Once upon a time, a king was hunting deep in the forest when he lost his way. Night was falling, so when he stumbled upon a cottage, he knocked at the door.
The woodcutter who answered looked worried. “My wife is expecting a baby tonight,” he said. “But you can sleep in our loft, Your Majesty.”
The king shared a simple supper with the man and his wife, and climbed up to the loft to sleep. An hour later, a bonny baby boy was born.
At midnight, a bright flash of light woke the king. When he peeped downstairs, he saw a fairy godmother standing over the baby and heard her say, “My gift to you, dear boy, is that you will marry the daughter of the king who sleeps upstairs.”
The fairy godmother disappeared in an instant, leaving the king full of worry. The queen was expecting a baby, but no child of his could marry the son of a woodcutter! The king stayed awake, hatching a plan.
When the woodcutter and his wife woke up, the king took his chance. “Can you afford to raise this child?” he asked the woodcutter.
“No,” said the woodcutter sadly. “It worries us greatly, Your Majesty.”
“Why not give me your child to look after?” said the king. “He will live a good life and he can work for me.”
The woodcutter and his wife accepted the king’s offer, but they shed tears as the king left with their baby in his arms.
In daylight, the king easily found his way through the forest and soon met one of his soldiers, who had been searching for him.
“Take this child to the river and drown it,” said the king, thrusting the poor baby into the soldier’s arms.
The soldier looked alarmed. “But Your Majesty, it’s a tiny baby!”
“Do as I say,” warned the king, “or I will have you drowned too.”
The soldier carried the baby to the river, but he couldn’t bring himself to harm the child. Instead, he placed it in his helmet and watched it float away.
When the king reached the palace, he discovered that the queen had given birth to a beautiful baby girl. When he heard the news, he was relieved he had got rid of the woodscutter’s baby.
But, of course, the baby didn’t drown. He bobbed along the river and was saved by a kind washerwoman, who was delighted to find a baby boy.
“The river has given us the son we dreamt of!” she told her husband. So they named the baby Dearborn and raised him as their own.
The years passed and Dearborn grew into a healthy, handsome young man.
One day, the king rode by on a hunt and stopped to ask for a drink. When he spotted Dearborn, he said to the washerwoman, “Your son should join my guard – he looks fit and strong.”
“He isn’t truly my son, Your Majesty,” admitted the washerwoman. “I found him when he was a baby, just floating along the river in a soldier’s helmet.”
The king turned pale with shock. He knew at once that Dearborn must be the child he thought had drowned.
Thinking quickly, he said, “I need to send an urgent message to the palace. Will your son go for me?”
The king quickly scribbled a message to his soldiers, instructing them to kill Dearborn on sight. He sealed it tightly.
Dearborn set off for the palace with no idea of the king’s evil plan. It was a long journey but, just as he was growing tired, he found a cottage.
A kindly old woman answered the door. “Where are you going, lad?”
“I have to deliver an urgent message for the king,” he explained.
“It’s dark,” she said. “Sleep here tonight and continue in the morning.”
The old woman was Dearborn’s fairy godmother in disguise. She gave him a warm drink, which made him fall into a deep sleep. While he slept, she rewrote the king’s letter instructing the queen to marry Dearborn to the princess immediately.
When Dearborn woke the next day, he was astonished to find himself right outside the palace gates. He delivered the king’s message and the queen was greatly surprised.
However, when the princess and Dearborn met, they knew at once that they belonged together. Their wedding was arranged and it was a happy day for everyone.
A few days later, the king returned and was furious to hear the news. He didn’t want a lowly son-in-law, so he set Dearborn an impossible task.
“Dearborn, you must give me a dowry. Bring me three golden hairs from Grandfather Knowitall’s head and I will allow you to stay here.”
Dearborn had no choice. He said farewell to the princess and, with no idea where to go, he began his quest.
Now, everybody had heard of old Grandfather Knowitall, but nobody knew where he lived, so Dearborn searched for many miles and many weeks without any luck.
At last, he reached the edge of the dark sea, where he met a ferryman.
“Can you take me across the sea, please? asked Dearborn. “I need to get to Grandfather Knowitall.”
