The Message of German Fairy tales

The Fisherman and his Wife

Tale of the Bothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in italics [2018]

This fairy tale was originally published in Low German by the Brothers Grimm. It is very interesting because it questions several images that we like to draw from our European past. On the upper level, one can think about the alleged suppression of women in society, and on the spiritual level, the alleged stupidity of the people of the Dark Ages, who could not even invent a washing machine or a car. Granted, it’s really hard to look at our historical past with our worldview today. Here we would go with Goethe, who writes in [Faust I]:

Listen, my friend: the ages that are past
Are now a book with seven seals protected:
What you the Spirit of the Ages call
Is nothing but the spirit of you all,
Wherein the Ages are reflected.

There was once on a time a Fisherman who lived with his wife in a miserable hovel close by the sea, and every day he went out fishing. And once as he was sitting with his rod, looking at the clear water, his line suddenly went down, far down below, and when he drew it up again, he brought out a large Flounder. Then the Flounder said to him, “Hark, you Fisherman, I pray you, let me live, I am no Flounder really, but an enchanted prince. What good will it do you to kill me? I should not be good to eat, put me in the water again, and let me go.” “Come,” said the Fisherman, “there is no need for so many words about it; a fish that can talk I should certainly let go, anyhow,” with that he put him back again into the clear water, and the Flounder went to the bottom, leaving a long streak of blood behind him. Then the Fisherman got up and went home to his wife in the hovel.

Brilliant! Already the beginning of our fairy tale uses many symbols, which we already know from other fairy tales, and call for an interpretation on a spiritual level. Husband and wife live in a small hut, in Low German called ‘Pißputt - chamber pot’, so probably not very fragrant. This reminds us again of the male and female polarity that lives in our body, which does not always smell like violets. Because, in principle, our body is a walking compost heap that digests food to create fertile ground for future development.

The sea is mainly water as an element and symbol of life. Here the fisherman sits patiently, like a meditating yogi, until the water of his mind becomes ever clearer and he looks deeper and deeper to the bottom. From there, with the fishing rod of mindfulness, he brings up a wondrous being who lives there at the bottom. The flounder is an excellent symbol for this, because it usually hides on the bottom of the sea in the sand, and only the eyes still show. And as he catches this being with his spiritual rod, he hears that it is not an ordinary being, but a haunted son of a king. The king reminds us once again of the spirit that reigns everywhere, and the enchanted Son reminds us of an embodied spirit who had to take on that form through a fateful desire. It is not new in the spiritual world that one can regard everything in nature as an embodied or solidified mind. Modern science would probably be talking about energy and information, which is basically the same thing. Of course, once you have a body, the question of death becomes urgent immediately. But the ‘man’ sees things deeper, realizes his true nature and gives it back to the clear water of life. The wondrous being returns to the bottom, but showing a trail of blood behind him that perhaps symbolizes the general suffering or karma that all embodied beings must endure. Then the fisherman rises from his ‘meditation’ and returns to his transient body, where his feminine side awaits him:

“Husband,” said the woman, “have you caught nothing to-day?” “No,” said the man, “I did catch a Flounder, who said he was an enchanted prince, so I let him go again.” “Did you not wish for anything first?” said the woman. “No,” said the man; “what should I wish for?” “Ah,” said the woman, “it is surely hard to have to live always in this dirty hovel; you might have wished for a small cottage for us. Go back and call him. Tell him we want to have a small cottage, he will certainly give us that.” - “Ah,” said the man, “why should I go there again?” - “Why,” said the woman, “you did catch him, and you let him go again; he is sure to do it. Go at once.” The man still did not quite like to go, but did not like to oppose his wife, and went to the sea.

When he got there the sea was all green and yellow, and no longer so smooth; so he stood and said,

“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.”

Then the Flounder came swimming to him and said, “Well, what does she want, then?” - “Ah,” said the man, “I did catch you, and my wife says I really ought to have wished for something. She does not like to live in a wretched hovel any longer; she would like to have a cottage.” - “Go, then,” said the Flounder, “she has it already.”

As this story unfolds, on a spiritual level we can again see the pair of ego and reason that lives in this house of the body like cat and mouse. And as soon as they come together, the ego asks about the profit, of which pure reason is only surprised. What else should one win or wish for in the world if one has already looked to the very bottom of life with a clear mind? But the ego does not give up so quickly and urges reason until he gives in and asks the creative power in the ocean of life to design certain forms. Here spirit acts upon spirit, and so, under the will of the ego, this whole world arises. Wanting in thoughts and actions moves the mind, so stirs up the sea and makes its clarity disappear.

