“I would like to learn how to shudder,” said the younger son. And with that started a story full of scary happenings…
The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A good-for-nothing boy encounters a ghost, hanged men, three nights in a haunted castle with black cats, moving beds and bowling corpses and spirits. Nothing makes him shudder. At last his wife makes him shudder with little wiggling fish.
Introduction: A good-for-nothing son
A certain father had two sons. The older son was smart and sensible and could do everything. The younger one was stupid and could neither learn nor understand anything. When people saw him they said, “There’s a fellow who will give his father some trouble!”
When anything had to be done, it was always the older one who was forced to do it. However, if his father ordered him to fetch anything when it was late, or in the night-time, and the way led through the churchyard, or any other dismal place, he would answer, “Oh, no, father, I’ll not go there, it makes me shudder!”, for he was afraid.
When stories were told by the fire at night which made the flesh creep, the listeners sometimes said “Oh, it makes us shudder!”
The younger son sat in a corner and listened with the rest of them. He could not imagine what they could mean. “They are always saying ‘it makes me shudder, it makes me shudder!’ It does not make me shudder,” he thought. “That, too, must be an art of which I understand nothing.”
Now it came to pass that his father said to him one day “Listen to me, you son in the corner there, you are growing tall and strong. You too must learn something which will help you to earn a living. Look how your brother works while you are doing nothing.
“Well, father,” he replied, “I am quite willing to learn something. Indeed, if it could be managed, I would like to learn how to shudder. I don’t understand that at all yet.”
His older brother smiled when he heard that. He thought by himself, “Good God, what a blockhead that brother of mine is! He will never be good for anything as long as he lives. He who wants to be a sickle must bend himself once in a while.”
The father sighed. He answered him “you shall soon learn what it is to shudder, but it won’t help you to earn your bread.”
Episode 1: The sexton will help the boy to shudder
Soon after this the sexton (an officer of a church charged with the maintenance of the church) came to the house on a visit. The father shared his trouble and told him how his younger son was so backward in every respect that he knew nothing and learnt nothing.
“Just think,” said he, “when I asked him how he was going to earn his bread, he actually wanted to learn to shudder.”
“If that be all,” replied the sexton, “he can learn that with me. Send him to me, and you will get him back differently.”
The father was glad to do it, for he thought, “It will train the boy a little.”
The sexton took him into his house, where he had to ring the bell in the church tower. After a day or two, the sexton awoke him at midnight, and told him to rise and go up into the church tower and ring the bell.
“You shall soon learn what shuddering is,” he thought, and secretly went there before him. When the boy was at the top of the tower and turned round, and was just going to take hold of the bell rope, he saw a white figure standing on the stairs opposite the sounding hole.
“Who is there?” he shouted, but the figure made no reply, and did not move or stir. “Give an answer,” the boy shouted, “or go away, you have no business here at night.”
The sexton, however, remained standing motionless, so that the boy might think he was a ghost. The boy shouted a second time, “What do you want here? Speak if you are an honest fellow, or I will throw you down the steps!”
The sexton thought, “He doesn’t mean what he says,” uttered no sound and stood as if he were made of stone.
The boy called to him for the third time. As that was also to no purpose, he ran against him and pushed the ghost down the stairs. The ghost fell down ten steps and remained lying there in a corner.
Then the boy rang the bell, went home, and without saying a word went to bed where he fell asleep.
The sexton’s wife waited a long time for her husband, but he did not come back. At length she became uneasy, and wakened the boy, and asked, “Do you know where my husband is? He climbed up the tower before you.”
“No, I don’t know,” replied the boy, “but someone was standing by the sounding hole on the other side of the steps, and as he would neither give an answer nor go away, I took him for a scoundrel, and threw him downstairs. Just go there and you will see if it was him. I am very sorry if it is.
The woman ran away and found her husband, who was lying moaning in the corner with a broken leg.
She carried him down, and then with loud screams she hastened to the boy’s father. “Your boy,” she cried, “has been the cause of a great misfortune! He has thrown my husband down the steps and made him break his leg. Take the good-for-nothing fellow away from our house.”
The father was terrified, and ran there and scolded the boy. “What kind of wicked tricks are these?” he said, “the devil must have put this into your head.”
“Father,” he replied, “please listen to me. I am quite innocent. He was standing there by night like one who is intending to do some evil. I did not know who it was, and I said to him three times either to speak or to go away.”
