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The Fairy Tales of Joseph Jacobs

The King of the Fishes

Return to European Folk and Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs

ONCE upon a time there was a fisherman who was very poor and felt poorer still because he had no children. Now one day as he was fishing he caught in his net the finest fish he had ever seen, the scales all gold and eyes as bright as diamonds; and just as he was going to take it out of the net what do you think happened? The fish opened his jaws and said, "I am the King of the Fishes, and if you throw me back into the water you will never want a catch." The fisherman was so surprised that he let the fish slip into the Water, and he flapped his big tail and dived under the waves. When he got home he told his wife all about it, and she said, "Oh, what a pity, I have had such a longing to eat such a fish."

Well, next day the fisherman went again a-fishing and, sure enough, he caught the same fish again, and it said, "I am the King of the Fishes, if you let me go you shall always have your nets full." So the fisherman let him go again; and when he went back to his home he told his wife that he had done so. She began to cry and wail and said, "I told you I wanted such a fish, and yet you let him go; I am sure you do not love me." The fisherman felt quite ashamed of himself and promised that if he caught the King of the Fishes again he would bring him home to his wife for her to cook. So next day the fisherman went to the same place and caught the same fish the third time. But when the fish begged the fisherman to let him go he told, the King of the Fishes what his wife had said and what he had promised her. "Well," said the King of the Fishes, "if you must kill me you must, but as you let me go twice I will do this for you. When the wife cuts me up throw some of my bones under the mare, and some of my bones under the bitch, and the rest of my bones bury beneath the rose- tree in the garden and then you will see what you will see."

So the fisherman took the King of the Fishes home to his wife, to whom he told what the fish had said; and when she cut up the fish for cooking they threw some of the bones under the mare, and sonic under the bitch, and the rest they buried under the rose-tree in the garden.

Now after a time the fisherman's wife gave him two fine twin boys, whom they named George and Albert, each with a star on his forehead just under his hair, and at the same time the mare brought into the world two fine colts, and the bitch two puppies. And under the rose-tree grew up two rose bushes, each of which bore every year only one rose, but what a rose that was! It lasted through the summer and it lasted through the winter and, most curious of all, when George fell ill one of the roses began to wilt, and if Albert had an illness the same thing happened with the other rose.

Now when George and Albert grew up they heard that a Seven-Headed Dragon was ravaging the neighbouring kingdom, and that the king had promised his daughter's hand to anyone that would free the land from this scourge. They both wanted to go and fight the dragon, but at last the twins agreed that George go and Albert stop at home and look after their father and mother, who had now grown old. So George took his horse and his dog and rode off where the dragon had last been seen. And when he came to Middlegard, the capital of the kingdom, he rode with his horse and his dog to the chief inn of the town and asked the landlady why everything looked so gloomy and why the houses were draped in black. "Have you not heard, sir," asked the landlady, "that the Dragon with the Seven Heads has been eating up a pure maiden every month? And now he demands that the princess herself shall be delivered up to him this day. That is why the town is draped in black and we are all so gloomy." Thereupon George took his horse and his dog and rode out to where the princess was exposed to the coming of the Dragon with Seven Heads. And when the princess saw George with his horse and his sword and his dog she asked him, "Why come you here, sir? Soon the Dragon with Seven Heads, whom none can withstand, will be here to claim me. Flee before it is too late." But George said, "Princess, a man can die once, and I will willingly try to save you from the dragon." Now as they were talking a horrible roar rent the air and the Dragon with the Seven Heads came towards the princess. But when it saw George it called out, "Can'st fight?" and George said, "If I can't I can learn." "I'll learn thee," said the dragon. And there upon began a mighty combat between George and the dragon; and whenever the dragon came near to George his dog would spring at one of his paws, and when one of the heads reared back to deal with it George's horse would spring to that side, and George's sword would sweep that head away. And so at last all the seven heads of the dragon were shorn off by George's sword, and the princess was saved. And George opened the mouths of eleven of the dragon's heads and cut out the tongues, and the princess gave him her handkerchief, and he wrapt all the seven tongues in it and put them away next his heart. But George was so tired out by the fight that he laid down to sleep with his head in the princess's lap, and she parted his hair with her hands and saw the star on his brow.

