The ultimate ambition for anyone in a fairy tale is to become a prince or princess. There are a surprisingly wide variety of ways to achieve this, including fighting one’s way through a maze of thorns, wrestling with bird men, stealing magical garments or answering impossible riddles. On the whole, though, it’s best to book early to avoid disappointment, and there is no better means of doing that than having your royal destiny preordained with a prophecy. Just don’t expect everyone to like you for it.
Version 1: The Three Golden Hairs of Father All-Know
This fairy tale is Bohemian, and not in the artistic sense, although there is interestingly streaked hair involved. It comes from Leopard’s 1996 collection Classic Folk-Tales From Around the World and begins by introducing us to a hunter king so intent on pursuing his quarry that he becomes lost in the forest at night and is forced to take shelter with a family of charcoal burners, sleeping in the straw of their garret. The gesture is all the more generous given that the charcoal burner’s wife is suffering with a difficult pregnancy. She gives birth that night. After the baby is born, she and her husband fall into exhausted sleep, but the king is still awake and so only he notices a light coming from the room underneath the garret.
When he looks through a crack, he sees three ancient women all dressed in white surrounding the newborn. Each holds a candle. Each endows the child with a slightly disturbing gift. Nothing so simple as ‘beauty’ or ‘grace’ for this boy. The first crone’s gift is that he shall come into great dangers. The second counteracts that, pronouncing that he shall escape them all and live into old age. The third seals the shape of his life by stating that he shall marry the newborn daughter of the very king taking shelter in the garret above. With that, they put out their candles and vanish in the darkness.
To say the king is not in a good state of mind after that would be something of an understatement. He didn’t even know he had a daughter yet and now it’s been arranged, by the Fates themselves no less, that she’ll end up hitched to a charcoal burner’s son. Then in the morning he is handed the perfect opportunity to thwart the prophecy. The charcoal burner wakes to find his wife dead and his son crying; he doesn’t know what to do. At this heart-breaking and very vulnerable moment, the king swoops in. “Give me the baby,” he coaxes. “I’ll take care that it shall be well…and will give you so much money that you needn’t burn charcoal as long as you live.” The charcoal burner agrees, not picking up on the key warning that a man who calls your infant son an ‘it’ may not be the one to choose as a foster parent, and the king promises to send for the baby as soon as he gets home.
Well, he does get home. And he does have a daughter. And he does send for the baby, telling the servant to pay the charcoal burner the promised money then drown the child on his way home. The servant, afraid for his own life, duly throws an innocent infant in a river, basket and all. “Good night, uninvited son-in-law!” cackles the king. But he’s crowing a little too soon, because the baby might be in the river, but he isn’t dead. He floats along in the basket until he is spotted by a fisherman and brought home to the man’s wife. The couple name him Floatling and adopt him as their own.
Twenty years later, the king is riding along the river, alone and badly prepared, as is his wont. He commands the fisherman to bring him water, and when it is Floatling who obeys, the king is startled by the boy’s dazzling good looks. The fisherman doesn’t need much encouragement to talk about his son. He explains about the boy’s mysterious origins and the king guesses straight away what must have happened. He’s a quick thinker though – he’s hoodwinked one innocent father before and he does it again, giving Floatling a message to carry to his palace with all due speed. What Floatling and his father don’t know is that the message specifically orders that its deliverer be run through by a sword.
So off Floatling goes, but on the way through dense woodland he misses the road and becomes lost. Darkness is falling when he runs into an ancient crone who invites him to stay the night with her. “You won’t be with a stranger,” she says, “I am your godmother.” Floatling, despite having never met the woman before in his life, is happy to believe this. It’s dark, he’s lost, this is no time to be fussy. While he sleeps, the crone removes the king’s letter from his pocket and replaces it with another that, far from demanding his death, insists that he marry the princess straight away. Mess with my prophecy, would you, majesty? Hah.
