The Fisherman and His Wife

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"The Fisherman and His Wife" illustration by Alexander Zick

The Fisherman and His Wife is a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm, tale no. 19. It is Aarne-Thompson type 555, the fisherman and his wife. Its theme was used in The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, an 1835 poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. Mrs Ramsey reads the story to James, her son in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. Günter Grass's The Flounder is also loosely based on the story, as is Emanuele Luzzati's retelling, Punch and the Magic Fish.


There once was a poor fisherman who lived with his wife, Ilsebill, in a hovel by the sea. One day the fisherman catches a golden flounder who claims to be an enchanted prince. The fisherman kindly releases it. When his wife hears the story, she says he ought to have had the flounder grant him a wish. Ilsebill tells him to go back and ask the flounder to grant her wish for a nice house. The fisherman returns to the shore but is uneasy when he finds that the sea seems to becoming turbid when it was so clear before. He makes up a rhyme to summon the flounder, and it grants the wife's wish. The fisherman is pleased with his new wealth, but the wife gets greedy and makes increasingly outrageous demands: When she sees how much land their estate is, she suggests the fisherman wish himself a king. The fisherman has no desire to rule, but she says she will rule, first as queen, then empress and finally pope. Each wish granted shows increasing ostenstatiousness, the mansion transforms into a castle and the wife's throne becomes progressively grander. The fisherman knows this is wrong but there is no reasoning with his wife save for a few small arguments not to annoy the flounder or be content, but these arguments are yelled down and the fisherman realizes he cannot reason with his wife. The flounder grants the wishes, but the sea grows increasingly stormy every time the fisherman goes to summon it. Although the fisherman has no problem resting in his sybartic surroundings, the wife's rapacious greed cannot let her rest, particularly when there is no office that outranks pope.

Eventually, the wife goes too far when she wishes to command the sun, moon and heavens' to become equal to God. The flounder revokes everything it granted, the seas are once again clear and calm and the fisherman and his wife are back in their hovel.

Adaptations in modern Literature and Television[edit]

In 1977 the German writer Günter Grass published the novel The Flounder (German: “Der Butt”), which is loosely based on the fairy tale “The Fisherman and His Wife”.

There was a short cartoon based on this story as part of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The Flounder was replaced by a beautiful mermaid who grants the wishes in exchange for her freedom. Additionally, the wife does not request to be empress or pope but rather goes directly from queen to wishing to be a 'goddess'. The mermaid then points out to the fisherman that all his wishes have been for his wife, and asks him what he desires. The fisherman replies that he just wants his wife to be happy, and the mermaid replies, "Go; she is happy." As in the later 1997 version, the fisherman and his wife are reduced to living in their hovel, but the wife is happy that it is poor yet neat.

In 1997, the story was given a Spanish-flavored adaptation on the animated cable series Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child. Edward James Olmos and Julia Migenes provided the voices of the fisherman and his wife. In this version, the fisherman is unable to figure out what his last wish is, and says, "I want only for my wife to be happy". Immediately, he and his wife and reduced to living in the hovel again, but she is contented and happily embraces him.

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