The Boy Who Looked for Fear
With a story from The Brothers Grimm
Episode 13 - Tuesday, 25 February 2020
A short story with a long title! This story by the Brothers Grimm started off as a shorter tale simply called the Bowling and Card Game, or thereabouts. But then the story grew and so did the title!
I love this story and I loved telling it. Eric, I gave the star a name in my version, is an interesting lad. Other's people's emotions puzzle him and his father and brother pretty much write him off as stupid, and he thinks the same about himself.
And yet, in the story, he proves to be far more quick witted than any around him, albeit in his own way, and he is a most likeable soul.
No wonder the princess liked him so much!
I admit the drawing was a headache. I went for the game of skittles in the end, in case you were wondering, and it will make sense when you listen to the story.
Morning/evening/afternoon/night – what time is it? When do you listen to this podcast? For that matter, when do you listen to any podcast? I am CC Hogan and welcome to the Deep in the Dark forest podcast, and I would be very interested to know the answer. Where are you right now? At work? Travelling? Under the duvet? Picking your nose?
I tend to listen in the car, but I think that is because I have always listened to the radio and music in the car and it has become the place I do that sort of thing. Because my place of work is also the place where I relax, and it is surrounded by the toys I use to create, when in there I am far more likely to be writing or recording or trying to draw than listening. It is just too tempting to play.
Anyway, let me know where you are right now on my twitter or Instagram things. Hashtag is #deepinthedarkforest and links are in the show notes.
And a quick callout to a lady called Lovelace, who has just complimented me on the podcast in a Facebook group. She said some really nice things about me, and it made my day.
Now, on with the story.
Just one today, and this is from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and is The Story of the boy who went forth to learn what fear was! What a natty little title.
The Story of the boy who went forth to learn what fear was
Adapted from the story by The Brothers Grimm
There was a man who had two sons. The eldest, let’s call him Fred, was smart and sensible and he could do anything he put his mind to. But the younger son, who I will call Eric, was not so much. He was a handsome boy with bright eyes and an open face, but he struggled to understand and found learning harder than others. “He will give his father trouble,” said those who always had something to say but nothing to offer.
Whatever the father needed done he would always turn to the eldest son Fred and he would do it well. But if the father asked him to do something when it was dark, and he had to travel through the churchyard or through the eerie woods or through the shadows, Fred would shake his head quickly.
“Not there, father. Please don’t make me go there.” And he would shake and shudder in fear, as would we all.
And sometimes, late at night, when the villagers told scary stories by the flickering fire, Fred and the others would gasp in horror. “It makes our skin creep and crawl and makes us shudder,” they would cry.
But young Eric would sit in the shadows with a puzzled frown.
“Why do they complain?” he would mumble. “It scares me! It scares me! They cry. But I don’t feel it,” he said with a sigh. “This must be yet another thing I don’t understand, along with everything else.”
One day his father called over to the corner where Eric often sat. “You there in the corner,” said he, “You be growing tall and strong now and it is past time you learnt to earn your crust of bread. You see how hard your brother Fred tries, but you, boy, make no sense of nothing!”
“I want to learn father; truly I do,” pleaded Eric. “And I have a wish to learn how to be frighted, for I don’t understand why the others are at all. They shake and shudder, but I feel nothing.”
His big brother closed his eyes and shook his head. “What a dumbbell of a brother I have! He’ll never make anything of himself, I swear. If you want to be the tree, you have to start when you are just the twig.”
Their father groaned in resignation. “If you want to learn fear, boy, then that you should do, but you won’t earn your daily bread by it!”
Not long after, the father had a visit from the local sexton, the warden of the churchyard. The father told him all about his youngest son and how he was so confused and dim about the world that he knew nothing and learned even less.
“So imagine what I thought when I asked him what he wanted to learn to earn his keep, and he tells me he wants to learn how to be scared! What make you of that?”
“Well if he wants to be scared, then I can surely teach him, what with the spooky graves and the dark tower and all that,” said the sexton. “Leave it to me and I will soon get him shaking and shuddering in his boots.”
