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In Summary: The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs




This month we’re taking a look at another Brothers Grimm fairy tale, this one collected in Germany, that tells the tale of a lucky boy born with a caul. A child born with a caul is a child born with a portion of the amniotic sack unbroken, usually covering their head or face, and said to resemble a veil or crown. The caul was said to prevent drownings, and a superstitious sailor might pay good money to purchase one from the midwife after such a birth. The fate of the caul in ‘The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs’ is unknown, but the child it came into the world with would go on to achieve riches.

 

Once in a small village ruled by a cruel and uncaring king, a poor woman gave birth to an infant boy, born with a caul. Being born with a caul was very rare, and a sure sign of great fortune to come in the child’s future. It was predicted that in his fourteenth year, the caul-child would win the hand of the princess.


Shortly after the birth of this child, a man came to the village. He was unknown to the villagers and when he asked for any local news they were eager to tell him about the caul-child’s birth. The visitor was shocked and eager to visit this lucky child. Upon seeing the babe he begged the poor mother to be allowed to raise the child. He was wealthy, and would raise the child to want for nothing in his grand castle. Though the family were reluctant, he offered a great deal of money to take responsibility for the boy and, after all, he was a lucky child. Surely a benevolent stranger of kindness and riches was just the first sign of the boy’s great fortune and grand future.


Victorious, the stranger gathered the child and took him out of the village. But barely outside the village walls, the stranger stopped and placed the boy into a locked box, carelessly throwing the box into the river! For you see, the stranger was the wicked king, and he would not allow this unworthy child to ever claim his daughter’s hand. Continuing on his way, the king left the child to drown.


Unbeknown to the king, the box that the boy was locked in did not sink – and it is said that those born with a caul or in possession of one are impervious to drowning. Instead, the box floated down river where its travels were halted at a mill. Upon finding the box in the water the miller and his wife brought it into their home and were stunned to find an infant inside. Having no children of their own, the couple decided to take the boy in, and he grew up healthy and happy and loved.


Now, soon enough the boy’s fourteenth year arrived and, once again, the wicked king came into the boy’s life. This meeting was quite by chance – the king had once again undertaken his travels of the land, and a series of bad luck resulted in him needing to take shelter at the mill. While sheltering there, the king learned that the child was not the Miller’s son as he had assumed, but instead his foundling.


Asking the circumstances that led to the boy’s adoption, the king immediately recognised the lad and was horrified that his plan had gone so awry. Still determined to remove this potential suitor, he asked the boy to do a small job for him. He gave the boy a sealed letter and requested that he deliver it to the queen. The boy, of course, agreed, and set out straight away. What the boy did not know was that this letter sealed his doom. The king had left clear instructions inside for the queen to have the boy put to death immediately and buried before the king returned.


The journey to the king’s castle was a long one, especially on foot, and the boy failed to reach It before night fell. Exhausted from his walk and eager to rest, he begged a kindly old woman to take pity on him and allow him to spend the night in her house. The woman warned the boy that the house was home to a group of thieves, and they may well kill him when they returned. Unable to walk any further, the boy agreed to take the risk and soon fell into a deep and restful sleep.


Sure enough, that night the thieves came to the house. Taking interest in the boy and his belongings, they searched him. Though they found nothing to steal, they were intrigued by the letter and decided to read it. Though they may have been thieves and murderers, they were not entirely cruel. Taking pity on the young lad, they stole the letter, replacing it with a forgery that instead instructed the queen to immediately see that the boy and princess were wed. The next day, none the wiser, the boy woke and completed his journey to the castle.


Taking the apparent orders of her king and husband, the queen immediately saw to it that the boy and her daughter were given a lavish wedding – a wedding that the king returned home far too late to stop. Though horrified, the king was not yet willing to give up. He may not have managed to rid himself of an unsuitable suitor, but he might still be able to rid himself of an unsuitable son-in-law. He said that there was one task the boy must undertake to prove that he was truly worthy of the princess’ hand – he was to descend into hell and return with three golden hairs from the devil’s head. Unafraid of the challenge, the boy readily agreed.


