"Bearskin" (German: "Der Bärenhäuter") is a German fairy tale. It is included in the 1815 second volume of Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and household Tales), the anthology of German folktales compiled by the Brothers Grimm, and all subsequent editions of the complete anthology. Similar stories also exist in Italian folklore.
The title character and protagonist of "Bearskin" is a young man who makes a deal with the Devil. The Devil promises the young man limitless money on the condition that he does not wash, shave or cut his nails for seven years. The Prince of Darkness also promises the young man that, if he manages to stay alive throughout those seven years, his soul will no longer be in danger but he will continue to be rich. As a result of not washing, cutting his beard or trimming his nails for several years, the young man takes on a monstrous appearance.
Although it is not among the best known of Grimms' fairy tales in the English-speaking world, "bearskin" has been adapted to other media multiple times.
When war comes to an end, a young man who knows no trade apart from being a soldier finds himself without a job and with no prospects. He fears that he will starve to death. A stranger dressed in a green coat appears to the young man. From his cloven hoof, the young man realizes that the stranger is the Devil. The Devil says that he will help the young man if he proves his bravery. He then points out to the young man that there is a bear behind him. The young man shoots the bear dead without hesitation. Impressed by his courage, the Devil tells the young man that he will take his old coat and give him the green coat in return. Every time that the man puts his hand in the green coat's pocket, he will find money. There are, however, some further conditions to which the young man must agree. For seven years, the man cannot shave, wash, cut his nails or pray. If he dies during those seven years, the Devil will take his soul. If the young man does not die during that time, the Devil will give up his claim to the man's soul and he will continue to be rich. Before leaving, the Devil makes the man put on the skin of the bear that he killed as a cloak. He tells the man that he must wear that cloak always and that he will become known as Bearskin.
Bearskin never does anything sinful. He tries to use his endless supply of money to help people whenever he can. Although he is not allowed to pray, Bearskin pays poor people to pray for him. By the start of the fourth year of his bargain, Bearskin looks more like a monster than a man. His face can hardly be seen behind the enormous beard and layer of dirt that cover it. His long fingernails look like claws.
One evening, Bearskin hears a loud crying. He finds an old man who is upset because he is deeply in debt. Bearskin is immediately able to give the man enough money to pay of all of his debts and more besides. The grateful old man says that Bearskin should marry one of his three daughters. He takes Bearskin to meet the three young women. The eldest daughter runs away in terror at the sight of him. The second daughter mocks him for his ugliness. The third daughter reluctantly agrees to marry Bearskin, certain that he must be a kind man to have helped her father. Bearskin gives her half of a ring on which he has written his name. He writes her name on the other half of the ring and keeps it. He tells the young woman that he will return for her in three years if he lives.
When the seven years finally come to an end, Bearskin returns to the place where he met the Devil. The Devil takes his green coat and gives back the coat that he took from the young man. Before the Devil leaves, Bearskin forces the fiend to wash him, shave him and cut his nails. By the time the Devil has finished, the man looks even more handsome than he did seven years earlier. Dressed in fine clothes and riding in a carriage drawn by four white horses, Bearskin returns to the home of the old man and his three daughters. Nobody there recognizes the handsome young man, until he gives the youngest daughter the half of the ring with her name written on it.
The two older daughters are so unhappy that they passed up the chance to marry such a fine husband that they both commit suicide. Committing that mortal sin means that the Devil gets their souls. The Devil thanks Bearskin for helping him to get those two souls instead of just the one he had originally hoped to get.
Four operas based on "Bearskin" have been written by German composers. The opera based on the story by Siegfried Wagner (Richard Wagner's son) was first performed in Munich in 1889. Herman Wette's opera based on the tale was first performed in Berlin in 1897. The opera based on "Bearskin" by Arnold Mendelssohn was first performed in Berlin in 1900. Wilhelm Pleyer's opera based on the story was first performed in Munich in 1928.
Bearskin, or The Man Who Didn't Wash for Seven Years is a 1982 American film, directed by Tom Davenport as part of his From the Brothers Grimm series. The movie is a faithful adaptation of the fairy tale, albeit an Americanized one. It is set in Virginia after the Civil War and Bearskin is a former Confederate soldier.
An 82-minute East German film adaptation of "Bearskin" was released to movie theaters on January 24, 1986 and was first shown on television in East Germany on December 21 of the same year.
"Bearskin" was adapted as the sixteenth episode of the second season of the anime series Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics (Japanese: グリム名作劇場; Gurimu Meisaku Gekijō). The episode first aired on TV Asahi in Japan on February 5, 1989. Given that Grimm's Fairy Tale Classics is a children's cartoon series, it is not surprising that the two women who turn down the chance to marry Bearskin do not go as far as to kill themselves, meaning that the demon with whom Bearskin makes a deal ends up with no souls to collect.
The character Bearskin appears in the comic book series Fables, created by the American artist and writer Bill Willingham, that was originally published by DC Comics under the Vertigo name between July 2002 and July 2015.
- ↑ The story appears under the German title Der Teufel Grünrock ("The Devil Green Coat") in all editions of the Brothers Grimm's anthology of folktales until the 1843 fifth one.