unsettling wonder

Household Tales: A Grimm Read-throughillus-125

The Fisherman and His Wife

illus-117t his is a fascinating tale among a wilderness of fascinating tales.  The difference between the telling and the tale is astounding. What it is, is ordinary and somewhat blasé. What is could be—that’s another question entirely.

What’s more, this tale serves as a striking example of how even the Grimm’s fastidious prudery could not repress the truth and beauty found in these tales—how a tale can transcend the telling of it, and even a shambling version can still gives us glimpses into the topsy-turvy wonder of the Perilous Realm.

The tale begins simply enough. Fisherman catches Flounder. Don’t eat me, good fellow, Flounder says. Would you believe it, I’m really an enchanted prince just waiting to be kissed. No, thank you, I’ll wait. No, really. Tell you what, just let me go and we’ll leave it at that, eh?

Fisherman does. Happy Ending.

Fisherman goes home to his wife. Forget about that Happy Ending bit.

What do you mean, the Flounder was really a handsome prince, Wife says. Man, you’re daft. Stark raving daft. That was a flounder. That was a stupid ordinary fish and he took you in, puddenhead! What sort of prince would be an enchanted fish, I ask you? Talking to fish, I mean, really! I oughta call the shrink and get you put away for the rest of your life, you…

That’s not what she said.

Would have been a bit more understandable. But instead she says, did you ask for the three wishes, husband? You know enchanted creatures are supposed to give you wishes? Well, know, says Fisherman. Go do it, she says. Call for help, he’ll come. And she invokes one of the inviolable laws of the Perilous Realm:

“Why,” said the woman, “you did catch him, and you let him go again; he is sure to do it. Go at once.”

He goes. The wish is simple. Let’s please not live in this filthy hovel anymore, thank you—can we just have a wee cottage, with a bit of garden? And here the Grimms begin peddling their agenda. When the man invokes the fish, he says:

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.

Fisherman’s trouble, the Grimms suggest, comes from having a wife who doesn’t know her place in the home, or her proper class. She thinks she knows better than her husband, and think she can move upwards in society. All the while sea and sky gets darker.

Not content with a cottage, she must have a house. Not content with a house, she must have a mansion. Not content with a mansion, she must have a castle. And what good’s a castle when you’re not a king? What good is being king when you might be an emperor? And why bother being emperor if you might as well be the pope?

Flounder grants the wishes with increasingly creepy ostentation and power. Fisherman, calm voice of reason, pleads with his wife to stop subverting her place and rising in society. All to no avail. It soon comes clear that the wife is a sort of Satan, for she shrieks and whines and must be better than the pope, she must be like God:

If I can’t order the sun and moon to rise, and have to look on and see the sun and moon rising, I can’t bear it. I shall not know what it is to have another happy hour, unless I can make them rise myself.

One wish to many, and the tables will turn, the tale teller says. Assertive women and ambitious workers are of the devil will be duly squashed by the order of things, because the world frowns on those who do not meekly accept their place. Especially those very poor, who must be helped to succeed.

So speaks the teller. But not so the tale.

The man and his wife have pursued a reckless course of upward mobility. The discontent of the wife and the frank ambition of the husband are typical of many societies, grasping after material gain, status, power, opulence. This Thurberian couple can be read not as a chastisement of the very poor or of women, but of the rich and upwardly mobile classes, of those who—whatever their gender—scheme to increase their wealth at another’s expense.

Now, not only are the multi-mansion billionaires, they want absolute power. Or perhaps they want absolute piety? They want, at any rate, to be like God. Surely, they reason, there is no higher power or splendour, no dearer riches, no greater upward mobility.

“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.

God is in the hovel of the poor. God is downwardly mobile. The wicked look up and are envious. The righteous look down and find God beside them.

As he was breaking the bread, they recognised him, and straightway he vanished from their sight.

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3 thoughts on “unsettling wonder

  1. Wow. I never thought of the ending that way before– I always read it as “Oh, you think you’re so high and mighty, I’ll put you back in your place”, or vis. Darby O’Gill “Wish your fourth wish and you lose them all!”. But having just spend half an hour reading George MacDonald, it makes total sense. If you want to be king, you have to go up; if you want to be God, you have to go down, one way or the other.

  2. Pingback: Digester’s Reading « Eric Pazdziora

  3. Interesting tale! I love it. I never heard of it before. Sort of MacBethian.

    Ambition is a lot like greed sometimes. Satisfaction with what one has (as long as it’s the basics) seems to elude so many. I sometimes think that happiness is an in-born trait and for those without it, life is a struggle. The thing is – our society pushes greed more.

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