“Ah,” the father sighed, “I have nothing but unhappiness with you. Go out of my sight. I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Yes, father, I will go, wait only until it is day. Then will I go forth and learn how to shudder, and then I shall, at any rate, understand one art which will support me.”
“Learn whatever you want,” said his father, “it is all the same to me. Here are fifty coins for you. Take these and go into the wide world, and tell no one where you come from or who your father is, because I am ashamed of you.”
“Yes, father, no problem. If you desire nothing more than that, I can easily keep it in mind.”
Episode 2: Dead people at the gallows
When day dawned the boy put his fifty coins into his pocket and went forth on the great highway. He continually said to himself, “If I could but shudder! If I could but shudder!”
A approached him who heard this conversation which the youth was holding with himself, and when they had walked a little farther to where they could see the gallows, the man said to him, “Look, there is the tree where seven men have married the ropemaker’s daughter, and are now learning how to fly. Sit down below it, and wait till night comes, and you will soon learn how to shudder.”
“If that is all that is needed,” answered the youth, “it is easily done; but if I learn how to shudder as fast as that, you shall have my fifty coins. Just come back to me early in the morning.”
Then the youth went to the gallows, sat down below it, and waited till evening came. And as he was cold, he lighted a fire. However at midnight the wind blew so sharply that in spite of his fire, he could not get warm. As the wind knocked the hanged men against each other, and they moved backwards and forwards, he thought to himself “You are shivering down here by the fire, how those guys up there must be freezing and suffering!”
He felt pity on them, raised the ladder, climbed up, unbound one of them after the other, and brought down all seven. Then he stirred the fire, blew it, and set them all around it to warm themselves. However they sat there without moving and the fire caught their clothes.
So he said, “Take care, or I will hang you up again.” The dead men, however, did not hear, but were quite silent, and let their rags go on burning. The boy became angry and said, “If you will not take care, I cannot help you, but I will not be burnt with you,” and he hung them up again each in his turn.
Then he sat down by his fire and fell asleep. The next morning the man came to him and wanted to have the fifty coins. He said, “Well, do you now know how to shudder?”
“No,” he answered, “how could I have learned it? Those fellows up there did not open their mouths, and were so stupid that they let the few old rags which they had on their bodies get burnt.”
The man saw that he would not get the fifty coins that day and went away saying, “I have never met a boy like this.”
Episode 3: Three nights in the haunted castle
The youth also went his way, and once more began to mutter to himself, “Ah, if I could but shudder! Ah, if I could but shudder!”
A waggoner who was striding behind him heard that and asked, “Who are you?”
“I don’t know,” answered the youth.
Then the waggoner asked, “But where are you from?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who is your father?”
“I am not allowed to tell you.”
“What are you constantly muttering between your teeth?”
“Ah,” replied the youth, “I do so wish I could shudder, but no one can teach me how to do it.”
“Give up your foolish chatter,” said the waggoner. “Come, go with me, I will see about a place where you can stay.”
The youth went with the waggoner, and in the evening they arrived at an inn where they wished to pass the night. At the entrance the youth again said quite loudly, “If I could but shudder! If I could but shudder!”
The innkeeper who heard this, laughed and said, “If that is your desire, there ought to be a good opportunity for you here.”
“Ah, be silent,” said the innkeeper’s wife, “so many inquisitive persons have already lost their lives, it would be a pity and a shame if such beautiful eyes as these should never see the daylight again.”
But the youth said, “However difficult it may be, I want to learn it. That is the whole reason for my journey!”
He gave the innkeeper no rest, until the latter told him, that not far from there stood a haunted castle where anyone could very easily learn what shuddering was. The only thing that was needed was to keep watch in it for three nights.
The King had promised that he who would complete these three nights would be given his daughter for a wife. She was the most beautiful maiden under the sun. On top of that great treasures lay in the castle, which were guarded by evil spirits. Treasures to make a poor man rich.
Already many men had gone into the castle, but as yet none had come out again. The youth went next morning to the King and said if he were allowed he would keep watch three nights in the haunted castle. The King looked at him, and because the youth pleased him, he said, “You may ask for three things to take into the castle with you, but they must be things without life.”
The youth answered, “Then I ask for a fire, a turning lathe, and a cutting board with a knife.” The King had these things carried into the castle for him during the day.
First night: black cats and dogs
When night was drawing near, the youth went up and made himself a bright fire in one of the rooms, placed the cutting board and knife beside it, and seated himself by the turning lathe.
