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Literature / The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was

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The Story Of The Youth Who Went Forth To Learn What Fear Was (Märchen von einem, der auszog, das Fürchten zu lernen) is a German Fairy Tale collected in the early 19th century by The Brothers Grimm, the fourth story in the Children's and Household Tales (Kinder- und Hausmärchen) collection. It was also collected by Andrew Lang in The Blue Fairy Book.

Once Upon a Time there lived a young man who wished to understand what fear was. A sexton tries to help him by having the youth ring the church bell at midnight, while he tries to scare him by dressing up as a ghost. The youth isn't scared at all and pushes the sexton down the stairs, breaking his leg. Ashamed and horrified, the young man's father sends him out in the wide world. The youth takes this as an opportunity to try to learn what fear is. A stranger advises him to spend a night beneath the gallows, where seven dead men are hanging. He follows this advice, sets a fire for the night, and even cuts down the bodies to sit them next to him around the fire. When the corpses' clothes catch fire, the youngster gets annoyed at their carelessness and hangs them back up.

One day, when arriving at an inn, the innkeeper tells the protagonist that if he wants to know how to shudder, he should visit the Haunted Castle nearby. Nobody ever survived spending one night there, because they all died of fear. If he can manage to stay there, he will win earn all the treasures of the castle and marry the king's daughter. The youth decides to take the challenge and goes to the king, who tells him he may bring three objects to the castle. The youngster chooses a fire, a lathe, and a cutting board with a knife.

The first night, he is confronted with two black cats, complaining about the cold. The young man invites them to join him near the fire. The cats propose a card game, but the youth cuts their nails with his cutting board and knife. A huge fight breaks loose with all kinds of cats and dogs trying to attack him, but he kills them all. Then, out of nowhere, a bed appears. The main character hops in, but the bed moves and drives him around the entire castle. Still unafraid, the youth urges it to go faster. The bed turns upside down on him, but he just tosses the bed aside and sleeps next to the fire until morning.

During the second night, half of a man falls down the chimney. The youth, again unafraid, shouts up the chimney that the other half is needed. The other half, hearing him, falls from the chimney and reunites with the rest of his body. More men followed with human skulls and dead men's legs with which to play nine-pins. The amused young man sharpens the skulls into better balls with his lathe and joins the men until midnight, when they vanish into thin air.

On his third and final night in the castle, the young man hears a strange noise. Six men enter the room, carrying a coffin. The boy, unafraid but distraught, believes the body to be his own dead cousin. As he tries to warm the body, it reanimates, and, confused, threatens to strangle him. The youth, angry at his ingratitude, closes the coffin on top of the man again. Then an old man appears who brags that he can knock an anvil straight to the ground. He brings the young man to the basement and begins showing off this trick. The youth, meanwhile, splits the anvil and traps the old man's beard in it, beating him with an iron rod afterward. The man, desperate for mercy, gives him all the treasures in the castle.

Next morning, the king tells the young man that he can marry his daughter. The youth agrees, though upset that he has still not learned how to shudder. One night, his bride tosses freezing water with gudgeons onto her husband as he sleeps. As he awakes, shuddering, he exclaims that while he has finally learned to shudder, he still does not know what true fear is.

It's one of the lesser known fairy tales, but frequently compiled in books that feature the "best" fairy tales of all time. The Nightmare Fuel, or Lightmare Fuel elements if you will, make it very popular with audiences. Elements of this story have reappeared in other media, including the Ring of the Nibelung, where Siegfried also tries to discover what fear is. The fairy tale has been adapted to screen by the TV series Faerie Tale Theatre and The Storyteller.

The story can be read here, here, here, or here. Andrew Lang's version can be read here or here.

