Fairy Tales




A tale from the Grimms and a comentary


There was once a young fellow who enlisted as a soldier, conducted himself bravely, and was always the foremost when it rained bullets. So long as the war lasted, all went well, but when peace was made, he received his dismissal, and the captain said he might go where he liked. His parents were dead, and he had no longer a home, so he went to his brothers and begged them to take him in, and keep him until war broke out again. The brothers, however, were hard-hearted and said: "What can we do with you. You are of no use to us; go and make a living for yourself: ' The soldier had nothing left but his gun; so he took that on his shoulder, and went forth into the

world. He came to a wide heath, on which nothing was to be seer but a circle of trees; under these he sat sorrowfully down, and began to think over his fate. "I have no money," thought he, "I have learnt no trade but that of fighting, and now that they have made peace they don't want me any longer; so I see beforehand that I shall have to starve: ' All at once he heard a  rustling, and when he looked round, a strange man stood before him, who wore a green coat and looked right stately, but had a hideous cloven foot. "I know already what you are in need of," said the man; "gold and possessions shall you have, as much as you can make away with, do what you will, but first I must know if you are fearless, that I may not bestow my money in vain:' "A soldier and fear-how can those two things go together" he answered; "you can put me to the proof." "Very well, then," answered the man, "look behind you." The soldier turned round, and saw a large bear, which came growling towards him. "Oho!" cried the soldier, "I will tickle your nose for you, so that you shall soon lose your fancy for growling," and he aimed at the bear and shot it through the muzzle; it fell down and never stirred again. "I see quite well," said the stranger, "that you are not wanting in courage, but there is still another condition which you will have to fulfil." "If it does not endanger my salvation," replied the soldier, who knew very well who was standing by him. "If it does, I'll have nothing to do with it." "You will look to that for yourself," answered Greencoat; "you shall for the next seven years neither wash yourself, nor comb your beard, nor your hair, nor cut your nails, nor once say the Lord's prayer. I will give you a coat and a cloak, which during this time you must wear. If you die during these seven years, you are mine; if you remain alive, you are free, and rich to boot, for all the rest of your life:' The soldier thought of the great extremity in which he now found himself, and as he so often had gone to meet death, he resolved to risk it now also, and agreed to the terms. The Devil took off his green coat, and gave it to the soldier, and said: "If you have this coat on your back and put your hand into the pocket, you will always find it full of money." Then he pulled the skin off the bear and said: "This shall be your cloak, and your bed also, for thereon shall you sleep, and in no other bed shall you lie, and because of this apparel shall you be called Bearskin." Whereupon the Devil vanished.


The soldier put the coat on, felt at once in the pocket, and found that the thing was really true. Then he put on the bearskin and went forth into the world, and enjoyed himself, refraining from nothing that did him good and his money harm. During the first year his appearance was passable, but during the second he began to look like a monster. His hair covered nearly the whole of his face, his beard was like a piece of coarse felt, his fingers had claws, and his face was so covered with dirt that if cress had  been sown on it, it would have come up. Whosoever saw him, ran away, but as he everywhere gave the poor money to pray that he might not die during the seven years; and as he paid well for everything he still always found shelter. In the fourth year, he entered an inn where the landlord would not receive him, and would not even let him have a place in the stable, because he was afraid the horses would be scared. But as Bearskin thrust his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of ducats, the host let himself be persuaded and gave him a room in an outhouse.

Bearskin, however, was obliged to promise not to let himself be seen, lest the inn should get a bad name.

As Bearskin was sitting alone in the evening, and wishing from the bottom of his heart that the seven years were over, he heard a loud lamenting in a neighbouring room. He had a compassionate ' heart, so he opened the door, and saw an old man weeping bitterly, and wringing his hands. Bearskin went nearer, but the man sprang to his feet and tried to escape from him. At last when the man perceived that Bearskin's voice was human he let himself be prevailed upon, and by kind words Bearskin succeeded so far that the old man revealed the cause of his grief. His property had dwindled away by degrees, he and his daughters would have to starve, and he was so poor that he could not pay the innkeeper, and was to be put in prison. "If that is your only trouble," said Bearskin, "I have plenty of money." He caused the innkeeper to be brought thither, paid him and even put a purse full of gold into the poor old man's pocket.

