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Literature / Bearskin

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Bearskin is a German Fairy Tale collected by The Brothers Grimm.

A soldier can not return home after he leaves the army, and can not find a job. Desperation drives him to make a deal with the Devil, who makes a bet with him. For the next seven years, he will carry a purse of gold that's always full. However, he must wear a bearskin and neither pray nor wash nor cut his hair in all that time. If he survives, he can keep the purse, but if he dies, the Devil gets his soul.

The soldier spends several years Walking the Earth, giving away gold to the poor and asking them to pray for him. One night he rescues an old man from prison for debt, and the man promises the hand of one of his daughters in gratitude. The older two reject him, but the youngest agrees, knowing that only a good man would have rescued her father. He gives her half of a ring and asks her to wait for him, telling her if he doesn't return after three years, she is free to marry someone else.

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He survives to the end of the term, gains the gold purse, and cleans himself up before visiting the old man again. Everyone but the youngest daughter takes a keen interest in the handsome newcomer, especially when he says he's come to seek a bride. The older girls go to pretty themselves up, letting him reveal himself to the youngest girl in private — by showing her the other half of the ring. They marry in great joy, but the older sisters are eaten alive with envy and ultimately kill themselves. The Devil is pleased: he got two souls instead of one.

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Tropes included

  • Adaptation Personality Change: The opening lines of the Grimmelhousen version and the opening lines of the Grimm version are polar opposites. Grimmelhousen's soldier is a deserter who hid in the woods until cold and hunger replaced bullets as the immediate danger. Grimm's soldier "was always at the very front when it was raining bullets" and his misfortune comes from the fact the war ends, leaving him useless to society.
  • An Aesop: Aside from the usual "Don't be afraid to look past appearances", the story carries two subtler ones in the end:
    • Your actions and decisions affect those around you.
    • Jealousy will ruin you.
  • Age Lift: Some adaptations change the birth place of the youngest child. For example, the English dub of Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics makes Christina the middle daughter in the show’s adaptation of the episode.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: Arguably. Bearskin is freed from the deal and he and his bride find happiness, but the Devil is also happy with how the deal turned out; he lost the soul he was looking for but gained two in its place after the two older sisters commit suicide, and all it cost him was the magic purse.
  • Big Bad: The entire story is the manipulations of Satan.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Some foreign translators of the tale (even a few English ones) were apparently confused by Bearskin's nickname and have the soldier actually turn into a bear instead of just wearing a skin. This makes the later scenes where he falls in love with the princess and completes humane acts accidentally humorous.
  • Celestial Deadline: He has to wait out the seven years.
  • Child Marriage Veto: The older daughters reject him, despite their father's promise, and it's implied that Bearskin wouldn't have forced the issue if the youngest had been unwilling too.
  • Deal with the Devil: The mainspring of the plot. But it's a fair deal, and from Satan's perspective he ultimately gets the better half of it.
  • Driven to Suicide
  • Fate Worse than Death: If the soldier dies during the seven years, his soul is going straight to Hell.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: The youngest is the one who redeems her father's promise to his benefactor. She is also the only one of the three who considers Bearskin's selfless act; her two sisters see only his horrid appearance.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: While the gentle youngest daughter waits for her bridegroom, her more worldly sisters make endless 'bear' jokes about her fiancé.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: The elder daughters.
  • Guile Hero: Bearskin's rather clever Loophole Abuse and his invocation of a Secret Test of Character show him to be a rather clever man and a lot more capable than most luckless fools who make a Deal with the Devil. The fact that that The Devil managed to get *two souls* instead of one when the older sisters commit suicide is a lucky accident. Bearskin won thier deal.
  • Ignore the Fanservice: The stranger who visits the house when the three years are up is handsome enough that both the older sisters fall for him, but the youngest isn't interested because she promised to wait for Bearskin. Which is why he's able to privately reveal to her that he is Bearskin, as the other two had went to their rooms to pretty up for their guest.
  • I Will Wait for You: The youngest daughter.
  • Loophole Abuse: Part of the Deal with the Devil is that the soldier isn't permitted to pray for help. He gets around this by giving generously to the poor and asking them to pray for him, instead, and it works: he survives, keeps the unlimited supply of gold, and gets the girl. If only the story ended there...
  • Nameless Narrative: Only Bearskin, and that's a nickname.
  • No Place for a Warrior: The protagonist in the Grimm version is an honorable, talented soldier, but is left destitute in peacetime. His own brothers abandon him because he has no other skills.
  • Nemean Skinning: The devil gives the hero the titular Bearskin to wear after the pact had been made.
  • Person with the Clothing: The soldier is just 'the man in the bearskin' for most of the story.
  • The Promise: The man that Bearskin helps out of debt prison promises that his benefactor could marry one of his daughters. Two of them are unwilling because he looks like a slob (showing the problems with making promises without asking the people involved), but the youngest agrees because she realizes that someone who was willing to save her father from debt prison without knowing him or asking for a reward is a good catch, regardless of what he looks like.
  • Rule of Three: Three daughters. Three years for the youngest to wait for her husband to return.
  • Rule of Seven: Seven years is the term of the bargain.
  • Secret Test of Character: The youngest daughter, who agrees to marry Bearskin because she can see he is a good man, shows her own fidelity by rejecting what looks like a much better prospect — the handsome and rich young visitor who, as we already know, is her fiancé.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Gender-flipped. The soldier is actually quite handsome when he's allowed to bathe, trim his hair, and wear nice clothes. Even his own fiancee doesn't recognize him until he shows her his engagement ring.
  • Single Woman Seeks Good Man: The third and youngest daughter finds Bearskin's character appealing enough that she doesn't mind his appearance.
  • Two Halves Make a Plot: The youngest daughter of the family agrees to marry Bearskin in exchange for the financial help he gave to their father, and Bearskin gives her half of an engagement ring, and then leaves, keeping the other half for himself. Some time afterward, he returns cleaned up and handsome, and proves his identity by producing the other half of the ring.
  • Win-Win Ending: Both the Devil and Bearskin got what they wanted from the deal; Bearskin is alive, rich, and married, and while the Devil didn't get his soul, he got an even better consolation prize in the form of the two older sisters, who commit suicide upon realizing who they turned down.
  • Youngest Child Wins: The youngest girl gets an ideal husband in return for her willingness to look past Bearskin's appearance. Her sisters, who realize too late what they could have had, kill themselves. Some adaptations avert this, by making the youngest girl into the middle girl.

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