Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish

It is not a secret that many tales migrate from one culture to another. Sometimes it happens naturally, and sometimes we know who exactly helped to accommodate a tale to the new cultural environment. The tale of the Fisherman and the Fish, also known in the Russian speaking world as the Tale of the Golden Fish originates from Germany. The Brothers Grimm included the story about the fisher and his greedy wife (Vom Fischer und seiner Frau) in their collection of folk tales. The Brothers Grimm's book had become a European bestseller in early 19th century. Eventually Alexander Pushkin, a student of the the Imperial Lyceum in Tsarskoye Selo near Saint Petersburg, read this tale in the Lyceum's library and remembered the plot, and put the story into verse many years later. Pushkin re-worked the story and made the tale sound so genuinely Russian that generations of readers have never suspected it was borrowed. Actually, for me as a native Russian speaker, it is hard to imagine that this tale didn't exist in Russian before Pushkin.

In Pushkin's poem, an old man and his wife had a small hut. Fishing was all they could do for a living. One day was particularly bad for the family: the fisherman threw in his net a few times and pulled out no fish, just seaweed. When he threw the net for the last time, he pulled out one tiny fish which happened to be golden and capable of human speech. The fish pleaded for its life, promising any wish in return. However, the old man said he did not want anything, and let the fish go. When he came back home and told his wife about the golden fish, she got mad at her husband and told him to go and ask the fish for a new trough, as theirs was broken. The fisherman felt frustrated and didn't want to bother the fish with the stupid trough, yet he did what his wife told him to do. The fish happily granted this small request. The next day, the wife asked for a new house, then for a palace, and so her wishes were escalating, until she asked finally to become the Ruler of the Sea and to subjugate the golden fish completely to her boundless will. She had already been made a czarina by that time. As the man went to ask for each item, the sea became more and more stormy, until the last request, where the man could hardly hear himself. When he asked that his wife be made the Ruler of the Sea, the fish put the greedy woman back in the old hut and gave her back the broken trough.

This poem has become very popular in Russia. It is safe to say that every child in Russia has read this tale at least once or watched this wonderful old-school cartoon:

The phrase “to be left with the broken trough” became a proverb. Another phrase from this poem that has become popular is the question the golden fish asked the old man every time it saw him on the sea shore: Чего тебе надобно, старче? (What do you need, old man?). Probably, you won't find старче in a dictionary, because it is an obsolete vocative form of старик, an old man. In the 1960s, “old man” was how young people, friends, called each other. It was similar to “dude” in American English. It is still can be used sometimes between close friends. The quote from the Pushkin's poem sounds funny when put in that context, like “What's the problem, dude?”. Considering that the golden fish in Russian is feminine and diminutive (золотая рыбка), the phrase can sound even more playful, since старче here becomes more like “daddy”, an old patron. But enough of cultural contexts.

What the original German and Russian tales have in common is the moral: greediness, like gambling, is about not knowing when to stop, and it will unavoidably be punished.

P.S.: My new shop on Etsy offers a T-shirt with the quotation from this tale.