When the old man saw himself set free from all his troubles he did not know how to show his gratitude. "Come with me," said he to Bearskin; "my daughters are all miracles of beauty, choose one of them for yourself as a wife. When she hears what you have done for me, she will not refuse you. You do in truth look a little strange, but she will soon put you to rights again." This pleased Bearskin well, and he went. When the eldest saw him she was so terribly alarmed at his face that she screamed and ran away. The second stood still and looked at him from head to foot but then she said: "How can I accept a husband who no longer has a human form. The shaven bear that once was here and passed itself off for a man pleased me far better, for at any rate it wore a hussar s dress and white gloves. If he were only ugly, I might get used to that.

The youngest, however, said: "Dear father, that must be a good man to have helped you out of your trouble, so if you have promised him a bride for doing it, your promise must be kept." It was a pity that Bearskin's face was covered with dirt and with hair, for if not they might have seen how delighted he was when he heard these words. He took a ring from his finger, broke it in two, and gave her one half, the other he kept for himself. Then he wrote his name on her half, and hers on his, and begged her to keep her piece carefully.  Then he took his leave and said: "I must still wander about for three  years, and if I do not return then, you are free, for I shall be dead.  But pray to God to preserve my life."

The poor betrothed bride dressed herself entirely in black, and when she thought of her future bridegroom, tears came into her eyes. Nothing but contempt and mockery fell to her lot from her sisters. "Take care," said the eldest, "if you give him your hand, he will strike his claws into it." "Beware!" said the second.  "Bears like sweet things, and if he takes a fancy to you, he will eat you up." "You must always do as he likes," began the elder again,  "or else he will growl:' And the second continued: "But the wedding will be a merry one, for bears dance well." The bride was silent, and did not let them vex her.

Bearskin, however, traveled about the world from one place to another, did good where he was able, and gave generously to the poor that they might  pray for him.

At length, as the last day of the seven years dawned, he went once more out on to the heath, and seated himself beneath the circle of trees. It was not long before the wind whistled, and the Devil stood before him and looked angrily at him; then he threw Bearskin his old coat, and asked for his own green one back. "We have not got so far as that yet," answered Bearskin, "you must first make me clean." Whether the Devil liked it or not, he was forced to fetch water, and wash Bearskin, comb his hair, and cut his nails. After this, he looked like a brave soldier, and was much handsomer than he had ever been before.

When the Devil had gone away, Bearskin was quite light-hearted. He went into the town, put on a magnificent velvet coat, seated himself in a carriage drawn by four white horses, and drove to his bride's house. No one recognised him. The father took him for a distinguished general, and led him into the room where his daughters were sitting. He was forced to place himself between the two eldest, who helped him to wine, gave him the best pieces of meat, and thought that in the entire world they had never seen a handsomer man. The bride, however, sat opposite to him in her black dress, and never raised her eyes, nor spoke a word. When at length he asked the father if he would give him one of his daughters to wife, the two eldest jumped up, ran into their bedrooms to put on splendid dresses, for each of them fancied she was the chosen one. The stranger, as soon as he was alone with his bride, brought out his half of the ring, and threw it in a glass of wine, which he handed across the table to her. She took the wine, but when she had drunk it, and found the half ring lying at the bottom, her heart began to beat. She got the other half, which she wore on a ribbon round her neck, joined them and saw that the two pieces fitted exactly together. Then said he : "I am your betrothed bridegroom, whom you saw as Bearskin, but through God's grace I have again received my human form, and have once more become clean." He went up to her, embraced her, and gave her a kiss. In the meantime the two sisters came back in full dress, and when they saw that the handsome man had fallen to the share of the youngest, and heard that he was Bearskin, they ran out full of anger and rage. One of them drowned herself in the well, the other hanged herself on a tree. In the evening, some one knocked at the door, and when the bridegroom opened it, it was the Devil in his green coat, who said: "You see, I have now got two souls in the place of your one!"





           A commentary


It has been said that fairy tales are the dreams of a culture, and as is the case with dreams, the opening scene can be very revealing. In Bearskin the story begins with the return of a soldier from the wars, and with a contract made with a devil figure, which seems to stamp it very early as a tale of the masculine, but masculine what? The masculine pathway may take many forms, from that of Parcival and his quest for the grail, to that described in Russian tales where the hero must go, "they know not where in search of, they know not what."

