Fisherman & Wife | Annotated Tale

The annotations for the Fisherman and His Wife fairy tale are below. Sources have been cited in parenthetical references, but I have not linked them directly to their full citations which appear on the Fisherman and His Wife Bibliography page. I have provided links back to the Annotated Fisherman and His Wife to facilitate referencing between the notes and the tale.

Special thanks to Christine Ethier, an adjunct teacher of English writing at both Community College of Philadelphia and Camden County College, for providing the annotations to this tale.

I have included the Grimms' notes to the tale as translated by Margaret Hunt followed by SurLaLune's textual annotations.


The Grimms' Notes For the Tale

This story has been excellently well taken down by Runge of Hamburg, in the Pomeranian dialect, and it was kindly communicated to us by Arnim, as early as in the year 1809. It was afterwards printed in Runge's works also. It is often told in Hesse, but imperfectly and with variations. It is called The History of little Husband Domine(sometimes also of Hans Dudeldee), and little Wife Dinderlinde(Dinderl, Dirne?) Domine complains of his ill luck and goes out to the sea. There a little fish stretches forth its head and says,

"What aileth thee, little man Domine?"
"'Tis hard in a pig-stye to pass my life." 
"Then wish thee a wish, little man Domine."
"Nay, first must I home to ask my wife."

He goes home to his wife and asks what he is to wish for. "Wish for a better house for us," says Dinderlinde. He goes to the sea and cries,

"Little fish, little fish in the sea!"
"What wilt thou, little man Domine?"

And now the wishes begin: first a house, then a garden, then oxen and cows, then lands and kingdoms, and so on to all the treasures of the world. When they have wished for everything they can wish for, the man, says, "Now I should like to be God, and my wife to be the mother of God." Then the little fish stretches out its head again and cries,

"Wilt thou be the Lord on high?
Then back with thee to thy pig-stye."

In Justus Kerner's Poetical Almanack for 1812, pp. 50-54, the story is told in a similar way, apparently from a South German version, but the doggrel rhymes are wanting. The fisherman is called Hans Entender. In Albert Ludwig Grimm's Kindermärchen (2nd edit. Heidelberg, 1817) it appears also, but in prose. The fisherman Hans Dudeldee lives with his wife in a hut, and is so poor that they have no window, but are forced to look through a hole, where there has been a knot in the wood. He first begs the fish to give him a house, and so on until he is emperor; at last he desires to be able to make sunshine and rain as God does, where upon they find themselves sitting in the hut again, looking through the hole in the planks. It is much more meagre as a whole. See De Kossät und siine Fruu, in Kuhn, No 6. The Golden Fish in Firminich's Völkerstimmen, p. 377.

The beginning of the story strikingly reminds us of a story in the 1001 Nights (1. 107, Histoire du Pêcheur), as well as of the Welsh saga of Taliesin (compare Altd. Wälder, 1. 70). A story from Finland also, given in the Freimüthiger, 1834, No. 253-256, has a similar opening, but the development is different. The feature of the wife inciting her husband to seek high dignities is ancient in itself, from Eve and, the Etruscan Tanaquil (Livy, 1. 47), down to Lady Macbeth.

Grimm, Jacob and Wilhelm. Household Tales. Margaret Hunt, translator. London: George Bell, 1884, 1892. 2 volumes.

SurLaLune's Annotations

1. The Fisherman and His Wife: The tale comes from Philipp Otto Runge, a painter (Ashliman). Runge sent the tale to the publishers of The Boy's Magic Horn edited by Achim Von Arnim and Clemens Brentano (Tatar 86). The manuscript, which was written in Low German (Tatar 86), was read by the Grimms in 1809 (Tatar 86). The tale also appeared in Johann Gustav Buschling's collection (Ashliman). 

The tale is AT type 555 (Ashliman). 
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2. Fisherman: Saint Peter is the patron saint of fisherman because he is "the fisher of men" (Cirlot 108).
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3. Miserable hovel: Some version and/or translations describe the home of the fisherman and his wife as a pigsty or a pisspot (Tatar 88). Ashliman lists other alternatives as ditch, chamber pot, and fifthly shack.
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4. By the sea: The sea is the transitional agent between life and death (Cirlot 217).
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5.  Fishing: Cirlot states that "Fishing amounts to extracting the unconscious elements from deep-lying sources-the elusive treasure of legend or, in other words, wisdom" (108).

