(Karl Fahringer, ‘The Boy who Went Forth to Learn Fear’; I don’t know the edition it originally appeared in but I found it here)
I’m sorry – this is appearing a day late! The teacher-training course has crashed over my head like a monster Flemish-language wave and I am floundering. I’m also teaching English one evening a week and that’s turned out to be hard work too. So, writing time is short here at a gallimaufry these days.
But onward! There are two brothers, the younger of whom is stupid, unable to learn anything and unable to experience fear: ‘They keep on saying, “It makes my flesh creep! It makes my flesh creep!” My flesh doesn’t creep: likely it’s another of those skills I don’t understand.’ When his father asks him what trade he would like to learn, the boy answers that he’d like to learn ‘flesh-creeping’. The father complains about this to the sexton, who offers to take the boy on and teach him flesh-creeping, which he attempts to do by pretending to be a ghost: the boy mistakes him for a ne’er-de-well and kicks him down the stairs, breaking his leg. Deeply embarrassed and annoyed, the father gives his son fifty thalers and turns him out of the house to seek his fortune, warning him never to mention from where he comes or whom his father is. A man on the road offers to teach him flesh-creeping by instructing him to spend the night beneath a gibbet, but the boy is unafraid and even takes the corpses down and sits them by the fire so they can warm themselves. At an inn he learns of a haunted castle: anyone who can spend three nights there will win the hand of the king’s daughter. As yet no-one has emerged alive.
The boy takes up the challenge, asking only for ‘a fire, a turner’s bench and a wood-carver’s bench with a knife’. On the first night he encounters black cats who wish to play cards with him, black cats and dogs on red-hot chains who stamp on his fire and a moving bed which whisks him round the castle. The boy remains imperturbable. He kills the animals and taunts the bed before settling down to sleep by his fire. On the second night, a fearful racket in the chimney precedes half a man, who drops down it, followed a little later by the second half; he is followed by more men who start playing bowls with nine shinbones and two skulls. The boy joins in their game after using the turner’s lathe to smoothe the skulls into spheres. On the third night six tall men bring in a coffin which the boy opens; thinking the corpse is just cold he tries to warm him and then climbs into bed with him. The corpse revives and tries to throttle him, so the boy pushes him back into the coffin. Then a terrifying old man enters and tells him he will die, but the boy traps him and beats him until the old man offers him great riches. He takes him to three large chests brimming with gold, one for the poor, one for the king and one for himself. Midnight strikes and the old man disappears. The king is delighted and gives him his daughter to marry. ‘That’s all fine and good [...] but I still don’t know what flesh-creeping is’, objects the boy.
(David Hockney, ‘Inside the Castle’, etching, 1969, from ‘The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear’ in Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm (London, Petersburg Press, 1970; reprinted London: Royal Academy of Art, 2012), found here)
Once married, the boy is happy but still whinges on that he wishes he knew what flesh-creeping was, to the point where his wife becomes understandably annoyed. Her chambermaid brings her a bucketful of little fishes, and instructs her to pull aside the coverlet and pour them over the boy one night when he’s asleep: this she does and thus he finally learns what flesh-creeping (or ‘shuddering’ in other translations) really is.
Like many fairy tales, this one takes an apparent outsider or person without much power to be its a hero. The boy is explicitly referred to as ‘stupid’ by the narrator and by other characters in the story; however, as it unfolds he is shown not to be lacking in advantages. He is resourceful in the face of trials, cheery, kind (albeit to corpses) and physically strong. The innkeeper’s wife notes his ‘pretty eyes’ and the king calls him ‘a handsome boy’. Forced to discard his identity, his old self, when he leaves home, he manages without magical helpers and endures his ordeals alone. It is probably stretching a point too far to bring Asperger’s Syndrome into this, but I will anyway because I felt that the boy did display the Aspie ability to interpret the world differently to others and very literally; his father cannot accept this difference nor perceive the strengths it gives his son.
My friend Joyce writes that ‘The Tale of the Boy who Set Out to Learn Fear’ appeared in the first edition of the tales as ‘Good Bowling and Card Playing’, with just the triple test of the cats, the game of bowls and the scary old man: ‘the important mythical element of learning fear was only introduced in the extensive rewriting for the second edition’ which drew on at least four other variants of the story. The hero of the first edition was a standard bold hero. Joyce further points out:
[I]t is essentially a comedy on two levels: on one, the boy remains cheerfully and stupidly proof against three times three horrors; on another, like Wagner’s equally sanguine Siegfried, he does learn fear – from his bride; at least, as a figure in the Märchen, he does not learn fear within himself. But it is characteristic of the Märchen genre that the inward experience – fear, and with it becoming an adult – is represented by the wholly external episode of the shudder-making bucket of fishes.
And there is another sort of joke going on here. The external experience of shuddering or flesh-creeping is for most of the story linked with expressing fear and, moreover, fear of the supernatural and the undead. But the boy’s flesh finally creeps not through fear but through disgust at the cold little wriggling fishes. (I do wish that Emily were still posting as I would love to know her thoughts about this.) Different elements of fear are being conflated to end comically – spending the night fighting enormous black cats is as nothing compared to your wife tipping gudgeon over your head. The marital bed is the counterpoint of the moving bed in the haunted castle, which tries to terrify the boy but fails to provoke him. Or is it disgust that he feels at the end? Marina Warner (From the Beast to the Blonde) and Bruno Bettelheim (The Uses of Enchantment), considering that the shudders are occurring in bed with the queen, interpret them as physical passion. Bettelheim reads the tale as that of a young man who learns to feel, whether it be fear or something else. What do you think?
Next week: The Wolf and the Seven Little Goats.