The little saying, which runs like a mantra through the whole fairy tale, starts in Low German with: Mantje, Mantje, Timpe Te, flounder, flounder in the sea… Mantje means ‘little man’, and in this regard, one could interpret the saying as follows:

You (male) spirit in the hidden, creator in the sea of life, the selfish desire drives me against all reason.

And the being says, “Go on, you already have it...” Excellent! After all, it is the living nature that gives us everything, even life itself. And the purer our desire, the more powerful it is, and the faster nature gives us. Therefore, a proverb says: “Everything that man can think, he can also create.” The greedy ego thinks in doing so: “I want to win and possess it!” But the pure reason knows: “I already have it, even if it is not there yet.” This difference is probably the big secret of contentment.

When the man went home, his wife was no longer in the hovel, but instead of it there stood a small cottage, and she was sitting on a bench before the door. Then she took him by the hand and said to him, “Just come inside, look, now isn’t this a great deal better?” So they went in, and there was a small porch, and a pretty little parlour and bedroom, and a kitchen and pantry, with the best of furniture, and fitted up with the most beautiful things made of tin and brass, whatsoever was wanted. And behind the cottage there was a small yard, with hens and ducks, and a little garden with flowers and fruit. “Look,” said the wife, “is not that nice!” - “Yes,” said the husband, “and so we must always think it, now we will live quite contented.” - “We will think about that.” said the wife. With that they ate something and went to bed.

Then his wife took him by the hand and said, “Come in...” That’s probably the way our mind comes into a body. And pure reason advises contentment and says, “As it is, it is good!” - What do you feel about the word ‘contentment’? For many people today it is almost a swear word for a vice. Because dissatisfaction is the engine of our society, that is to say: buy, buy and buy! It does not have to be completely wrong, otherwise it would not have arisen. But you should think about it at least once. Because you might own everything: family, house, company or even whole countries. But without contentment it is never enough and just as good as nothing. While with contentment you can be really happy with just a few. But what does the greedy ego mean?

Everything went well for a week or a fortnight, and then the woman said, “Hark you, husband, this cottage is far too small for us, and the garden and yard are little; the Flounder might just as well have given us a larger house. I should like to live in a great stone castle; go to the Flounder, and tell him to give us a castle.” - “Ah, wife,” said the man, “the cottage is quite good enough; why should we live in a castle?” - “What!” said the woman; “Just go there, the Flounder can always do that.” - “No, wife,” said the man, “the Flounder has just given us the cottage, I do not like to go back so soon, it might make him angry.” - “Go,” said the woman, “he can do it quite easily, and will be glad to do it; just you go to him.”

The man’s heart grew heavy, and he would not go. He said to himself, “It is not right.” and yet he went. And when he came to the sea the water was quite purple and dark-blue, and grey and thick, and no longer so green and yellow, but it was still quiet. And he stood there and said

“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 the man, half scared, “she wants to live in a great stone castle.” - “Go to it, then, she is standing before the door.” said the Flounder.

If reason does not control the greedy ego, it knows no boundaries. But it is said that it is as heavy as to control the wind. And every satisfied wish makes it even harder. The greedy ego feeds on it, wants to manifest more and more, wants to surround itself with high walls and identify with special forms and possessions. As a result, our mind melts, and the illusion obstructs the clear view into the depths.

Then the man went away, intending to go home, but when he got there, he found a great stone palace, and his wife was just standing on the steps going in, and she took him by the hand and said, “Come in.” So he went in with her, and in the castle was a great hall paved with marble, and many servants, who flung wide the doors; and the walls were all bright with beautiful hangings, and in the rooms were chairs and tables of pure gold, and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, and all the rooms and bed-rooms had carpets, and food and wine of the very best were standing on all the tables so that they nearly broke down beneath it. Behind the house, too, there was a great court-yard, with stables for horses and cows, and the very best of carriages; there was a magnificent large garden, too, with the most beautiful flowers and fruit-trees, and a park quite half a mile long, in which were stags, deer, and hares, and everything that could be desired. “Come,” said the woman, “isn’t that beautiful?” - “Yes, indeed,” said the man, “now let it be; and we will live in this beautiful castle and be content.” - “We will consider about that,” said the woman, “and sleep upon it.” Thereupon they went to bed.