A soldier he is a man of the world, brave and able to withstand opposition, laugh at adversity, yet be tough when required as he must in order to extract the other half of his bargain. Soldiers, who feature commonly enough in fairy tales, are closely tied to the archetypal image of the Hero, and many youths join armies seeking glory. The soldier is also  a product of the patriarchy which conscripts men into its service and then discards them, thus he is a figure who has been used and abandoned. In this story then the soldier represents a post-heroic figure, who now finds himself left in the lurch. A figure who is shunned by his brothers, alone and outcast, vulnerable, and poor, which suggests lacking in life energy, and who now must come into his own again.   Being poor, may also indicate a general closeness to his roots, he is further a man of humility, with a  particularly wry pragmatic disposition that is somehow endearing. The soldier in this story is also a man of courage which he displays when encountering the bear. And what of this bear from whom the story in part takes its name?

Bears are common enough figures in fairy tales, and compared to wolves for instance, theirs is a good literary "press."  A feature of medieval fairs, there were often pitted unequally in bloody contests against wolves, and/or fighting dogs, that they could not win. Their upright stance gives them a peculiarly human posture, and they usually figure as helpers, as in, for instance, The Two Brothers. The bear is also a key figure in Snow White and Rose Red where the bear is in fact a kings son, bewitched and clad also in a bearskin. "In alchemy, the bear corresponds to the nigredo of prime matter, and hence it is related to all initial stages and to the instincts." While being further "found in the company of Artemis it is regarded as a lunar animal."  (Cirlot, 1962)  Here the plot begins to thicken, lunar is universally synonymous with feminine and  given the absence of feminine figures in the story thus far, we might conclude that this tale is about the journey of the masculine seeking completion through the realisation of the feminine principle or anima.

As is the case in The Devil's Sooty Brother, the conversation is described as taking place between the soldier and the devil, but Robert Bly suggests that such references are probably Christian overlays to tales already thousands of years old, and that the term "devil" is really a reference to something else. The reference to the "cloven foot" suggests that the being is probably some old earth god of northern Europe, Pan perhaps. " A sculpture of the wild man built into the Spanish cathedral of the Middle Ages shows him being with one animal foot. 3" In touch with is wild pre-civilised aspect of being, the foot being ones contact with, and attitude towards, reality. Bly goes on, So we could call this underworld being a "dark man," a relative of the Wild Man. 4  A relative no doubt, of Bly's Wild Man from the tale Iron Hans, and Bly's book Iron John.

Pan is a very different figure from the Devil, as Jung remarked, the devil was never quite so evil in pre-christian times as he later became. In Greek times Pan haunted the woods and pastures of Arcadia and personified the fertile, phallic spirit of wild untamed nature, not evil, merely uncivilised, amoral and natural, dwelling in the most inaccessible realms of the unconscious where only crisis can break through. So it is no wonder he was appropriated into the figure of the devil! Note also that the Devil figure in the story requires the soldier to wear his green coat, suggestive again of his nature links and also that something fertile many come of this.

Thus far, the story seems to be suggesting some form of initiation for men, guided by an old earthy type, and that this requires the "young fellow" who is the Soldier, to take on, and grow into, some of the qualities of this Wild Man. "You shall for the next seven years neither wash yourself, nor comb your beard nor, nor your hair, nor cut your nails." It is through such a confrontation with such a Wild Man that masculine divinity manifests, through illumination, or visions or insights, with  younger men these are under the tutelage of other, older Wild Men. As mentioned previously such a Wild Man appears in Iron Hans, able to claim "My power is great, greater than you think, and I have gold and silver in abundance."( Grimm, p. 615)

Like dreams fairy tales can be very specific, Bearskin must stay as such for seven years, and as is also the case with dreams these numbers are very specific, and therefore very instructive and so worthy of examination. The number seven occurs in many contexts to suggest intervals of significant change. It represents a complete period or cycle, it is symbolic of perfect order, seven is the number of the creation myth in genesis, there are seven notes, seven colours, the seven planets and the god relating to them.  It is also sometimes related to the moon (cirlot) and to the cycles of saturn and the moon, thus it an be a feminine time, and thus linked again to the feminine, note that both Maid Maleen and The Handless Maiden, tales concerned very much with the processes of feminine integration, spend seven years in the forest, while Parcival, a male hero, is there for only five.