Meanwhile the king's marshal, who was to have married the princess if he would slay the dragon, had been watching the fight from afar off; and when he saw that the dragon had been slain and that George was lying asleep after the fight, he crept up behind the princess and, drawing his dagger, said, "Put his head on the ground or else I will slay thee." And when she had done that he bade her rise and come with him after he had collected the seven heads of the dragon and strung them on the leash of his whip. The princess would have wakened George but the marshal threatened to kill her if she did. "If I cannot wed thee he shall not." And then he made her swear that she would say that the marshal had slain the Dragon with the Seven Heads. And when the princess and the marshal came near the city the king and his courtiers and all his people came out to meet them with great rejoicing, and the king said to his daughter, "Who saved thee?" and she said, "this man." "Then he shall marry thee," said the king. "No, no, father," said the princess, "I am not old enough to marry yet; give me, at any rate, a year and a day before the wedding takes place," for she hoped that George would come and save her from the wicked marshal. The king himself, who loved his daughter greatly, gave way at last and promised that she should not be married for a year and a day.

When George awoke and saw the dead body and found the princess there no longer he did not know what to make of it but thought that she did not wish to marry a fisherman's son. So he mounted his horse, and with his faithful hound went on seeking further adventures through the world, and did not come that way again till a year had passed, when he rode into Middlegard again and alighted at the same inn where he had stopped before. "How now, hostess," he cried, "last time I was here the city was all in mourning but now every thing is agog with glee; trumpets are blaring, lads and lasses are dancing round the trees, and every house has flags and banners flowing from its windows. What is happening?" "Know you not, sir," said the hostess, "that our princess marries to-morrow?" "Why, last time," he said, "she was going to be devoured by the Dragon with Seven Heads." "Nay, but he was slain by the king's marshal who weds the princess to-morrow as a reward for his bravery, and every one that wishes may join the wedding feast to-night in the king's castle."

That night George went up to the king's castle and took his place at the table not far off from where sat the king with the princess on one side of him and the marshal on the other; and after the banquet the king called upon the marshal once more to tell how he had slain the Dragon with the Seven Heads. And the marshal told a long tale of how he had cut off the seven heads of the dragon, and at the finish he ordered his squire to bring in a platter on which were the seven heads. Then up rose George and spoke to the king and said, "And pray, my lord, how does it happen that the dragon's heads had no tongues?" And the king said, "That I know not; let us look and see." And the jaws of the dragon's heads were opened, and behold there were no tongues in them. Then the king asked the marshal, "Know you aught of this?" And the marshal had nothing to say. And the princess looked up and saw her champion again. Then George took out from his doublet the seven tongues of the dragon, and it was found that they fitted. "What is the meaning of this, sir, said the king. Then George told the story of how he had slain the dragon and fallen asleep in the princess's lap and had awoke and found her gone. And the princess, when asked by her father, could not but tell of the treachery of the marshal. "Away with him," cried out the king, "let his head be taken off and his tongue be taken out, and let his place be taken by this young Stranger."

So George and the princess were married and lived happily, till one night, looking out of the window of the castle where they lived, George saw in the distance another castle with windows all lit up and shining like fire. And he asked the princess, his wife, what that castle might be. "Go not near that, George," said the princess, "for I have always heard that none who enters that castle ever comes out again." The next morning George went with horse and hound to seek the castle; and when he got near it he found at the gate an old dame with but one eye; and he asked her to open the gate, and she said she would but that it was a custom of the castle that who ever entered had to drink a glass of wine before doing so; and she offered him a goblet full of wine; but when he had drunk it he and his horse and his dog were all turned into stone.

Just at the very moment when George was turned to stone Albert, who had heard nothing of him, saw George's rose in the garden close up and turn the colour of marble; then he knew that some thing had happened to his brother, and he had out his horse and his dog and rode off to find out what had been George's fate. And be rode, and he rode, till he came to Middlegard, and as soon as he reached the gate the guard of the gate said, "Your highness, the princess has been in great anxiety about you; she will be so happy to know that you have returned safe." Albert said nothing, but followed the guard until he came to the princess's chamber, and she ran to him and embraced him and cried out, "Oh, George, I am so delighted that you have come back safe." "Why should I not," said Albert. "Because I feared that you had gone to that castle with flaming windows, from which nobody ever returns alive," said the princess.

