The Fisherman and His Wife

The Fisherman and the Sea Fairy Tale

One day a lucky fisherman catches a talking fish. “Oh”, says his wife, “what have you wished? Nothing? You must go back! I want…”

The Fisherman and His Wife is a Brothers Grimm fairy tale about a couple living in a hovel. The fisherman catches a fish who grants wishes. His wife keeps wishing bigger things: a cottage, a castle, to be a king, an emperor and a pope. When she wants to be like God, they end up back in the hovel.

Full Text

A fisherman catches a talking flounder

Once upon a time a fisherman lived with his wife in a miserable hovel close by the sea. Every day he went out fishing.

Once as he was sitting with his rod, looking at the clear water, his line suddenly went down. It went far down below and when he drew it up again he brought out a large flounder (a kind of flatfish).

The flounder said to him, “Hey you, fisherman, I pray you, let me live. I am not really a flounder, but an enchanted prince. What good will it do you to kill me? I am not very tasty, please put me in the water again and let me go.”

“Come,” said the fisherman, “there is no need for so many words about it. Of course I will let a talking fish go!”

With that he put him back again into the clear water. The flounder swam to the bottom, leaving a long streak of blood behind him. The fisherman got up and went home to his wife in the hovel.

His wife sends him back to sea

“Husband,” the woman said, “have you caught nothing today?”

“No,” said the man, “I did catch a flounder. He said he was an enchanted prince, so I let him go again.”

“Did you not wish for anything first?” his wife said.

“No, what should I wish for?”

“Ah,” said the woman, “it is surely hard to always have to live in this dirty hovel. You could have wished for a small cottage for us. Now go back and call him. Tell him we want to have a small cottage, he will certainly give us that.”

“Ah,” said the man, “but why should I go there again?”

“Why? 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 he also did not like to oppose his wife, so went back to the sea.

The fisherman wishes a cottage

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

“Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Ilsabil,
Wills not, wills not, what I will.”

The flounder came swimming to him and said, “Well what does she want, then?”

“Ah,” said the man, “earlier I caught 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.”

Life together in the cottage

When the man went home he did not find his wife in the hovel. Instead there stood a small cottage, and she was sitting on a bench before the door. She took him by the hand and said, “Come inside, look, now isn’t this a great deal better?”

So they went in and there was a small porch, a pretty little parlor, a bedroom, a kitchen and a pantry. All with the best of furniture. And with the most beautiful things made of tin and brass, all that you could ever want was there.

Behind the cottage there was a small yard with hens and ducks. Also a little garden with flowers and fruit. “Look,” said the wife, “isn’t this nice!”

“Yes,” said the husband, “let’s keep reminding ourselves and we will live a content life.”

“We will not forget where we came from,” said the wife. With that they ate something and went to bed.

The fisherman is send back to sea

Everything went well for a week or a fortnight. Then the woman said, “Listen, husband, this cottage is far too small for us. The garden and the yard are too little. The flounder might just as well have given us a larger house. I would like to live in a great stone castle. Go to the flounder and tell him to give us a castle.”

“But wife,” the man said, “the cottage is quite good enough. Why should we live in a castle?”

“What!” said the woman; “just go there. It’s not a problem for the flounder.”

“No, wife, 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 fisherman wishes a castle

The man’s heart grew heavy. He didn’t want to go. He said to himself, “It is not right,” and yet he went.

When he came to the sea the water was quite purple and dark blue. It was grey and thick and no longer so green and yellow, but it was still quiet. He stood there and said:

“Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Ilsabil,
Wills not, wills not, what I will.”

“Well, what does she want, then?” said the flounder.

“Well,” 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.

Life together in the castle

The fisherman went home, but when he got there he found a great stone palace. His wife was just standing on the steps to go in. She took him by the hand and said, “Come in.”

He went in with her. The castle was a great hall paved with marble. Many servants who flung wide the doors. The walls were all bright with beautiful paintings. In the rooms were chairs and tables of pure gold and crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling. All the rooms and bedrooms had carpets. The best food and wine stood on all tables, so much that they nearly broke down beneath it.