Thus begins, in common with all initiations, the passing or death of an old form, as Bearskin ventures forth. Going forth symbolises "the more active quest of the male hero, who has to go into the Beyond and try to slay the monster, or to find the treasure or the bride." Although with Bearskin all he is required to do is get by, which because of his appearance becomes more and more of a withdrawal. Withdrawal is a feature of all initiation rites or rites of passage, but the withdrawal of Bearskin is not so much withdrawal from the world as is the case in so many fairy tales that map the journey toward feminine wholeness. Rather it is a progressively isolating withdrawal from the world, yet within the world, traditionally the masculine areana. Bearskin does not retreat to the forest, traditionally places of the feminine, as do.  Maid Maleen, The handless Maiden, and Vasilissa, but rather has to remain in the world doing what a soldier knows best, his duty, and as all men learn very early, making the most of it. Peak time traffic is full of Bearskins, doing their duty, honouring their choices, in many cases choices made by default, simply because there were no models for any other choice available to them. Waiting for the next promotion, or resigned to having had their last. Nursing the wound to the soul one suffers when outer myth and inner truth conflict, yet afraid to get out of what is, as far as they know, the only game in town.

For the first year all went well for Bearskin, his appearance was passable, but time can be slow and unforgiving, for by the end of the second, "Whosoever saw him, ran away." As bit by inexorable bit his previous identity is dissolved and all vestiges of society, all appearances leave him, still Bearskin soldiers on, doing his duty, drawing into his pocket and paying his way with the gold of his soul. Soldering on is an often used term to describe the effort to keep going and doing, day after day, to elevate the ordinary into the grand and heroic. We often associate an unshaven, unwashed, unkempt appearance with depression, depressions of the soul, no matter that the body may soldier daily on, doing its work, paying its way.  In what James Hollis calls  the  daily batterering of (mens) working life. "No perks, no car, no key to the executive washroom, and even no raise will assuage the daily loss of soul, and no paycheck is large enough to compensate."5

 V. Walter Odajnyk suggests that depressions are a natural and meaningful part of the transition process, involving an undoing of the conscious psychic structure that may lead to an encounter with the unconscious. Characterised by a loss of energy, by darkness depression is expressed in alchemical language by Nigredo, or blackening.  " The nigredo therefore leads to an encounter with the shadow and then with the animus and anima, initially in their black, unredeemed and unconscious state. " 6 (1987)

Like Bearskin there is no other choice but that of having to go through it, to wear it. The devil figure explicitly says, "In no other bed shall you lie." What does happen though, is the shift that the process of individuation requires, as other, previously neglected parts of the psyche start hammering away, demanding equal time. For now the soldier, who previously unquestioningly, served only the patriarchy, obeying orders and defending its values, now acts and lives out of service to his feelings and inwardness, helping those individuals less fortunate than he. 

After four years Bearskin uses some of his money to redeem the fortunes of a indebted merchant, who in return offered Bearskin one of his three daughters in marriage. " The archetypal four is the number of totality…when you come to the four a new segment begins. " 6 (Woodman 1993) " Four equals wholeness, completeness, totality, the completion of a cycle." 8 (Johnson 1986). It is an interesting aside that the working life society attributes to its Bearskin men is forty years. While three, which is common number in fairy tales with regard to offspring, three sons, three daughters, stands for synthesis and the solution to a conflict 9 (Cirlot 1962).

True to form the first two daughters fail the task or in this context reject Bearskin because of his external appearance. Only the youngest, (often represented as our the inferior function, that least conscious part of ourselves) accepts him for his goodness, his innerness, and bearskin breaks a ring and gives her half, before continuing to serve out his time. 

The symbol of the ring is a very powerful one, obviously it is a symbol of union, of marriage, also "Its quality of roundness makes it an image of the self" 10 (Von Franz) while, "in its positive meaning , it stands for a chosen obligation toward some divine power." 11 (Von Franz) But this is no ordinary ring for Bearskin breaks it such that each part can only be a symbol of potential wholeness. The union is held in abeyance, Bearskin is not yet free to wed, he still has three more years in which he must, life fully  his Wild Man nature before the ring can be joined. Again we have the number three, three years to synthesise the experience of the first four, which culminates with the meeting with the merchants daughter. 

