Illustration by Charles Folkard, from Grimm's Fairy Tales. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1911.

“Bearskin” by The Brothers Grimm

A pact with the Devil always seems like a bad idea, but people still do it time and again.

The main character in this story is a former soldier who now can find no job and has been abandoned by his family. While he is sitting in a circle of trees feeling sorry for himself , he is approached by the Devil, dressed in a green coat. The Devil proposed a deal. He will give the man possessions and wealth, as much as he wants, but of course there’s a condition.

“I see quite well,” said the stranger, “that thou art not wanting in courage, but there is still another condition which thou wilt have to fulfil.”

“If it does not endanger my salvation,” replied the soldier, who knew very well who was standing by him. “If it does, I’ll have nothing to do with it.”

“Thou wilt look to that for thyself,” answered Greencoat; “thou shalt for the next seven years neither wash thyself, nor comb thy beard, nor thy hair, nor cut thy nails, nor say one paternoster. I will give thee a coat and a cloak, which during this time thou must wear. If thou diest during these seven years, thou art mine; if thou remainest alive, thou art free, and rich to boot, for all the rest of thy life.”

The man agrees. The Devil gives him the green coat and tells him the pocket will always be filed with money and then takes the skin off a bear the young man shot and tells them that will be his cloak. the young man is known as Bearskin for the seven years.

The man, not allowed to pray himself, pays others to do it for him. And, since he is rich, he always manages to find lodging and food. At one inn, though, he meets a man who desperately needs help, he is so poor he cannot pay his bills and is going to be sent to prison. Bearskin helps him unselfishly and in turn the man offers one of his three daughters to be Bearskin’s wife. After meeting Bearskin, the two oldest daughters absolutely refuse to become engaged to him. The youngest however agrees, seeing that Bearskin must be a good man and realizing that it is her duty, since her father promised. Bearskin leaves a token with her and goes back out into the world for three more years.

During those years he goes around doing good wherever he can. At the end of the seven years, he meets back up with the Devil, who has to fulfill his part of the bargain.  Clean, handsome and rich he returns to his fiancée who is of course delighted. He is also a changed man, having spent his years doing charitable works, even if he couldn’t pray. Definitely a happy ending.

But this is a Grimm tale after all.

In the meantime the two sisters came back in full dress, and when they saw that the handsome man had fallen to the share of the youngest, and heard that he was Bearskin, they ran out full of anger and rage. One of them drowned herself in the well the other hanged herself on a tree. In the evening, some one knocked at the door, and when the bridegroom opened it, it was the Devil in his green coat, who said, “Seest thou, I have now got two souls in the place of thy one!”

So the other two sisters got punished for not agreeing to marry a scary, frightening monster of a man just because Daddy told them to? The Grimms, once again, love the pretty, sweet, dutiful girl and give the outspoken, brazen ones a harsh fate, this time more or less sending them to hell.

In a way it reminded me of Snow White and Rose Red, where the bear turns back into a prince and is married to one of the sisters, but in that version the man truly has become a bear, not by choice. Here, the man is not a bear, but more of a wild man, and has done it by choice, more or less.

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