Behind the house there was a great court-yard. Stables for horses and cows and the very best of carriages. 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, hares and everything else that could be desired.

“My dear,” said the woman, “isn’t this beautiful?”

“Yes, indeed,” said the man, “now let it be; we will live in this beautiful castle and be content.”

“We will consider that,” said the woman, “and sleep upon it.” They went to bed.

The wife wants to become a king

Next morning the wife awoke first. It was just daybreak and from her bed she saw the beautiful country lying before her. Her husband was still stretching himself. She poked him in the side with her elbow and said, “Get up, husband, just peep out of the window. Look, couldn’t we be the king over all that land? Go to the flounder, we will be the king.”

“But 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. He was quite unhappy because his wife wished to be king. “It is not right; it is not right,” he thought. He did not wish to go, but yet he went.

The fisherman wishes his wife to be king

When he came to the sea, it was quite dark grey. The water heaved up from below and smelt putrid. 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, wills not, what I will.”

“Well, what does she want, then?” said the flounder.

“Sorry,” said the man, “she wants to be king.”

“Go to her; she is king already.”

Life with his wife the king

The man went back. When arrived at the castle, it had become much larger. It had a great tower and magnificent ornaments. There was a sentinel standing before the door and a number of soldiers with kettle drums and trumpets.

When he went inside the house, everything was of real marble and gold, with velvet covers and great golden tassels. When the doors of the hall opened, there was the court in all its splendor.

His wife sat on a high throne of gold and diamonds. She had a great crown of gold on her head and a scepter of pure gold and jewels in her hand. On both her sides stood her maids-in-waiting in a row, each of them always one head shorter than the last.

Then stood before her and said, “Ah, wife, now you are king.”

“Yes,” she said, “now I am king.”

He stood silently and looked at her. After some time he said, “And now that you are king, let all else be, now we will wish for nothing more.”

The wife wants to become emperor

“Nay, husband,” said the woman, quite anxiously, “Time passes slowly, I can bear it no longer. Go to the flounder. I am king, but I must be emperor, too.”

“Oh wife, why do you wish to be emperor?”

“Husband,” she said, “go to the flounder. I will be emperor.”

“No, wife,” the man said, “he cannot make you Emperor; I may ask that of 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. You are nothing but my husband; will you not go this moment? Go at once! If he can make a king he can make an emperor. I will be emperor; there you go.”

So he was forced to go. He was troubled and thought to himself, “It will not end well; it will not end well! Asking to be emperor is too shameless! The flounder will at last be tired out.”

The fisherman wishes his wife to be emperor

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

“Flounder, flounder in the sea,
Come, I pray thee, here to me;
For my wife, good Ilsabil,
Wills not, wills not, what I will.”

“Well, what does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Alas, flounder,” he said, “my wife wants to be emperor.”

“Go to her,” said the flounder; “she is an emperor already.”

Life with his wife the emperor

The man went back and when he got there the whole palace was made of polished marble with alabaster figures and golden ornaments. Soldiers were marching before the door blowing trumpets and beating cymbals and drums. In the house, barons, counts and dukes were going about as servants.

They opened the doors to him, which were of pure gold. When he entered, he saw his wife sitting on a throne which was made of one piece of gold and was extremely high. She wore a great golden crown that was three yards high, set with diamonds and carbuncles.

In one hand she had the scepter and in the other the imperial orb. On both sides of her stood the elite guards in two rows. Each one was 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. Before them stood a number of princes and dukes.

The man stood among them. He said, “Wife, are you emperor now?”

“Yes,” she said, “now I am emperor.”

Then carefully looked at her. After some time he said: “Please wife, be content, now that you are emperor.”

The wife wants to become pope

“Husband,” she said, “why are you standing there? I am emperor, but I will be pope too. Go to the flounder.”

“Oh no my wife,” the man said, “is there no end to your wishes? You cannot be pope. There is but one in Christendom. He cannot make pou Pope.”

“Husband,” she said, “I will be pope. Go immediately, I must be pope this very day.”

“No, wife,” said the man, “I don’t want to go and say that to him. It would not do, it is too much. The flounder can’t make you pope.”