Then Albert guessed what had happened to George, and he soon made an excuse and went off again to seek the castle which the princess had pointed out from the window. When Albert got there he found the same old dame sitting by the gate, and asked if he might go in and see the castle. She said again that none might enter the castle unless they had taken a glass of wine and brought out the goblet of wine once more. Albert was about to drink it up when his faithful dog jumped up and spilt the wine, which he began to lap up, and as soon as he had drunk a little of it his body turned to marble, just by the side of another stone which looked exactly the same. Then Albert guessed what had happened, and descending from his horse he took out his sword and threatened the old witch that he would kill her unless she restored his brother to his proper shape. In fear and trembling the old dame muttered something over the four stones in front of the castle, and George and his horse and his hound and Albert's dog became alive again as they were before. Then George and Albert rode back to the princess who, when she saw them both so much alike, could not tell which was which; then she remembered and went up to Albert and parted his hair on his fore head and saw there the star, and said, "This is my George"; but then George parted his own hair, and she saw the same star there. At last Albert told her all that had happened, and she knew her own husband again. And soon after the king died, and George ruled in his place, and Albert married one of the neighbouring princesses.

Jacobs' Notes and References

This is practically the Perseus legend of antiquity, which has been made the subject of an elaborate study by Mr. E. Sidney Hartland, The Legend of Perseus, 3 vols., London, 1894-6. Mr. Hartland distinguishes four chains of incidents in the story:

1. The Supernatural Birth.

2. The Life Token.

3. The Rescue of Andromeda.

4. The Medusa Witch.

Not all the variants, which are very numerous, running from Ireland to Cambodia, include all these four incidents. The Greek Perseus legend, for instance, has not the Life Token. Cosquin, i., 67, knows of only eighteen which have the full contingent, one in Brittany, two in Greece, one in Sicily, four in Italy, one each Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Danish, and Swedish; two German; one Lithuanian; and a Russian variant. There must be many more in Bolte's notes to Grimm, 60. These are sufficient to prove that the whole concatenation of incident is European, though it is difficult to understand how the Medusa incident got tacked on to the preceding three, with which it is very loosely combined, the only point of connection being with the Life Token. Strangely enough, in the ancient form of the folk-tale, the Gorgon is an almost essential part of the story, though the Life Token has disappeared, and the Supernatural Birth only applies to the hero and not to his animal companions. In the modern European folk-tales these animal friends are rather supernumeraries and are occasionally replaced by the formula of the Grateful Animals, to whom the hero does some service during his wanderings, in reward for which they rescue him from some extremity. In some ancient variants of the Perseus legend there are traces of the Substituted Champion in the form of Pentheus, a former suitor of Andromeda, who had failed to meet the dragon.

It would be impossible here to consider the folk-lore analogies of the four chief incidents of the tale which have occupied Mr. Hartland for three fairly large volumes to develop, out of which have grown two more (Primitive Paternity, London, 1910). It is only necessary here to refer to a few points in their relation to the tale itself. The Supernatural Birth, which is also treated by M. Saintyves (?) is found attributed to heroes among all nations; it is only of significance in the story here in its bearing upon the Life Token of the hero, which is connected with it. With regard to the Life Token, Major Temple has a full analysis in the notes to Wide Awake Stories, 1884, pp. 404-5, under the title of the "Life Index," and is closely connected with the idea of the External Soul, which Sir James G. Frazer has studied in his Balder, London, 1913, pp. 95-152. The Fight with the Dragon is celebrated outside folk-tales in the lives of the saints (whence St. George, the titular saint of England, gets his emblem) in the saga of Siegfried, and in the poetry of Schiller, where it is made the subject of a moral apologue. The Medusa-witch, who transforms into stone, or destroys life in other ways, is quite a familiar figure in folk tales, but is usually thwarted, as here, by some means of cure.

The chief interest, however, of the "King of the Fishes," from a folk-tale point of view, is the remarkable similarity of the later folk-tales with the Greek legend, from which they are separated by so many centuries. The absence of the Life Token in the Greek version and the comparative insignificance of Medusa in the modern tales are sufficient evidence that these latter are not directly derived from the former. Yet even Mr. Hartland, who is a strong adherent of the anthropological treatment of folk-tales, fully agrees that this particular tale must have, at one time, been composed in artistic unity, if not containing all the four chains of incidents at least containing two of them (Legend of Perseus, iii., 151). It should be added that Rassmann and the Grimms connect the folk-tales with the Siegfried saga (Bolte, i., 547, 555).

Jacobs, Joseph, ed. European Folk and Fairy Tales. New York: G. P Putnam's Sons, 1916.

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