Why does not the woman go to the palace alone? Why is she waiting for her husband? On the mental level, these poles of male and female resemble a battery that moves us like a motor. And the deeper you look, the less the poles can be separated, as you cannot buy the plus and minus poles of batteries individually. And the further one goes out, the more separation we see, until the usual divorce. Therefore, we read in the Bible: “What God has united, man should not divorce.” [Bible, Mark 10.9] For every separation is a source of illusion and suffering. Moreover, it is probably the dumbest thing when one separates from reason. Surely our scientific-technical age is also good, but the reason should always be there, which reminds us: “Now we want to live with it and be content!”

Next morning the wife awoke first, and it was just daybreak, and from her bed she saw the beautiful country lying before her. Her husband was still stretching himself, so she poked him in the side with her elbow, and said, “Get up, husband, and just peep out of the window. Look you, couldn’t we be the King over all that land? Go to the Flounder, we will be the King.” - “Ah, wife,” said the man, “why should we be King? I do not want to be King.” - “Well,” said the wife, “if you won’t be King, I will; go to the Flounder, for I will be King.” - “Ah, wife,” said the man, “why do you want to be King? I do not like to say that to him.” - “Why not?” said the woman; “Go to him this instant; I must be King!” So the man went, and was quite unhappy because his wife wished to be King. “It is not right; it is not right.” thought he. He did not wish to go, but yet he went.

And when he came to the sea, it was quite dark-grey, and the water heaved up from below, and smelt putrid. Then he went and stood by it, and said,

“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 the man, “she wants to be King.” “Go to her; she is King already.”

And again the greedy ego thinks: “I want to become something special!” And pure reason knows: “I am already, even if it is not there yet.” That is probably the biggest secret of contentment, the ‘man’ in us knows. Nevertheless, the ocean of life is getting more and more agitated. We know something similar in the Indian stories of the churning of the ocean, when gods and demons united to obtain the nectar of immortality [e.g. MHB 1.17]. In these stories many waves with desirable things arose from the ocean but also a poison that threatened to destroy everything.

So the man went, and when he came to the palace, the castle had become much larger, and had a great tower and magnificent ornaments, and the sentinel was standing before the door, and there were numbers of soldiers with kettle-drums and trumpets. And when he went inside the house, everything was of real marble and gold, with velvet covers and great golden tassels. Then the doors of the hall were opened, and there was the court in all its splendour, and his wife was sitting on a high throne of gold and diamonds, with a great crown of gold on her head, and a sceptre of pure gold and jewels in her hand, and on both sides of her stood her maids-in-waiting in a row, each of them always one head shorter than the last.

Then he went and stood before her, and said, “Ah, wife, and now you are King.” - “Yes,” said the woman, “now I am King.” So he stood and looked at her, and when he had looked at her thus for some time, he said, “And now that you are King, let all else be, now we will wish for nothing more.” - “Nay, husband,” said the woman, quite anxiously, “I find time pass very heavily, I can bear it no longer; go to the Flounder - I am King, but I must be Emperor, too.” - “Alas, wife, why do you wish to be Emperor?” - “Husband,” said she, “go to the Flounder. I will be Emperor.” - “Alas, wife,” said the man, “he cannot make you Emperor; I may not say that to the fish. There is only one Emperor in the land. An Emperor the Flounder cannot make you! I assure you he cannot.” - “What!” said the woman, “I am the King, and you are nothing but my husband; will you go this moment? Go at once! If he can make a king he can make an emperor. I will be Emperor; go instantly.” So he was forced to go. As the man went, however, he was troubled in mind, and thought to himself, “It will not end well; it will not end well! Emperor is too shameless! The Flounder will at last be tired out.”

With that he reached the sea, and the sea was quite black and thick, and began to boil up from below, so that it threw up bubbles, and such a sharp wind blew over it that it curdled, and the man was afraid. Then he went and stood by it, and said,

“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, Flounder,” said he, “my wife wants to be Emperor.” - “Go to her,” said the Flounder; “she is Emperor already.”

So the man went, and when he got there the whole palace was made of polished marble with alabaster figures and golden ornaments, and soldiers were marching before the door blowing trumpets, and beating cymbals and drums; and in the house, barons, and counts, and dukes were going about as servants. Then they opened the doors to him, which were of pure gold. And when he entered, there sat his wife on a throne, which was made of one piece of gold, and was quite two miles high; and she wore a great golden crown that was three yards high, and set with diamonds and carbuncles, and in one hand she had the sceptre, and in the other the imperial orb; and on both sides of her stood the yeomen of the guard in two rows, each being smaller than the one before him, from the biggest giant, who was two miles high, to the very smallest dwarf, just as big as my little finger. And before it stood a number of princes and dukes.

