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 1833 poem by Aleksandr Pushkin. Virginia Woolf has her character Mrs. Ramsey in To the Lighthouse read a version of the story to her son, James. Günter Grass's 1977 novel, The Flounder, is loosely based on the fairy tale, as are Emanuele Luzzati's version, Punch and the Magic Fish, and Ursula LeGuin's novel The Lathe of Heaven.


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, which 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, as 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, then gets on a slippery slope of outrageous demands. When she sees the mansion contains a considerable amount of land, the wife says there is enough property to become king of all this land, and 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 her increasing ostentatiousness: the mansion is transformed 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. He says they should not annoy the flounder and they need to be content, but his wife yells down his arguments. 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 the fish. Although the fisherman has no problem resting in his sybaritic surroundings, the wife's rapacious greed cannot let her rest. She wants an office that outranks pope.

Eventually, the wife goes too far when she wishes to command the sun, moon and heavens and become equal to God. The flounder revokes everything it granted, the seas are again clear and calm, and the fisherman and his wife are returned to 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 this fairy tale.

A short cartoon based on this story was part of the United States animated television series, Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The Flounder was replaced by a beautiful mermaid who grants the wishes in exchange for her freedom. Additionally, the wife goes directly from queen to wishing to be a 'goddess'. The mermaid 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 are reduced to living in the hovel again. She is content and happily embraces him.

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