The tale begins after a bitter war, and of a soldier, who finds himself homeless as his parents have died and his brothers have no place for him. Lost one night in the woods, he encounters a green-coated man with a cloven hooves who offers to make him rich beyond his wildest dreams if he wlll engage in a wager. For seven years he can not cut his hair, clip his nails, bathe, or pray. In addition he must wear a Bearskin cloak without removing it once. He cannot be free of the Bearskin cloak until a woman falls in love with him, with only the truest of loves. At the end of the seven years, if he has not found anyone to love him, the devil will take his soul.
The desperate soldier, with little other option, agrees and the devil gives him the Bearskin cloak. The devil departs, telling the young man that he would find in its pockets a limitless supply of money. He renames the young man Bearskin and disappears.
Bearskin sets out on his way, finding many good friends upon his travels. He has limitless wealth in his pockets and can find companions easily. However, soon, because he cannot remove the cloak, nor cut his hair, clip his nails, nor bathe, he grows so revolting that he has to pay heavily in order to get any place to shelter. It becomes harder and harder for him to find friends and companions and people occassionally absue him and fear him because of his appearance.
After four years, Bearskin hears an an old man lamenting and persuades him to tell his tale. The man recounts to Bearskin how he has lost all his money and does not know how to provide for his daughters. He cannot pay his debts and so he will be sent to jail. Bearskin, taking pity on the poor man, gives him two bags of gold, one for his debts and one for his family.
The old man is so grateful that he invites Bearskin to his home, saying that he will surely give one of his daughters as a wife to him. However, when Bearskin and the man arrive home and the daughters are called, all is not well. When the set eyes on Bearskin, his hair matted, his nails long like claws, his body smelling without a bath in four years, the oldest runs away, screaming. The second daughter does not run, but she begins to ridicule Bearskin, saying she will never marry such a beastly man as he. It is only the youngest daughter, a soft sweet girl who loved her father dearly who consents to marry him. Bearskin gives her half a ring and promises to return in three years. When he leaves, her sisters chastise their father and ridicule their sister at length.
At the end of the seven years, the devil reappears to Bearskin and demands that he be free of his curse. The devil asks whether Bearskin has found a woman to love him truly. Bearskin tells the devil of the farmers daughter who has agreed to marry him and the devil only chuckles. The devil bathes Bearskin, clips his nails and cuts his hair until he a handsome fresh young man again. He then accompanies Bearskin to the farmers house dressed as a fine gentleman. Here the older sisters serve the two men not recognising Bearskin. The youngest daughter, his fiance shows no reaction to him. The devil then announces to the old man that this young Prince would like marry one of his daughters. The two older sisters run off to dress splendidly, but the youngest sits mournfully in the corner. The devil challenges Bearskin saying “these girls do not love you, but they love the prince they imagine you to be.”
Bearskin calls to the youngest girl, asking whether she does not wish to marry him after all ? She answers, “oh no, I’m pledged to a man quite different to you, sir! His name is Bearskin and he will return for me this very year.” Bearskin drops his half of the ring into a wine cup and gives it to his fiance. She drinks it and realizes that he is her bridegroom. Upon seeing this woman’s true loyalty and love for Bearskin, the devil curses and disappears.
The young man and farmers daughter are soon married. Upon realizing who he was and what they gave up, one older sister hangs herself in rage and the other drowns herself. At the close of the story, the devil knocks on the young man’s door to tell Bearskin that he had gotten two souls for the price of one.
To me “Bear Skin” captures much of what is powerful about the nexus between theology, philosophy and narrative. Embodied within the story is not only a “message” per se but a picture of a truth through fiction. A man, desititute, encounters an offer of untold wealth in exchange for slavery to a beastly form. He agrees and faces social exclusion, lacking true human love despite his gold. It is only upon the encounter with true love that the curse can be liftted.
In one version of the tale, the devil refuses to belive the girl’s love is genuine to Bear Skin based on his incredible wealth. It is only when she surrenders her life, and the devil gets his wager of a “soul”, that her love is proven and Bear Skin is returned to human form. This tragic ending, while unsatisfactory, rings true. Love is sacrificial. Wealth and power often bestow a beastly form upon humanity.
As a Christian, I see in this tale, not unlike the Narnia tales, the embodiment of a message of the human condition. In exchange for power, humanity has gained a beastliness that bars us from true intimacy and love to and from others. Our animal nature can only be restored through true and sacrificial love, this by the innocent death of one who loves us without condition.
What I understand from this narrative, that is lacking from the Grimm’s version, is that this death is in fact the genesis of new life, not the end but the beginning. The fairytale ends with a wedding and so does the biblical narrative. Weddings signify the beginning of something new, a new creation and new life.