A membrane called a caul surrounds a fetus in the mother’s womb. In this Grimm fairy tale, the principal character was born with part of this membrane still attached to his head. This was a sign that the baby would have good luck in life. In addition, it was foretold that this baby would marry the king’s daughter when he was fourteen years old.
The king heard about this prophecy. He was an evil man, so he decided to prevent the marriage by killing the child.
He approached the parents in a friendly manner. He urged them to let him rear the child. At first, the parents confused. However, when the king offered to give them a lot of money, they consented. They thought that the boy would fare well in his new home, since he was a lucky child.
Instead of rearing the child, the king put it in a box and threw it into some deep water. The box did not sink, but floated away. The baby was soon discovered. A miller and his wife decided to take care of him.
Fourteen years later, a storm arose when the king happened to be near the mill. He took refuge with the miller’s family. He noticed the sturdy lad and asked the miller if the boy was his son. The miller explained that the child had been found in a box fourteen years before. When the king heard this, he realized that the boy was the baby that he had tried to kill.
The king asked the miller if the boy could take a message to his queen. In the message, he instructed the queen to kill the boy before he himself returned to the castle.
The boy got lost. As night approached, he came to a house in which an elderly lady happened to be home alone. He asked if he could spend the night, explaining that he was supposed to deliver a letter to the queen but got lost.
The lady said it was dangerous because a gang of robbers lived in the house and they would probably kill him. The boy was not worried. He said that he could go no further and went to sleep on a bench.
The robbers were angry when they saw the boy. When the elderly lady explained why he happened to be there, the robbers opened the letter and read it. They immediately felt sorry for the boy. They tore up the letter and replaced it with a message which commanded that the boy should be married to the princess immediately.
So the daughter of the king married the princess as prophesied. There was a sumptuous wedding celebration, and the couple lived together happily for a few days.
When the king returned, he quickly figured out that someone had replaced his original letter with a forgery. He decided to get rid of the boy by giving him an impossible task. He told the boy that if he wanted to keep the princess, he would have to fetch three golden hairs from the head of the devil.
On the way, he came to a city. The city guard asked him what his trade was. The boy replied that he knew everything. The guard then asked for a favor. The city had a fountain from which wine used to flow. Now the fountain was dry. The guard asked the boy to explain why. The boy promised to do so when he returned.
When he came to the next city, he had a similar conversation with the city guard, this time concerning a tree that used to grow golden apples but now did not even sprout leaves. The boy promised to tell him the reason when he returned.
The boy then had to cross a large body of water on a ferry. The ferryman asked him why he had to ply back and forth from one side to the other with no hope of being relieved of this duty. The boy promised to tell him when he returned.
When the boy entered hell, the devil was not at home. He was received by the devil’s grandmother. The boy explained that he wanted three golden hairs from the head of the devil. He also asked her to find out the answer to the questions asked by the two city guards and the ferryman.
In order that the boy might escape detection, the lady turned him into an ant. When the devil came, he detected the scent of a human being in the house. He made a diligent search but found nothing.
When the devil fell asleep, the lady plucked one of his golden hairs. When the devil awoke and complained about it, the lady explained that her action resulted from a troubling dream. She had dreamed that a fountain that used to emit wine had gone dry. She asked the devil why that had happened. The devil replied that a toad was sitting under a stone in the fountain. If the people killed the toad, wine would flow from the fountain once more.
When the devil fell asleep again, the lady plucked another golden hair. This time she claimed that she had dreamed that a tree that used to grow golden apples did not even sprout leaves at present. She asked the devil why that had happened. The devil told her that it was because a mouse was gnawing at the root of the tree. If the people killed the mouse before the tree died, it would grow golden apples as before.
When the devil again fell asleep, the lady plucked a third golden hair. After she managed to calm the angry devil, she asked why a certain ferryman had to cross a body of water repeatedly and was never relieved of this tedious duty. The devil said that if he gave his oar to a passenger, the passenger would have to take his place as a ferryman.
When the devil left the next morning, the lady turned the ant back into a human being and gave him the three golden hairs of the devil. The boy had listened carefully during the night and knew the answer to the three questions.
When he returned, the ferryman asked for the answer to his question. The boy promised to tell him as soon as he got to the other side. As soon as he was safely out of the boat, he answered the question of the ferryman.
He also answered the questions of the two guards when he came to their respective cities. Each time he received two donkeys loaded with gold.
The boy came home to his loving wife. Since he had brought the three golden hairs, the king was not able to offer any further objections.
The king wanted to know where the boy had obtained all the gold. The boy said that there was a lot of gold on the other side of a large river. He explained that there was a ferry that crossed the water regularly.
The greedy king set out at once. As soon as he entered the boat, the ferryman gave him the oar, and the king had to take his place. It was a fit punishment for his evil deeds.
Maerchen.com: Der Teufel mit den drei goldenen Haaren