Then the man went and stood among them, and said, “Wife, are you Emperor now?” - “Yes,” said she, “now I am Emperor.” Then he stood and looked at her well, and when he had looked at her thus for some time, he said, “Ah, wife, be content, now that you are Emperor.” - “Husband,” said she, “why are you standing there? Now, I am Emperor, but I will be Pope too; go to the Flounder.” - “Alas, wife,” said the man, “what will you not wish for? You cannot be Pope; there is but one in Christendom; he cannot make you Pope.” - “Husband,” said she, “I will be Pope; go immediately, I must be Pope this very day.” - “No, wife,” said the man, “I do not like to say that to him; that would not do, it is too much; the Flounder can’t make you Pope.” - “Husband,” said she, “what nonsense! If he can make an emperor he can make a pope. Go to him directly. I am Emperor, and you are nothing but my husband; will you go at once?” Then he was afraid and went; but he was quite faint, and shivered and shook, and his knees and legs trembled. And a high wind blew over the land, and the clouds flew, and towards evening all grew dark, and the leaves fell from the trees, and the water rose and roared as if it were boiling, and splashed upon the shore; and in the distance he saw ships which were firing guns in their sore need, pitching and tossing on the waves. And yet in the midst of the sky there was still a small bit of blue, though on every side it was as red as in a heavy storm. So, full of despair, he went and stood in much fear and said,

“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 the man, “she wants to be Pope.” “Go to her then,” said the Flounder; “she is Pope already.”

How do you become king, pope or anything in this world? It is a creative power, an ego-will that shapes these forms. And all these are small and big waves that arise on the eternal sea of life, change, overlay, clash and pass away. And the more this sea gets churned up, the bigger the waves become and the more painfully they beat each other. Or as Zen Buddhism says:

Mind churned, all things churned,
Spirit still, everything still,
And nothing has a name.

So he went, and when he got there, he saw what seemed to be a large church surrounded by palaces. He pushed his way through the crowd. Inside, however, everything was lighted up with thousands and thousands of candles, and his wife was clad in gold, and she was sitting on a much higher throne, and had three great golden crowns on, and round about her there was much ecclesiastical splendour; and on both sides of her was a row of candles the largest of which was as tall as the very tallest tower, down to the very smallest kitchen candle, and all the emperors and kings were on their knees before her, kissing her shoe. “Wife,” said the man, and looked attentively at her, “are you now Pope?” - “Yes,” said she, “I am Pope.” So he stood and looked at her, and it was just as if he was looking at the bright sun. When he had stood looking at her thus for a short time, he said, “Ah, wife, if you are Pope, do let well alone!” But she looked as stiff as a post, and did not move or show any signs of life. Then said he, “Wife, now that you are Pope, be satisfied, you cannot become anything greater now.” - “I will consider about that.” said the woman. Thereupon they both went to bed, but she was not satisfied, and greediness let her have no sleep, for she was continually thinking what there was left for her to be.

The man slept well and soundly, for he had run about a great deal during the day; but the woman could not fall asleep at all, and flung herself from one side to the other the whole night through, thinking always what more was left for her to be, but unable to call to mind anything else. At length the sun began to rise, and when the woman saw the red of dawn, she sat up in bed and looked at it. And when, through the window, she saw the sun thus rising, she said, “Cannot I, too, order the sun and moon to rise? Husband,” said she, poking him in the ribs with her elbows, “wake up! Go to the Flounder, for I wish to be even as God is.” The man was still half asleep, but he was so horrified that he fell out of bed. He thought he must have heard amiss, and rubbed his eyes, and said, “Alas, wife, what are you saying?” - “Husband,” said she, “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.” Then she looked at him so terribly that a shudder ran over him, and said, “Go at once; I wish to be like unto God.” - “Alas, wife,” said the man, falling on his knees before her, “the Flounder cannot do that; he can make an emperor and a pope; I beseech you, go on as you are, and be Pope.” Then she fell into a rage, and her hair flew wildly about her head, and she cried, “I will not endure this, I’ll not bear it any longer; wilt thou go?” Then he put on his trousers and ran away like a madman.