 For now then, there is another separation, a separation from a part of himself, in the from of the newly found feminine, that we now intuit the tales is moving toward. Separations are not new for men  as Shinoda-Bolen notes "For men, life is a series of separations and disidentifications." 12  From the loss of the first paradisical connection with their mother to the disidentifications with their body, feelings and physical pain as they hold in the tears in the school playground, to the adolescent urge to differentiate that begins around puberty. In traditional cultures tribal initiations began around this time, these were always more elaborate for boys than for girls, "girls were expected to leave their personal mothers but circle back to the hearth," in a continuing state of identification. While "the rites of initiation were decisive and powerful for boys, not only because of the power of the mother complex but because boys were expected to separate from the natural world, the life of instinct, for an artificial, man made world of culture." 13  "All his life, then, a man seeks reconnection. Since he cannot go backward to Her, he must seek Her, or her symbolic substitute, out there in relationship with individuals or institutions, in ideologies or in the sky-parent, God."14  

The anima is the name given by Jung to describe the interior feminine, it is the root word for animates, or gives life too, and because she (the anima) resides in that interior place she is almost a total mystery. I quote at length from Robert Johnson's, Lying with the Heavenly Woman (1994) "She is the inspirer, the bearer of poetry, the guide through the underworld, the essence of encouragement, and probably deepest of all, she is the carrier of meaning. It is she, with her magic and her interior connection, who bestows meaning and value in a mans life.  When a man is in her presence – inwardly in his deepest inner world, or outwardly when he is in the presence of someone to whom he has given this power – the slightest nod of approval or talisman from her hand is enough to give meaning and justification to the whole of his life." 15 Certainly she is able to inspire Bearskins existence with meaning. Meaning that men on their own find so elusive and difficult to hold for themselves and so project onto their partners. Or find someone else who will carry the projection for them.

As the tale goes on "The youngest, however, said: "Dear Father, that must have been a good man to have helped you out of your trouble, so if you have promised him a bride for doing it, your promise must be kept." It was a pity that Bearskin's face was covered with dirt and with hair, for if not they might have seen how delighted he was when he heard these words." For with these words Bearskin experiences the validation of his masculine world in her warmth, gentleness and understanding, for which all men so hunger. A hunger that can never be fully satiated if men unconsciously invest such an awful task on an outer woman, and so manifests as a sense of meaninglessness, depression and rage.

The next three years pass uneventfully, until on the heath once more he meets the devil figure who makes him clean, and we note with interest the change that has taken place, we notice that he is no longer the soldier who takes orders, passive and accepting, now he is competent and powerful, with a new assertion in his dealing with the devil figure, he is able to assert and insist on his own authority and demand, above and beyond the original agreement, that he,  "fetch water, and wash Bearskin, comb his hair, and cut his nails." After which he "was much handsomer than he had ever been before."  This is the culmination of the soldiers initiation, "the dark ones in the psyche do not act until asked to," 16 states Bly, he is on longer master but must now be the servant. As Joseph Campbell, states in The Hero With a Thousand Faces." The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand. 17 " 

The tale Bearskin closes with the union of Bearskin and the youngest daughter, who has been waiting demure, faithful and true. And given that "a man's incarnation of the inner feminine is a function of how he stands in relation to the life force that courses within him," (Hollis Under Saturn's Shadow. p 20) our sense is that this is no trivial union. Rather it is deep, abiding and will be fruitful because of the soldiers initiation into an experience of the wild masculine depths of his inwardness, out of which this union emerged. Bearskin is not a tale of descent in any obvious way and yet much of which his experience is contained within Nietzsche's phrase "Out of the lowest the highest reaches its peak."

