The Fisherman and His Wife
As usual, I’ll start with a brief synopsis of this Brothers Grimm story, then go on and discuss it.
Once upon a time there were a fisherman and his wife who lived in a filthy shack by the sea. The fisherman caught a flounder who spoke to him, claiming to be an enchanted prince and asking to be set free. The fisherman did so, saying, “. . . there’s no need to say more. I can certainly let a fish swim away who knows how to talk.” He put the fish back into the clear water and it swam to the bottom trailing blood behind it.
The fisherman went home and told his wife who told him he must go back and ask the fish for a little cottage. The man did not want to go, but did so because he did not want to oppose his wife.
When he arrived, the water was no longer clear but green and yellow. He called (invoked) the flounder. Various versions of the tale translate the invocation differently, and in some he uses a name, “Ilsabill,” for his wife. In all, he says that his wife wants what he does not.
The flounder comes and the man explains that his wife says he should have asked for something, and that his wife doesn’t want to live in a shack any more, she wants a cottage.
“Go home,” said the flounder. “She already has it.”
The man went home and his wife was waiting for him in front of the cottage, which was furnished nicely and had a yard and a garden and chickens and ducks. The wife seems happy and the man says “This is quite enough. We can live here quite well.” Ominously, his wife answers, “We will think about that.”
All went well for a week or two, then the woman was not happy with the cottage. “The flounder could have given us a larger house. I would like to live in a large stone palace,” and she demanded that the man return and ask for a palace. The man argued that the cottage is enough, but his wife insisted and he went back (though he said to himself, “this is not right,”). This time the water was purple and dark blue and gray and dense. He invoked the flounder with the same words as before. The flounder asked what the wife wanted, and said, “Go home. She’s already standing before the door.” Again, the wish was granted in surfeit. The wife seemed happy, and the fisherman said, “This is quite enough. We can live in this beautiful palace and be satisfied.” The wife’s reply again did not bode well: “We’ll think about it. Let’s sleep on it.”
The next morning she asked the fisherman to have the flounder make them king. When the fisherman protested that he didn’t want that, she said that she must be made king, then.
This time, the sea was dark gray and the water heaved up from below and had a foul smell. The flounder, again, only asked what she wanted and it was done. The fisherman went home, and his wife was not waiting for him, she was inside an even grander palace, and was now king. This time, however, it lasted less than a day. She demanded that she be made emperor . . . and commanded him as his king.
The water this time is black and dense and boiling, and a strong wing blew over the fisherman that curdled the water. The wife became emperor, then demanded, the same day, to become pope. Each wish is granted in an even more lavish way than it is asked. Each time the fisherman argues with her, but ends up asking her boon. Each time the fisherman returns to ask the wish the ocean, sky and land are even more disturbed.
“Wife, be satisfied now that you are pope. There is nothing else you can become.”
“I have to think about that,” said the woman.
She spent the night thinking about what she could become, and the next morning tells her husband that she cannot stand it when she sees the sun and moon rising because she was not the one to cause them to rise. She wanted to be like God. The fisherman begged her not to make him ask this, but “anger fell over her. Her hair flew wildly about her head. Tearing open her bodice she kicked him . . .”
This time there was a terrible storm that knocked over trees and houses. Mountains were shaking. The sky was black and there were great black waves as high as church towers and mountains. The fisherman again invokes the flounder, and tells the fish that his wife wants to be like God.
“Go home. She is sitting in her filthy shack again.”
And they are sitting there even today.
It strikes me that this is more a fable with a moral than it is a fairy tale. There is no real movement in the story: it ends where it begins . . . perhaps with a sadder and wiser wife. There is more than one moral here, though, so it’s not quite as clean as most fables.
Don’t be greedy. Greed undoes the wife. As a human being, there are limits.
If you know that something’s wrong, you must stand firm against it. The husband could have stopped this at each stage.
Still, there are some fabulous elements (in both senses of the word “fabulous”) that work on a number of levels and should be examined.
First, the flounder. A flounder is a common fish, it’s flat, it’s a bottom feeder and a food fish. As I write this I have a number of associations to it. First, moving through the water it seems a reflection of the subconscious mind, of that within us that can grant our own wishes. It certainly grants, without comment, each wish that the fisherman’s wife presents, grants them generously and instantly like a toddler’s ideal parent.
And that brings us to the fisherman’s wife for a moment . . . I’ll go back to the fish afterward. She seems a toddler. Each desire must be granted instantly, and granting each leads to a more extravagant wish. When it seems her wishes are to be thwarted she is first insistent, then angry, then throws a temper tantrum. And at each step the wishes are less for material things than for power. Her desire for power is evident not only in her demand to be king, then emperor, then pope, then as God, but also in her relationship with her husband. She waits outside the cottage and the palace, but he must go inside to see her when she’s king. He becomes supplicant.
There’s more to explore in the fisherman’s wife and with the fisherman, but I want to go back to the flounder. I feel that this form for the wish-granter can’t be accidental, and it brings to mind the fish as symbol for early Christians (possibly because of the resemblance of the Greek words for fish and Jesus). And in the story the fish grants each wish as a God might answer a prayer . . . until the wife asks to be like God. The fish anticipates each request, and the earth and the water are a reflection of the fish’s (emotional?) response to it. As the wish is expressed, it has already been granted. And Jan points out that perhaps the flounder did even grant the last wish, for in Christianity Jesus was born in a hovel.
Perhaps this is less a fairy tale or a fable than it is a parable.
I have to leave this here for now. I may add another piece of artwork to this post if the one I want becomes available.
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Tags: Brothers Grimm, Chautauqua Summer Institute, Fairy Tales, Meaning of fairy tales, The Fisherman and His Wife