The Golden Fish (the dangerous wish)

This story appears in many places, including the Brothers Grimm. This version is adapted from Arthur Ransom’s  Old Peter's Russian Tales. It is about wanting - and giving - more than enough.

Long ago, near the shore of the sea, in a little old hut made of earth and moss and logs, lived an old woman and her son. They were so poor, they lived on fish they could catch and nothing else. The old woman caught fish out of the sea in her ancient net, and her grown-up son cooked them.


In the summer evenings they sat outside their hut on a broken old bench, and the old woman mended the holes in her net. There were holes in it so big that a hare could jump through them so you can see why she didn’t always catch many fish! Her son often sat on the bench beside her, patched their clothes and moaned.


One day the old woman went fishing, as she always did. All day long she fished, but caught nothing. And then in the evening, when she was thinking she might as well give up, she threw the net for the last time, and when she came to pull it in, the net was so heavy, and pulled so hard against her feeble old arms, she thought she must have caught a giant!


"This time," says she, "I have caught a hundred fish at least.” But no! When she pulled the net, it was definitely as heavy as if it were full of fighting fish, but  - it looked like there was nothing there! But there, at the bottom, something was glittering. A golden fish, not very big and not very little, was caught in the mesh. This single golden fish had made the net so heavy. The old fisherwoman took it gently in her hands. "At least it will be enough for supper," said she. But the golden fish lay still, and looked at her with wise eyes, and spoke.


"Old woman," said the fish, “please do not kill me. I beg you throw me back into the blue waters. Some day I may be able to be of use to you."

"What?" says the old fisherwoman; "and do you talk with a human voice?"

"I do," says the fish. "And my fish's heart feels pain like yours. It would be as bitter to me to die as it would be to yourself."

"Is that so?" says the old woman. "Well, you shall not die today." And she threw the golden fish back into the sea.


You would have thought the golden fish would have splashed with his tail, turned downwards, and swum away into the deep blue sea. But not a bit of it. It looked up at her with its wise eyes, and it spoke again.


"You have given me my life," says the golden fish. "Now ask anything you wish from me, and you shall have it.” The old woman stood there on the shore, thinking. But she couldn’t think of a single thing she wanted.

"No, Fish, thank you,” she said at last; “but I think I have everything I need,"

"Well, if ever you do want anything, come here and ask me," says the fish, and it turned over, flashing gold, and went down into the blue sea.


The old woman went back home, where her son was waiting. "What!" he screamed; "you haven't caught even a tiny fish for supper?"

"I caught one fish, son," says the old woman: "a golden fish, and it spoke to me; and I let it go, and it told me to ask for anything I wanted."

"And what did you ask for? Show me."

"I couldn't think of anything to ask for; so I did not ask for anything at all."

“You fool," said her son, “we have no food to put in our mouths. Go back at once, and ask for some bread."

Well, the poor old fisherwoman got down her net, and tramped back to the seashore. And she stood on the shore of the wide blue sea, and he called out,--


"Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


And in a moment there was the golden fish with his head out of the water, flapping his tail below him in the water, and looking at the fisherwoman with its wise eyes. "What is it?" said the fish.

"Be so kind," says the fisherwoman; "be so kind. We have no bread in the house."

"Go home. It is done,” says the fish, and turned over and went down into the sea.


As soon as she reached the shed, she saw her son, waving his arms and shouting. "Stir your old bones, Ma!” he screamed out. "It's as fine a loaf as ever I've seen!” And here was her old son slicing a huge loaf of bread. "You did not do so badly after all," said the son as they sat there, dipping bread in hot tea.


But that night, as they lay sleeping on the stove, the son poked the old woman in the ribs with a bony elbow. She groaned and woke up. "I've been thinking," says her son, "your fish might have given us a bread bin to keep this in. There’s loads left over, and without a bread bin, it will go stale. First thing in the morning off you go, and ask your fish to give us a new bread bin to put it in.”


Before sunrise, the son woke the old woman and told her to go to the seashore. The fisherwoman was afraid, because she thought the fish would be very happy to be asked again for more. But at dawn, just as the red sun was rising out of the sea, she stood on the shore, and called out in her windy old voice,- "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


And there in the morning sunlight was the golden fish, looking at her with its wise eyes. "I beg your pardon," says the old woman, "but could you, just to oblige my son, give us some sort of trough to put the bread in?"

"Go home, it is done" says the fish; and down it goes into the blue sea.


The old woman went home, and there, outside the hut, was her grown-up son, looking at the handsomest bread bin that ever was seen on earth. It was painted, with little flowers, in three colours, and there were strips of gilding about its handles.

“Just look at this," grumbled the son. "This is far too smart for a horrible hut like ours. Why, there is hardly any part of the roof where the rain doesn’t come in. If we keep this here, it will be spoiled in a month. You must go back to your fish and ask it for a new hut.”


“Oh, no," says the old woman. "Get along," says her son. "If the fish can make a bread bin like this, a hut will be no trouble. And, after all, you must not forget it owes its life to you."