There exists a parallel tale from the Russia called The Soldier Who Never Washed, 18 where these themes are explored in a slightly different way, the major difference being when the soldier calls to the devil figure, or in this story his emissary,  "Now my time of service is over; make me a handsome man again!" Whereupon the little devil cut him up into small pieces, threw him into a cauldron and let him boil. When he had boiled long enough he took him out and out all the bits together again where they belonged bone to bone, limb to limb, sinew to sinew. Then he sprinkled him with the water of life and death. 19 Alchemical imagery is again instructive here, for what this describes is the process of  breaking down, or more accurately the boiling down of the old self and then the putting together again prior to the conjunctio, or final joining together. While what better image could there be of a man emerged from his "ashes" time of withdrawal when he must daily live with, lie on and sleep in his own dirt, filth and stench. That is all that is outwardly rotten and base, while remaining true to himself and his word, that he might form, but not yet consummate his relationship with his inner feminine self. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke " The hero keeps going and his ruin was only a subterfuge for his achieving final birth."

In conclusion it is, perhaps the most important aspect of this fairy tale, as with many tales pertaining to men, that the task is taken on by choice, the Soldier agrees to the terms set by the devil figure and enters into the contract willingly. In so doing Bearskin begins a deeply transformative depth experience, in other words an initiation.  This aspect of choice, usually reflected by the hero's position, contrasts starkly the heroine's situation, which is usually one of necessity.  Although it might be argued that given his circumstances the Soldier had no choice other than to accept his fate willingly. After all, free will, as Jung notes, is ability to do gladly that which one must do. 

Today such rites, or initiations are missing, such wise elders absent, I quote James Hollis, "such existential transformation driven underground." All we are left with are shallow attempts of youth to initiate themselves, find their own mentor figures where none before them stood, and do the best they can. Sadly it is not enough, and the result is a split, on the one hand, violent nationalistic regimes of both political and religious fundamentalism are on the rise the world over as men embrace the patriarchal world views that they offer. While on the other, we have "sensitive new age guys" rushing headlong into the indiscriminate arms of the Great Mother. Neither group seems to be able to come up with any definitions of what it is to be a man. Hollis goes on, "If we ask a man, 'Do you feel like a man?' chances are he will consider the question silly or threatening. He will know his roles, but he will neither be able to define what it means to be a man, nor will he likely feel he has measured up to any of his own partial definitions." 20 Today’s hero quest is not through the physical world but through the bad lands of the soul. That interior  landscape wherein one must be constantly vigilant and cognizant of the fact that

Consciousness only comes through the suffering inherent in the inner work of acknowledging one's woundedness, without which, we are all too content to rest easy.   Heroism then, might be redefined as the willingness to engage the inner worlds, to hold with strength and conviction the ambivalence and ambiguities of feeling and the feeling world, amidst uncertainty and paradox.  

Both tales end with what is both a satisfying and disquieting twist. Satisfying because the two elder sisters, unable to heed their fathers authority, or accept their sisters honour, and consumed with appearances, come to a fitting end. What though are to make of the devils final curtain call?  Was the outcome planned even from the beginning? Is it our own inner devils that must propel us on the Quest to wholeness, somehow orchestrating each step of the way? Or is it that this was no devil after all, but some ancient and powerful earth deity waiting for us to heed his call and don, like our soldier, the "skin of the bear." 








 All references:

2   J.E.Cirlot, A Dictioary of Symbols p 23

3   Robert Bly, Psyche's Stories, Ed. Corbett & Stein, p

4   Robert Bly, Psyche's Stories, Ed. Corbett & Stein,    955

5   James Hollis, Under Saturn's Shadow p 50 Inner City  Books 1994

6   V. Walter Odajnyk (1987 P350)

7   Marion Woodman,  Leaving My Fathers House p 281

8   Robert Johnson, Inner Work, p115

9   J.E.Cirlot, A Dictioary of Symbols p 235 

10  M.L. Von Franz Introduction To Fairytales p 58

11  M.L. Von Franz Introduction To Fairytales p 66

12  Jean Shinoda Bolen, Gods In Everyman p 283 Harper Perennial 1989

13  James Hollis, Under Saturn's Shadow p 20 Inner City Books 1994

14  James Hollis, Under Saturn's Shadow p 56 Inner City Books 1994

15  Robert Johnson, Lying with the Heavenly Woman p

16  Robert Bly, Psyche's Stories, Ed. Corbett & Stein,

17  Joseph Campbell,)  The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

18  Russian Folktales, Bell & Sons, 1971, The Soldier Who Never Washed.

19  Russian Folktales, Bell & Sons, 1971, The Soldier Who Never Washed. p

20  James Hollis Under Saturn's Shadow. p 20 Inner City Books 1994