This tale is adapted from "The Fisherman and His Wife" by The Brothers Grimm.
Once upon a time a lazy fisherman and his son lived in a ramshackle rathole of a shack on the edge of a swamp. This fisherman was so lazy, in fact, that he hadn't picked up a fishing pole since the day his son was old enough to do so.
This one particular day started much like all of the others, with the boy waking up at the crack of dawn and tiptoeing to the door so as to not wake his grumpy father. Once outside the rathole shack he put on his moldy black boots, pushed his leaky old rowboat into the water and went out in search of some breakfast.
After about a half an hour of rowing he passed through some branches and the swamp opened up into a beautiful and secluded lagoon. The sky was clear and blue and the water was like glass. He looked down towards the bottom and couldn't see a single fish swimming around. He sighed and shrugged, not wanting to leave this beautiful place, and cast his line into the water.
Nothing. No bites, no ripples, nothing.
Finally, after several hours of daydreaming he finally felt a tug on the line. He reeled it in and something flopped right into his rowboat.
It was a catfish, one of the biggest ones he'd ever seen! But this catfish wasn't flopping around like most fish out of water, he was just sitting there, staring at the boy with anger.
"Hey, you jerk!" said the catfish. "Why would you go and pull me out of the water like that! That hook hurts!"
"Well," the boy thought for a moment, and decided that honesty is the best policy. "I'm hungry. My dad is hungry. And you--"
"You really don't want to eat me," said the catfish.
"Why?! Well, I'm not just some ordinary fish. I'm an enchanted prince."
"A prince?" exclaimed the boy. "A fish prince?"
"No, dummy, a human prince! An evil witch put a curse on me and turned me into a catfish."
"Wow. That's terrible! Is there anything I can do to help?"
"Do you know any princesses?"
"How about wizards? Know any of them?"
"Okay, then you can just help me out by throwing me back in the water."
And so the boy did. The catfish splashed into the glass-clear water and swam away without looking back.
"Good luck!" he shouted after the catfish, but he was already gone.
The boy didn't catch anything else.
Just after noon he rowed back home starving, hoping to have some leftover scraps for lunch. As soon as he walked in the door of the rathole shack his father shouted,
"Boy! Did you catch anything today?"
"I caught a catfish, but he told me he was an enchanted prince, so I let him swim away."
His father fixed him with a funny glare. His face got red, and then he said,
"So what you're trying to tell me . . . is that you caught a magic fish . . . and you let him go . . . without wishing for something?"
"This is a magical enchanted fish prince you're talking about! What's the matter with you? Everyone with half a brain knows they grant wishes! I want you to turn around, get back into that rowboat, and don't come back until we've gotten a wish!"
"What should I wish for?"
His father thought for a moment.
"I want a new house! I'm sick of this rathole shack. I want a nice log cabin with a big yard and a shed. Now go!"
So the boy pushed his leaky rowboat back into the water and rowed all the way through the swamp back to the little lagoon where he first caught the catfish. There were a few scattered clouds in the sky, and though the water was still a dreamy blue he could no longer see all the way to the bottom.
"Um, excuse me?" He shouted at the water. "Mr. Catfish?"
The catfish poked its head out of the water.
"Oh, I know you you're not talking to me. My name is not Mr. Catfish!"
"What should I call you?"
"What do you call a prince, hmmm? Your Highness!"
"Okay . . . um, Your Highness?"
"Yes, how can I help you?" asked the fish, who seemed very pleased with himself.
"Well, I caught you, and then I let you go."
"I remember. It was, like, 45 minutes ago."
"Okay, um, my Dad says that I should have wished for something. You see, we live in this run-down rathole shack. My Dad would like to live in a nice log cabin."
"Go home," said the catfish. "He already has it."
The boy rowed home as fast as he could, and when he arrived his dad was sitting on a rocking chair on the porch of a beautiful log cabin.
"Take a look at this, boy," said the Dad, "this is much better."
There was a nice little front yard with a well-manicured lawn and well-stocked woodpile. The boy stepped into their nice new foyer, through their nice new living room, and looked around their nice new kitchen with a brand new stove. Everything was well-furnished and the cupboards were well-stocked. The boy was starving and he grabbed an apple and bit into it without even washing it first.
"Look," said the fisherman. "Isn't this nice?"
"This is great, Dad!" said the boy. "I could really get used to living like this!"
"Well, we'll think about that."
And they had dinner and went to bed.
Everything went well for a week or so until one day the fisherman said to his son, "Listen here, boy. This cabin is too small. The yard's kind of shabby, the garden is tiny, and my bed is hard as a stone. That catfish could have given us so much more, instead he gave us this dump. I want you to go back to that lagoon and demand a larger house."
"I don't know, Dad. I like this place. Do we really need more?"
