Household Tales: A Grimm Read-through
The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was
his story came somewhat as a disappointment, somewhat as an inspiration. I admit, I’m more familiar with this story than other of the Household Tales, because of my adoration for Jim Henson’s adaptation, ‘Fearnot’, with Anthony Minghella’s exquisite screenplay. That re-telling never fails to choke me up—watch it and you’ll know when—and sits in some ways for me as a storytelling ideal I hope, somehow, to attain. And maintain.
I was familiar enough with Minghella’s retelling to be disappointed with the original. That’s an interesting place to find oneself, really. I’m reminded of C. S. Lewis’s words about Myth, how some stories transcend the telling of them, you know and recognize them in any garb. And there is something aside from the words that moves you deeply. I think this tale—in fact, many if not most of these tales—falls in that category.
SPOILER ALERT: There will be no more ‘spoiler alerts’ in this read-through. Originally, I thought to avoid spoilers as much as possible. But I realized that if you don’t already know the ending of a tale that’s been available in English for 200 years, that’s more your worry than mine.
When I think knowing the ending of a story will ruin your first encounter with it, well, I won’t tell you the ending. But otherwise, I might.
This tale follows the trope of a man with two sons—one an honorable lad, the other a simpleton and wastrel. As the trope dictates, the story follows the simpleton. This simpleton doesn’t know how to shudder. He wants a good fright, a scaresome thing, a jump-out-of-your-skin case of the creeps. He tries once with his father’s blessing, and accidentally kills the sexton (long story—read it). His father throws him out, and it’s off to the wide world to seek his shudder.
The tale is undeniably grotesque, if not quite gothic. He spends the night under a gallows, and tried to have a pleasant conversation with the seven dead men. They catch on fire, so that ends badly. Then, at the bidding of your friendly neighborhood king, he spends three nights in a haunted castle. He plays cards with black cats, fights black dogs, plays at ninepins with ghouls, using bones and skulls, and tries again to warm a dead man at the fire. Finally, on the third night, he confronts a cryptic old man, who challenges him to a test of strength. The simpleton manages to pin the old man’s beard between axe and anvil, and the curse on the castle is broken.
He’s not scared at any of this, never shudders once. So, after he’s married the king’s daughter, his new wife pours a bucket of fish over him when he’s not expecting it. That gives him a shudder, all right.
It seemed, as I read—and a glance at the notes confirmed this—that there’s an older, darker tale wedged between a demure beginning and a facile ending. The ritualistic three-within-three—three tests on strength, three nights in the haunted castle—hints at ancient mythologies blurred with Christian spirituality. It may be fair to suggest that the ‘three nights’ to break the curse have Christological significance, but it is inadequate for the tale. Just as suggesting that the old man—or the black dog, in another version—is the devil doesn’t quite work.
This tale is genuinely creepy, in any version. I give it that, and gladly. The simpleton hero may not have shuddered, but I did. The grotesqueries that romp through the story are the stuff of nightmare.
It’s intriguing to wonder whether the hero’s sensibilities are too developed or underdeveloped. If too developed, this could be a hale and healthy individual confronting the darkness and repressed phobias of his psyche, the dark side of his imagination, and through his supreme self-awareness laughing at these lesser distortions of his self. If underdeveloped, he may not possess the spiritual acuity to recognize the reality of death—his own included—and of spiritual danger. The various games are clearly being played for some soul or another, but the simpleton seems not to notice.
Whatever the case, the story is an exploration of basic human fears. What would life be without a sense of fear? Not much different, really. We’d just be oblivious to the horror and nightmare of existence, to the shadows in our imaginations. Would that give us courage? Up to a point. Yet it could also induce lack of caring, as when the simpleton grows angry with the seven hung men when they don’t answer his questions.
There is something tangible about fear, something instinctual. Animals have it—it’s not uniquely human. Even fish seem to have fear. So it’s a curious disability to lack fear. There’s a sense of distance, almost of awe, between us and this protagonist. How can he not be afraid? I’d need a few new pairs of trousers if that were me.
In this telling, his dream is cheaply realized. We feel he’s been robbed of his knowledge, of his experience of wonder—terrifying though it would be. It’s immensely unsatisfying when the cold water cascades over his back and he shouts, ‘Now I know what it is to shudder!’ Technically, yes, he does. The physiology is the same. But really—no, he doesn’t. He doesn’t know at all.