Fairy Tale of the Month: March 2011 The Flounder & The Fisherman – Part One

 Walter Crane

Around and around we go…


A notable feature in many a fairy tale is the repetitive structure of the plot. A common motif is the three brothers, the eldest two striking out to achieve a task and failing, followed by the third and youngest brother who succeeds.


Or our hero has three tasks to perform, and is aided by three sets of creatures encountered earlier in the story. Three is a popular round of repetition.


In “The Flounder and the Fisherman” the repetition goes further. Isabelle first wants a cottage to live in, then a castle, If there is a castle there ought to be a king. Why not an emperor?  Why not be pope?  Why not be like God? Her poor fisherman-husband goes back to the sea six times. Lots of repetition. Why aren’t we bored to tears by the same thing (almost) happening over and over and over?


I’ll make some observations. I recall our daughter, when very young, had a favorite cartoon video that she listened to daily, if my memory serves, until she could recite the dialog along with the characters. The parental experience of favorite items being rerun, rehashed, redone ad nauseam may be too familiar. Is repetition a kid thing? Does the repetition and predictability give them comfort?


What of music and its use of recurrence. Classical music often takes a theme to which it returns, develops, moves on, and returns again. Popular music has its refrain that we wait for and are satisfied to listen to again. “Happy Birthday” for crying out loud. How many times can we sing that? Insist on singing it, even badly. Does the repetition and predictability give adults comfort?


Which bring me to rituals, those events we crave to repeat over and over. Family holiday rituals are legion and legend. How many firework displays can you watch? How much cranberry relish can you eat? How many times will we listen to the inaccuracies of a prognosticating groundhog?


Returning to “The Flounder and the Fisherman”, let me suggest the success of its repetition comes from incremental variation. Every time the fisherman returns to the sea, Isabelle’s demands are larger, the sea more severe, the flounder more angry. The tension increases with each visitation. The repetition allows us to see the familiar in a new light, showing an evolving aspect.


Nothing stays the same. Even a song’s refrain, repeated exactly, comes along further into the song. The story and images have changed since the last time we hear the chorus only seconds before.  As we read that bedtime story to our child, again, we know the day will come when she will no longer have interest in the tale.


I think of repetition as an old friend I meet every day on a park bench, who gets older and older, and friendlier and friendlier. He looks like a constant in an otherwise fleeting world.


Fairy Tale of the Month: Mar 2011 Flounder & Fisherman – Part Two

  Kay Nielsen

Long Streak of Blood

In the beginning of Grimm’s “Flounder and the Fisherman” the fisherman has caught a huge flounder with his fishing pole and hook. The flounder pleads for its life, which the soft-hearted fisherman readily grants. When the flounder is released he sinks to the bottom of the sea, leaving behind a long streak of blood.

What a wonderful, enduring image. It contains, I believe, a very subtle allusion to the blood that Jesus shed during the crucifixion. There is in this image true romance. Not the torrid lusting of Harlequin romances, but the noble spirit of the early 19th century writers. Whenever I tell this tale, I edit out that streak of blood. Why?

That streak of blood is the Grimms intruding on the story. I can’t verify my statement with academic research, but I “hear” the Grimms adding this image for their own satisfaction.

Don’t think for a moment I am about to pick on the Grimms. All the folk tale collectors have put their mark on the material they’ve collected. How could they not? They were, although with pen in hand, storytellers.

There are storytelling traditions in the world where the story is related word-for-word as it was heard. This is not the European tradition, where every teller has their artistry, and a need to decorate. I am guessing this process accounts in part for the—sometimes wildly—different versions of the same story.

The reader of these collected tales can sometimes tell when the collector has altered the story for the sake of readability. Orally transmitted stories have a cadence and structure that do not translate well to the page. Without the animated presence of the teller, the words lay lifeless on the paper.

Should these “additions” be edited out when we can spot them? What of “additions” we can’t spot, those that were added to the oral tradition during their oral transmission? Should we at least make the attempt to return to the original form of the story? How can we tell when we have reached its original form? Can you tell I am leading you down an endless path with no destination?

The stories are what they are when we encounter them. They bear the marks of their history. We may put our marks upon them wittingly or unwittingly.

My argument does not support striking out the Grimm’s “addition” of the streak of blood. Why do I drop what I identify as a Grimm intrusion?

Why? Because I didn’t think of it first.


Fairy Tale of the Month: Mar 2011 Flounder & Fisherman – Part Three

 Kay Nielsen

The Enchanted

Princesses sleep, princes are enchanted. We rarely have sleeping queens and enchanted kings. These states are usually reserved for the young. This makes a certain amount of sense, psychologically. The young are in transition, moving from one state to another, moving from childhood (being asleep, being enchanted) to a state of adulthood (becoming their true selves). There is travail involved. Someone has to get to the princess to give her the awakening kiss or token. The prince labors to nullify the curse laid upon him.

Examples abound of this common motif of young royalty under a curse: Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, the Princess and the Frog, The Flounder and the Fisherman – no wait. What about that flounder?

In the beginning of “The Flounder and the Fisherman” the fisherman catches a huge flounder, who speaks to him telling the fisherman that he is an enchanted prince. By the end of the story the flounder is still an enchanted prince. The spell is not broken.

In my mental magical pond a frog has broken to the surface and croaks, “Why?”

My intuition tells me the flounder represents the unconscious. The fisherman exists at the conscious level. He lives in the world of air. The flounder lives at the unconscious level, in the world of water, beneath the surface.

But do we stand upon our rock and call out, asking favors of our unconscious? Is the unconscious at our beck and call?

The frog in my mental pond makes a big splash, disturbing my thoughts. It pokes it head out again and croaks, “Bruno, Bruno.”

Now I remember. Bruno Bettelheim. In his book, “The Uses of Enchantment” he discusses this fairy tale. Bettelheim’s observations are filtered through a Freudian lens. They both go on about the Oedipal myth as it can be used, metaphorically, to understand child/parent relationships. Why didn’t Freud use “The Flounder and the Fisherman” (as Bettelheim did) to explain the id—ego—super-ego concept?

Isabelle, the fisherman’s wife, is the id, the primal satisfaction of desire.  The flounder, our enchanted prince, is the super-ego, the holder of higher thoughts and ideals. The fisherman is the ego, the poor sap, who shuffles between the id and the super-ego, trying to communicate between the two. It is not the flounder who is the unconscious, but rather the entire tale rises up from beneath the surface.

Had Freud used this tale by way of explanation, we would never have, erroneously, come up with the term “egotistical” when we really meant “idtistical”. The relationships would have been clear.

My magical pond frog is staring at me with its big yellow eyes, but not croaking anything at me. I think I got this one right.

Your thoughts?

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