In honor of officially launching this section on Halloween, I thought my first set of stories would be stories about fear. Specifically, I’m exploring the variations of the story about the boy without fear who goes forth to find out what it is. The main story comes from the Brothers Grimm, who wrote a story called “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” and I first encountered it as a child as part of the brilliant series Faerie Tale Theatre where it was called “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers.”
In the story, a boy doesn’t know what fear is and so he tries in a few ways to learn about it. When the first attempt leads him to injure the local sexton, his father turns him out and he wanders the land trying to figure out this whole fear thing. He spends the night at a gallows, but doesn’t find anything to fear. Eventually, he’s led to a local haunted castle, where he spends three nights, ostensibly as part of a challenge set by the local king, but really because he wants to learn fear. He fights black cats and dogs, outwits ghosts and demons, and eventually breaks the curse on the castle, thereby winning the hand of the princess, but still has not learned fear, or as he puts it “how to shudder.” When he laments this fact to his new wife, she comes up with a plan and douses him with a bucket of ice water, complete with writhing eels, so he can learn what it is to shudder.
Honestly, this version of the story is a bit Pythonesque to me — the action of the story is fun, and the scenes where he encounters beings of varying spookiness are fun, but the ending is a bit… dumb. I mean, most of the youth’s “affliction” can be explained by simply being too stupid to realize that he’s in a dangerous situation. Even the fact that his wife is able to satisfy his curiosity with a trick does not look good for him.
This theme of the person (usually a boy) without fear encountering and besting supernatural creatures is not limited to the Brothers Grimm. I encountered another version of this story on the Myths and Legends Podcast in the episode titled “Native American Folklore: Skeletons.” Now, Jason does a wonderful job of telling the story, but the gist is that a fearless youth encounters and bests four skeletons who have a wager that they can strike fear into the fearless youth. But after coming out the victor in this battle against fear, the youth returns to his camp and promptly has a conniption over a spider. Now, this might seem just as silly to some people, but I honestly found it refreshing after the Grimm’s version. In the Native American version, the fearless youth isn’t simply stupid, but very, very confident. And maybe I feel a bit of kinship with this person who has a profound fear of spiders (ick).
But it is a third version of this story that found the most enjoyable of all. This version comes from Turkish folklore, and was collected by Andrew Lang and published in his Olive Fairy Book. In this story, called “The Boy Who Found Fear at Last,” the protagonist suffers from the same inability to understand fear, and goes forth to learn about it. Along the way, he encounters what appears to be the hand of a dead person trying to steal his food, a mysterious woman who tried to drown him after asking his help retrieving her brother in the middle of a river, and a storm that nearly kills a ship full of people. Rather than stupidly barreling ahead, the youth simply uses common sense and quick thinking to get through these trials, gaining riches and rescuing a ship full of people. He finds out that the three trials were the doing of three women, who drink his health because he didn’t show the fear that other men show. In a seemingly discontinuous leap, the boy then makes his way to a city that has lost their king. Probably because of his great lack of fear, the ritual that is supposed to show the people their next king chooses this youth. And upon being declared king, he learns fear at last, as he realizes that his life is no longer his own.
I like this version, despite its inconsistencies, because the youth isn’t simply stupid, but mostly uses common sense. I mean, if a hand reaches out of the grave, that’s unexpected, but not scary in and of itself, especially if it just wants some cake. But he learns true fear, and not by some trick, but by realizing that what he values about life (his freedom) has been taken away by responsibility. So perhaps the true moral this Halloween is that it is not necessarily brave nor foolhardy to be without fear, but that the only thing we have to fear is… responsibility.
“The Boy Who Left Home to Find out About the Shivers,” Faerie Tale Theatre [link]
“The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was,” Grimm’s Fairy Tales [link]
Myths and Legends Podcast, Episode 19, “Native American Folklore – Skeletons” [link]
“The Boy Who Found Fear at Last,” from The Olive Fairy Book, collected by Andrew Lang [link]