This one is so choc-a-block with stuff I'm almost at a loss for where to begin.
We start well enough in familiar Grimm territory with a king whose superstitious of omens and a separate prophecy to a family that their son who was born with a caul will marry the king's daughter by the age of fourteen. The king, traveling through the village in disguise (because most people in the villages never saw their kings up close back then anyway) hears about the caul and the prophecy and becomes determined to prevent the prophecy from happening.
Silly king, do you not know the story of Oedipus?
Clearly he doesn't because he offers the boy's parents a metric tonne of geld for the boy, promising him the care they couldn't possibly give him due to their poverty. Typical politician, always throwing money at the problems of the poor rather than examining the root cause. Anyway, he gets the boy, lays him in a small box and sends him down the river in the box not realizing it was like sending off lifeboat number six from the Titanic. Downstream the box coasts to the collection pool of a mill where a man thinks he's found riches. Nope, only a child, but Mr and Mrs. Miller don't have a child so the man gives it to them as a gift, for which they are grateful. From there the Millers raise the boy good and honest and virtuous.
Fourteen years later and the king is off on business but caught in a thunderstorm he takes shelter with the Millers. My, what a fine boy you have, the king notes. Yup, say the Millers, floated down the river right into our hearts about fourteen years ago. The king puts 2 and 2 together and realizes this was his doing. Thinking quickly the king pulls a trick he learned from Hamlet and sends the boy back to the castle with a message to the queen that says "have this boy killed before I return home."
But it's still tunderstorming and the boy is making bad time so he stops at a cottage and asks if he can stay the night. I want to pause for a moment to consider this point because it appears a bit in these older stories and it brings up an interesting idea about what life used to be like. Imagine, it's raining, or you're lost, and you see a house and you approach and ask if you can spend the night. People always have their reasons for acting put-out by the intrusion (unless they're magical trolls) but in the end their reasons are never enough to prevent them from performing acts of pure kindness. Could you imagine trying to pull something like that today? How small a community do you think you'd have to find before you'd stumble onto that kind of kindness today?
So, anyway, the woman in the cottage tells the boy that he's made a bad call because the cottage belongs to some robbers who will, when they come home, quick-as-winking chop him into beefsteak tartar. He doesn't care, he's tired, and he'll take his chances. He falls asleep on the bench and it's a deep sleep because he never hears the robbers come home, doesn't hear the conversation they have with the old woman. The robbers open the king's letter, see what it says, tear it up, and write a new letter informing the queen that she is to marry the boy to their daughter.
Okay, in case anyone was worried about my Oedipus reference at the beginning, no, he doesn't end up marrying his mother, nor does anyone pull their eyes out. The king will get his, but not just yet. Some riddles to solve, but no Sphinx, and they're not as fun.
The queen marries off her daughter to the boy and the king comes home, stunned and horrified. In order to remain married to the princess the king orders the boy to go to hell (literally) and fetch three golden hairs off the head of the devil (Hmmm, a lot of hair in these stories). No sweat, says the boy, and off he goes. What's that sound, like a generator on high? Oh, it's Homer spinning in his grave.
The road to hell may or may not be paved, but there are at least three checkpoints along the way. Because three, it's a magic number. First stop is a gated city where the gatekeeper asks the boy his trade and what he knows. "I know everything," the boy says, as only a fourteen year old could say with any sort of conviction. The gatekeeper mentions that the fountain in town used to flow endlessly with wine but now it's all dried up, why is that boy-who-knows-everything? "I'll tell you on my way back," the boy says, using the oldest bluff in the book. And so he gets a pass.
Second city, same situation, only the problem here is the city's magic tree that bears golden fruit. The boy plies the same bluff and presses on. The third stop isn't a city, but a river, with a boatman. The boatman wants to know why he has to spend the rest of eternity ferrying people back and forth across the river which, standing between the boy and the devil makes it the River Styx, or Sanzu, or maybe the Rasa. The boy promises and answer on his return and is ferried.
Reaching the gate of hell we get a description of it being dark and sooty and the devil's not home. But his grandmother's home.
Yes, the devil has a grandmother. Doesn't that just totally tear apart any other concept of who and what the devil is or where he came from? I mean, this just makes the gyroscope in my head go off kilter a bit.
The boy explains his story to the devil's grandmother and she turns him into an ant, to hide in the fold of her clothes, while she helps extract the hairs and answer the riddles. Now, see, the devil's grandmother isn't so bad, she actually wants to help the boy! So the devil comes home and he's basically a giant with a bad temper. He goes all "fee fi fo fum" because he smells a human and his grossemuti says I just cleaned this place and you're tearing it up! You're always smelling humans... just a total grouch.
Soon the devil fall asleep with his head in her lap and she yanks a hair from his hair. When he wakes she says it was dream that caused her to pull his hair, something about a dried up fountain. The devil explains that he's got a toad under a stone in the fountain blocking the flow. Again he falls asleep, and she tugs, this time she says she dreamt of a tree that stopped growing apples. The devil chortles and says, yes, there's a mouse at the root of the tree that will kill the tree if it isn't removed soon. One more time, one more hair, and this time the dream is about the boatman. The devil explains that all the boatman has to do is hand off his pole into some unsuspecting traveler's hand and he's free of his servitude. Three hairs, three mysteries solved, the devil's witchy grandmother returns the boy to his non-ant form and sends him back home.
He relates what he has learned to the boatman (after crossing back!) and the gatekeepers, thus keeping his word, and for his troubles is given four donkey loads of gold (which are big ass loads) to bring home with him. In the boy's triumphant return the king finally gives up, but he's curious to know where the gold came from because, as we have learned, the opposite of a kind king is a greedy one. The boy tells him the gold is lying on the shores across the river leading to hell. Too good to be true, the king sets off to claim all the goad he can eat, but when he reaches the river the boatman hands off his pole to the king and runs free.
"Is he still ferrying?"
"Why, of course. Do you think someone's about to take the pole away from him?"
See, I promised you the king wouldn't die, but he got his nonetheless.