(Tale from Germany)
Once upon a time there was a poor man and woman who lived in a small village. They did not have much to be happy about in this life and therefore they became very happy when they got a little son.
He was also predicted to one day become rich and marry the king's daughter. Sometimes the king of the land used to amuse himself by secretly traveling around and meeting the common people, without them knowing that he was the king. It was during one such trip that he came to the small village. There he heard about the child and the strange prophecy. The king seethed within himself at the thought of an ordinary pauper marrying his daughter. Namely, this was a selfish and mean king. He persuaded the child's parents to let him take care of their little son. The king thought that the boy would be much better off with him, who was a rich man. The parents thought that this was probably how the prophecy would come true and so they let the disguised king take the boy.
But the king had not intended to take care of the boy at all. Instead, he put him in a box and threw him down a cliff. He was sure the boy was dead and rode contentedly home to his castle. But the boy had fallen into a river that flowed past the cliff. There he bobbed about in his box until he got stuck in the reeds next to a mill. That's how the miller's wife found him. She and her husband had no children and were very happy when they found the little boy. With the miller couple, he grew up to be a young man who was both talented and healthy.
One day the king rode by. He was thirsty and stopped at the mill to get something to drink. He saw the young man busily carrying sacks of flour out of the mill and asked the miller how old the young man was. The miller proudly told the incredible story of how they found him in the reeds. Then the king paled and realized that this was the boy he thought was dead. Therefore, he quickly came up with a new cunning and hideous plan to get rid of him.
The king asked for a piece of paper and wrote on it: "The boy who leaves this message must be killed at once!" He rolled up the paper and put his seal on it. Then the king called the boy and ordered him to run to the castle and deliver the message to the queen.
It was a long way to the castle and the boy wanted to take a shortcut through the deep forest. But there he got lost and soon it began to get dark. Then he saw a glimmer of light between the trees. He walked toward the light and came to a small cabin leaning against a mountain. He knocked and stepped inside. By the fireplace sat an old woman who looked absolutely horrified. "What are you doing here?" she asked. "My sons are bloodthirsty robbers and as soon as they get home they will cut your throat!" "I am on my way to the castle with a message from the king" replied the boy. "And now I am so tired that I cannot take another step. Your robber sons may do as they please, but I must be allowed to rest." Then he lay down on a skin fold on the floor and fell asleep.
A while later, the robbers came home and wondered what the boy was doing there. The mother told them who he was, and when the robbers heard about the king's letter, they became curious. They twisted the paper and opened it. The oldest robber could read and told what the king had written. Of course the robbers were hard-hearted and nasty figures, but they had never heard anything so cruel as the king's command. Therefore, they decided to play a trick on the king. They took out a new piece of paper and on it they wrote: "The boy who leaves this message is to be married to the princess at once." With their nimble fingers they affixed the king's seal to the new letter. Then they stuck the paper under the boy's arm and let him finish sleeping.
The next morning the boy continued his journey towards the castle. When he arrived he only had to show the king's seal to be admitted and taken to the queen. When she read the letter, she immediately threw a thunderous wedding party and the surprised boy was hastily and hilariously married to the princess. Fortunately, they immediately liked each other, so it was a really successful event.
When the king returned home a few days later, he expected to see the boy hanged or beheaded. Instead, he was met at the castle gate by the princess and the boy, who happily embraced him. The king was both angry and surprised and asked the queen how this had happened. She showed him the letter and then the king understood that he had been deceived. "I will not consent to any marriage until the boy fetches the devil's three golden hairs for me!" raged the king. This was a royal command and so the boy must obey.
The boy said goodbye to the princess and set off on his long and dangerous journey. He didn't know the way to where the devil lived so he had to stop and ask. The first town he came to had a fountain that spouted wine from which all the townspeople were allowed to drink. But now the source had run out and the people of the city were sad about this. The boy asked the gatekeeper to the town if he knew the way to the devil, but he didn't.
"Go to the next town and ask, they might know" said the gatekeeper. "If I find out how you guys are going to get the fountain working again, I'll come back and tell you about it," the boy promised.
The next town the boy came to had a tree with golden apples that everyone got to eat from. But now the tree was withering and the people of the city were sad about it. The boy asked the gatekeeper to the town if he knew the way to the devil, but he didn't. "If I find out how you're going to make the tree grow again, I'll come back and tell you about it," the boy promised.
