Obscure Fairy Tale: The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
I ran across a whole bunch of great obscure fairy tales while I was doing research for INTO THE WILD. It's been a while since I've shared one with you (sorry!). So without further ado:
The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs (from the Brothers Grimm)
A poor woman gives birth to a son with a caul, and it's prophesied that he'll marry the king's daughter.
Wikipedia (that source of all knowledge, if not accuracy) tells me that a "caul" is leftover amniotic membrane, not (as I originally thought) a hood worn by a religious order. That's a cowl. I am much relieved. It's enough of a miracle that a woman's body can produce a baby -- to ask her uterus to knit accessories at the same time seems a bit much.
The king hears of the prophecy and is displeased. Masquerading as a benevolent stranger, he approaches the boy's parents and offers to raise the child as his own in exchange for copious amounts of gold. The parents agree. The king then puts the baby in a box and tosses him into a river.
Um, don't boxes float?
The box floats downstream...
Told you so.
... and is found by a miller within a mile of the king's castle. The miller and his wife raise the child with all the best virtues.
As opposed to the not-quite-so-good virtues? So does this mean he's kind and brave but has rotten table manners?
One day, many years later, the king visits the mill, learns that the miller's son is a foundling, and realizes that this is the same child, now grown. He asks the miller if the boy can carry a letter to the queen for him in exchange for two gold pieces. The miller agrees, and the king writes in the letter, "As soon as this boy arrives, he is to be killed and buried."
Quite a letter. He clearly expects the queen to obey. Does he send these kind of letters often? His wife must seriously dread going through the mail. I can picture it: "Bill, bill, bill, order of execution, bill, bill, credit card offer..." I think I'd just stop all mail delivery. Hey, maybe that's why the king is using the boy instead of the USPS...
The boy sets out for the castle and becomes lost.
Isn't the mill a mile from the castle? Aren't castles kind of big and, y'know, visible from far away? Perhaps "sense of direction" is a lesser virtue?
He reaches a small cottage and is greeted by an old woman. He explains he's bringing a letter to the queen and asks to spend the night, and she tells him, "You've stumbled on a robbers' den. When they come home, they'll kill you." The boy says he's not afraid, and he stretches out on a bench and falls asleep.
Bravery is one of the best virtues. Common sense... Not so much. Now I appreciate the importance of a good night's sleep as much as the next person, but I think I'd pull an all-nighter if I were faced with certain death.
When the robbers come home, they break the seal on the letter, read it, and feel sorry for the boy. The robbers then destroy the letter and write a new letter in its place that says, "As soon as this boy arrives, he is to wed our daughter."
Aw, that's sweet. Hey, weren't they supposed to be bloodthirsty robbers? Was it possible that the old woman was exaggerating a teeny, tiny bit so she wouldn't have to have a houseguest? Gotta remember that trick...
The boy continues on to the castle and marries the princess. They live together happily until the king returns home. In a rage, he says, "If you want to keep my daughter, you'll bring me three golden hairs from the head of the devil."
Whenever I lose my temper, I always demand to be brought impossible things. Just the other night, my husband forgot to take out the trash, and I told him, "Well, now you must bring me the seashell from whence Aphrodite was delivered unto the foamy shore."
The boy says, "I'll do it. I'm not afraid of the devil."
This is why I like this story: instead of a hero conquering impossible odds for the sake of a beautiful princess who is a complete stranger, here we have a guy going to hell and back for his wife. I like that a lot.
He leaves the castle and journeys to the next city. The guardsman at the gate asks him his trade, and the boy says, "I know everything."
What a bizarre thing to say.
The guardsman says, "If you know everything, tell us why our fountain is dry when it used to run with wine." The boy says, "When I return, I will tell you."
Maybe someone forgot to pay the wine bill? Or maybe the bill didn't arrive because the queen stopped all mail delivery...
