Recent illustration for "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear was' by Dagmar Hermann.

"The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" (German: "Märchen von einem, der auszog das Fürchten zu lernen"; also published in English as "The Story of the Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear" and "The Tale of a Youth Who Set Out to Learn What Fear Was") is a ghost story from German folklore. It is included in Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales), the 1812 anthology of German folktales compiled by the Brothers Grimm,[1] and in The Blue Fairy Book, the 1889 anthology of fairy tales compiled by the Scottish folklorist Andrew Lang. The story appears to have been heavily influenced by Les Merveilles de Rigomer, a 13th century French Arthurian romance in which Sir Lancelot spends a night in a haunted castle.

The story's title character and protagonist is a young man who knows absolutely no fear. The youth, who is also somewhat simple, is unhappy because he feels that he is missing out on something by being unable to shudder like other people. Learning to shudder is something that he dearly wants to do. He is told that he will surely learn to shudder if he goes to a certain haunted castle. The king has promised to give his daughter's hand in marriage to any man who is able to spend three nights in the haunted castle, something that many have tried and failed to do.

Although it is not among the best known of the Brothers Grimm's tales in the English-speaking world, "The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" has been adapted to other media multiple times.


A man has two sons. The younger one is considered to be a fool. The elder one is considered to be intelligent and hard working. He is the one who always runs errands for his father. He refuses, however, to go on any errand late at night that takes him through the graveyard or to some other gloomy place. The younger son cannot understand why his brother refuses to go to those places. The younger son is also puzzled when other people say, "That makes me shudder", after listening to ghost stories. The stories never make him shudder and he thinks that it must be his stupidity that is preventing him from enjoying the same sensation that everyone else feels. The youth decides that he wants to learn to shudder. He even thinks that if he learned to shudder, he might be able to earn a living through it.

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The youth sees the sexton dressed as a ghost. 1910 illustration by the German artist Albert Weisgerber.

The time comes when the father tells his younger son that he has to go out and learn a useful trade. The youth tells his father that he wants to learn how to shudder. This response exasperates his father. Shortly afterwards, the sexton[2] comes to visit. The father sadly tells the sexton what his son said earlier when he mentioned learning a trade to him. The sexton says that he can teach the youth a trade and teach him to shudder at the same time. The youth becomes an apprentice to the sexton and learns how to ring the church bell. After a few days, the sexton decides it is time the young man learned to shudder. He wakes the youth up at midnight and tells him to go the top of the bell tower. The sexton secretly goes to the top of the tower first, dressed as a ghost. The youth sees the ghostly figure and asks him who he is. The sexton does not answer. He remains completely silent and completely still. The youth repeatedly asks the "ghost" to respond. When he does not, the youth decides that he must be up to no good and throws him down the stairs. As a result, the sexton breaks his leg and the youth loses his job.

The youth briefly returns home. His father is not happy to see him. He orders him to leave and never come back, although he gives him some money, fifty thalers,[3] first. The youth leaves home, determined to learn how to shudder.

A man overhears the youth say to himself that he would like to learn to shudder. He leads the youth to a gallows where the bodies of seven men who were recently executed are still hanging. He tells the youth to wait there until nighttime and says he will then surely learn how to shudder. The youth happily says that if that if he learn how to shudder, he will gladly give the man his fifty thalers. The man leaves, intending to return the following morning to claim his money. The youth, however, is not at all frightened and does not even realize the seven men hanging above him are dead. He even brings them all down to sit by his fire. When the flames make some of their ragged clothes catch on fire, the youth decides that he does not want to risk getting burned to death with people who are too stupid to move away when they are too close to a fire. He hangs the seven men back up on the gallows again. When the man returns the following morning, he can easily see that the youth was not at all frightened by his experience. He does not try to take the money from the youth.

The youth comes to an inn. The landlord overhears him say to himself that he would like to learn to shudder. The landlord tells the youth that he can easily learn to shudder if he goes to a nearby haunted castle. The king has promised to give his daughter's hand in marriage to any man who spends three nights in the castle. Many men have tried to do that and have lost their lives as a result. Determined to learn to shudder, the youth asks the king for permission to spend three nights in the haunted castle. The king agrees and tells the youth that he can request three non-living things to take to the castle with him. The youth asks for a fire, a turning lathe[4]and a cutting board with a knife.

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The youth and the two enormous cats. 1910 illustration by the German artist Albert Weisgerber.

As night falls, in the haunted castle, the youth makes a fire for himself in one of the rooms and seats himself by his turning lathe and cutting board and knife. Late at night, two enormous black cats appear. They moan, saying that they are cold. The youth invites the cats to sit by the fire with him. The cats ask the youth if he would like to play cards with them. The youth agrees. When he sees the size of the cats' claws, however, he decides that the animals are not suitable companions for him. He quickly kills both of them with his knife. More enormous black cats and black dogs in red-hot chains appear. Being completely unafraid, the youth threatens all of the monstrous animals with his knife. He kills some and others run away.

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The youth's bed moves by itself. 1910 illustration by the German artist Albert Weisgerber.

The youth gets into bed. The bed suddenly begins to move about on its own and carries the youth all over the castle. Far from being afraid, the youth enjoys the ride and tells the bed to go faster. It does so, until it eventually turns over. The youth emerges unharmed from under the upturned bed and sleeps on the floor.

