Thoughts on “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was”
The Grimms’ tale that is one of the most populated by frightening imagery is also ironically one of their most comic tales. “A Tale About the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” or “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers,” or others depending on the translation, is about a young man who is such a simpleton that he doesn’t understand what it means to get “the creeps,” even when confronted by every terrifying thing that the storyteller can throw at him.
An “extended anecdote,” according to Maria Tatar, the tale has the bawdy quality of a story meant to be told in various comic voices around a fire—like a ghost story that’s silly enough to make you laugh but creepy enough to keep you up later in your tent, wondering about the various noises outside.
The boy in the tale leaves home and experiences a series of increasingly unsettling encounters, from having a one-sided conversation with a slew of dead men hanging from a gallows to three consecutive nights in a haunted castle, in which he meets a pair of enormous black cats, two halves of a man that fall down the chimney to play cards, and a bed that gallops around the castle on its own when the boy tries to sleep in it. Throughout his trials, the boy is too dumb to realize that he should be afraid, and it is because of this that he comes out the other end with a wealth of riches and the hand of the king’s daughter. When the king’s daughter pours a bucket of minnows from the nearby stream on him, the boy finally knows what it means to have “the creeps.”
Marina Warner suggested something sexual behind the image of the newly-wed bride pouring a bucket of minnows over her husband—Bruno Bettelheim, too, posited that it was marriage which finally made the youth “human” enough to feel something like fear. The youth’s similarity to other German folk heroes such as Parsifal and Siegfried, who sings that he never knew fear until gazing on the sleeping Brunnhilde, makes him one in a long line of German “heroes” whose simplicity and good nature carry them through life until they meet with the fearful beauty of a woman. It’s a silly tale, and an incredibly satisfying one, too.
So what bugs me enough about this tale to prompt a 10-minute freewrite? If I had the guts, I’d ask what the most terrifying thing is that I can imagine, since this tale does suggest that the teller was meant to top themselves with something more and more terrifying each time they told it. But I’m afraid whatever I’d write wouldn’t be frightening enough—not for our lad, anyway, clearly. The satisfaction of the tale lies in the balance of utterly terrifying and utterly silly. So it’s hard to pull off. Let’s try it.