The father agreed thinking that at least his son would at last learn something.
So off went Eric to the sexton’s house by the graveyard. The sexton took him into the church and showed him how to toll the bell, which he did for a day or two. Then, at midnight the next day, the sexton shook him awake and sent him up to the dark tower on his own to toll the bell once more.
“And you will soon learn what horror can be,” thought the sexton to himself. As quick as he could, the sexton went secretly on ahead and crept into the tower, hiding in the shadows. Eric climbed the stairs as usual, and was groping for the rope in the darkness when he suddenly saw a terrible figure, all in white, standing on the steps opposite him.
“Who’s there?” asked Eric, but the apparition said nothing. “Answer,” he insisted, “or leave, for you have no business here.”
The sexton stood stock still so the boy would think he was a ghost.
“What do you want here?” demanded Eric. “Speak quickly if you are honest man, or I will throw you down the stairs!” Eric was a big lad and strong with it.
But the sexton thought it was nothing more than an idle threat, so he continued to stand there like a white statue. Once more Eric shouted at the apparition, and when it still did not answer, he charged across the floor and shoved it down the stairs. Ten steps it fell, crashing down into a heap in the corner.
Eric turned back to his task, rang the bell, then returned to his bed in the sexton’s house and fell asleep.
The sexton’s wife, meanwhile, sat in her bed waiting for her husband’s return till she began to worry. She went to Eric’s room and woke him urgently. “Do you know where my husband went, boy?” she asked. “He climbed the tower afore you.”
“I don’t know, madam,” said he. “But there was someone up there all in white. I demanded to know who he was and said he should leave at once, for he had no business there. But when he said nothing and didn’t move, I thought he must a rogue, so I pushed him down the stairs. Go there now and see if it is your husband, and I will be very sorry if it was.”
The woman ran to the tower and found the sexton curled up at the bottom of the stairs, his leg twisted and broken. She helped him back to the house then went straight off in a right rage to see Eric’s father.
“Your boy has brought such misfortune down on our heads,” she cried. “He threw the sexton down the tower stairs and broke his leg, he did. Take him from my house at once, this night!”
The father rushed to the sexton’s house and turned on his son. “What stupid prank was this, Eric? Did the devil put this madness into your head?”
“Please, father, listen to me,” said the boy. “I am innocent, I swear. The sexton stood in the tower, a figure all in white, like he was planning an evil deed. I shouted at him three times to leave or I would throw him down the stairs, but he stood there like a statue!”
His father shook his head. “You have brought woe and misfortune to this family. Get out of my sight, for I have no wish to see you again.”
“I will go in the morning,” said Eric, “and I shall learn what it is to feel scared so at least I have something that will feed me.”
“Learn what you want,” snapped his father. “I care no longer. Here’s fifty thalers (ˈtɑːlər),” which was a coin of old Europe, “and go where you will. But don’t you be telling no one where you are from or who your father is, for I am right ashamed of you.”
“Yes, father, I will do as you say, for that I can do.”
In the morning, Eric put his fifty thalers in his pocket and walked out into the country road. “If only I was scared,” he said himself. “If only I was scared and could feel what it is to shudder with fright!”
As he said this, he was joined along the road by another man who heard his words. After a little way, they came across the gallows tree.
“See that tree?” said the man. “And the seven men swinging there? They have married the ropemaker’s daughter, they have, and are now learning to fly. If you wish to feel fear, son, sit under the tree and wait till darkness; you will soon learn to be scared!”
“If that is all it takes,” answered Eric, “then it is easily done. And If I learn to be scared, then my fifty thalers will be yours. Just come back to see me in the morning.” He made himself comfortable under the gallows tree and the swinging dead bodies, and waited till the sun set.
It was a cold evening and he lit a fire to warm himself, but by midnight a wind was blowing and moaning, and despite the fire, he was still feeling a chill. The bodies swayed in the wind above him, knocking into each other in a line.
“I am freezing enough down here by the fire,” said Eric to himself. “What can it be like for them, wriggling up there in the wind?”
