The Man Who Did Not Know Fear
by Alexasandr Afanasyev (Russian)

In a certain kingdom there lived a merchant’s son, strong and brave, who from his youth had never feared anything; he wanted to know fear and set forth to travel through the world with a laborer. After a long time or a short time, they came to a thick forest and at this moment, as though by design, night fell. “Drive into the forest,” said the merchant’s son. “Eh, master” said the laborer, “it is fearsome to drive there; it is night, and we may be attacked by easts or assailed by robbers.” “Are you afraid or what? Do what I order you to do,” said the merchant’s son.

They drove into the forest and after a while they saw a corpse hanging on a tree. The laborer was even more frightened than before, but the merchant’s son remained calm; he removed the corpse from the tree, put it on his carriage, and ordered the laborer to drive on. After an hour or two they came to a big house; in its windows there were lights. “That is fine,” said the merchant’s son, “we have a shelter for the night.” But the laborer objected: “I would rather spend the night in the woods than in this house; we might fall into robbers’ hands; they will rob us of everything we have and we may even lose our lives.” In fact, robbers did live in that house; but the merchant’s son refused to heed the laborer’s words, opened the gates himself, and drove into the courtyard. He unharnessed the horses and taking the laborer with him, walked into the house.

They found the robbers sitting around a big table, all of them richly dressed, with fine sabers at their belts, drinking a variety of drink and eating fish. “Good evening, gentlemen,” the merchant’s son said to them. “Invite me to your table to eat and drink with you.” The robbers looked at him, wondering what kind of man he was, and did not answer. The uninvited guests came to the table. The merchant’s son took a piece of fish and ate it, and said: “Well gentlemen, your fish s no good at all! Eh, laborer, bring that white sturgeon we have in our carriage.” The laborer went out and brought the corpse. The merchant’s son put the corpse on the table, cut off a piece with a knife, smelled it, and cried: “No, that sturgeon is no good either! Laborer, catch some live fish!” And he pointed at the robbers, who in their fright scattered in all directions and hid wherever they could. “Well, you were frightened,” said the merchant’s son to the laborer. “But what is there to fear? Let us sit down and have our supper.” They sat down, ate and drank, but did not stay for he night; they harnessed their horses and continued on their way.

They came to a graveyard. “Stop,” said the merchant’s son. “We will spend the night here.” Again the laborer protested. “It is terrible here, the dead rise up at night.” “Ah, what kind of fellow are you?” said the merchant’s son. “You are afraid of everything.” They stopped and lay down to rest on a grave. The merchant’s son fell asleep, but the laborer could not sleep. Suddenly a dead man in a white shroud, who seemed of enormous size, rose from that grave; he fell upon the merchant’s son and began to strangle him. The merchant’s son awoke, knocked the dead man under him, and began in turn to beat and torment him in every possible way. The dead man suffered blow after blow and finally began to beg for mercy. “I might let you go,” said the merchant’s son, “if you promise to bring me within the hour the daughter or such and such a king who lives beyond the thrice ninth land.” “I will bring her – only let me go!” said the dead man. The merchant’s son let him go, and an hour later a sleeping princess appeared near his carriage, on the same bed in which she ordinarily rested in her royal palace. The merchant’s son did not rouse the princess but waited till she awoke by herself; and upon his return home he made her his lawful wife.

The merchant’s son traveled a great deal n various lands but never experienced fear; he came home, and this is what happened to him one day. He had a great passion for fishing; he spent entire nights and days on the river. His mother greatly disliked his being away from home for sch long stretches of time and she asked the fisherman to frighten him somehow. The fisherman caught perches and, seizing an opportunity when the merchant’s son dozed off in his boat, quietly sailed towards him and put a few perches in his bosom. The perches began to wriggle; the merchant’s son awoke, was frightened, and fell into the water, but managed to save himself. Then for the first time he knew what it was to be afraid.


The best way for me to comment on this fairy tale is to tell you how it came to be. First, waaaaaay back in 1181-1191ish, Chrétien de Troyes, an English writer (of sorts, remember, the English were French then. And he wrote in French, too. Weirdo.) wrote a book called Perceval, the Story of the Grail, all about Sir Percival and his Quest for the Holy Grail (now forever immortalized in Monty Python; which is funny, but not historically accurate). Then a medieval German writer Wolfram von Eschenbach got his hands on it and wrote Parzifal, the same thing, but in German, and with added bits. The reason that Perceval/Parzifal is important is that P. combined fearlessness and naivete, something that got stuck in the public literary consciousness. (Note: it was this fearlessness/naivete that influenced subsequent fairy tales, but this trait is only a tiny part of the original narrative, which is more concerned with knightly honor, King Arthur, Grails, the Red Knight, etc etc).

Then, sometime post 1810, the Brothers Grimm adapted bits of the Parzifal story and bits of pre-existing folktale into ,,Der Junge der auszog, um das Fuerchten zu lernen” (the youth who went out to learn how to fear). They took the tale to a whole new level. Their version is a lot funnier than the one you just read; for example, when the youth meets a hanging corpse, he doesn’t even realize that its dead, and cuts it down to sit with him by the fire. He also originally wins the Princess not by coercing a dead guy, but by freeing her father’s castle from demonic spirits (and the funny part about him defeating them is that he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it). The Grimms to the naievete to a whole new level, and thus upped the tale’s comic content about 500%.

This version by Afanasyev is by far the least well known version of the tale. He originally published fairy tales from 1855-1867, starting after the Grimms had stopped collecting their tales. His version was almost certainly (and by almost certainly I mean 99% likely) based on the Grimms’ version. Afanasyev’s tale is less funny than the Grimms’, and more dramatic. In this version, the merchant’s son is not laughed at (or with), but someone to be reckoned with. Moreover, the youth knows exactly what he’s doing when he cuts off a piece of the corpse and threatens the robbers. It is likely that Afanasyev was trying to play to his audience, as it were; Russian tales are, in general, more dramatic and depressing than German ones (hard to do though that may be). I myself prefer the Grimms’ version, but like this one as well, mostly because of that episode with the robbers (which, you have to admit, is pretty impressive).