So the king comes home to find his daughter irrevocably married, and pretty happy about it too, because she and her mother both agree that Floatling is very easy on the eye. The king is livid, but then the queen produces the letter, and it is his to every last detail – apart from the murderous instructions, that is. He quickly questions Floatling and realises that the godmother with whom the young man spent the night was in fact the same Fate who thought up the wedding in the first place.
But the king’s not giving up so easily as all that. If Floatling wants to be with the princess, he’ll have to prove himself by fetching her a dowry – the three golden hairs of Grandfather Allknow, to be precise. There are no directions to be had, either, but this is a young man with a Fate on his side and he follows the right road all the way down to a black sea. There he meets a ferryman who has been waiting twenty years for someone to tell him how to escape his endless work. Floatling promises to ask Grandfather Allknow and in exchange is ferried across the sea. Next he comes to a crumbling city. Once, he is told, an apple tree grew here, the fruit of which gave youth to all those who tasted it. But for twenty years now the tree has borne no fruit. If Floatling can find the reason why, he is promised a kingly reward, and again he promises to ask Grandfather Allknow when he reaches his journey’s end. Not long afterwards, he reaches a second city in a similar state of decay. In this place there was once a well from which sprang miraculous water that could restore a corpse to life, but for twenty years now the water has not flowed. For the third time Floatling is asked to provide a solution, and once more he promises to ask Grandfather Allknow. He is putting a lot of faith in that name.
From there he travels through a dark forest, at the heart of which he finds a beautiful flowering meadow and a golden palace, where a very familiar old woman is in residence. Yes, it is Floatling’s godmother, and by extraordinary coincidence (or not. She is a FATE, after all), she is also the mother of Grandfather Allknow. Even she, though, wouldn’t risk introducing them when her son first arrives home in the evening – lovely boy though he is, he might be a little too hungry to be reasonable, so she hides Floatling under a washing tub. Not a moment too soon, either, because when Grandfather Allknow flies into the palace, he catches the smell of human flesh straight away and it takes his mother’s quick intervention to move his attention elsewhere.
After supper, he lays down to sleep with his head on her lap, and she pulls out the first golden hair. Instead of apologising for waking him up, she asks about the well of living water, and is told that it is being stopped up by a toad. No sooner has Allknow drifted back to sleep than she tugs out the second hair. She fakes a second marvellous dream, this time about the magical apple tree. A snake lies at its roots, she is told, draining its powers. You might think he’d be fed up enough to go to bed properly, but Allknow goes back to sleep, and is roused moments later by the loss of his third golden hair. By now he’s getting impatient with all these dreams that have turned his mother into a crazy hairdresser person. All the same, you don’t get the name Allknow for no reason, and he answers her third question – if the ferryman gives his oar to another and jumps ashore himself, he will be free and the other must remain in his place. And at last the Fate lets him sleep.
In the morning, Allknow flies from the palace and Floating begins his return home with the three stolen hairs. As he passes through each ruined city, he gives them their answer, and between them they give him twenty four horses loaded up with treasure. How he fits them all onto the ferry, I’m not entirely sure, but he is clever enough not to give the last answer of his journey until he is safely on the other side of the sea.
The king is astounded and not at all pleased to see his son-in-law return home alive. Apparently he still thought he could foul up the prophecy. As Floatling relates his adventures, though, the king forgets all else with a sudden hunger for magical apples and miraculous water. He hurries away to find them for himself…and never comes back.
Version 2: The Giant with Three Golden Hairs
In this Grimm brothers version of the story, taken from the Dean&Son collection Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the king does not witness the prophecy for himself – he is travelling through the countryside in disguise, as you do, when he happens into a village where a poor man’s son has been born under a lucky star. It has been foretold that when the boy is in his fourteenth year, he will marry the princess. Well, that’s concerning on a couple of levels, and the king is having none of it. He buys the boy off his poverty-stricken parents, pops him in a box, and throws him in a stream on his way back to the palace.