And because he was good of heart, he took the ladder left by the ropemaker, climbed up to the long branch and untied them all. He laid them around the fire and stoked it up to warm them. And there they sat, seven dead men, not moving an inch, until the sparks from the fire caught their clothes.
“Take care,” warned Eric, “otherwise I will have to hang you up again!”
But the dead, being dead, heard not a word and said not a word, and let their poor rags burn away.
Eric grew angry. “If you can’t be careful for yourselves, then I can’t help you, and I don’t want to burn with you!” So saying, he hung them up once more in a line, then settled down by the fire to sleep.
In the morning, the man returned. “Well, lad, do you now know what it is to be scared?”
“Nay, sir,” said the honest boy. “How should I know? Those swinging up there said not a word, and so stupid were they, that they let their clothes burn when I sat them by the fire. Ridiculous!”
The man, realising the was not going to see one silver shaving from the fifty thalers, walked up the road muttering to himself. “I have never seen one like this; never in my life!”
So Eric went once more on his way, talking to himself as before. “Oh, if only I was scared. If only I knew how to be scared and what it feels like to shudder from fright!”
A waggoneer who was following behind, drawing his horse after, heard the boy’s words and called out to him. “Who be you, boy?”
“My name be Eric,” said the boy, though heeding his father’s words, kept his family name to himself.
“Where are you from, then?”
“I know not truly,” replied Eric, and being someone who knew nothing of the world, this was probably so.
“Then who is your father?”
“That I cannot say, sir.”
“Then what is all that you are telling yourself?”
“Oh, that, sir. I be wanting to know what it is to be scared,” said Eric. “But nobody can teach me.”
“You want to be scared?” asked the waggoneer, chuckling with surprise. “Well, finish with your daft chatter and come with me, for I know the very place.”
Along the road, as evening settled over the fields and hedgerows, they came to an inn where the waggoneer said they would spend the night.
When Eric entered the common room, he once again said, “If only I was scared. If only I was scared!”
The landlord laughed heartily. “If you be craving for a scare, then you will get plenty around here!”
“Oh, hush your mouth,” retorted the landlady, smiling at the handsome boy, for Eric was surely that. “Too many people with too much curiosity have already lost their lives. Shame be if someone with such beautiful eyes as his never got to see the light of day again.”
But the boy said, “I don’t care if it is a harsh lesson, it is a lesson I need to learn, and I have left my home behind for this very reason.”
And he pestered the hosts of the inn until they relented.
“There be an old castle up the ways here,” said the landlord, to the disapproving glare of his wife. “I reckon you could learn everything you need about fear if you kept watch there for three whole nights. The king himself has promised that he who would brave the castle and its terrors shall be allowed to court his daughter, who be the most beautiful young woman that ever the sun shone down upon.”
“Court his daughter, you hear?” added the wife, “not run away with without asking her proper first!” For the landlady was a bit ahead of her time.
“And there be great treasures in the castle, to be sure,” said the landlord. “But they be watched over by evil spirits. Break the curse, and those treasures would be yours, people here say.”
“But many have tried, young boy,” said the wife. “And none who have entered have been seen again.”
The next morning, Eric went to the king.
“If you would so let me, your majesty, I would spend three nights in the enchanted castle.”
The king looked down on the boy, and he liked him, and glancing at his strong-willed daughter, she very obviously liked the handsome young fellow too!
“I will agree,” said the king. “And I will allow you to ask for three things to take with you. But they must be things with no life.”
Eric pondered this a moment, then answered. “Sire, I would ask for a fire, a woodturning lathe, and a carving bench with a knife.”
It was close enough to three for Eric, so the king allowed him to carry them all into the castle while the sun still shone. When came the night, the boy climbed the stairs, lit the fire in the middle of the chamber, set the carving bench with the knife next to it, and sat on the lathe.
“If only I was scared,” lamented Eric. “I am not, and I doubt me I will learn it here neither.”