According to Miller, 'to dream of fishing denotes energy and economy; but if you do not succeed in catching any, your efforts to obtain honors and wealth will be futile." (239).
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6. Clear water: At the start of the tale, the water seems almost inviting. Everything is right in the world.
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7.Flounder: The Latin name of the most common species of flounder is Pleuronectes Platessa (Mojetta 107). A flounder looks like a plate. Its range includes the Eastern Atlantic From Norway to Iceland and South to Spain, Morocco and Spanish Mediterranean coasts" (Mojetta 107). Some "flounder may even venture some dozen miles up river" (Mojetta 107). There is also a related species in the Eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean (Mojetta 107). The flounder is a mid-water or bottom feeder fish (Mojetta 107). It is an edible fish and supposedly quite tasty (Mojetta 107).

According to Cirlot, ". . . the fish is a psychic being , or a 'penetrative motion' endured with a heightening power concerning base matters, that is, in the unconscious" (106). The fish is a symbol of sacrifice and of the relationship between heaven and earth (Cirlot 107). Fish are also considered good luck (Biedermann 131).
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8.An enchanted prince: Maria Tatar believes that the magic fish resembles a genie from the 1001 Arabian Nights, a possible source or influence on the tale (88). There are various tales about magic fish, including one in Lang's The Olive Fairy Book where the fish becomes a human to aid the man who let the fish go. The tale is called "The Golden-Headed Fish".

In Nordic legend, the god Loki turned into a fish, a salmon, to escape the wrath of the other gods (Guerber 226). In the Finnish Kalevala, a woman becomes a fish, again a salmon, after her death (Lonnrot 56).

It should also be noted that the fish does not offer anything in exchange for being let go. The flounder points out that he would not taste very good, and the fisherman lets the flounder simply because letting a talking fish go is the right thing to do.
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9. A long stream of blood: According to Tatar, "the trail of blood is the first hint of violence in the tale, and it suggests that there is already something sinister to the fisherman's catch" (89). Split blood is also seen as a sacrifice (Cirlot 29). While the fish in the story is still alive, it is also worth noting that dreaming of a decayed fish can foretell distress in the form of happiness " (Miller 240).
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10.Did you not for wish for anything first: According to David Langford wishes are "the simplest and superficially most attractive form of magic, whereby desires are fulfilled without any complexities of rituals or spells" (1023). Wishes tend to be granted by fairies, demons, genies, or magical devices (such as rings) (Langford 1023). Wishes also have a tendency to contain "read the small print" clauses (Langford 1023).

The wife is the only one who wants the reward. She is either less inclined to charitable actions than her husband, more practical, or greedier. At this point in the story, it is somewhat unclear which one she is; however, it is made clear later in the story. The difference is highlighted by the fact that the husband does not want to go back to the fish. There is a version of the story were both the husband and wife are greedy (Tatar 87).
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11. The sea was all green and yellow: The sea already is starting to become violent even though the request is modest. Tatar points out "the sea is presented here both as a force of nature and as a gauge of divine wrath" (89). The change in color of the sea could be due to one and/or two things. The fact that wife (and by extension the husband) is now asking for payment for a charitable (or moral/ethically correct) action or the fact that the husband is influenced and/or controlled by the wife.

The color green is connected to death (Cirlot 53), and yellow is connected to dissemination and illumination (Cirlot 53).
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12.Flounder, Flounder: Tatar gives the original version as:

Mantje! Mantje! Timpe Te:
Buttje, Buttje in der see (89).

Mantje could be a variant of Manchen which means little man (Tatar 89). There is a theory that Timpe Te is the name of the fisherman (Ashliman). Tatar points out that this is unlikely because than the fisherman would be calling himself (Tatar 89).

Jack Zipes offers the following translation of the rhyme:

Flounder, flounder, in the sea,
If you're a man, than speak to me.
Though I do not care for my wife's request,
I've come to ask it nonetheless. (73).

Ashliman points out that the fisherman has also been given the names Domine or Dudeldee in some versions of the stories. Domine is a version of Dominee which means "a clergyman, especially a settled minister or parson" (
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13. For my good wife Ilsabil/wills not as I'd have her will: It is made clear that the wife is the on who desires the cottage, not the fisherman.

