I have a vague recollection of a tale but get no hits from traditional search engines. In my memory, this is an old and famous tale, that goes as follow:

A young man travels across a foreign land. After some time they reach a river, but the bridge they intended to pass has collapsed. On the bank, a very old boatman offers the traveler to take them across. The traveler accepts, and the old boatman starts to row. As they reach the middle of the river, the old man complains about the effort and asks if the young man would accept to take over the rowing. The traveler accepts, and they reach the other side. The old boatman gets on land, but the young traveler find it impossible to let go of the oars. The old boatman then explains that he was under a curse, that forced him to keep staying in this boat until someone accepts to relay him. Freed from the curse, the old man disappears in the distance while the young man remains cursed on the boat, waiting for a new traveler to come.

I am looking for any reference discussing this tale, and more precisely for its official name and author if known.

1 Answer 1


It's part of the story of "The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs" found in Grimm's collection of folktales.

You can find a translation of it with the parallel German text here.

The basic synopsis is that the Glückskind (Luck-child) is prophesied to marry the king's daughter, to the latter's chagrin. The tries to get rid of the kid by having him go retrieve three golden hairs from the Devil's head. In doing so, he converses with three individuals who need help, including a ferryman who is forced to row and can never be free. Once he gets to Hell...

...the Devil was not at home, but his grandmother was sitting in a large arm-chair. "What do you want?" said she to him, but she did not look so very wicked. "I should like to have three golden hairs from the devil's head," answered he, "else I cannot keep my wife."

She decides to help him out. While the Devil was sleeping, she plucked a hair out and told him one of her dreams. (On Wikipedia it says the Devil had the dreams, but the English and German I provided agree it's the grandmother's dreams.) In one of the dreams, she says an ferryman cannot be freed, and the Devil replies:

"What was the dream, then?" asked he [=the devil], and was quite curious. "I dreamt of a ferry-man who complained that he must always ferry from one side to the other, and was never released. What is the cause of it?" - "Ah! the fool," answered the devil; "when any one comes and wants to go across he must put the oar in his hand, and the other man will have to ferry and he will be free."

The story ends with the Glückskind telling this to the ferryman and then tricking the king into taking the oars:

The greedy King set out in all haste, and when he came to the river he beckoned to the ferry-man to put him across. The ferry-man came and bade him get in, and when they got to the other shore he put the oar in his hand and sprang out. But from this time forth the King had to ferry, as a punishment for his sins. Perhaps he is ferrying still? If he is, it is because no one has taken the oar from him.

  • 3
    It's also in [The Story of Three Wonderful Beggars][1] and many other fairy tales, but I do note that in all the fairy tales, the young man escapes, and the older man who has been sending him on quests to die is the victim. Also, the broken bridge is an additional element. Personally, I suspect a literary tale. [1]: mythfolklore.net/andrewlang/081.htm
    – Mary
    Mar 27, 2022 at 0:39
  • @Mary Good find!
    – cmw
    Mar 27, 2022 at 0:47

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