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.
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 finally kill themselves. The Devil is pleased: he got two souls instead of one.
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- 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 may have effects on those around you.
- Jealousy will ruin you.
- The Bad Guy Wins: Arguably. Bearskin and his bride find happiness, but her sisters go to Hell, giving Satan two souls for the measly price of some gold.
- 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
- The two elder sisters, once they figure out who the handsome man who picked up the youngest sibling was.
- In some versions of the story, the father is about to kill himself over his debts when Bearskin rescues him.
- 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.
- Green-Eyed Monster: The elder sisters.
- I Will Wait for You: The youngest daughter.
- Nameless Narrative: Only Bearskin, and that's a nickname.
- 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 father promises he can marry his daughter without asking any of them to do it.
- 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 his good character, shows her own fidelity by rejecting what looks like a much better prospect — the handsome, rich young man who, as we already know, is her fiance.
- She Cleans Up Nicely: Gender-flipped.
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man: The youngest.
- 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.
- Youngest Child Wins: The youngest girl gets an ideal husband in return for her willingness to look past Bearskin's frightening appearance. Her sisters, who realize too late what they could have had, kill themselves.