Musings

Fairy Tale Corner: The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was

Moral: It sometimes pays to be stupid and brave.

“The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was”  (or its shorter 1812 version “Good Bowling and Card Playing”)is the fourth stale found within the Brother Grimm’s overall fairy tale anthology. From most of the sources I’ve come across, the tale originates from Germany which is further proven by the fact that most scholarship surround it is written in German. It’s a curious oddity and one of the lesser known of the Grimm tales with very few adaptions of it produced within the last forty years.

The basic premise is that a good for nothing son goes off to find what it means to shudder.

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Source: H. G Ford Illustration included in Andrew Lang’s The Little Blue Fairy Book (1889)

Fear in this story is mostly conveyed through its physical response. The main character’s brother is the first to introduce this idea to him when he refuses to go out into the woods because the thought of it makes him shudder. Our main character is branded the fool for not being able to connect the two ideas and going on this complicated quest to discover this elusive truth. In his travails, he pushes a local sexton down the church bell tower, burns several dead hangman to get them warm, and fights against various evil spirits during his three day luxury stay in a haunted castle. In the end, his fight against the dark forces wins the hand of a princess and riches. Despite his fortune, he is saddened because he still doesn’t know how to shudder. His wife, fed up with his stupid chatter, throws a bucket of cold water on him in his sleep and at last he learns the secret.

One of the most interesting things to note is how the idea of fear is treated in this story. Or more importantly, the main character’s lack of it. In the beginning, the boy is generally considered the fool. He is distinguished from his “smart and sensible” brother by being the child who could “neither learn nor understand anything” to the point that everyone in town said that he was bound to give his father trouble.His lack of common sense gets him booted out of his home town and left wandering through the land. Yet, this same lack of common sense is heavily rewarded with a princess and a kingdom.

On the one hand, it makes me question how well a kingdom could be run if an heir apparent could be chosen through such arbitrary means, regardless of political know-how. (I mean, this kingdom is going down real fast the minute this guy takes the throne). On the other, I think it’s an overall commentary on how a lack of fear is a big asset to greatness. He doesn’t overcome fear, he simply does not understand it. In the least. In most other stories (especially horror ones), a lack of fear is a quick way to get killed off because those type of characters don’t proceed with the caution that “cleverness” would implicitly instill.  But the other brother, who is arguably the smartest character in this story, is hardly ever heard from. His fate is uncertain yet the brother that was meant to cause trouble for the father ultimately elevates the family’s status. What greater position is there in a fairy tale than the next king?

Another thing I found really interesting was the blasé-ness of the main character. He is beyond comprehending what makes things scary and, when he encounters things that are normally horrifying, he kind of rolls with it. When some evil ghost cats try to talk him into a card game, he readily agrees until the sight of their nails puts him off (“I have looked at your fingers,” said he, “and my fancy for card-playing has gone,” (…) he struck them dead and threw them out into the water). When he wants to take a rest on a bed that begins to run throughout the whole castle he replies sleepily: “That’s right…but go faster.”

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Source : Boy taking offense to cat’s nails

The only incident that made me shake my head at the logic of it was the first time someone tried to frighten the main character. The sexton tries to scare him by standing at a distance dressed like a ghost in the dark. The boy called out to him three times before pushing him down the stairs and shrugs off the encounter by going to bed. I mean, I know logic isn’t the most synonymous with fairy tales but the fall out from this encounter was a bit too much. Everybody thinks the boy committed some great wrong by doing this but if I was in the same position I would have done the same (or at least run and scream in the other direction).

The overall impression I got from this story was that it was a silly dark comedy with your standard know-nothing character who manages to get lucky while being oblivious to everything. (A Forrest Gump, if you will). The fairy tale hasn’t been adapted that much in recent memory within the English language. The only thing I managed to find was a 1988 television episode within the British live action series Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Disney adaption of this though I realize how much of a difficult task it would be to adapt something like this.

Question:

What are your general thoughts about the fear? Do you think the lessons (namely, a lack of fear is a good thing) in the story have much utility in today’s society? Is this message safe?

For anyone else who has read the fairy tale, I wonder if you took anything different away from the tale.

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