So our fairy tale takes its course, which we certainly know more or less from our lives. The description is psychologically very fine, and one should pay attention to the many small allusions that symbolize the usual drama in our mind very profoundly. Reason desperately struggles like Don Quixote against the windmills, the mind becomes more and more agitated and the possessive ego torments itself increasingly. What should be our joy in life, turns into unbearable agony. So we approach the highlight of our fairy tale:

But outside a great storm was raging, and blowing so hard that he could scarcely keep his feet; houses and trees toppled over, the mountains trembled, rocks rolled into the sea, the sky was pitch black, and it thundered and lightened, and the sea came in with black waves as high as church-towers and mountains, and all with crests of white foam at the top. Then he cried, but could not hear his own words,

“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.

Wow! Words like thunder and then: great silence...

Even a Zen Koan would turn pale here. We shiver and say to our children: “You see, that’s what you get! If you are too greedy, you lose everything in the end.”

But if you look deeper, the question is: Has the flounder fulfilled the wish or not? Why do not the wishing and wanting start all over again? Where is the greedy ego suddenly gone? And where is reason? Would not one have expected any scandal, death or at least a punishment? No, the woman is now God and sits with her husband again in the poor fisherman’s hut “to this very day”, as if they had even found the nectar of immortality as the gods in the Indian story of the churning of the ocean. This is really hard to understand and requires a deeper consideration.

So we first ask ourselves: Who or what is God? The great ruler who is even mightier, more splendid and more revered than the Pope in the Middle Ages? Or the satisfied fisherman who sits lonely and looks into the depths of the clear water? Even Jesus is described as the son of a simple craftsman and has found his disciples among poor fishermen. Buddha was a royal son, who later lived as a propertyless wandering monk. So where is God to look for? And is reason the winner or the greedy ego at the end of our fairy tale?

If one studies this wonderful fairy tale from the beginning to the end, the merit of pure reason, which at the beginning has already recognized the being at the bottom of life, certainly plays a central and deciding role. The rest of the story can be thought of as fate or karma, which must necessarily be experienced and lived through. This does not mean that everyone has to act out this ego delusion as extreme as Ilsabil. But one should not believe that the greedy ego just goes away by thinking or discussing. This is usually a tough fight that keeps us pushing on to the edge of despair, as the story describes very realistically. But the message is clear: if reason remains constant, and is always present as a patient and loving mediator and is not seized and overwhelmed by the delusion of greed, then it becomes the key to solving the great problem of our greedy ego. And in the end, one asks oneself, “Where is the greedy ego suddenly gone, who was wife, prince, king, emperor and pope?” Then an echo could come from the depths and ask: “Was it actually there at all?”

And so the circle of our fairy tale is complete. Here we are again with the waves that run like a thread through the whole story, and the flounder as being on the bottom of the sea of life. If someday we sit by the sea like poor fishermen watching the play of the waves, maybe we too can look into the depths and realize that waves and sea are one. Then the enchanted flounder may rise and also speak to our wave: “Go on, you are already...” In India, this story would probably end with the famous Sanskrit mantra: “Tat tvam asi.” - “You are that.”

A few last words to our introductory remarks of this fairy tale: In history lessons and many a successful movie, the image of the Middle Ages was rather one-sided. People, they say, were mostly poor, dirty, oppressed, uneducated and plagued by devastating epidemics because they did not even know simple hygiene. Only slowly does this arrogant stereotype change. Because whoever could invent such multi-layered stories that are so easy to tell and reveal such deep knowledge of the human consciousness and its spiritual development, could not - with all due respect! - be completely stupid. Certainly, the interests of the time were not focused on technological development, and people had to physically perform and endure much more than we do today. But they had more spiritual wealth, because obviously they did not need to explain the moral of such stories, they intuitively understood what is difficult for us today. It was not better or worse at the time - it was different and not at all despicable.


Introduction
Jorinda and Joringel
Iron John
The Old Woman in the Wood
Hansel and Grethel
Rumpelstiltskin
Mother Holle
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was
Hans in Luck
Godfather Death
One-Eye, Two-Eyes and Three-Eyes
Our Lady’s Child
The Frog-King, or Iron Henry
Sweet Porridge
Cat and Mouse in Partnership
The Fisherman and his Wife
The Golden Bird

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[Bible] Luther Bibel, 1912
[Faust 1] Faust Part 1, translated by Bayard Taylor, 1870/71
[MHB] Das Mahabharata des Vyasa, 2014, www.mahabharata.pushpak.de
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens / www.pushpak.de