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The Golden Fish

By the Brothers Grimm

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The Golden Fish

A fisherman catches a golden fish. When the fish announces that he is a prince under an evil spell, the fishermen throws him back into the sea. On his return to his hovel, his wife tells him that he should have asked the magical creature to grant him a wish. And so the fisherman returns to the sea to call out to the fish and ask that the lives of the impoverished couple should be transformed – but the better life that ensues is not quite enough for them.

This story of over-reaching greed and ambition is known well in many countries including Germany and Russia, but not so much in the English speaking world. It’s told with the Brothers Grimm’s usual insight into human frailty.

Read by Natasha. Duration 19.30


There was once a fisherman who lived with his wife in a pigsty, close
by the seaside. The fisherman used to go out all day long a-fishing;
and one day, as he sat on the shore with his rod, looking at the
sparkling waves and watching his line, all on a sudden his float was
dragged away deep into the water: and when he reeled in his line, he pulled out a
golden fish. But the fish said, ‘Pray let me live! I am not a real
fish; I am an enchanted prince: put me in the water again, and let me
go!’ ‘Oh, ho!’ said the man, ‘you need not go on much more about
the matter; I will have nothing to do with a fish that can talk: so
swim away, sir, as soon as you please!’ Then he put him back into the
water, and the fish darted straight down to the bottom, and left a
long streak of blood behind him on the wave.

When the fisherman went home to his wife in the pigsty, he told her
how he had caught a golden fish, and how it had told him it was an
enchanted prince, and how, on hearing it speak, he had let it go
again. ‘Did not you ask it for anything?’ said the wife, ‘we live very
wretchedly here, in this nasty dirty pigsty; do go back and tell the
fish we want a snug little cottage.’

The fisherman did not much like the business: however, he went to the
seashore; and when he came back there the water looked all yellow and
green. And he stood at the water’s edge, and said:

‘O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a gift of thee!’

Then the fish came swimming to him, and said, ‘Well, what is her will?
What does your wife want?’ ‘Ah!’ said the fisherman, ‘she says that
when I had caught you, I ought to have asked you for something before
I let you go; she does not like living any longer in the pigsty, and
wants a snug little cottage.’ ‘Go home, then,’ said the fish; ‘she is
in the cottage already!’ So the man went home, and saw his wife
standing at the door of a nice trim little cottage. ‘Come in, come
in!’ said she; ‘is not this much better than the filthy pigsty we
had?’ And there was a parlour, and a bedroom, and a kitchen; and
behind the cottage there was a little garden, planted with all sorts
of flowers and fruits; and there was a courtyard behind, full of ducks
and chickens. ‘Ah!’ said the fisherman, ‘how happily we shall live
now!’ ‘We will try to do so, at least,’ said his wife.

Everything went right for a week or two, and then Dame Ilsabill said,
‘Husband, there is not nearly room enough for us in this cottage; the
courtyard and the garden are a great deal too small; I should like to
have a large stone castle to live in: go to the fish again and tell
him to give us a castle.’ ‘Wife,’ said the fisherman, ‘I don’t like to
go to him again, for perhaps he will be angry; we ought to be easy
with this pretty cottage to live in.’ ‘Nonsense!’ said the wife; ‘he
will do it very willingly, I know; go along and try!’

The fisherman went, but his heart was very heavy: and when he came to
the sea, it looked blue and gloomy, though it was very calm; and he
went close to the edge of the waves, and said:

‘O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a gift of thee!’

‘Well, what does she want now?’ said the fish. ‘Ah!’ said the man,
dolefully, ‘my wife wants to live in a stone castle.’ ‘Go home, then,’
said the fish; ‘she is standing at the gate of it already.’ So away
went the fisherman, and found his wife standing before the gate of a
great castle. ‘See,’ said she, ‘is not this grand?’ With that they
went into the castle together, and found a great many servants there,
and the rooms all richly furnished, and full of golden chairs and
tables; and behind the castle was a garden, and around it was a park
half a mile long, full of sheep, and goats, and hares, and deer; and
in the courtyard were stables and cow-houses. ‘Well,’ said the man,
‘now we will live cheerful and happy in this beautiful castle for the
rest of our lives.’ ‘Perhaps we may,’ said the wife; ‘but let us sleep
upon it, before we make up our minds to that.’ So they went to bed.

The next morning when Dame Ilsabill awoke it was broad daylight, and
she jogged the fisherman with her elbow, and said, ‘Get up, husband,
and bestir yourself, for we must be king of all the land.’ ‘Wife,
wife,’ said the man, ‘why should we wish to be the king? I will not be
king.’ ‘Then I will,’ said she. ‘But, wife,’ said the fisherman, ‘how
can you be king–the fish cannot make you a king?’ ‘Husband,’ said
she, ‘say no more about it, but go and try! I will be king.’ So the
man went away quite sorrowful to think that his wife should want to be
king. This time the sea looked a dark grey colour, and was overspread
with curling waves and the ridges of foam as he cried out:

‘O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a gift of thee!’

‘Well, what would she have now?’ said the fish. ‘Alas!’ said the poor
man, ‘my wife wants to be king.’ ‘Go home,’ said the fish; ‘she is
king already.’

