Return to the fairy tales - book one
A retelling by J. Kearns
A man agrees to neither bathe nor cut his hair or nails, and to sleep only on a bearskin for seven years.
ne hears about wars all
the time. Even when where one lives is at peace, still, all over the
world there seems constantly to be war; war in this country and that,
between this people and that people. No matter how glorious some
try to make war sound, almost as if it is a game, it is always
a horrible thing.
tale begins with a soldier. It is an old story, so the war this
soldier was in was not one waged with bombs and jets. I don't know, this
may have been even before people began to make war with guns, which
would have been a pretty long time ago. So, are we to imagine our
soldier dressed in an 18th century soldier's uniform such as
seen in paintings of the American Revolutionary War? Should we imagine
him firing a musket? Or should we imagine him in a time when wars were
fought with swords and spears and clubs? However you see him, know that
our soldier was living under terrible, terrifying conditions. From one
day to the next, he never knew if he would live to see the sun set. He
never knew which of his friends would come out of battle alive, and
which he would never see again. The soldier wasn't an officer, he was
one of a mass of nameless people who history never remembers except to
say, for instance, "10,000 men fought at the Battle of
Such-and-such." He didn't ride a horse; he trudged through the mud
of the field, he fought face to face with an enemy who looked
like him, another person. Our soldier was anonymous. The enemy he
confronted was anonymous. But it was an anonymous with a face. It was
horrible that he had to kill men with faces, if anonymous faces, if he
wanted to survive. It was just plain horrible that he was expected to
child wants to be brave, so children are often told tales about people who behave
bravely in battle. Some story tellers have made our soldier out to be
one who was very brave, and when the war was over with he had no way to
make a living, because he only knew how to make war.
there is another version. Perhaps it was told by someone who had been in
a war and knew how terrible war is. The soldier of this
other story deserted his
regiment in the thick of battle and took refuge in the woods. It may
have been one of those wars where you don't have any idea what you're
fighting about anymore it's gone on so long, or seems so
meaningless. That he was a deserter may make his character questionable
for some, but we really have no way of judging if what he did was right
or wrong because we know nothing about the war in which he was fighting. And it is interesting that at least one story teller would decide to tell the tale of a deserter, one who fled the field of battle, rather than having our protagonist be the prototypical hero.
For our deserter, the foes of war were soon
replaced by the enemies: cold, thirst, and hunger. He had already been
half-starved in the army, but there he'd had at least something to eat and now he had no food and no reliable source of water. His
clothes were in tatters, he had rags tied around his feet as he had no
shoes, and it was the middle of winter. He had no money and no one he could turn to
for help. Thinking all was hopeless, coming upon a small clearing in the
woods in which was a ring of trees, he sat under a tree and contemplated
his fate, which he was certain would be death.
that moment, our ex-soldier heard a loud, rumbling growl near behind
him. He turned just in time to see a huge bear charge. In a flash, with
terrible teeth and claws, the bear was upon him. The ex-soldier, pulling
his knife from its sheath, wrestled the bear with all his might.
Finally, he plunged the knife into the bear's heart. The animal tumbled to the
from both his hunger and the fight, the ex-soldier also dropped to the
ground. When he had rested a little, he skinned the bear for its thick
coat which would keep him warm in the wilderness and might even save his life. Oddly enough--imagine!--as he cut away the bear's fur coat, he found that beneath it was yet another coat. A green one. So startled was the man that he tumbled back. He'd never heard of such a thing (I've a difficult time picturing that green coat, myself, but perhaps you don't). Near frozen with cold, our ex-soldier completed skinning the animal and, though it was still bloody, draped the fur about his own shoulders.
"I see you have put on my skin," the bear's spirit said, appearing before the ex-soldier. "If I told you I could provide you great wealth, as much as you could ever want, what would you say to that?"
must I do for it?" the ex-soldier asked, who knew that nothing came
without a price.
bear answered him, "For the next seven years you must not wash
yourself, you must not comb or cut your hair, nor cut your toenails or
fingernails. You must not comb or cut your beard. You must not wash your
clothing. In fact, I will give you clothing which you must wear each day
and night of those seven years. You must never take it off. You
must even sleep in it."
that all?" the ex-soldier asked, who thought this deal sounded
you die while you are wearing this clothing, which you must not remove
those seven years, then your soul will be mine. Do you agree?"