Eventually the boy came to a very wide river. On the other side he could glimpse a dark, gloomy land. On the bank of the river stood a boat with an old man sitting in it. "Do you know the way to the devil?" the boy wondered. "Of course I know," replied the man. "He lives on the other side of the river. The dark land on the other side is Hell and I can row you over if you want." The boy jumped into the boat and the man started rowing. The boy wondered how long the old man had been rowing back and forth across the river. "For ages and ages," replied the man. "I would so like to be free if I only knew how." "If I find out how you get free, I'll return and tell you about it," the boy promised.
When they reached the other side, the boy saw that the beach was covered with coins and precious stones. "It's all the money of the greedy lying here," the man explained. "They think they can take their riches with them when they die, but they have to beautifully leave everything they own here before they step into Hell." The boy thanked the old man for his help and entered Hell.
Soon he found the devil's house, knocked and entered. The devil himself was not at home, but his old grandmother was. "Unfortunate wretch!" exclaimed the old woman. "Don't you know that you have come home to the devil. Soon he will step through the door and then you will be sorry." "It will be anyway, unless I return to my father-in-law with the devil's three golden hairs." He also told about the two towns and the old man with the boat that he wanted to help. The old man thought the boy was dashing and brave. "I guess I can help you then. But you have to keep quiet and still until I tell you." So she turned the boy into a small ant and let him crawl into her apron.
Towards evening the devil came home. He was tired and grumpy after tormenting souls all day. "It smells weird in here!" he exclaimed, fanning the air. "You're just imagining things," his grandmother said. "No, indeed! This smells of Christian blood. Why does it do that?" "Well, it was so true. A raven flew by and dropped a leg down the chimney today. It must have come from some poor Christian then." The devil was satisfied with that answer and sat down to eat his supper. When he was full, he sat on the floor and put his head in Grandma's lap, so she could pick lice from him. Soon he had fallen asleep and was snoring loudly. His grandmother found one of the golden hairs and tore it free.
"Ouch! What are you doing?" screamed the devil. "Oh, I had such a strange dream," replied his grandmother. "I dreamed that there was a city with a fountain that spouted wine, but now the well under the fountain has dried up. I wonder why..." "Ah, it's simple," snorted the devil. "At the bottom of the well sits a large toad. If you remove the toad, the wine will flow again." Then he straightened up and fell asleep again.
Soon his grandmother found another of the golden hairs and tore it free. "Ouch! What are you doing?" screamed the devil. "Oh, I had such a strange dream," replied his grandmother. "I dreamed there was a city with a tree with golden apples, but now the tree is withering. Wonder why..." "Ridiculously simple," snorted the devil. "There is a mouse gnawing at the roots of the tree. If you remove the mouse, the tree will get golden apples again." Then he straightened up again and fell asleep again.
But soon his grandmother found the last golden hair and tore it out. Now the devil was really furious and wanted to know what the old woman was really up to. "Oh, I had such a strange dream," replied his grandmother. "I dreamed there was a man who had to row people back and forth across a river all his life. Wonder how he's going to get out of that..." "Nonsense," snorted the devil. "All he has to do is leave the oars to the next man who shows up, and he'll have to row the boat instead. But if I can't sleep now, it'll be a pity for you!!" The devil settled down again and went back to sleep.
Now the old woman called the boy and he crawled out of her apron. He regained his normal form and the old woman handed him the golden hair. "Now you have to hurry out of here. If the devil wakes up one more time, it won't be fun!" The boy thanked them for the help and headed back down to the river. Before stepping into the boat, he filled his pockets with money from the beach. He had a hunch that he would probably have some use for them soon.
When they got over to the other side, the boy told the old man how he would be freed from his work. The old man thanked the boy with all his heart and then they said goodbye to each other. When the boy came to town with the withered apple tree, he told the gatekeeper about the mouse that was gnawing at the tree's roots. The gatekeeper thanked him heartily and the boy continued on to the next town. In the town with the sealed wine well, the boy told them about the toad they must remove. He was heartily thanked for the good advice and then proceeded towards the castle.
The king was of course not happy to see the boy return and was even more upset when he saw the three golden hairs. But when the boy emptied his pockets, the king's eyes widened and wanted to know where the boy had found so much money. The boy talked about how the beach on the other side of the river was full of precious things just lying there, ready to be picked up. The king was taken aback by the thought of so much money and immediately left. After passing the city of the wine fountain and the city of the golden apples, he came to the river with the old man in the boat. "Pull me over at once, old man," commanded the king. "Well, you. I've finished rowing," replied the old man, handing the oar to the king. The king took the oar sourly and thus it was he who in the future had to row people over to the shore of Hell. So if you come to a wide river where a grumpy old man in a boat asks you to take the oar yourself - turn around!