Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fairy Tales About Contentment

The Grimms' tale "The Fisherman and his Wife" tells the story of a magical fish that could grant wishes, and the wife who was never satisfied and ultimately ended up back where she started, in a poor little shack by the sea. It essentially imparts the classic moral "be careful what you wish for," which has good uses, although it might bother modern readers because of what the tale seems to say about women (the wife in the story is the greedy, never satisfied one; although the pushover husband is not the most admirable character either).

There is a similar Japanese fairy tale I learned about via the Myths and Legends podcast that both I and the host Jason Weiser prefer to the Grimm version, The Stonecutter. (This tale can also be found in Lang's "Crimson Fairy Book".)

It tells the story of a poor stonecutter who, for many years, was content to work hard, knowledgeable and strong from his years of experience. But one day, delivering a gravestone to a rich man's house, he became envious of the large, cool mansion, allowing him to escape from the heat of the day. He wished out loud that he could be a rich man, and the spirit of the mountain granted his wish.

He lived for a while, happy to enjoy his new wealth. But one day, he saw a prince ride by, and realized that despite his riches, a royal prince had more power than he. So he wished to be a prince.

Yet he was not content as a prince, and he realized the sun had more power than he to give discomfort. He next became the sun, and relished his power, until clouds blocked him from scorching the earth, and he wished to be a cloud.

As a cloud he felt powerful, as he covered the earth with rain, but he realized that though he could drown people and plants, there was a large boulder that remained unaffected by his storms, so he wished to be a rock.

As a rock, he was immovable and powerful-until one day, a poor stonecutter came away and chipped away his pieces. He wished to become a stonecutter, and ended up as his former self, and was content to do his work again.

I like the cyclical nature of power as shown in this fairy tale. First of all it challenges our perception of power, as it shows that all natural forces have their own influence. Also, the stonecutter actually learns his lesson from experience. The fisherman's wife simply climbs up the ladder, is never satisfied, and then is sent back down to the lowest rung of the ladder when she wishes to be like God. She never experiences what that might be like and learns there are negatives to the things we long for, and there's no sense of empowerment to the poor working person. (Note: this is not just in the Grimms' collection, but in another German tale, "Hanss Dudeldee," with essentially the same plot.)

There is a Russian tale that is very similar, but with a slight twist at the ending; rather than wishing to be like God, the fisherman's wife-turned-czarina wishes to have power over the oceans and fish. It makes sense that the magical fish would rather not be at her mercy.

"Fisherman and his Wife" illustrations by Kay Neilsen


  1. I have to say, while I see the arguments Jason Weiser, I actually prefer the Grimm version over the Tale of the Stone Cutter. While both have a fatalistic message that encourages the acceptance of social hierarchies, I have the feeling that in The Fisherman and his Wife, this problematic content is mitigated.

    In The Tale of the Stonecutter, the protagonist goes through a circle of discontent until at the end he accepts his pre-determined social role. In The Fisherman and his Wife there are two characters with juxtaposed roles. The wife is never satisfied, but the man on the other hand is *always* satisfied. He does see the perks and advantages of their ever-increasing wealth and social standing and enjoys them. His catchphrase is "How nice things will be now that [...]!" When his wife becomes ouright abusive to him, he becomes dissatisfied with his situation, but only because his family life is suffering, not because there is something inherently bad about climbing the social ladder. By inserting this element it is showcased more clearly than in the Stone Cutter Tale that while the wife personally doesn't enjoy the gradually improving living situations, the wife's dissatisfaction is due to her own character flaws and not beccause the situation she is in is not desireable.
    Interestingly enough, almost everyone who reads the tale feels that the wish for the bigger house with the chicken coop is fully justified, some also argue that the wish to become rich is also ok. So attempts to improve someone's life are not portrayed as completely negative. Only when the situation escalates and the man begins to strongly disagree with his wife (because he is *not* a pushover in that he lets his wife make decisions *for him*. He does not want to be King and does not let his wife convince him otherwise), the things begin to take a turn for the worse. Since I only listened to Jonas Weisner's retelling of the Tale of the Stone Cutter, I cannot tell whether this is true for the original tale, but at least in his retelling it was implied that the Stonecutter overstepped his boundaries as soon as he made the first wish. At the very least in the Tale of the Stone cutter there is no stage between the starting situation and disturbing the social hierarchy (e.g. house + chicken coop), which makes his wish more extreme.
    Jason Weisner points out that he prefers the Tale of the Stonecutter, because the change back to a stone cutter is not a punishment, but the stone cutter's own wish, but I prefer the Grimm version, *because* the regression is a punishment. The wife's restlnessness, greed and dissatisfaction needed to be stopped. She was harming herself as much as the people around her. But the return to impoverishment and struggle for survival is *not* desirable. Therefore The Fisherman and his Wife is a tale that encourages moderation instead of mere acceptance of one's lot. Wihing for things to improveis ok. Improving things is ok. But when you succeeed, it is also important to recognize how much things have imporived and being happy about that. Contentment and ambition are not mutually exclusive.

    As mentioned above, both tales have an inherently problematic subtext. But I can interpret The Fisherman and his Wifein a way that I, as a modern person, can agree with and learn a lesson from. You did the same with The Tale of the Stone Cutter, but I'm personally not fully comfortable with that reading, as the statement that everyone both has power and is subjected to it, in my opinion in this tale is only used to install a false feeling of equality. Even if the prince issuffering in the sun's heat, he is still much more powerful than the stone cutter.

    1. I hadn't thought about "Fisherman and His Wife" having justifiable improvements, and gradually demanding too much. And one difference between the tales: in Stonecutter, there is no version of reality in which the character both works but lives comfortably. He experiences either poverty and work (but finding satisfaction and strength in his work is emphasized) or a rich man who doesn't have to work at all. (When he becomes Prince, at least in Weiser's telling, he had other advisors do the work for him. In the folktale we see him being waited upon but no mention of work).

      I think Weiser was trying to emphasize the satisfaction of doing work in his telling (something he also was concerned about in "Vasilisa,"), so in that sense I could understand that although enjoying the pleasures of wealth might be enjoyable temporarily, he might miss having that purpose. I can kind of relate-doing much less teaching during the summer, I can actually get a little depressed at having not enough to do.

      But I see what you're saying about it being problematic that it justifies social hierarchies. I find it personally helpful and encouraging to remember that, even while my current situation isn't perfect, no situation would be perfect; but it wouldn't necessarily be so for someone in real poverty, and it could encourage the dangerous idea that the poor deserve to be that way.

      Although, revisiting the Grimm text, I still see the Fisherman as being a pushover. Even for the first wish, it's emphasized that each time he goes to the fish, he doesn't want to, but did not want to oppose his wife. And each time the sea changes colors, showing that things are clearly wrong. Even though he doesn't want to be King, he asks the fish for his wife to be King, when he could have refused to go (or, to get her off his case, claim that he asked the fish and the fish refused).