Then the fisherman went home; and as he came close to the palace he
saw a troop of soldiers, and heard the sound of drums and trumpets.
And when he went in he saw his wife sitting on a throne of gold and
diamonds, with a golden crown upon her head; and on each side of her
stood six fair maidens, each a head taller than the other. ‘Well,
wife,’ said the fisherman, ‘are you king?’ ‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I am
king.’ And when he had looked at her for a long time, he said, ‘Ah,
wife! what a fine thing it is to be king! Now we shall never have
anything more to wish for as long as we live.’ ‘I don’t know how that
may be,’ said she; ‘never is a long time. I am king, it is true; but I
begin to be tired of that, and I think I should like to be emperor.’
‘Alas, wife! why should you wish to be emperor?’ said the fisherman.
‘Husband,’ said she, ‘go to the fish! I say I will be emperor.’ ‘Ah,
wife!’ replied the fisherman, ‘the fish cannot make an emperor, I am
sure, and I should not like to ask him for such a thing.’ ‘I am king,’
said Ilsabill, ‘and you are my slave; so go at once!’

So the fisherman was forced to go; and he muttered as he went along,
‘This will come to no good, it is too much to ask; the fish will be
tired at last, and then we shall be sorry for what we have done.’ He
soon came to the seashore; and the water was quite black and muddy,
and a mighty whirlwind blew over the waves and rolled them about, but
he went as near as he could to the water’s brink, and said:

‘O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a gift of thee!’

‘What would she have now?’ said the fish. ‘Ah!’ said the fisherman,
‘she wants to be emperor.’ ‘Go home,’ said the fish; ‘she is emperor
already.’

So he went home again; and as he came near he saw his wife Ilsabill
sitting on a very lofty throne made of solid gold, with a great crown
on her head full two yards high; and on each side of her stood her
guards and attendants in a row, each one smaller than the other, from
the tallest giant down to a little dwarf no bigger than my finger. And
before her stood princes, and dukes, and earls: and the fisherman went
up to her and said, ‘Wife, are you emperor?’ ‘Yes,’ said she, ‘I am
emperor.’ ‘Ah!’ said the man, as he gazed upon her, ‘what a fine thing
it is to be emperor!’ ‘Husband,’ said she, ‘why should we stop at
being emperor? I will be pope next.’ ‘O wife, wife!’ said he, ‘how can
you be pope? there is but one pope at a time in Christendom.’
‘Husband,’ said she, ‘I will be pope this very day.’ ‘But,’ replied
the husband, ‘the fish cannot make you pope.’ ‘What nonsense!’ said
she; ‘if he can make an emperor, he can make a pope: go and try him.’

So the fisherman went. But when he came to the shore the wind was
raging and the sea was tossed up and down in boiling waves, and the
ships were in trouble, and rolled fearfully upon the tops of the
billows. In the middle of the heavens there was a little piece of blue
sky, but towards the south all was red, as if a dreadful storm was
rising. At this sight the fisherman was dreadfully frightened, and he
trembled so that his knees knocked together: but still he went down
near to the shore, and said:

‘O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a gift of thee!’

‘What does she want now?’ said the fish. ‘Ah!’ said the fisherman, ‘my
wife wants to be pope.’ ‘Go home,’ said the fish; ‘she is pope
already.’

Then the fisherman went home, and found Ilsabill sitting on a throne
that was two miles high. And she had three great crowns on her head,
and around her stood all the pomp and power of the Church. And on each
side of her were two rows of burning lights, of all sizes, the
greatest as large as the highest and biggest tower in the world, and
the least no larger than a small rush light. ‘Wife,’ said the
fisherman, as he looked at all this greatness, ‘are you pope?’ ‘Yes,’
said she, ‘I am pope.’ ‘Well, wife,’ replied he, ‘it is a grand thing
to be pope; and now you must be easy, for you can be nothing greater.’
‘I will think about that,’ said the wife. Then they went to bed: but
Dame Ilsabill could not sleep all night for thinking what she should
be next. At last, as she was dropping asleep, morning broke, and the
sun rose. ‘Ha!’ thought she, as she woke up and looked at it through
the window, ‘after all I cannot prevent the sun rising.’ At this
thought she was very angry, and wakened her husband, and said,
‘Husband, go to the fish and tell him I must be lord of the sun and
moon.’ The fisherman was half asleep, but the thought frightened him
so much that he started and fell out of bed. ‘Alas, wife!’ said he,
‘cannot you be easy with being pope?’ ‘No,’ said she, ‘I am very
uneasy as long as the sun and moon rise without my permission. Go to the
fish at once!’

Then the man went shivering with fear; and as he was going down to the
shore a dreadful storm arose, so that the trees and the very rocks
shook. And all the heavens became black with stormy clouds, and the
lightnings played, and the thunders rolled; and you might have seen in
the sea great black waves, swelling up like mountains with crowns of
white foam upon their heads. And the fisherman crept towards the sea,
and cried out, as well as he could:

‘O man of the sea!
Hearken to me!
My wife Ilsabill
Will have her own will,
And hath sent me to beg a gift of thee!’

‘What does she want now?’ said the fish. ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘she wants to
be lord of the sun and moon.’ ‘Go home,’ said the fish, ‘to your
pigsty again.’

And there they live to this very day.

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