thanks, the watchman gave the boy two donkeys laden with gold.
Lastly he came to the city where the well that had once flowed with wine was dry. The boy told the watchman what he'd heard the devil say about the toad which would have to be killed. The watchman thanked him and gave him two donkeys laden with gold.
The lucky boy wanted to get back home to his wife now. She, too, was happy to see him again and hear how fortunate he'd been.
He went to see the king to give him the three golden hairs from the devil's head. When the king saw the four donkeys laden with gold, he was pleased and said, "Now that all the conditions are satisfied, you may keep my daughter. But, dear son-in-law, tell me where you did get all this gold? That's a tremendous lot of treasure!"
"I had to cross a river," said the boy, "and there's gold in the sand on the other side. I took some."
"Can I take some too?" asked the king.
"As much as you want. Get the ferryman to take you across and you can fill your sacks as much as you want."
The greedy king hurried to set off and when he got to the river, he waved to the ferryman to take him across. The ferryman came and told the king to climb on, and once they reached the other bank, the ferryman gave the king the rudder to hold and the ferryman sprang off. The king now had to cross the river from side to side in punishment for his sins.
"Is he still doing it?"
"What do you think? No one will take the rudder from him."
--that's the end. It's not the only Grimms with rhetorical questions but I don't think there's another in my copy that ends as if two readers are discussing the end of the story.
What's the moral of the story? Some people are born lucky? It's all in the attitude? Even the devil can help you out unwittingly? You can't thwart fate? Meanness deserves meanness?
There's a group of readers out there who really want to know the moral of a tale. I keep seeing search strings looking for the moral of Rapunzel or Hansel and Gretel.
There *is* a nice parallel between the king throwing the box with the baby in the water and ending up imprisoned on water himself.