“Ah, if I could but shudder!” he said, “but I shall not learn it here either.”
Towards midnight he was about to poke his fire, and as he was blowing it, something cried suddenly from one corner, “Au, miau! how cold we are!”
“You simpletons!” cried he, “what are you crying about? If you are cold, come and take a seat by the fire and warm yourselves.”
And when he had said that, two great black cats came with one tremendous leap and sat down on each side of him, and looked savagely at him with their fiery eyes. After a short time, when they had warmed themselves, they said, “Comrade, shall we have a game at cards?”
“Why not?” he replied, “but just show me your paws.”
They stretched out their claws. “Oh,” he said, “what long nails you have! Wait, I must first cut them for you.”
He seized them by the throats, put them on the cutting board and screwed their feet fast. “I have looked at your fingers,” he said, “and I don’t feel like card playing anymore.”
He struck them dead and threw them out into the water. But when he had made away with these two, and was about to sit down again by his fire, out from every hole and corner came black cats and black dogs with red-hot chains. More and more of them came until he could no longer stir. They yelled horribly and got on his fire, pulled it to pieces, and tried to put it out.
He watched them quietly for a while, but at last when they were going too far, he seized his cutting knife, and cried, “Away with you vermin,” and began to cut them down. Some of them ran away, the others he killed and threw out into the fishpond.
First night: the moving bed
When he came back he fanned the embers of his fire again and warmed himself. Sitting there, his eyes would keep open no longer, and he wanted to sleep. He looked round and saw a great bed in the corner. “That is exactly what I need,” he said, and got into it.
When he was just going to shut his eyes, however, the bed began to move of its own accord. It went all over the castle.
“That’s right,” he said, “but go faster.”
Then the bed rolled on as if six horses were harnessed to it. Up and down. Over thresholds and steps. Suddenly hop, hop, it turned over upside down, and lay on him like a mountain. But he threw quilts and pillows up in the air, got out and said, “Now any one who likes, may drive.”
He lay down by his fire and slept till it was day. In the morning the King came, and when he saw him lying there on the ground, he thought the evil spirits had killed him and he was dead. “What a pity, he was a handsome man.”
The youth heard it, got up, and said, “It has not come to that yet.”
The King was astonished but very glad, and asked how he had fared.
“Very well indeed,” he answered; “one night is past, the two others will get over likewise.”
He got up and went to the innkeeper, who opened his eyes very wide, and said, “I never expected to see you alive again! Have you already learnt how to shudder?”
“No,” he said, “it is all in vain. If some one just could tell me.”
Second night: bowling with legs and skulls
The second night he went up again into the old castle, sat down by the fire, and once more began his old song, “If I could but shudder.”
When midnight came an uproar and noise of tumbling about was heard; at first it was low, but it grew louder and louder. Then it was quiet for awhile. At last with a loud scream half a man came down the chimney and fell before him.
“Ho ho!” cried the youth, “another half belongs to this. This is too little!”
The uproar began again, there was a roaring and howling, and the other half fell down likewise.
“Wait,” the youth said, “I will just blow up the fire a little for you.” When he had done that and looked around again, the two pieces were joined together, and a frightful man was sitting where he sat before.
“That is no part of our bargain,” the youth said, “the bench is mine.”
The man wanted to push him away; the youth, however, would not allow that, but thrust him off with all his strength, and seated himself again in his own place.
Then still more men fell down, one after the other; they brought nine dead men’s legs and two skulls, and set them up and played bowling with them. The youth also wanted to play and said “Hey, can I join you?”
“Yes, if you have any money.”
“Money enough,” he replied, “but your balls are not quite round.” Then he took the skulls and put them in the lathe and turned them till they were round.
“Now they will roll better!” he said. “Hurrah! Great fun!”
He played with them and lost some of his money, but when it struck twelve, everything vanished from his sight. He lay down and quietly fell asleep.
Next morning the King came to inquire after him. “How has it fared with you this time?” he asked.
“I have been bowling,” he answered, “and have lost a couple of coins.”
“Have you not shuddered then?”
“Eh, what?” said he, “I have had great fun. If I did but know what it was to shudder!”
Third night: dead man in a coffin
The third night he sat down again on his bench and said quite sadly, “If I could but shudder.”
When it grew late, six tall men came in and brought a coffin. The youth said, “Ha, ha, that is certainly my little cousin, who died only a few days ago,” and he beckoned with his finger, and shouted “Come, little cousin, come.”
