(Illustration by Walter Crane from Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm, Household Stories from the Collection of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Lucy Crane. London: Macmillan & Co., 1882; from here)
This is another of the better-known of the Grimms’ tales, and I do remember it quite well from my childhood. You can read it here, although it refers coyly to the fisherfolk’s home as a ‘filthy shack’ whereas Joyce Crick in the Oxford University Press edition translates it more robustly as a ‘piss-pot’. Mmm. No wonder the fisherman’s wife is a pushy opportunist. Who wouldn’t want to escape that?
In her endnotes Crick explains that a painter, Philipp Otto Runge, was the Grimms’ source for this story. His first version was in Pomeranian dialect but this was later replaced by another he had written in Hamburg dialect. He didn’t invent the story, there were quite a few variants in circulation including at least one in which it was the fisherman who was the demanding character rather than his wife. So it’s an interesting hybrid even before the Grimms receive it, a story which has been deliberately shaped by an educated man to retain the flavour of the ‘volk’ and its oral nature, even as it’s been changed into a written piece of literature for the more educated members of society.
(Luise Neupert, silhouette illustration in Märchenhafte Papierschnitte, Kassel : Brüder Grimm-Gesellschaft, 2002; found here)
This version is pleasing, despite the misogyny lurking behind the characterisation of the wife, because it is funny and elegant. The increasingly outrageous and improbable demands of the wife – to be king! emperor! pope! God! – are reflected by the state of the sea, which grows murkier, stormier, each time the fisherman returns with a fresh request. The obvious moral of the story is to beware of over-reaching, of being too greedy and discontented. Discontent feeds upon itself; the wife becomes more and more frenzied in her demands until at the end, when she’s declaring she wants to become God, she completely loses self-control:
Then she flew into a rage; her hair flew wildly round her head, she tore her stays and gave him a kick with her foot and screamed: ‘I won’t stand it and I won’t stand it any longer! Will you be off!’
But I think that responsibility for this lies with the fisherman as well as his wife. In the Grimms’ telling, it is clear that unlike his wife he has a moral sense and he understands that acceding to her demands is wrong. However, he is too weak to seriously oppose her and obeys her against his better judgement. Thus she grows into a monster. Did this have extra resonance when the Grimms were first assembling their collection, in a German kingdom occupied by the French under the emperor Napoleon? Certainly it lends itself to political interpretation: Crick writes that a version was printed in 1814 which turned it into an allegory of the fall of Napoleon.
An amusing element of this story is that the characters seem conscious that they are in a fairy tale. The fisherman’s response to the flounder is exactly the response one would expect of a reader of fairy tales:
Then the flounder spoke to him. ‘Listen to me, fisherman. Spare my life, I beg you. I’m not a real flounder. I am a prince under a spell. What good will it do you if you kill me? You wouldn’t enjoy eating me. Put me back in the water and let me go.’ ‘Well,’ said the man, ‘you don’t need to make such a fuss about it. I’d have let a talking flounder go anyway.’
And his wife knows the rules that we readers know: you help a magical character, you are rewarded:
‘Didn’t you make a wish for anything?’ said his wife. […] ‘Go back and call him. Tell him we want to have a little cottage. He’ll do that for sure. […] For heaven’s sake, […] you did catch him after all, and you did let him go. He’s sure to do it. Go down right now.’
Perhaps this shared consciousness of being characters in a story brings them a little closer to us, who are on the outside looking in.
And what about the enchanted flounder? We never know his story. I hope he either enjoys being a fish, or is freed from the spell…
(Illustration by Kay Nielsen in Hansel and Gretel and Other Stories by the Brothers Grimm, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1925; found here)