Friday 20 January 2012

The Fisherman and His Wife

by Mary Hoffman

I’m a great believer in the idea that everyone has their own personal myth or, if you like, fairy tale. It doesn’t mean it’s your favourite or that you particularly admire it. It’s more the case that it speaks to you, possibly uncomfortably, about an aspect of your own character or personality, so that you think perhaps the originator of the tale knows you, or someone very like you.

'The Fisherman and his Wife' Arthur Rackham

For me this story is The Fisherman and his Wife. I have re-told it myself, in The Macmillan Treasury of Nursery Stories, which I was invited to write for the new millennium. (This was a huge treat in itself, let alone getting a chance to re-tell my “signature tale”). I went back to the original in the Brothers Grimm but then, as with all the stories, allowed myself to expand and embroider it a bit.

This is the basic story:
A childless couple – a fisherman and his wife – were so poor they lived in a pigsty. Every day the man would try with his rod and line to catch a fish in the sea; if he succeeded, they had a fish supper, if not, they went to bed hungry.

From 'The Mammoth Book of Wonders'

One day he caught a flounder who begged to be thrown back, because he was a prince under an enchantment. In my version, the fisherman says, “I wouldn’t eat anything that talked anyway.” He goes home fishless but tells his wife about the adventure. She upbraids him for asking nothing in return for sparing the enchanted prince’s life. “Oh of course we have everything we could wish for, living in a pigsty!” she rants and sends him down to the seashore to ask for a cottage.

The magic flounder grants her wish and the fisherman’s wife is contented for a while but soon wants a castle and gets that too. There is a progression from real estate to personal glory for the wife, who becomes in turn King, Emperor and Pope. Every time the fisherman has to ask the flounder for something grander, he feels more wretched and the sea becomes stormier and of a more livid hue.

Finally, the wife demands control over the rising and setting of the sun and moon – to be, in fact, God.

‘There was a huge clap of thunder and then the storm stilled and the sea was like clear glass.

“Go back,” said the flounder, “and you will find her in the pigsty, as before.”

And there in the pigsty the fisherman and his wife are living to this day.’

'The Fisherman calls the Flounder' Arthur Rackham

So, ambition, greed and an inability to know when to stop on the part of the wife and a certain supine biddability on the part of the husband. How could this be my personal motif story?

It’s about living in the moment, appreciating what you’ve got and not wishing your life away. All of us who write are hungry for a certain amount of fame and fortune. We want people to buy and read our books in large numbers; we’d be happy to be offered film deals; if people recognised our names and said “I LOVE your books – I have all of them!”, we could cope.

It’s not really about material goods and power (although I, for one, would not turn down a villa in Tuscany); it’s more about validation, I think. We pour our creativity and imagination into creating new worlds for readers to inhabit. If we are lucky, a publisher likes what we do well enough to launch it on the world in the form of a printed book.

And what happens after that is subject to vagaries of the market and of Marketing, the trends making up the zeitgeist, the whims of fortune and the lucky spin of the wheel. So we tend to crave more and more. Yes we have a lovely review in the Times or the Guardian but what are the sales figures like? We get short-listed for a prize but don’t win it. We have a publishing advance we feel happy about until we hear someone else has one twice the size.

Worse still, a fellow-author, whose work we think secretly (or not so secretly) is inferior to our own, gets loaded with plaudits and has their books turned into hugely successful Hollywood films. We smile warmly like an Oscar nominated also-ran but really inside we are like the fisherman’s wife: we want more!

And we forget that there are literally thousands – possibly millions – of would-be writers who would kill for just one contract, or to be represented by an agent. That, for the long-term published writer is about cottage-level in terms of flounder gifts.

So I try to go back into that little cottage, which I made as cosy and desirable in my version as I could, with an orchard of fruit to turn into jam and a flower garden in front. (I wrote this round about the time we left London and bought our present barn-conversion in Oxfordshire. It’s bigger than a cottage but it does have roses round the door and a plum tree whose annual crop gets converted by a kind of alchemy into something you can spread on a crumpet).

Artist unknown

My lovely illustrator gave the couple’s cottage a thatched roof, which I wouldn’t touch myself, but I bestowed on them green and white crockery, of which I am inordinately fond, and a yard full of ducks and chickens, which I am not allowed.

Yes, a castle might be nice, but would I really want to choose all the curtain-poles and light-fittings for so many bedrooms? The fisherman, who is also me of course, feels very uncomfortable about the castle and all the servants and the four-poster bed.

I have several pacts with different friends about how we would not let success – I mean wild, ridiculous millionaire-style success – go to our heads and change how we behave to other people, especially other writers. We have seen it happen.

Not perhaps the desire to be Pope but a tendency to pontificate. Not a demand to stop the sun in the sky but perhaps a forgetting that we are poor creatures of dust, whose life on this earth is but a speck viewed in the context of eternity.

