#FairytaleTuesday: The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs

[CW: attempted child murder, domestic violence]

Bring On The Devil GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Aarne-Thompson-Uther Index type 461: Three Hairs from the Devil and type 930: The Prediction

This is not a story that I was super-familiar with but apparently the rest of everyone is VERY familiar with it! It’s really long for a Grimm tale, it has multiple tale types, multiple variants in multiple countries, and it MAY have influenced Tolkien. It’s like a little hidden folklore bomb! Having said that, I am experiencing a bit of confusion. Wikipedia gives a very different synopsis of the story than the book that I’m using, which is supposed to be a reproduction of the original first edition. My usual go-to, D.L. Ashliman, only links to a German version of the story on his site so I’m at a bit of a loss. Because of this confusion, I’ll be including excerpts from the book that I’ve been using and we’ll have a brief discussion of the other versions/variants afterwards.

Princess Elena, SimsalaGrimm

A woodcutter was chopping wood in front of the king’s house, while the princess was standing at a window above and observing him. When noon arrived, he sat down in the shadows and wanted to rest. Now the princess was able to see that he was very handsome and fell in love with him. So she had him summoned to her, and as soon as he caught sight of her and saw how beautiful she was, he fell in love with her. Soon they were united in their love for one another, but the king learned that the princess was in love with a woodcutter, and as soon as he knew this, he went to her and said: “You know that you may only wed the man who brings me the three golden hairs from the devil’s head, whether he be a prince or a woodcutter.”

So, in a flip from the usual “princess as reward for heroic actions,” we have a king who is remarkably reluctant to let his daughter go. And it’s not just because her suitor is a woodcutter. He clearly doesn’t want anyone to have her…

Ivanka Trump GIFs - Get the best GIF on GIPHY

Moving on…

Indeed, the woodcutter began his journey to the devil the next day and soon came to a big city. In front of the gate, a guard asked him what kind of craft he practiced and what he knew. 

“I know everything,” answered the woodcutter. 

“If you know everything,” the gatekeeper said, “then make our princess healthy again. No doctor in the world has been able to cure her.” 

“When I return.” 

In the second city he was also asked what he knew.
“I know everything.”

“Then tell us why our beautiful well at the marketplace has become dry.” 

“When I return,” said the woodcutter, and he refused to be detained.

After a while he came to a fig tree that was rotting, and nearby stood a man who asked him what he knew. 

“I know everything.”
“Then tell me why the fig tree is rotting and no longer bearing any fruit.” 

“When I return.”
The woodcutter traveled on and encountered a ferryman who had to transport him across a river, and he asked him what he knew. 

“I know everything.”
“So tell me when will I be finally relieved and when someone else will transport people across the river?”
“When I return.”

TheHauntedBoy, 2012

Once in Hell, the woodcutter finds his way to the Devil’s house, only to be told that the Devil isn’t home. The Devil’s wife takes pity on the fragile human, and after learning why he was there, and what questions he needed answered, she had the woodcutter lie under the bed. Upon entering his home, the Devil can smell the human but can’t find him. Also, the Devil is super tired so he lies down with his wife and goes to sleep.

As he is sleeping the Devil’s wife tries to surreptitiously pull out his golden hairs, one at a time. Each time, he wakes up, groggy, and she asks him one of the woodcutter’s questions. With the final question, the Devil’s wife grabs him by the nose and lifts him into the air. Domestic violence ensues, at which point the Devil reveals the answer to the final question.

The Devil With the Three Golden Hairs
comicgirl91, 2013

The answers to the questions are 1) there’s a toad under the princess’s bed, 2) there’s a white stone at the bottom of the well that’s blocking the flow of water, 3) there’s a mouse gnawing at the roots of the tree, 4) the ferryman will be relieved when a third man comes to take his place.

So the woodcutter goes back the way he came, and as he answers everyone’s questions he gains gold and an army and is able to take on the king and marry his princess. The moral of this story?

This is why whoever is not afraid of the devil can tear out his hair and win the entire world.

So that’s the version in the original Grimm. The version that’s recounted in Wikipedia is somewhat different and involves a poor woman who gives birth to a boy who has a caul on his face. This is interpreted to mean that he would marry the king’s daughter when he turned 14, which seems kind of early but the king doesn’t like it and finds the boy, puts him in a box and tosses him in the river.

Grimm Brothers grimm fairy tales
Marc Black, 2017

As with the usual course of these things, the boy is found and raised by a miller and once he turns 14, the story starts to follow the same course as the Grimm edition except that the king eventually tries to cross the river to get the gold and ends up changing places with the ferryman.

The Grimm story is the basic “hero’s journey to the underworld” while the other version ties in a “child of prophecy” twist. These are ancient tale types and exist in literally every country and culture but the creation of one larger story seems to have happened in Europe.


There are some suggestions that this story was the inspiration for J.R.R. Tolkien’s Beren and Lúthien. This is totally not surprising given that Tolkien was very tapped into folklore and fairytales. I mean, that was his thing. He knew from folklore and fairytales. So it would be unsurprising that a tale like this would creep into his writing. And while his story varies greatly from the original tale, there are still similarities that make it very likely.

So there you have it. I know my analysis was a little less than usual but I think I’ve provided enough links for y’all to look into it further, and you should. It’s an interesting mishmash of tale types and the variants are out there, if you can find them. Happy hunting!

Work Cited:
Grimm, Jacob; Grimm, Wilhelm. The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s