They placed the coffin on the ground, but he went to it and took the lid off, and a dead man lay therein. He felt his face, but it was cold as ice. “Stop,” he said, “I will warm you a little,” and went to the fire and warmed his hand and laid it on the dead man’s face, but he remained cold.
Then he took him out, sat down by the fire and laid him on his breast and rubbed his arms that the blood might circulate again. As this also did no good, he thought to himself “When two people lie in bed together, they warm each other,” carried him to the bed, covered him over and lay down by him.
After a short time the dead man became warm too, and began to move. The youth said, “Hey, little cousin, I am the one that warmed you!”
The dead man, however, got up and shouted, “Now will I strangle you.”
“What!” said the youth, “is that the way you say thanks to me? Back into the coffin you go,” and he took him up, threw him into it, and shut the lid. The six men came back and carried him away again.
“Oh, how to shudder,” he said. “I shall never learn it as long as I live.”
Third night: an old bearded man
At that moment a man entered who was taller than all the others. He looked terrible. He was old and had a long white beard.
“You wretch,” he shouted, “you shall soon learn what it is to shudder, for you shall die.”
“Not so fast,” replied the youth. “If I am to die, I shall have to have a say in it.”
“I will soon take you,” said the fiend.
“Softly, softly, do not talk so big. I am as strong as you are, perhaps even stronger.”
“We shall see,” said the old man. “If you are stronger, I will let you go. Come, we will try.”
The old men led him by dark passages to a smith’s forge, took an axe, and with one blow struck an anvil into the ground.
“I can do better than that,” said the youth, and went to the other anvil. The old man placed himself near and wanted to look on, and his white beard hung down. Then the youth seized the axe, split the anvil with one blow, and struck the old man’s beard in with it.
“Now I have you,” said the youth. “Now it is you who will have to die.” He seized an iron bar and beat the old man till he moaned and entreated him to stop and promised to give him great riches. The youth drew out the axe and let him go.
The old man led him back into the castle and in a cellar showed him three chests full of gold.
“Of these,” said he, “one part is for the poor, the other for the king, the third is yours.”
The clock struck twelve and the spirit disappeared; the youth was left in darkness. “I shall still be able to find my way out,” he said. He felt about, found the way into the room, and slept there by his fire.
Next morning the King came and said “Now surely you must have learnt what shuddering is?”
“No,” he answered; “what can it be? My dead cousin was here, and a bearded man came and showed me a great deal of money down below, but no one told me what it was to shudder.”
“Then,” said the King, “you have delivered the castle, and shall marry my daughter.”
“That is all very well,” said the youth, “but still I do not know what it is to shudder.”
Ending: His wife helps him to shudder
The gold was brought up and the wedding celebrated.
Howsoever much the young king loved his wife, and however happy he was, he still always muttered “If I could but shudder, if I could but shudder.”
At last his wife became angry at this. Her waiting maid said, “I will find a cure for him; he shall soon learn what it is to shudder.” She went out to the stream which flowed through the garden, and had a whole bucketful of little fish brought to her.
At night when the young king was sleeping, his wife was to draw the clothes off him and empty the bucketful of cold water with the little fish in it over him. The little fishes would sprawl over his body.
When she did this, he woke up and cried “Oh, what makes me shudder so? What makes me shudder so, dear wife? Ah! Now I know what it is to shudder!”
Tips for Telling
- This is a story about shuddering and about fear. When you prepare to tell this story, think about what makes you shudder. You can use this feeling while telling the story. Before telling the story it might also be an interesting question to ask your listeners.
- When telling the scary parts, don’t say that it was scary. Instead, feel the shudders inside yourself. Your body language will follow your feelings. You will start to talk softer, you will slow down your pace and people will feel the shudders with you. This contrasts often in a funny way with the actions of the youth, who does not feel any fear at all.
- This story is an episodic story. You don’t need to tell all of the story in one go. If you look back through the story, the subheadings help you to see the different parts. You can easily spread the telling over several days, leave episodes out, mix up the order etc.
All Questions Answered
It was written down by the Brothers Grimm. They collected it from a German called Ferdinand Siebert but also knew other older versions. It is the 4th story in their book ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’.
The Brothers Grimm collected this story and wrote this complete version down in 1819 in their book ‘Grimm’s Fairy Tales’. This story was told long before it was written down.
The Jim Henson series ‘The Storyteller’ has an episode called ‘Fearnot’ that is based on this story.