So that’s why The Fisherman and his Wife is my signature tale. It is a reminder to stop and enjoy the distance I have travelled from the scholarship girl who scribbled plays and stories in school exercise books, to bask in my cosy cottage stage of life and be excited by glimpses of distant castles but not to let ambition prevent me from living in the moment and taking a proper pride in my achievements without constantly hungering for more.

After all, in my line of work, next year could see one back in the metaphorical pigsty, even if one didn’t want to play God.*

*A little secret for non-writers: when you create worlds and people them with characters, you do have a certain Godlike power. Maybe that’s why most of us can stop short of going too far in our ambition. We have all we need in our heads and hearts and count ourselves kings of infinite space, even though we have had dreams – because we have had dreams.

Mary had her first book published in 1975, which would have provided her with a fish supper had she not already been a vegetarian. She and her husband have never lived in a pigsty, though it was a long time before they could afford carpets in the house they bought to raise their three daughters in.

She has now had over ninety books published, with more in the pipeline, including the successful but not quite castle-providing Stravaganza sequence for Bloomsbury, stand-alone historical novels like The Falconer’s Knot and Troubadour. She also writes picturebooks like Amazing Grace and its sequels, which are reputed to have sold over a million and a half copies, which you would have thought might be worth a turret or two.

She has never had a film deal or won a major prize but is not bitter.


  1. What a brilliant post! I am right at the beginning of my writing career but to me you are a star. It just goes to show... I will remember your words always xx

  2. Mary, I love this post - and it feels just as real and profound as it did when you told me this story at Folly Farm. I might print it out and stick it on my study wall, to make sure I don't forget its wisdom and truth.

    Liz xx

  3. Liz, I don't remember telling you the story! Were we walking between buildings? I wrote this for Kath last year and have just re-read it. Can't find anything to disagree with myself about second time around!

  4. Yes, I think you were outside trying to get a signal on your phone and I was on my way to somewhere, and I can't remember what I'd said, but it must have been something to do with ambition or impatience or professional hunger of some sort! And you told me this story and it resonated so strongly for me, so am really glad to see it in writing somewhere I can re-read it whenever I need to! xx

  5. Thank you for such a lovely reminder of the dangers of greed. I am very guilty of fisherman's wifeliness at times, especially in the context that you describe: not money but validation. We wouldn't write and be published if we didn't want vast numbers of people to read our creations, would we? But there are dangers to this, not least bitterness and disappointment, and I know I'm guilty of these sometimes when things don't seem to be happening fast enough or as I'd wish them to happen.
    I hope you don't mind if I put a link to this article on my blog, as a slap on my wrist for a blog I wrote earlier this week moaning about things. Thank you!
    And now of course, I'm sure I'm not alone in trying to identify my own myth or fairytale.

  6. I love this - and I've heard you tell it before, too. Not sure if it was at FF with Liz or separately.

    What a lovely post - I will not grumble any more today. Though my desires are not for grand riches but for certain problems to be sorted out. Perhaps that doesn't sound too greedy? Being pope would be a nightmare, anyway.

  7. Plus, if you were the pope you wouldn't be able to sh*t in the woods.

  8. See what happens when I go out for a few hours? I come back and discover ribald comments from that Liz K!

    But many thanks to Mary for unwrapping this timely parable about counting blessings... writerly as well as personal.

  9. Sorry Kath, couldn't resist! Still - a beautiful and inspiring post.

  10. I thought that's exactly what I'd be able to do if I were Pope! But it's not much of an attraction. And I didn't thank Marie T Ghost (love the name!) for that first kind comment.

    And Kit, I'd be honoured if you wanted to link to my ramblings.

  11. Another brilliant post! Thank you both for the chance to think on this story again.

    Mary, I think it's wonderful that you pinpoint validation as the key need. It's a wise author who's able to say, "I have enough."

  12. I once read, for research purposes, a book about the psychology of the super-rich. Many of them felt they did not have enough, that they needed more - and that they needed to live like paupers. I found it all rather sad.

  13. Thank you so much, Mary. I'm sorry that I didn't see the bit in the sidebar and ask permission first. Now I'm off to follow your blog too - at this rate I shall never get any work done!

  14. I read this post after having just finding that the garage is leaking perilously close to my flat file full of all my paintings. I feel very fisherman-wifey right now. Mary Hoffman's post made me long for a flounder...

  15. Lovely post, Mary. I often remind myself that some of my happiest memories come from times when I didn't think I had much. Too often I've focused on the castle rather than the people living there.

  16. Great post, Mary, and thank you Katherine for publishing it. It's a good reminder for all of us to not judge ourselves by what others are doing. And personally, I think a cottage would be much better than a castle, far fewer drafts.

  17. Very grateful for this post - thank you.

  18. Thank you, a great post (and yes, contented cottage - every time)

  19. I am so happy to have found your blog. It was recommended by Seven Miles of Steel Thistles and I first read the Wild Hunt post. I followed the link here because my art partner and I have chosen The Fisherman and His Wife as our wonder tale for the month.(Two Twitch A Tale- wordpress) You might be interested in seeing the art works and comments. I found yours wise and good advice. Thank you