The name Ilsabil (also spelled Ilsebill in some versions) is a Germanic variation of the name Elizabeth (Nordicnames); the same is true for the Spanish Isabel ( The name Isabel means "God is my oath" ( and is of Spanish origin ( The Spanish Isabel has also been said to be "Hebrew for the daughter of Ba'al" (Campbell "Isabel"). The name Elizabeth means "My god is abundance" (Campbell "Isabel"). Elizabeth is of Hebrew origin (Nordicnames). The German Ilsa or Ilse is also short for Elizabeth (Campbell "Ilsa").

There was an Isabella Geelvinck who lived in Bodensee, Germany in 1640 (Leon 138). Geelvinck disguised herself as a man and served in the army for a total of 15 years (Leon 138), serving as both a trooper and cook (Leon 138). After leaving the army, Geelvinck, still in male disguise, worked as a valet in Amesfoort in Holland until she decided to leave and stole some of her employer's silver (Leon 138). She then went to Utrecht, where she worked as a maid until she was caught stealing more silver (Leon 139). She was allowed to finish out her contract (Leon 139). When her contract expired, she tried to burn down her employer's house, was caught, tried, and sentenced to death (Leon 139).

The wife, who in this version of the tale is the only character with a clear name, could be a characterization of the "fish-wife". A fish-wife was "a woman who sells fish in a fish market or who hawks fish. Fish-wives are renounced for their flow of invective, hence the term is sometimes applied to a vulgar, scolding, female" (Evans 416).
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14.  My wife says: The preamble to the fisherman's wish drives home the fact that it is due to his wife's urging that he is at the sea.

In addition, this is one of the few stories where wishes are spoken and than granted (Tatar 89).
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15. Now we will live quite contented: Tatar points out "the man's desire to stay put mirrors social realities having to do with upwardly mobile women and with men who are a satisfied with what they have. In some ways, the tale is as much about women with the desire for the ostentatious display as wealth as about power hungry women" (90).

The husband's comments also indicate that he is aware of the possibility that one or both of them will want more.
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16.  Week or fortnight: Between a week and two weeks.
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17.  Stone castle: The wife wants something significantly more than a larger house. A castle would be much larger and cost more money.
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18.Yet he went: The husband feels that what he is asked to do is wrong, yet he does it because he is controlled and dominated by his wife. He is somewhat similar to the husband in "Hansel and Gretel".
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19.  Purple and dark-blue: Purple represents power and spirituality (Cirlot 54). Grey can mean egoism and indifference (Cirlot 54). Dark blue is connect to "the sky and the night and with the stormy sea" (Cirlot 53).
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20.  Half scared: Tatar points out that verbs used to describe the husband "intensifies [sic] the quality of patience in his character and introduces him as a powerful foil to his wife" (88).

The man is also more apologetic for this request.
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21. Intending to go home . . . just standing on the steps: The husband does not seem to fully understand the wife's desire because he still seems to think home will be there. It could also illustrate that is all that he wants, a home. Though the wife and husband enter the castle together, she has moved from sitting to standing.
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22.We will live in the castle and be content: The husband point again that they have enough to be content.
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23. Next morning: The time in between wishes is shorter. 
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24. I will be king: The husband does not wish to be king, but the wife is quite willing to use him to get what she wants. The husband also indicates, for a second time, that he does not want to make the request of the flounder. The last time it was because it was too soon between wishes; this time it seems to be simply because 'it is not right'.

"To dream of a king, you are struggling with your might, and ambition is your master" (Miller 327).
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25. Smelt putrid: The sea now looks, acts, and smells bad.
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26. She wants to be king: The husband's response is shorter. Women were queens not kings. "When wanting to be the king, she moves from land to power and desire to usurp the power of potentates" (Tatar 91).
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27. When he came to the palace: She is no longer outside waiting for him. He must come to her.
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28. I must be Emperor: It is unclear exactly how much time has passed but it does seem to be less than a day between the two wishes.

According to Miller, "To dream of an empress and an emperor is not particularly bad, but brings one no substantial good" (218).