"You listen to your father, boy! If it weren't for my quick-thinking we'd still be living in that old rathole!"
The boy hated to admit it, but his father had a point.
"I don't know what to ask for," said the boy. "And what if the catfish gets angry?"
"Ask for a palace. A big marble palace. And don't worry, he won't be angry. He still owes you his life, after all."
And so the boy got back into his leaky little rowboat and rowed back to the lagoon. When he arrived the sky was overcast and hazy and the water was a deep inky purple hue.
"Um, Your Highness?" he said to the water. After about a minute the catfish poked his head above the surface and blinked.
"My father is not satisfied with our log cabin."
"You don't say," said the catfish, rolling his eyes. "What does he want then?"
"He wants to live in a huge marble palace."
"Go home. It's already done."
So the boy rowed back towards home but when he docked there was a large gleaming marble palace with spires and towers and a courtyard where his home used to be. At the front of the palace was an impossibly high staircase. At the top of the staircase was an enormous and ornately decorated sofa. On top of that sofa was the fisherman.
"Help me up," the fisherman shouted down the stairs towards his son. Still tired from the trip back from the lagoon, the boy summoned his strength and slowly made his way to the top of the stairs. After catching his breath the boy started to pull his father to his feet when the fisherman became annoyed and waved him off. He rung a little bell and a well-dressed servant popped out of a door that the boy hadn't noticed at first. The servant helped his father to his feet, handed him a cane, and disappeared again.
Inside the palace there was a large hallway with an ornately carved marble floor. Every time they neared one of the jewel-encrusted doors a servant appeared to open it for them, and the boy couldn't tell if it was the same servant every time or if they all just looked the same. Priceless paintings and tapestries hung on the walls, priceless crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings, and priceless golden furniture littered the floors. Every table was heaped high with every type of food one could imagine . . . except for fish.
The boy looked out one of the stained glass windows and saw a beautiful garden that extended far beyond what his eyes could see. It was like a huge swath of swampland had been replaced with paradise.
"Now, was I right or was I right?" boasted the fisherman.
"Wow, this is pretty awesome, Dad. But, I don't know that we need--"
"Need? Who needs anything? Do you need socks? Or music? Or chocolate? It is the difference between need and want that seperates us from the beasts! "
"Okay, dad, if you say so."
"I did say so, I do say so, and you know what else I say! I want more! This palace is far too small and plain for a family of our stature!"
"But Dad, if our palace was much bigger it would be as big as The King's."
By the look on his father's face the boy knew he had said the wrong thing.
"Young man, I want you to march right back out to the water, get in your boat, and go tell that catfish to make me King."
"King? Aw, dad, why do you have to be King?"
"Don't you worry yourself with how's and why's! I'm a grownup! You just do as your told. I want to be King."
The boy was a little sad, but he was an obedient son so he did as he was told.
When he arrived at the lagoon the sky was a dark grey and the black water was swirling in places here and there. The toads that had been singing were long gone, and he wondered if the catfish would still be there.
"Your Highness?! Your Highness are you still here?"
"What does he want now?"
"He wants to be King."
"Of course he does. Go home, kid. He's already King."
Then the boy went home, and when he arrived there, the palace was a castle five times as large, the size of a small town. A moat filled with alligators, man-eating snakes, and one surly looking cat surrounded the entire fortress. Armored sentries stood outside the door in ornate armor too beautiful to have seen any battle.
The boy crossed the drawbridge and stepped through the humongous doors into the great hall. At the far end of the cavernous hall he could see his father sitting on a high throne of gold and diamonds. He was wearing a large golden crown, and gestured here and there with a jewel-encrusted scepter. A long line of emissaries, ambassadors and townsfolk waited for their chance to ask for favors and judgments or to just sing the praises of the King. The boy began to hurry towards his father when a large knight stepped in front of him.
"Where do you think you're going?" The knight demanded.
"I'm just goi--"
"Were you trying to cut the line?"
"Well, I was just tryi--"
"Who do you think you are, trying to cut the line! Line-cutting is a capital offense!"
"Well, I didn't mean--"
"Do you know what capital offense means? It means I can cut off your head right here. Would you like that?"
"I'm just trying to see my dad," whimpered the boy.
"Who's your dad?"
"Him," the boy said, pointing towards the throne.
"Your dad's the King?! Hey everybody, move out of the way! The royal Prince is here!"
The whole line gasped and started kneeling. People began to push forward and ask for his blessing, his autograph, a handshake. The boy felt very strange but he didn't want to be rude, so he did everything that was asked of him before moving on.
"My son! Welcome, welcome to our new home!"
"So I guess you're the King now."
"Yes, yes I am! Isn't this grand?"
"Well, Dad, I'm happy that you're happy. Now we can just relax, and enjoy life, and never wish for anything else as long as we both live."