He neglects, however, to take the boy out of the box before tossing it, and as in the first story, the child floats downriver to be found by a delighted and childless couple who raise him as their own. Thirteen years go by. Then the king, who is wandering about the countryside looking for trouble again, comes across the mill where the luck child is working with his adoptive father and hears the story. He guesses at once that this must be his terrible nemesis, the Helpless Child, and almost fourteen too. He smoothly seconds the boy as a royal messenger, sending him off to deliver his own note of execution to the queen, but there’s a deep dark forest in the way and the boy is forced to seek shelter for the night before he reaches the palace. He follows a light between the trees to a cottage that just happens to be dropped right in the middle of nowhere, and is welcomed in by a little old lady.
Only, of course, she’s no ordinary little old lady. I don’t know if there is such a thing as an ordinary little old lady in fairy tales. This one works for a gang of robbers who arrive home later that night to find a fourteen-year-old boy asleep in their hideout. Opening and reading the letter he was intended to deliver, they are outraged at the king’s homicidal deceit. Honestly, some people have no morals AT ALL. The robber leader performs some nifty forgery, replacing the death sentence with a command that the boy be immediately married to the princess. In the morning they show the boy the right way to the palace, possibly snickering slightly. The queen reads the new message and, well, this boy has charm that can fell a whole gang of robbers in one go. While he’s asleep. What chance does the princess stand? By the time the king comes back, they are happily married.
So the prophecy has come true after all. The king’s not giving in graciously, though. He declares that the boy cannot be properly his son-in-law until he has descended into the cavernous residence of the king of the giants and stolen his three golden hairs. The boy, something of an optimist, cheerfully agrees. “I will soon manage that,” he says, and goes on his way. Like Floatling in the first story, he passes through two cities troubled respectively by a broken fountain and a barren tree, although neither are quite so miraculous that their failure has turned the surrounding country to ruins. He also encounters a depressed and overworked ferryman, who carries him across a great lake to the dark caves of the golden-haired giant king. Outside is another little old lady, the giant’s grandmother, sitting by the door in an easy chair. The king’s son-in-law has nice manners, he’s a sweet boy, she decides to give him a hand, and does so by turning him into an ant.
That night the giant returns. Smelling human flesh, he searches the cavern, but naturally finds no one and is roundly scolded by his grandmother for making a mess. Eventually he falls asleep on her lap, though not for long. Three times she wakes him up by plucking out the gold threads of his hair, and three times she receives a bad-tempered answer to the luck child’s questions. The fountain will flow again when the toad that sits within it is killed. The tree will bear its golden apples once more when they stop the mouse that gnaws its roots. The ferryman will be released from his endless toil when he passes his rudder into the hands of another passenger. Now let me sleep.
In the morning, once her grandson has departed, the old woman turns the king’s son-in-law back into a boy and gives him both hairs and answers. By the time he returns home, he is carrying rewards from two grateful cities, and the sight of all that gold is enough to make the angry king suddenly quite affectionate. He asks the boy where all these riches are to be found. “By the side of a lake,” is the reply he gets. “You will see the ferryman on the lake; let him carry you across, and there you will see gold as plentiful as sand on the shore.” And so the king becomes ferryman on the giant’s lake. He made his own fortune.
Sometimes the differences between versions of the same story are as interesting as their similarities. These two are so alike and still so distinct. ‘The Three Golden Hairs of Father Allknow’ holds together better from a plot perspective – it’s quite a classic reveal, actually, that all the little old ladies are in fact the same person! I have to say, though, I like the gang of altruistic robbers better than a manipulative godmother dabbling her fateful fingers in politics. I fully expect them to be taken on and reformed by ladies of the luck child’s court, or at least bribed to join a romance novel as sexy brigands.
There is another version of this story that may ring bells with those of you who, like me, grew up with Jim Henson’s fabulous television series The Storyteller. Every episode was a fairy tale retold in the thespian tones of John Hurt, and there was one called ‘The Luck Child’ that involved spooky mist, young love and a Muppet griffin. Need I say more?