In the morning, the king is pleased to find the youth still alive. The youth, however, is unhappy that he has not learned how to shudder.

On the second night, half a man comes down the chimney, followed soon afterwards by the other half. The youth invites the two halves to warm themselves by the fire. When the two halves join together and the newly joined up man tries to take the youth's seat, the youth simply pushes him away. More men then come down the chimney. They begin to play at nine-pin bowling using human legs as pins and human skulls as bowling balls. The youth is allowed to join in the game. He points out that the skulls are not very good bowling balls because they are not completely round. He uses his turning lathe to make them rounder. The youth enjoys the game of nine-pin bowling until the stroke of midnight. At that point, all of the other participants vanish.

The following morning, the youth says that he had fun but did not learn to shudder.

On the third night, six tall men appear carrying in a coffin. The youth thinks that the coffin must contain the body of his cousin who recently died. He opens the lid, touches the dead man's face and feels that it is cold. The youth decides that the best way to warm the dead man up is for the two of them to get into bed together. That does indeed warm the dead man up to the extent that he comes back to life. The revived corpse declares that he will strangle the youth. The youth simply puts the dead man back into the coffin and shuts the lid. The six tall mean reappear and carry the coffin away again.

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The old giant and the youth. 1910 illustration by the German artist Albert Weisgerber.

An old giant with a long white beard appears. The giant tells the youth that he will grab him and kill him. The youth says that he does not think so because he is at least as strong as the giant if not stronger. The giant says that if the youth proves he is the stronger of the two of them, he will let them go. He sets up a test of strength. Instead of completing the test of strength, however, the youth takes the giant by surprise and begins beating him with an iron bar. The defeated giant tells the youth that he will make him rich if he stops beating him. The giant leads the youth to a room where there are three chests full of gold. The youth is told that he should give the gold in one of the chests to the poor and give the second one to the king. He can keep the third chest full of gold for himself. The clock strikes midnight and the giant vanishes.

The following morning, the king tells the youth that he has won the right to marry the princess. The youth, however, is still disappointed that he has not learned how to shudder.

The youth marries the princess and the two live fairly happily together for some time. The youth, however, still feels that he is missing out on something by not knowing how to shudder. The princess gets fed up with her husband constantly moaning about being unable to shudder. She gets a maid to go to a stream and fetch a bucket full of cold water with small fish in it. While the youth is sleeping, the princess empties the entire bucket over him. He wakes up shuddering and thanks his wife for finally teaching him what he long wanted to learn.


"The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was" has been referenced and parodied in the works of several German-language authors, including the German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse (1877-1982), the German author Günter Grass (1927-2015), the German author Rainer Kirsch (1934-2015), the German author Karl Hoche (born 1936), the Swiss author Gerold Späth (born 1939) and the Polish-born German children's author Janosch (born 1931).

The Tale of the Youth who set out to learn what fear was from the Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang 1889 1

The youth sees the sexton dressed as a ghost. Illustration by H.J. Ford from an 1889 edition of the British children's story anthology The Blue Fairy Book.

The story was adapted as a Slovak-language live-action film from Czechoslovakia, released in 1969, called Nebjosa ("The Fearless").

Under the title "The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers", the story was adapted as the seventh episode of the third season of the American children's TV series Faerie Tale Theatre. The episode was first shown on the cable channel Showtime in the United States on September 17, 1984. It stars Peter MacNicol as Martin, the title character, Diana Hill as the princess and Christopher Lee as the king. Musician Frank Zappa appears in a supporting role. The narrator is Vincent Price.

Under the title "Fearnot", the story was adapted as the second episode of the British-American children's TV series Jim Henson's The StoryTeller. The episode originally aired on the ITV network in the United Kingdom on October 26, 1987.

The story was adapted as the tenth episode of the first season of the German animated TV series Simsala Grimm. The episode was first broadcast on the channel Kinderkanal in Germany on November 12, 1999. The episode's English-language title is "The Meaning of Fear".

An hour-long TV movie based on the story was first shown on the German TV channel Das Erste on December 26, 2014.

Under the title The One Who Set Out to Study Fear, the story was adapted as a British radio play by writer Peter Redgrove. The story is given a present-day British setting. The youth profits from his lack of fear by finding work as a paranormal investigator. The princess whose allegedly haunted house he investigates and whom he eventually marries is a descendant of the deposed Russian czar. The play stars Paul Lockwood as the youth, Susie Brann as the princess and Sheila Grant as the talking cat. it was first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in the United Kingdom on August 21, 1987.

See also


  1. In the 1812 first edition of Kinder- und Hausmärchen , the story appears in a shorter form under the title Gut Kegel- und Kartenspiel ("Good Bowling and Card Playing"). It was expanded and given its currently more familiar German title in 1818.
  2. A sexton is someone who works at a church or similar place of worship as a caretaker. The duties of sextons at churches typically include bell ringing and grave digging.
  3. A thaler is a kind of silver coin that was used in several European countries from the early 16th century until the early 20th century. The word "thaler" is the origin of the word "dollar".
  4. A lathe is a tool that rotates objects so that they can be cut, sanded or otherwise worked on to make them symmetrical.

External links