On his travels he passed through two villages and crossed a river, facing a challenge and a question at each stop.


At the first town he was stopped and asked, ‘what he knows’ – he responded that “I know everything.” At that, the towns people took him to their well, an incredible thing that had once produced pure wine and now ran empty. They asked the boy who ‘knew everything’ to tell them why this had happened. The boy told them that he would give them the answer when he returned, and the townsfolk let him on his way.


As he reached the second town he was once against stopped and asked ‘what he knows’, once again he responded that “I know everything.” This time, the townsfolk took him to a beautiful tree which had once produced golden apples and now could not even sprout leaves. They asked the boy who ‘knew everything’ to tell them why this had happened. The boy told them that he would give them the answer when he returned, and the townsfolk let him on his way.


When he reached the river he was met by a ferryman who agreed to give him passage across the river. The ferryman asked the boy ‘what he knows’ and once again the boy responded that he knew everything. The ferryman asked the boy to answer a question for him – why was the ferryman bound to forever carry people across the river, why could he never be free? The boy told him that he would give him the answer when he returned, and the ferryman let him on his way.


Across the river, the young man found the gates of hell and entered. Inside he found not the devil, but the devil’s grandmother. He told her his woes, and charmed by the boy’s politeness and sincerity, the grandmother agreed to help him in his quest. She would help him retrieve three hairs from her grandson’s head, and even find the answers to the questions he had been asked. To prevent the devil from finding him, she transformed the lad into an ant and hid him in her apron pocket.


Soon enough the devil returned home. Though he claimed to smell the flesh of man, the grandmother was able to persuade him otherwise, convincing him to eat and drink and, once he grew tired, rest his head in his grandmother’s lap and sleep.


The grandmother waited until the devil fell into a deep sleep and then plucked a hair from the devil’s head. The devil immediately awoke with a cry, demanding to know what the grandmother had done. The grandmother replied that she had had a strange dream and must have clutched his hair in her sleep. She said she had dreamt of a town with a dried up well, no longer producing the fine wine it was famed for. ‘Is that all?’ the devil responded. He told her that there was a toad hidden within the well. If the townspeople killed the toad the wine would flow again. The devil then drifted back to sleep.


Waiting until his sleep deepened, the grandmother again pulled a hair from her grandson’s head and waking him with a cry. The grandmother told the devil that she had had another strange dream and pulled at his hair in her sleep. This time she dreamt of a town with a tree that had once grown golden apples and now its branches hung bare as winter. ‘Is that all?” the devil responded. He told her that there was a mouse nibbling at the roots of the tree. If the townspeople killed the mouse, the gold would grow again. If they did not, however, the mouse would continue to destroy the roots and would eventually kill the tree altogether. The devil then drifted back to sleep.


Once again, the devil fell into a deep sleep and the grandmother pulled a final hair from his head. When he woke, the grandmother insisted that it had been accidental, for she had had another strange dream. She had dreamt of a ferryman bound in his role and unable to escape, set to carry others back and forth across the river his entire life. ‘Is that all?’ the devil asked. He told her that the ferryman only needed to place his oar into the hands of another on the riverbank. The ferryman would be freed, and the next poor soul would be bound to his fate.


Task achieved, the grandmother let her grandson sleep. Come morning she turned the lad back into a human, gave him the hairs, and let him go. Travelling back to his wife and murderous father-in-law, the boy once again encountered the ferryman and passed through the two towns. The townspeople of both were so thrilled to have a solution that each gifted the boy a pair of donkeys, both laden with as much gold as they could carry. The boy returned home a much richer man.


Pleased with his son-in-law’s new wealth, the king finally consented to the marriage and agreed to give the couple his blessing. Even so, the king found himself curious about the boy’s windfall and greedy for more riches of his own. The boy told the king that he had found this wealth across the river and the king eagerly set out to find wealth of his own.


The king reached the river and gladly accepted a ride across the river with the ferryman. There, standing on the riverbank at the other side of the river, the ferryman placed his oar into the king’s hands.


 

 

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