“The Fisherman and His Wife”
by The Brothers Grimm
A woman pope – and a married one at that? A female empress sitting on a throne two miles high? And, by the way, a talking fish who’s an enchanted prince who grants limitless wishes but can’t even get himself back into human form? Surely, “The Fisherman and His Wife” is one of the zaniest, even eeriest tales to come out of brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm’s early 19th century collection of German folk tales. Although the Brothers Grimm, as they are known, believed – or at least insisted – that the tales they collected and edited reflected a uniquely German soul, variations of some of their stories exist in multiple cultures. And the widespread popularity of many of the stories, including the subject of today’s post, suggests a source deep in the human psyche.
Including the stories of magical wishes and their often-unintended, even disastrous consequences.
The subcategory of a wife with strange wishes (desires?) paired with a compliant, even feckless, husband, is as old as Eve. Is it a reflection of male fears about dominant women? I promise, I wasn’t even thinking, consciously at least) about the coming week’s election when I decided to make November a week of fairy tale fantasy at this site.
Perhaps a fisherman, a category of human known for tall tales, was considered an appropriate teller of such a story. It begins this way:
“There was once a fisherman and his wife who lived together in a hovel by the seashore, and the fisherman went out every day with his hook and line to catch fish, and he angled and angled. . .”
In the tale, the fisherman had caught nothing. But it seems to have been a lovely day, and the water was so clear he could see all the way down to the bottom of the sea. And see perfectly well that there were no fish – until he found a huge flounder on his line! Notorious bottom-dwellers, flounders can camouflage themselves quite well against a sandy sea bottom, both of their eyes facing straight up, waiting for their own prey. And if the fisherman could see clear to the bottom, it’s easy to suspect that the flounder could see clear up to the top where the fisherman was. Was the fish angling for a man as much as the man was angling for a fish?
The fisherman hauled the great fish out, no doubt quite pleased with his catch. The fish, however, was no ordinary flounder.
“Fisherman, listen to me,” it said, “let me go. I am not a real fish but an enchanted prince. . . I shall not taste well; so put me back into the water again, and let me swim away.”
Having perhaps taken more than a few pulls at his jug (a circumstance the Grimms may have edited out to make their story more appealing to children), the fisherman is perfectly willing to carry on the conversation. In the end, he lets the flounder off the hook. It swims away, leaving behind a trail of blood, the first omen of worse things to come.
When he returns home, the fisherman can’t resist telling the story to his wife. And she (perhaps having had a whiff of his breath) calls him on his tall tale. Well, what did you wish for, she asks. You find a talking fish, which is obviously a magical creature, and you don’t even make a wish for a nice little cottage for us to live in instead of this miserable hovel?
Chagrined, or merely wanting to escape his wife, or possibly to sample his waiting jug again, the fisherman goes back to the spot where he last saw the fish. The sea, however, is no longer clear, but discolored. The fisherman calls to, the fish (perhaps the first recorded instance of a sonic fishing lure), but careful to excuse his plea as coming from his wife, not from himself. The flounder swims back, asks what is desired, and tells the man to go home, for the wish is already granted.
Of course, the wife (at least, that’s how the fisherman justifies himself) soon wants bigger and better wishes, and her husband resignedly returns again and again to the waiting fish, who grants them.
From a cottage to a castle, then to become king – yes, the wife is king because the husband insists he has no interest in such a position. Then emperor. Then pope. Interestingly, the fisherman’s mild attempt to dissuade his wife from this last desire doesn’t mention the improbability of a female pope – only that there is already a male pope and you can’t have two popes, can you?
Nothing, however, is too much for the flounder to grant, although the sea becomes more discolored and violent with each mounting request. Until at last . . .
But I’ll let you read that for yourself. The now copyright-free story is available online at German Stories, among other sites.
But it leaves me wondering, who was the flounder, really? After criticism of the violence and sexual content of their initial 1812 volume of stories, the Brothers Grimm were known to add more moral, even religious content. And given the well-known iconography of a fish, and its role as an incarnation of the son of a king, and its power, I wonder. . .