To be an emperor is a "mark of the highest regal dignity" (Evans 373). The term comes from the rulers of the Roman Empire (Evans 373). The term comes imperium which was "the supreme administrative power, which included military command" (Evans 373). There were also the Holy Roman Emperors "whose office was abandoned by Francis II in 1806" (Evans 373). Napoleon was Emperor of the French from 1804-1815 (Evans 374).
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29. There is only one Emperor in the land: The husband is shocked that his wife is upsetting the order of things. The tale is a version of "The World Turned Upside Down". According to Lindahl, McNamara and Lindow, "The world turned upside down in terms of gender roles is a common fear [in medieval era], expressed in such popular images as the woman pulling on a pair of breeches while her husband spins with her distaff" (444). There was also a belief that such behavior had lead to the Great Flood (Noah's Flood) (Lindahl et al 444), which could be another reason why the sea keeps growing more violent in the story.

The reversal of roles is highlighted once again when the wife says "I am the King, and you are nothing but my husband". The wife is not in the subservient position.
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30.  The flounder will be at last be tired out: While the husband is unable to refuse his wife, he hopes that the flounder will not be able to complete his wife's wish. He is looking for the flounder to perform, in some way, some type of rescue. It also illustrates that while the wife does not consider the flounder's health, the husband does.
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31.  Black and thick, and began to boil up from below: Once again, the sea continues to become more dangerous and more unnatural.
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32. Biggest giant: Tatar points out, "this particular tale is about domestic discord and martial asymmetries in the desire for worldly power more than anything else, but it draws, whenever possible, on fairy tale elements, such as giants and dwarfs to deepen the plot" (94).

Giants can be "a symbol of everlasting rebellion of the forces of dissatisfaction" (Cirlot 118). Dwarfs are "guardians of the threshold of the unconsciousness (Cirlot 91). Dwarves were also common in European royal courts.
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33. I will be Pope too: This is still less than a day between wishes. It appears that the wishes to be king, emperor, and pope occur on the same day.

The word pope "represents the O.E. papa from the ecclesiastical Latin and G. pappas the infant's word for father" (Evans 851).
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34.  Ships which were firing guns: Early in the tale it was just nature that was affected, now nature is harming other people.

The fisherman is even more fearful this time. However, the sky does offer some hope because there is still a bit of blue in it. Red, however, means anarchy (Evans 899).
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35.She is pope already: According to a medieval legend, there was a female pope, Pope Joan. She was an Englishwoman who was raised in Germany (Bleiler 755). She was pope for two to three years before suffering a fatal miscarriage during a procession (Bleiler 755). Her body was either buried on the spot or thrown in the Tiber (Bleiler 755). Supposedly, popes avoided the spot of her death (Bleiler 755).

According to Donna Woolfolk-Cross, Pope Joan was in power around 855 A.D. ("Pope Joan"). Additionally, "In 1276, after ordering a thorough search of the papal records, Pope John XX changed his title to John XXI in official recognition of Joan's reign as Pope John VIII" ("Pope Joan"). However, Bleiler states that the story was rejected at the time of the Reformation (755).

The pope's ring is called The Fisherman's Ring in reference to Saint Peter (Evans 416).
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36.Unable to call anything to mind: The wife's lack of sleep is an illustration of her greediness/power hunger.
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37.Sun began to rise: The next wish occurs on the following morning.
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38.I wish to be even as God is: The wording of this last wish is very exact. She does not wish to be God, but to have God's powers or to be like God.
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39.She fell into a rage: The husband stands up to his wife longer with this wish. He realizes the inappropriateness of it. However, when she falls into a rage he caves in. Possibly because he is fearful of her.
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40. All with crests of white foam at the top: Tatar notes "the landscape begins to take on an apocalyptic coloring when the wife demands divine power" (98).
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41.Hovel: Tatar writes, "the abrupt ending with its return to the initial situation, turns the story into an anti-fairy tale, a narrative that, rather than tracing a rise in fortunes or a reversal, takes the protagonists back to the miserable condition in which they started" (99).

William Bennett writes of the tale, "We should know that too much of anything, even a good thing, may prove to be our undoing, as this old tale shows. We need to recognize when enough is enough" (qtd in Tatar 87).

The last line of the story indicts that either the husband is no longer under the control of his wife or that she has learned a lesson.
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©1998-2021 by Heidi Anne Heiner, SurLaLune Fairy Tales at

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