said the ex-soldier, who knew if he had all the wealth he could need
then he wouldn't have to worry about dying from hunger or exposure. As
long as he would have all the wealth he could ever need during that
seven years, he had a plan.
my green coat and put it on," the spirit said. "If you have
this coat on your back and put your hand into any of its pockets, you
will always find it full of money. As for the bearskin which you have taken from me, that will be your
cloak and your bed. Thereon shall you sleep, and in no other bed
will you lie. Because this is to be your apparel you shall be called
ex-soldier put the green coat on. He felt in one of its pockets and found
it was full of gold. He wrapped himself in the bearskin and his new name and the spirit
is a Philippines version to this tale. It is not folklore from the
Philippines. It is obvious that a western person taught this tale to people in the
Philippines. In it, there is also the condition that Bearskin must not
spend any of the gold upon himself during the seven years.
Bearskin didn't have that commandment.
found his way to an inn where he asked for a room. He also asked that the bed be removed from the
room, so that he would never forget and lie down on it and fall asleep,
for he had been commanded not to sleep in a regular bed. Thus Bearskin
began his seven years solitude. Every day his meals were brought to him, and
every day he paid for his meals and room with coins from his pocket.
had gone for long times without a bath in the army, but he found that
was quite different from never ever bathing or washing his clothing and never
ever combing his hair and never ever cutting his hair, beard or nails. His skin
began to be hidden under the layers of dirt that built up. He couldn't
comb his hair so it became all matted. He began to smell so much that
his odor was even offensive to himself, but after a while he did get
used to that. Still, that first year, though he may have been quite
dirty and smelly, Bearskin still passed as a man.
the second year, Bearskin began to look more like a monster than a man.
His hair covered nearly all of his face. His fingers had claws, as did
his feet. He could no longer wear shoes, his toenails were so long.
Bearskin no longer opened his door when his meals were brought to him
because he knew that he looked less and less like a man. He had a hole
cut in the door and received his meals through that hole, and paid for
his room and lodging through that hole as well.
Because when he looked at himself, even he didn't recognize himself as a man, Bearskin
turned the mirror in his room around so that it faced the wall.
had thought it would be an easy thing to get through the seven years.
He'd reasoned that it would be an easy thing not to be able to spend
money on all kinds of different things he might want, while he was
closeted in his room at the inn, because he knew that after seven years
he would be free to go out in the world and live comfortably, even
lavishly, as a normal man, the rest of his days. What Bearskin had not
anticipated was how lonely he would become during those seven years. Not
only that, after becoming lonely he began to be so accustomed to being
alone, that he wondered if the seven years were over, right then, if he
might just remain in his room. He had not been around people for so
long, not had normal conversation with anyone, and was so used now to
not looking like a regular man, that he began to think of himself as
being like a lone bear. He had become so used to the idea of hiding from
people that he felt he might never leave his room the rest of his life.
night when the innkeeper brought Bearskin his meal, as he passed it to
him through the slot in the door, he told Bearskin that he would have to
leave as he was closing down the inn. This alarmed Bearskin. He could not imagine, looking as he did,
leaving his room and finding another place to live. "What is wrong?"
he asked the innkeeper. "Why are you closing the inn?"
a long while now, a gang of robbers has been coming here and demanding
all my money. They rule the highway and raid anyone they find on it. As a result, we have no travelers for they are afraid of venturing into the area. You
are the only customer I have had for quite some time. I can't possibly
keep the inn open. No one will purchase the inn as everyone is well
aware of the situation, so I, my wife, and my three
daughters are forced to leave with nothing. I have no idea how we will
managed to save up a good deal of money before I came here,"
Bearskin told the innkeeper. "If I give you the money you need, so
that you never have to worry about debts again, will you keep the inn
open and continue to rent me out this room?"
able to believe his ears, the innkeeper asked, "You would actually
do this thing for me?"
brought out handful after handful of gold from his pocket and passed it
through the door's slot to the innkeeper. Surely, it was a miracle. The
innkeeper couldn't believe his good luck. "Oh, sir," he said, "I
am forever indebted to you. You can be sure this room is yours as long
as you are pleased with it. Indeed, you can count yourself as a member
of my family. You will never owe me for your room or food ever again."
later that night, just when Bearskin had lain down to go to sleep, he
heard a commotion downstairs. There was so much violence that he went to
the door and considered leaving his room to go see what the problem was.