“Husband,” she said, “what nonsense! If he can make an emperor he can make a pope. Go to him immediately. I am emperor and you are nothing but my husband; will you go at once?”

The fisherman wishes for his wife to be pope

He was afraid, but he went anyway. He was quite faint, he shivered and he shook. His knees and legs trembled.

A high wind blew over the land. The clouds flew and towards evening all grew dark. The leaves fell from the trees. The water rose and roared as if it were boiling and splashed upon the shore.

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.

Full of despair he 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, wills not, what I will.”

“Well, what does she want then?” said the flounder.

“I am sorry,” said the man, “she wants to be pope.”

“Go to her then,” said the flounder; “she is pope already.”

Living with his wife the pope

He went back home. When he got there he saw what seemed to be a large church surrounded by palaces. He pushed his way through the crowd.

Inside everything was lighted up with thousands and thousands of candles. His wife was clad in gold and she was sitting on a much higher throne. She had three great golden crowns on and round about her there was much ecclesiastical splendor.

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. All the emperors and kings were on their knees before her, kissing her shoes.

“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, you have reached the highest place!”

She looked stiff as a post and did not move or show any signs of life. Then he said, “Wife, now that you are Pope, be satisfied, you cannot become anything greater now.”

“I will think about it,” said the woman.

They both went to bed, but she was not satisfied. Her greediness let her have no sleep, for she was continually thinking what there was left for her to be.

The wife wishes to be God

The man slept well and soundly, for he had run about a great deal during the day. The woman could not fall asleep at all. She flung herself from one side to the other the whole night through. She was thinking all the time what more was left for her to be, but unable to call to mind anything else.

At last the sun began to rise. When the woman saw the red of dawn, she sat up in bed and looked at it. As she watched the sun rising she said, “Why can’t I order the sun and moon to rise?”

“Husband,” she said, 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 had heard amiss, rubbed his eyes and said, “What wife, what are you saying?”

“Husband,” she said, “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.”

She looked at him so terribly that a shudder ran over him and said, “Go at once; I wish to be like God.”

“Oh no, wife,” the man said, 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.”

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; go, go, go!”

The fisherman wishes his wife to be God

He put on his trousers and ran away like a madman. Outside a great storm was raging and blowing so hard that he could scarcely stay on his feet. Houses and trees toppled over, the mountains trembled, rocks rolled into the sea.

The sky was pitch black, it thundered and lightened. The sea came in with black waves as high as churchtowers and mountains, all with crests of white foam at the top.

He cried out, 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, wills not, what I will.”

“Well, what does she want then?” said the flounder.

“Oh alas,” he said, “she wants to be like God.”

“Go to her, and you will find her back again in the dirty hovel.”

And there they are still living today.

Tips for Telling

Storyteller Rudolf Roos
  • When telling this fairy tale, I find that there are too much wishes. I shorten it to hovel, house, castle, palace and then wanting to be king of all the world.
  • In this story there are three things that change during the story: (1) the place where they live, (2) the sea and (3) the relationship between the fisherman and his wife. Take some time in your preparation to make sure that these three things get bigger and intenser during the story.
  • Don’t memorize the descriptions of the places where they live, but do make sure you have an image for yourself. If you find this difficult you could google some photos. Kickstart your imagination by describing these photos out loud for yourself or by drawing them.
Reading Aloud - Grimms’ Fairy Tales - The Fisherman and His Wife
A reading of The Fisherman and His Wife

All Questions Answered

Who wrote the story The Fisherman and His Wife?

It was included in their collection by the Brothers Grimm, but they received a written version of the tale from a German painter call Philipp Otto Runge.

When was The Fisherman and His Wife written?

The fairy tale was included in the first edition of the Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales (1812).

What is the theme of the story The Fisherman and His Wife?

Don’t be greedy, but be happy with what you have. Otherwise your greed can cost you everything and you will end up with nothing.

What is the moral of the fairy tale The Fisherman and His Wife?

Be content with your situation in life. If you always want more, you will end up nowhere.

More useful information

Photo credits: Photo by Jonny Kennaugh on Unsplash