“I have run this ferry for twenty years without a single day off,” said the ferryman. “If you promise to ask Grandfather Knowitall when I will be free, I will ferry you across.”
Dearborn promised and the ferryman carried him to the land across the sea where, beyond the grand city gates, everything stood in ruins.
Dearborn visited the queen, but found everyone in her court was crying.
In between her sobs, Dearborn told the queen of his mission.
The queen dried her eyes. “We have a well here, which once flowed with the water of life.” She sniffed. “Anyone who drank from it would never die, but it has been dry for ten years. We live in constant mourning. If you promise to ask Grandfather Knowitall how to fix it, I will reward you handsomely.”
Dearborn promised the queen he would ask, and he set off once again.
After many more days of walking, he finally came to a tall, dark forest. He followed a twisty path through it, which led to a wild flower meadow.
“Surely this is the home of Grandfather Knowitall,” thought Dearborn.
When he entered the dazzling palace, he was greeted by the same fairy godmother who had saved his life.
“Welcome, Prince Dearborn. Why are you here?” she asked.
Dearborn explained his mission.
His fairy godmother smiled. “Well, Grandfather Knowitall is my son, but he is also the sun in the sky. In the morning, he is a child; by noon, he is a young man; and by evening, he is a grandfather. But he is hot – if you go near him, he will burn you.”
Prince Dearborn looked despairing.
“Don’t worry,” said his fairy godmother. “I will get the three golden hairs, but you must hide in this chest, so you are protected from his burning rays.”
As Prince Dearborn climbed into the chest, he begged his fairy godmother to get answers to the questions he had encountered on his journey.
“I will,” she agreed, “but you must listen carefully to his answers.”
Soon, old Grandfather Knowitall came home and lit up the whole palace with his glowing light. He ate supper, then rested his golden head on his mother’s lap. As he snoozed, she plucked a hair from his head and he woke up.
“What is it, Mother?” he asked.
“Oh, I had a strange dream,” she said. “I dreamt of a city with a well filled with the water of life. But the well dried up and the queen couldn’t fix it.”
“I know that city,” yawned Grandfather Knowitall. “She needs to move the frog that is blocking the bottom of the well.”
He fell asleep again and his mother plucked another hair from his head.
“What is it, Mother?” he asked.
“Oh, I had another odd dream about a ferryman who has crossed the sea for twenty years, but longs to know when his job will end.”
“Oh, him,” said Grandfather Knowitall. “He needs to hand his oar to the next person who asks to be ferried across. Then he can jump ashore.”
He fell asleep again and his mother plucked a third hair from his head, but this time, he didn’t feel it.
When Grandfather Knowitall woke in the morning, he was a boy again. He said goodbye to his mother and flew out of the palace in a blaze of light.
The fairy godmother handed Prince Dearborn the three golden hairs and wished him luck on his journey.
He set off for the city of the well of life and gave the crying queen her answer. He helped her move the frog from the bottom of the well. When she saw the magical waters flowing again, she laughed for the first time in years.
The queen rewarded Prince Dearborn with twelve white horses laden with gold and precious jewels.
Next, Prince Dearborn rode to the edge of the dark sea, where the ferryman was waiting eagerly for his answer.
“I have it, but I cannot tell you until we reach the other side.”
Though the ferryman was impatient, he carried Prince Dearborn across the sea. When they reached the shore, Prince Dearborn told him what to do.
“Once you have handed over your oar, you will be free forever and the new person will be forced to do your job.”
At last, Prince Dearborn reached the palace of his beloved princess, where the two were happily reunited.
The king couldn’t believe it when Prince Dearborn gave him three golden hairs from Grandfather Knowitall’s head, but he was even more impressed by his magnificent white horses and treasures.
“Where did you get such riches?” asked the king, so Prince Dearborn told him all about the well with the water of life.
“Water of life!” cried the king. “Imagine! If I had such a thing, I could live and rule forever! I must have some.”
Following Prince Dearborn’s directions, the greedy king set off immediately and he never came back. As far as anyone knows, he is still ferrying the boat that crosses the dark sea!