The innkeeper had said there were no other customers there, so, feeling
secure that he might not be seen, Bearskin opened the door and
crept down the hall. From the shadows at the top of the staircase, he
peered down into the lower floor of the inn. Sure enough, there were men
making a wreck of the place, filling their pockets with the gold he'd
just a few hours before given the innkeeper. Bearskin knew these must be
the robbers the innkeeper had told him about. Without a thought for the
fact that one of the robbers might turn on him and kill him, and that his soul would then be lost to him forever, Bearskin
rushed down the stairs to help the innkeeper.
did the robbers see approaching them? Not a man, but a bear! Terrified,
they dropped the money and fled out the door never to return.
innkeeper, for the moment, was every bit as terrified as the robbers had
been. For the moment, he didn't realize he'd been saved by Bearskin. No,
he thought Bearskin was a bear and would kill him.
be afraid," Bearskin said to him. "Don't you recognize me? I'm
the man who gave you the gold for your debts. I'm the man who has been
your customer all these years. Certainly you recognize my bearskin
cloak. I was wearing it almost seven years ago when I first came to you
innkeeper recognized the voice, and realized that within the coat of the
bear was a man. Slowly, relinquishing his fear of Bearskin, he stepped
forward and said, "Sir, earlier this evening you saved me from
poverty. Now, you have saved my life. I have three daughters, each one
of them beautiful, please choose one of them for yourself as a wife.
When she hears what you have done for me, she'll not refuse you. You do,
in truth, look a little strange, but she will soon put you to rights
hears this kind of thing frequently in fairy tales so we have become a
little used to it and may not think of how unfair it is for a man to
offer a daughter of his in marriage, without her consent. But
people haven't always married for love, and contract marriages used to be acceptable.
innkeeper, for sake of hoping to bring Bearskin's wealth into his
family, might have offered him a daughter in marriage so
he would gain Bearskin as a son-in-law. This
innkeeper didn't have such base motives. He was, however, a man of his
times, and saw nothing wrong with repaying Bearskin, for saving his
life, by offering him one of his daughters.
Bearskin had the chance to agree or disagree (and he was thinking of not
accepting the innkeeper's offer as he had become such a loner) the
innkeeper had called out his daughters from where they were hiding in
the kitchen. "Which one will you have as your bride?" the
eldest girl was so terrified by Bearskin's appearance that she screamed
and ran off.
second girl was braver. She stood still and looked Bearskin over from
head to toe. When she was done, she said, "If he was only ugly, I
might get used to that, but how can I accept a husband who no longer has
a human form?"
youngest daughter said to Bearskin, "Whatever your appearance, you
must be good to have helped my father out of his trouble. I would marry
you even if my father hadn't promised you one of his daughters as a
fell in love with the girl, but his features were so covered with filth
one would not have been able to read his expression. He took a gold ring
from his finger and with his bear-like strength he twisted it into two
pieces. "Here," he said, giving the girl one part of the
twisted ring. "I must go away for a little while. I will return
shortly, to claim you as my bride. I will be carrying the other half of
this twisted ring. That is how you will recognize me."
that, Bearskin left the inn.
did he do this when he had been so fearful of leaving the inn
beforehand? As I've noted, he had even been thinking of remaining in his
room at the inn the rest of his life, that's how unaccustomed he was to
Bearskin found his way to the clearing in the woods where the circle of
trees was, where he had killed the bear almost seven years before. It so
happened that the seven years would be up in only a matter of a few
hours. He sat beneath the trees to wait. At exactly the moment the seven
years were up, the spirit appeared to him with whom he had made the
have you come here?" the spirit asked. "You've completed your
part of the deal. You owe me nothing any more. Do you want to give me my
said, "The reason I'm here is that you may wash me, so that when I go
out of this wood I'll be recognized as a man again. As you can see, I
didn't die. My soul is mine, so when I leave here I think I should look like a man rather than a bear."
was washed. His hair was washed, cut and combed. His beard was shaved.
His claws were cut back so that he had regular fingernails and toenails
Bearskin returned to the inn. With his half of the twisted
ring, he identified himself, and claimed his bride.
He kept the bearskin.
A retelling by j. m. Kearns based on the Brothers Grimm.
Here is a link to different older versions of "Bearskin" at the University of Pittsburgh, "Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts" edited and/or translated by D. L. Ashliman.
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