Fisherman and His Wife illustration by Kay Nielsen

Illustration from Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm. Kay Nielsen, illustrator. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925.

Image credit: SurLaLune Fairy Tales

When I think of fairy tales, the Grimms immediately pop into my head. Today, I read a story that I’ve heard before but never realized it was one of theirs.

A fisherman and his wife live in a run-down shack by the sea. Everyday the man went out fishing, and one clear day he catches an amazing flounder. The flounder explains that he is in fact an enchanted prince and that the fisherman should let him go. The fisherman replies that he’s a talking fish, of course he’ll let him go, the fact that he may or may not be a prince is irrelevant.

The fisherman goes home and tells his wife about the fish. Now the pair become a typical fairy tale couple – the husband turns out to be a wimp, and the wife is domineering and greedy. She tells the fisherman that he should have wished for something, that the flounder would surely have granted it. So she sends him back to the sea, to call the fish and wish for a cottage. The husband reluctantly goes, but when he makes the request, he plainly states that it his wife’s wish, not his.

“Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Ilsabil,
Wills not as I’d have her will.”

The flounder asks what the woman wants, and the fisherman tells him that she wants a cottage. The flounder then tells the man to go home, she already has it, and when the man gets home, the shack has indeed become a nice little cottage, complete with yard and chickens. The fisherman says, “Now we will live quite contented,” but of course that’s not to be.

The wife sends him back time and again to ask more from the flounder, first for a castle, and then for not only property but power. Each time the flounder grants the wish, making the wife first a King, then the Emperor and then the Pope, each position complete with an amazing, servants, jewels and clothing. Each time the husband hesitates to go down to the sea, but eventually does, finding the sea angrier and angrier, the sky darker and darker.

The wife is still not happy, although the fisherman urges her to be content. Finally she orders the fisherman to go down and tell the flounder she wishes to be like God, with control over the sun and moon. So, after a little protest, off he heads down to the sea.

“Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Ilsabil,
Wills not as I’d have her will.”

“Well, what does she want, then?” said the flounder. “Alas,” said he, “she wants to be like unto God.” “Go to her, and you will find her back again in the dirty hovel.” And there they are living still at this very time.

Rather an abrupt ending, isn’t it? The poor fish doesn’t even get turned back into a human. I get the moral- you need to be content with what you have. I don’t know that I necessarily like it though. If the couple had acquired property and position through hard work I’m sure the outcome would have been different. I think the wife would have appreciated it more, not expected the next step to be just given to her on a silver platter.

And please give these fairy tale men a backbone! Granted, he was a good guy, he let the fish go in the first place as a charitable act, not asking for anything in return until his wife got to him, but he could have stood up to her when they had the nice little cottage, or even lied and said the fish didn’t come back when he called, but no, he let things get out of control, and once she was King he had to obey her commands, even when nature itself was showing its wrath with the stormy weather.

Not my favorite tale of all time. And you know, in all the times David and I go fishing, I have yet to catch a magic fish.

I read this story at SurLaLune, although I’m sure you can find it many places. This is the version from Household Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, translated by Margaret Hunt, published in 1884 and 1892.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.