"I wouldn't go that far," said the King.
"Oh no . . ."
"Son, take a look out that window," the King said, gesturing with his scepter.
The boy did as he was told. Outside he saw a gigantic army, all marching in unison, sharpening swords, practicing their bow and arrow shooting.
"Tell me what you see," said the King.
"I see a huge army," replied the Prince.
"And do you know what that army is getting ready to do?"
"Not just fight. Go to war!"
"War?! Oh no, that's terrible! Who are we at war with?"
"Everyone! Everyone who isn't in our kingdom! They're all out there, different Kings and Princes who think they're better than us! We have to hurry up and invade them before they invade us and take everything we've worked so hard to get!"
The boy decided to let that one go.
"Unless . . ." began the King.
"Unless what, Dad?"
"Unless you go back to the catfish and make him make me Supreme Ruler and Emperor of the World!"
"Dad, that's not even a real thing!"
"Oh no? You'd rather we go to war?"
"All of those men out there have families! Would you like to explain to all of their parents and wives and children that they died in battle because you refused to go make a very simple request of a catfish?"
And so the son found himself back in his leaky rowboat, and back in the lagoon. The sky was an ominous orangey red with black clouds and the black water was boiling up from the bottom.
"Your Highness?" the boy shouted. The fish appeared immediately, as if he'd been waiting.
"What does he want this time?"
"He wants to be Supreme Ruler and Emperor of the World."
"Go home. It is already done."
Then the boy went home, and when he arrived the entire castle seemed to be carved out of precious gems and gleamed for miles in every direction. The highest towers shot straight up into the air and disappeared into the clouds.
The boy was so tired from rowing back and forth between his father and the catfish that he could barely keep his eyes open and barely noticed the dreamlike beauty of the palace around him. When he finally found his father he was on top of a throne, which was on top of a throne, which was on top of an elephant who was sitting in a throne. The boy stopped at the foot of the thrones and shouted up so he could be heard.
"Are you the Supreme Ruler and Emperor of the World now, Dad?"
"What does it look like?"
His father seemed grumpy.
"Dad, be happy that you're Supreme Ruler and Emperor of the World! There's nothing better! No one is above you, no one is higher!"
His father groused and slouched down in his seat.
"We'll see about that."
And they both went to bed.
In the boy's room he slept soundly, for he had had a very busy day.
In the emperor's room, however, he tossed and turned. He still wasn't satisfied, but he couldn't think of anything else to wish for. He tossed and turned all night, but everyone eventually gets tired. His eyelids began to droop and he started to slip into sleep's embrace . . .until the sun rose and the first rays of the morning's sunrise fell across his face. He leapt out of bed.
"Wake up!" he yelled, shaking his son. "I need you to go see the catfish!"
"Ugh . . . Dad . . . what do you want now?"
"I want to be God!"
"You heard me! I want to be God! I don't want to have to be at the mercy of the sun telling me when to wake up and the moon and the stars telling me when to go to sleep! I don't want to have to swat away mosquitos or crack the shells before eating lobster! I don't want to shave or tie my shoes! I want to not have to want! I WANT TO BE GOD!"
"But nothing! GO NOW!"
And so the boy ran out of the palace and got into his leaky rowboat and rowed as hard and fast as he could. When his boat cleared the trees of the lagoon there was a storm raging. The sky was as black as tar, there was thunder and lightning, and there were even large waves in the small lagoon. He had to stop a few times to bail water out of his rowboat as it was tossed back and forth.
"Your Highness!" he shouted.
"What does he want now?" the catfish calmly asked, and he was easily heard over the storm.
"He wants to be God!"
"Go home. He's back in his rathole."
And that's where they're still living today.
- In the original tale, it is the fisherman's wife who is the greedy/bully character who bosses around the titular fisherman. Since I'm adapting this for live performance I changed the wife to a father so I wouldn't have to do a shrewish Monty Python-esque fake woman voice through the whole story.
- In the original tale the magic fish is a flounder. I changed it to a catfish because I find catfish to be very funny-looking creatures. I still want to do some work with the catfish's character, since right now he's just another person who's mean to the son. I'm unsure in what direction to take the catfish's character from here, though.
- The setting became swampy as opposed to the usual ocean locale originally just because of the catfish, but I like it a lot. I'm thinking of making the story a little more "swampy," if that makes any sense. Maybe give it more of a bayou kind of feel.
- I want to go off a little more in the descriptions of the various palaces without going too overboard.
- I'm also thinking of giving some type of a repeatable mantra-style direction to how the son gets to the lagoon. (i.e. rowed straight for ten minutes, took a left at the log that looks like a toad, etc)
- Lastly, I'm still unsure as to whether or not the son should get a name.