A Latvian fairy tale, this version is from Tales of The Amber Sea, compiled and translated by Irina Zheleznova in 1974.
Once upon a time there lived an old peasant. He was not badly off except that his wife had died leaving him alone with their only daughter.
Now, all of the peasant’s kin, not counting some in-laws, lived far away from him, and one day making up his mind to pay them a visit, he left his daughter at home by herself and drove away.
On and on he drove and he strayed off the road time and again, for it led through dense forests (the forests were larger in those days and there were no high roads), but he got there finally. HIs kinsfolk were all in good health and prosperous and the peasant spent some time with them and then started off for home again.
Night caught him as he was passing through a large forest, and the peasant lost his way. Round and round he circled and at last found himself in so dense a thicket that he feared he wold never get out of it. By and by he saw a bright light ahead. Thinking that there ight e a house there, he drove toward it. But when he had driven up close he saw before him no ordinary house but a beautiful palace. He did not like to enter it at first, for he feared that he, a simple peasant, might not be welcome there, but, remembering that there was nowhere else he could go, made for the door.
He came inside and looked in every nook and corner, but there was not a soul to be seen anywhere.
All of a sudden, as if out of thin air, a large bear came lumbering toward him.
“What do you want here?” asked the bear.
The peasant was frightened, thinking that his end had come and the bear would tear him to bits, but the bear never touched him.
“What do you want here?” he asked again. “I will help you if I can.”
Said the peasant:
“I was coming back home from my kinsfolk’s house and I lost my way in the forest. I’ll never be able to find it again in the dark, so could you please tell me where I could spend the night?”
“You can stay in the palace,” the bear replied. “There is no one here but me.”
Seeing that he had nothing to fear from the bear, the peasant agreed.
The bear gave him some supper and ate with him, and the peasant only marvelled to see him go about everything just as if he were not a bear at all but a man.
After supper they decided to get some sleep, and the bear, the peasant found, slept like a man, too – in a bed. The peasant was overcome with sonder at the sight. This was a strange bear, indeed – to be living in a huge palace all by himself and to be doing everything just like a man.
In the morning the bear fed the peasant again.
“Well, what are you going to do now?” asked he.
“I’d like to go home,” the peasant replied.
“Go ahead, then.”
Off the peasant set on his way. He drove through the forest for a long time, but no matter where he went he found himself back at the palace again every time.
It was there he was when evening set in, and he could do nothing about it.
So in he went to see the bear again and ask him to let him pass the night in the palace.
The bear let him in as he had the night before, gave him food and drink, put him to bed and looked after his horse, too.
Morning came, and the peasant said:
“Do show me the way home!”
“That I will,” replied the bear, “but you must give me your daughter in marriage in return.”
Now, this the peasant did not like to do. Not that his daughter would not be well off in the palace, only how could she marry a bear” … It was not to be thought of.
There was nothing for it but to find the way out of the forest without the bear’s help.
All day the peasant circled the forest but when evening came he found himself at the palace again.
What was there to be done but ask the bear to let him in for the night again! The bear made him welcome as he had before. He gave him food and drink, put him to bed and looked after his horse.
Morning came, and the peasant said to the bear:
“Do show me the way home!”
“That I will,” the bear replied, “but you must give me our daughter in marriage in return.”
The peasant was about to agree, but, thinking that his daughter wouldn’t like it, resolved to try just once more to find the way home by himself.
He circled the forest all day, round and round he drove, but when evening came found himself at the selfsame palace again. He now knew that, like it or not, there was no way out for him but to promise his daughter in marriage to the bear.
The bear received him with all the politeness due a father-in-law and tried to please him in every way he could. He gave him food and drink, put him to bed and looked after his horse, too. There was nothing the peasant needed to do himself.
In the morning the bear went with the peasant and showed him the way home.
The peasant returned home with heavy heart, and his daughter at once saw that something was amiss.
“Is any of our kin dead or gravely ill?” asked she.
Loath as the peasant was to tell his daughter about the bear, he knew that he had to. So he told her all about everything, even to the promise he had made the bear to give her to him in marriage. Of course, the bear lived in a rich palace and behaved just like a man but that still did not make him one.
The daughter heard him out but she was not in the least put out. Said she to her father:
“The bear did you no harm, he even helped you to get back home. So that means he’ll do me no harm, either.”
So after a time off they set together and drove to the bear’s palace, and no welcome could have been better than the one the bear gave them.
The peasant stayed in the palace for a few days and then he went home, but his daughter remained with the bear. They lived together in peace and happiness, and being there with him under one roof day in and day out the maid noticed that the bear had a man’s body under his skin. So she decided to watch him as he was making ready for bed.
One night she did not go to bed herself but crept up to the bear’s room and peeped in at the door. And what did she see but the bear take off his bearskin and turn into a man with only his head remaining a bear’s head. The maid liked him that way more than ever and she said to herself that it would be a good thing to free him of the bearskin altogether.
Once, when the bear was fast asleep, she tiptoed in, took the skin that was lying at his feet and threw it in the stove.
The skin burnt quite away but the bear fell gravely ill. The maid knew why this was and she was very very sorry for the bear, but there was nothing she could do to help him. The bear lay there for a day and he grew worse. He lay there for a second day and he was worse still and looked as if he were about to die. There sat the maid beside him on his bed and wept bitterly, but all her wails and sobs availed her nothing. The third day came and the bear was at his last gasp. The maid told herself that he was going to die and she nearly died of grief herself.
But the third day passed and the third night, too, and in the morning the bear turned into a prince so handsome that one could not take one’s eyes off him. The maid was much surprised and as happy as could be. She threw her arms round the prince’s neck and begged hi to forgive her for having made him suffer so. But the prince, far from being angry, did not know how to thank her enough. For, said he, the devil himself had turned him into a bear and his skin had to be burnt before he could become a man again. No one had known about it until she had come and broken the spell.
The prince and the peasant’s daughter then held a gay wedding feast and invited all and sundry to it. There was enough food and drink for everyone and the guests ate and drank to their hearts’ content.
The peasant came and could not get over his surprise at seeing the tall and handsome prince there before him instead of the bear. He did not go back home any more but stayed in the palace with his daughter and son-in-law.
And for all we can tell, they must be living there still, and if only we knew where their palace was we could pay them a visit.