At midnight, as the chill settled on the castle, he stoked up his fire. As he blew into it to raise the flame, a mournful cry echoed from the corner.
“Meow! Meow! How cold we are!”
The boy shook his head and rolled his eyes. “And fools you are,” he retorted. “Why are you crying and hollering? Come sit by the fire and warm yourselves!”
Out from the dark leapt two evil black cats. They sat one each side of him, turning their heads slowly to look at him with haunted, cold faces. But after a while they warmed up.
“Brother,” they asked, a wicked glint in their black eyes, “shall we play a game of cards?”
“Why not?” replied the boy. “But first, show me your paws.”
The cats reached out, exposing their razor-sharp claws.
“Oh, dear,” said Eric, “why have you such long nails? I think they need a trimming!”
Quick as anything, Eric grabbed the evil cats by their collars and pinned them to the carving bench. The cats screwed their paws tightly shut.
“Don’t be clever,” warned Eric, who wasn’t that stupid, “for I saw your fingers with their claws, and I have lost my appetite for cards now I know what you are truly about.” And with a flash of his knife, he struck them dead, and threw their bodies out through the window into the moat.
But no sooner had he done so, than from every nook and corner came black cats and black dogs, wearing glowing chains. So many of them were there, that he could hardly move! They screamed like banshees, crawled around his legs, and even climbed upon his fire, pulling it apart and putting it out.
Eric stood there quietly, watching, but when he started to feel the cold once more, he took up the carving knife. “Away with you,” shouted the strong, fast boy, and went for them. Some ran away, others he struck dead with the knife, hurling them into the moat. And when at last he had rid the chamber of all of them, and their cries and wails echoed around the castle walls no more, he sorted his fire, lit it, and warmed himself up.
After a while, his eyes began to close. On one side of the castle chamber, he spied a large bed.
“Perfect,” said sleepy Eric. But no sooner had he made himself comfortable, than the bed began to move. Out through the door it went, taking him on a tour of the whole castle. “Wonderful,” he exclaimed, “but I want to go faster!”
And the bed obliged. It thundered through the castle corridors, rattling up and down the stairs as if pulled by six great horses, until it eventually lost its balance through the door back into the chamber and flipped right over, pinning the boy beneath it.
Eric scrambled out from all the pillows and quilts and said, “now, who else wants a go on the bed?” And with that, he lay down by his fire and fell asleep.
Come the morning, the king and his daughter came to check on the boy who wanted to learn what fear felt like. When the king saw him lying there on the ground by the fire, he shook his head sadly, thinking him dead.
“Such a shame,” said the king to his daughter, “For he was a beautiful boy, and I can see your heart thought so too.”
But Eric opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. “I am not dead, your majesty!”
“Apparently not, young sir,” said the king, calming his surprised heart. “And how do you fair?”
“Quite well, sire,” replied Eric. “One night done and two more to be done.” Then he returned to the inn for his breakfast.
“Well,” said the landlord, “I did hardly think I would see you alive again, lad. Have you now learned what horror is? And did the fear make you shudder?”
“Nay, sir,” said the boy. “Tis all in vain. It would be easier if someone would just tell me, to be truthful.”
That night Eric returned to the enchanted castle, sat by his small fire, and began his lament once more. “If only I was scared! If only I knew what it is to shudder with fear.”
As midnight approached there came a low rumble. Louder and louder it grew till the very ground shook, and the dust lifted into the air. Then, it stopped and everything fell deathly still. Eric looked around, curiously. Then it started again, and with a scream, half a man crashed down the sooted chimney in the corner and rolled onto the floor. Nothing more than a head, one arm, and a leg.
“Hello!” roared the man. Then, “Hold still, another half belongs to this!” And the rumble and roar began again, followed by a crash as the other half of the man fell from the chimney.
“Wait there,” said Eric, politely. “Let me get the fire hot.” And with a gentle blow he brought his fire to life. When he turned about, the two halves had joined together, and a grey-faced ghost of a man sat upon his bench.
“Excuse me!” said the boy, a frown upon his face, “but the bench is mine to sit on.”