He continues on to the next city. The guardsman at that gate asks him his trade, and the boy again says, "I know everything." And the guardsman replies, "If you know everything, tell us why our golden apple tree is bare." The boy says, "When I return, I will tell you."
Ooh, ooh, I know, I know! It's winter! No? Okay, how about: you picked them all! No? All right, I'll wait and see.
He continues on to a big river and tells the ferryman that he knows everything. The ferryman says, "If you know everything, tell me why I must row back and forth without relief." The boy says, "When I return, I will tell you."
Okay, this one I totally know. It's in, like, twelve hundred other tales and myths. If the ferryman [spoiler removed], then he'll be free!
On the other side of the river, he finds the entrance to hell. When he goes inside, the devil isn't home, but his grandmother is sitting in a large chair.
I love the idea of the devil's grandmother as a character. What does she think of her grandson's occupation? Does she boast about him to the ladies at the senior center? Does she still have the crayon drawings that the devil did in preschool? Does she knit him embarrassing sweaters for the holidays? (Do any grandmothers actually do that outside of novels?)
She asks what he wants, and he says he needs three hairs from the devil's head in order to keep his wife. He also says he needs to know about the dry fountain, the bare apple tree, and the ferryman's curse. The devil's grandmother agrees to help him. She transforms him into an ant and hides him in the folds of her skirt.
Ooh, cool, ant transformation! Guess there are perks to the devil's-grandmother gig.
When the devil comes home, he lays his head in his grandmother's lap and asks her to pick lice out of his head.
Lice-picking, not a perk.
As she does so, she plucks a hair out of his head. "Ow!" the devil says. "Why the devil did you do that?"
Okay, fine, he didn't really say that. I just couldn't help myself.
She says, "Oh, sorry. I fell asleep and had a bad dream. I must have grabbed your hair in my sleep." She explains that she dreamed about a fountain that ran dry. The devil says, "Hah! If they only knew that all they had to do is kill the toad under the fountain!"
Kill the toad? Why? What's with the toad? Is it a magic toad? Why is it stopping the fountain? Is it deliberate? Is this an anti-alcohol protest?
He relaxes again, and she plucks a second hair from his head. "Ow!" he says. She apologies again and says that this time she had a dream about an apple tree that's now bare. He says, "There's a mouse gnawing at the roots. If they kill it, gold apples will grow again."
But what about the toad? I want more about the toad! And why is the devil giving out all this information? Seems to me his grandma is acting a bit suspicious. I have had many a nightmare in my lifetime and not once have I ever plucked out someone else's hair in my sleep.
He falls asleep, and she plucks a third hair. This time, she claims to have dreamed about the ferryman. The devil says that if the ferryman gives his pole to someone who wishes to cross, he'll be free and someone else will be trapped rowing for all eternity.
Hah! I was right! I told you! Ten points to Griffindor!
At dawn, the devil departs, and the grandmother transforms the ant back into the boy. She gives him the hairs, and he thanks her profusely before heading home. On his way home, he tells the ferryman and the two guardsman what he learned, and they all reward him with gold.
Wait, wait, isn't he going to do anything, you know, heroic? So far, he's charmed two old ladies into helping him and that's about it. Shouldn't he have to fight a dragon or maybe do something unspeakably clever?
When he reaches the king's castle, his wife greets him happily, and the king asks him where he obtained all the gold. The boy tells the king that he found it after crossing a river. The bank, he says, is covered with gold instead of sand.
Okay, that's a little bit clever.
The king rushes to the river and calls to the ferryman. The ferryman hands him his pole and then runs away, and the king is trapped ferrying people back and forth for all eternity. The end.
In case you're interested in reading my other ramblings about obscure (and not-so-obscure) fairy tales, here are links to: Snow White, Godfather Death, The Tinderbox, The Princess in the Chest, The Juniper Tree, Molly Whuppie, Tatterhood, Jack My Hedgehog, and The Wishing Table.
Labels: Obscure Fairy Tales