This story provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Animate Inanimate Object: The bed that can move by itself.
  • Back from the Dead: In the castle, the youngster warms a dead body near the fire, which causes the corpse to reanimate.
  • Black Comedy: The scenes at the graveyard fit this trope.
  • Bedsheet Ghost: The sexton dresses himself up as a ghost.
  • Chess with Death: The boy plays nine-pins with a bunch of skeletons.
  • Comically Missing the Point: The youngster does this time and time again.
  • Curiosity Killed the Cast: Subverted. The young man is eager to know what fear is, but is never frightened by anybody or anything. Even when people threaten him, he just fights back and defeats them.
  • Dem Bones: The youth plays nine-pins with a bunch of skeletons and even sharpens the skulls, so they become better balls.
  • Dub Name Change: In Spain, the tale and the main character are known as "Juan Sin Miedo" ("Fearless John")
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: When the youngster warms up a corpse by putting it next to a fire it comes back alive and announces he will murder him. The hero feels this is very ungrateful and puts the corpse back in his coffin.
  • Engagement Challenge: He who spends three nights at the haunted castle may marry the princess.
  • Exact Words: The youth wants to know what fear is, but expresses a desire to shudder. So the princess makes him shudder by dumping freezing water (and, in almost all versions, still-alive fish!) all over him, which works.
  • Fearless Fool: The protagonist is apparently too foolish to understand what fear is.
  • Foreshadowing: In the first part of the story, the youth tries to warm up seven corpses by taking them down from the gallows and trying to warm them up. During his third night in the castle, he does this again with another corpse, but this time the body comes alive.
    • Quite some scenes in this story involve characters who either feel cold or of whom the hero assumes they are. Either way, whenever he invites them around the fire, his gratitude is not rewarded. Interestingly enough, his wife literally gives him the chills near the end of the story as she throws freezing river water in his bed while he is sleeping.
  • Gallows Humor: Literally and as a matter of speech: the youngster spents a night at the gallows and takes down seven corpses because he thinks they might want to join him sitting around the fire. As their clothes catch fire, he hangs them back up again, because they are so careless.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Two separate body parts fall down the chimney while the youngster stays in the haunted house. They reattach soon afterward.
  • Haunted Castle: The hero successfully spends three nights there.
  • Idiot Hero: Most of the heroic things the main character does happen out of accident or dumb luck.
  • Mundane Solution: The youth spends the whole story trying to shudder, taking on increasingly more dangerous tasks so that he can freeze in fear. The princess accomplishes this in seconds by dumping cold water on him.
  • Murphy's Bed: The youngster notices a bed and decides to take some rest. Then the thing starts moving all over the castle.
  • No Name Given: The youngster's name is never mentioned.
  • The Only Way They Will Learn: Never being afraid would seem to be a valuable power, yet everybody in the story wants to help the youngster find out what fear is by exposing him to creepy things, creatures, and situations.
  • On One Condition: The youngster must spend three nights in a Haunted Castle to receive the kings' fortune and hand of his youngest daughter.
  • Panthera Awesome: In the castle, two large cats appear. When he traps them, several other black cats and dogs emerge from the darkness in the room, but he combats and kills them all.
  • Plot Hole: The protagonist is unaware what fear is and seems to have no understanding of the concept of death, yet he does kill several scary creatures in the castle?
  • Rule of Seven: Seven corpses hanging at the gallows.
  • Rule of Three: He is the third and youngest son. He is allowed to take three things to the castle, and he must spend three nights there.
  • Scare Dare: The boy gets many opportunities to do stuff that would scare off many other people, but does so anyway.
  • Sliding Scale of Comedy and Horror: This fairy tale has its chilling moments, but it's delivered with a good sense of humor.
  • Standard Hero Reward: The protagonist gets the treasure and the hand of the king's daughter. In marriage.
  • Uncanny Family Resemblance: The youngster sees a corpse inside a coffin and recognizes his dead cousin, so he gets him out.
  • Youngest Child Wins: The youngest son, of whom everybody said he was stupid, eventually gets all the treasure and may marry the king's daughter.