The man sat square and folded his arms, but with a shove, the strong boy pushed the man onto the floor and reclaimed his seat. But this was not the end of it. With another great rumble, more men and bits of men fell from the chimney. Two of them set up a game of skittles with nine dead and rotten legs and two mouldy heads. Eric watched with interest as the heads tumbled back and forth, for he had never seen such a game before.
“Can I have a go?” he asked, wishing to learn how to play.
“If you have the money,” said the first frightful man.
“Money enough,” replied the boy. “But your balls are not properly round.” And with that, he took up the dead heads, set them on his lathe, and turned them smooth. “There, those will be better!” And he cheered and he whooped and rolled the heads into the leg-skittles.
And so they played, one game after another, and, to be honest, young Eric lost a few thalers, for this was his first time playing skittles, or legs perhaps, and he still had much to learn. But as the midnight hour turned, everything simply vanished. Eric was a little downhearted for it had been a jolly evening, but he was also tired, so he lay down by the fire and fell soundly asleep.
“And how was your night, young man,” enquired the king the following morn, his grinning daughter by his side.
“I played skittles with corpses and dead heads,” said the boy, “and I lost a few thalers.”
“And were you scared?” asked the king. “Did you shudder with fright?”
“Nay, I have made merry, your majesty, and I still do not know what it is to be scared.”
On the third night, Eric sat himself down on his bench in the castle feeling most grumpy. “If only I was scared,” he mumbled.
As night drew in, six big pallbearers arrived carrying a coffin. The boy looked up and laughed aloud. “What is this? Is this my cousin who died but a few weeks back?” He beckoned at the coffin. “Come here, dear cousin!”
The men placed the coffin on the ground and Eric pulled back the lid. Inside was a man, as dead as dead. He put his hand on the man’s face and it was as cold as ice.
“That’s not right,” said Eric. “You should be warmer.” He warmed his hand over the fire and held it to the man’s face, but it made no difference and the man was still stiff and cold.
“Come with me then,” said Eric, and he heaved the corpse from the coffin and sat it on his lap by the fire, rubbing its arms to get the circulation going. When that didn’t work either, he stood the corpse upright.
“I know,” said Eric. “When two are in bed together, they soon warm up!” So he dragged the corpse to the bed, covered him with the quilt, and snuggled up with him. After a while, the corpse warmed up and began to stir.
“You see, cousin,” said Eric, “have I not warmed the life back into you?”
But the dead and rotting cousin was furious and jumped to his feet! “I will strangle you, Eric!” he shouted.
“What? Is that all the thanks I get?” replied Eric, feeling most affronted. “Well back in the coffin with you!” And he spun the corpse around, kicked him into the coffin, and slammed shut the lid. Then the six pallbearers picked it up and carried it away again.
Not long after a man entered the chamber. He was taller than anyone Eric had seen before, and with a most terrible visage. He was old and his beard hung white and long, and his skin was faded and grey.
“You miserable wretch,” whispered the apparition, pointing a long, thin finger. “Now you will learn what true horror is, for soon you will die.”
“No so fast,” said Eic, “for if I am going to die, I will have some say in the matter.”
“But I will seize you, boy, and crush the life from you.”
“Slow down, slow down, and stop with your bragging,” chided Eric. “I reckon I am as strong as you be, and probably stronger too.”
“Ah, a challenge,” mocked the fiend. “If you are stronger than me, I will let you go. But if not…”
The tall, terrible demon led the boy through the corridors of the enchanted castle, down deep to the blacksmith’s forge. He took up an axe and struck an anvil in one huge swoop, hitting it so hard, he drove it into the ground.
“But I can do better,” said the strong Eric. He took up an axe and went to the second anvil. The old demon moved closer, and he bent his head to watch, his long beard hanging to the floor. Eric struck down with the axe, splitting the anvil in two, and drove it and the old man’s beard deep into the ground.
“Now I have you, you old man,” said Eric. “And it will not be my life that is ending, but yours.” He took up an iron bar and beat the foul demon till it cried out for him to stop, promising Eric the wealth of the castle. The boy pulled the axe free and let the demon go. He followed him to the castle cellar where there were three caskets filled with gold.
“The first is for the poor,” said the demon, in his evil voice. “The second for the king. But the third is yours.”
Up in the castle the great clock struck twelve, and the spirit faded to nothing, leaving the boy alone in the dark. “And I still feel no fear,” said Eric, sighing dramatically. He groped around in the dark until at last he found his way back into the chamber and fell asleep by the fire.
He was awoken the next morning by the king who sat opposite him on the bench. “Surely now, young man, you have learned what horror is and to feel the shudder of fear.”
Eric shook his head. “Nay, I have not,” he replied glumly. “What is it? My dead cousin was here and came alive, and then a bearded demon came and challenged me, then having lost, showed me three caskets of gold. But no one has told me what horror is or what it is to shudder with fear. And that was all I wanted truly.”
“Then,” said the king, “You have rescued the castle from the curse, and if she is willing, which,” he glanced at the huge smile on the princess’s face, “I suspect she probably is, then you shall marry my daughter.”
So the gold was brought up and divided between the poor, the king, and the boy, and the wedding was celebrated with much joy.
But for all Eric, now a young prince, loved his wife, and as cheerful as he was, he would often say, “if only I was scared and was made to shudder!”
His wife became bored of his lament after a time, so the chambermaid said to her quietly, “I want to help, your highness. It is high time he learned what it is to shudder with fright.” She went to the stream that flowed through the beautiful garden and scooped up a bucketful of squirming gudgeons. Then, that night, while Eric was sound asleep, the princess pulled the bed clothes aside and upturned the bucket of ice-cold water and slimy fish, covering his flesh from nose to toes. The little fishes wriggled and squirmed all over him.
Young Prince Eric sat up fast, his eyes wide, his body all of a shudder, and he stared at the beautiful princess. “Oh deary me and scary me, my dearest heart,” he said, his heart fluttering. “For now I truly know what it is to feel fear!” And with a huge smile of relief, he kissed her long, and they lived happily ever after.
I think a quick note about currency is needed here. A thaler was a coin common throughout Europe, especially Germany, from the 16th Century. From what little I know, it was used as a trading coin in addition to the many other coins that were kicking around at the time – the church in Rome used it as a currency standard against which other currencies were valued. Although long gone now, in Germany replaced by the Mark in the 19th Century, the name lives on in words like “dollar.” In Britain, the thaler was often called the dollar long before the US currency was established.
All very interesting, but what was a thaler worth? I think you would need to be a historical economist to work this out, which I am not, but, if a reichthaler, the German version, was worth about one and a half guilders, and a guilder in the 17th Century was worth about £24 in today’s money, then the boy’s fifty thalers was worth seventy-five guilders, or about sixteen-hundred pounds now! That was a fair amount of money and I am not sure that makes sense, even though back then the cost of living was high. But then, though probably set earlier, the Brothers Grimm wrote this story in the early nineteenth century, and they may have based the amount on values then. I can’t find figures for that time (and if you can, let me know), but if I even divide it in two, I still get eight hundred pounds. I have linked to the page I got these figures from in the transcript:
The page also has a lot of forward links where the writer found his research.
I made a few changes to the story, the biggest one was to give Eric a name. In the original, he is just called “the boy,” but that gets boring when you are narrating a longer story, and I thought he was owed a name as the hero. It caused me a little complication since in the original, when the waggoneer asks his name, he says he doesn’t know, but it isn’t clear if he really doesn’t know, or this was an obscure way of hiding who he was and where he was from. Not the first time I have run into strange ambiguities in old folk tales.
Anyway, that is all for this week. I am seriously considering recording the Ice Queen as part of this series. If I do, I will probably split it over two or more episodes, depending on my adaptation. If you would like me to record the story, let me know on Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #deepinthedarkforest.
You have been listening to Deep in the Dark Forest with me, CC Hogan. And I wish you good fortune as you travel on your way.