"I suppose that is true," says the old woman; but she went back to the shore with a heavy heart. She stood on the edge of the sea and called out, doubtfully,— "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


Instantly there was a ripple in the water, and the golden fish was looking at him with its wise eyes. "Well?" says the fish.

“My son is so pleased with the bread bin that he wants a new hut to keep it in, because ours, if you could only see it, is really falling to pieces, and the rain comes in and —."

"Go home, it is done,” says the fish.


The old fisherwoman went home, but she could not find her old hut! At first she thought she was lost. But then she saw her son. Walking about, first one way and then the other, looking at the finest hut you can imagine. It was built of new logs, neatly finished at the ends and carved. And the edge of the roof was cut in patterns, so neat, so pretty, you could never think how they had been done. 


They went in together. And everything inside was new and clean. A fine big stove, strong wooden benches, a good table, a fire in the stove, and logs ready to put in, and the tea already on the boil. 


So was the son finally satisfied? Not a bit of it. “What rubbish. You don't know what to ask. I am tired of being a peasant. I was made for something better. I want to be a lord, and have good people to do the work, and see folk bow and curtsy to me when I meet them walking abroad. Go back at once to the fish, you old fool, and ask it for that, instead of bothering it for little trifles like bread bins and fishermen's huts. Off with you.”


The old woman went back to the shore with a sad heart; but she was afraid of her son, and didn’t want to argue. She stood on the shore, and called out in her windy old voice,— "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


Instantly there was the golden fish looking at her with its wise eyes. "Well?" says the fish. "My son won't give me a moment's peace," says the old woman; "and since he has the new hut--which is a fine one, I must say; as good a hut as ever I saw--he won't be content at all. He is tired of being a peasant, and wants to be a lord with a house and servants, and to see the good folk curtsy to him when he meets them walking about."

"Go home,” says the fish.


The old woman went home, thinking about the hut, and how pleasant it would be to live in it, even if her son were a lord. But when she got home the hut had gone, and in its place there was a fine brick house, three stories high. There were servants running this way and that in the courtyard. There was a cook in the kitchen, and there was his son, in a dress of rich brocade, sitting idle in a tall carved chair, and giving orders right and left.


"Good health to you, son," says the old woman.

"Ah, you, clown that you are, how dare you call me your son! Can't you see that I'm a lord? Here! Off with this old crone to the stables!”


Instantly the servants seized the old woman by the collar and lugged her along to the stables. There they made her a cleaner - just one of the servants. She had to clean the big house every day and eat her meals in the kitchen with the other servants. It was a wretched life. 


Time went on, and after a while, the son grew tired of being a lord. He sent for his mother. The poor old woman combed her hair and cleaned her boots, and came into the house, and bowed low before her own son. 


"Be off with you, you old good-for-nothing!" he said. "Go and find your golden fish, and tell it from me that I am tired of being a lord. I want to be King, with generals and courtiers and men of state to do whatever I tell them."


The old woman went to the seashore, very glad to be out of the palace. She cried out in her windy old voice,— "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


And there was the golden fish looking at up with its wise eyes. "What's the matter now, old woman?" says the fish.

"My son is worse than ever," says the old woman. "My back is sore with the hard work he makes me do and now he says he wants to be King.”

"Never you worry about it," says the fish. "Go home" and with that the fish turned over and went down into the sea.


The old woman went home slowly, for she did not know what her son would do if the golden fish did not make him into a King. But as soon as she came near she heard the noise of trumpets and the beating of drums, and there where the fine stone house had been was now a great palace with a golden roof. Behind it was a big garden of flowers, that are fair to look at but have no fruit, and before it was a meadow of fine green grass. And on the meadow was an army of soldiers drawn up in squares and all dressed alike. 


Suddenly the fisherwoman saw her son in the gold and silver clothes of a king, come stalking out on the balcony with soldiers and earls to hold a review  his army. And the drums beat and the trumpets sounded, and the soldiers cried "Hurrah!" And the poor old fisherwoman found a dark corner in one of the barns, and lay down in the straw.


Time went on, and eventually, the son was tired of being king. He thought he was made for something better. And one day he said to his assistant, "Find me that ragged old beggar who is always in the courtyard. Find her, and bring her here.”


The assistant told the officers, and the officers told the servants, and the servants looked for the old woman, and found her at last asleep on the straw in the corner of one of the barns. They cleaned some of the dirt off her, and brought her before the king, who sat proudly on his golden throne.


"Listen, old fool!" says he. "Be off to your golden fish, and tell it I am tired of being king. Anybody can be king. I want to be the ruler of the seas, so that all the waters shall obey me, and all the fish shall be my servants.”


"I don't like to ask that," said the old woman, trembling.

"What's that?" he screamed. "Do you dare to answer me back? If you do not set off this minute, I'll have your head cut off and your body thrown to the dogs.” Unwillingly the old woman hobbled off. She came to the shore, and cried out with a windy, quavering old voice,— "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


Nothing happened. The old woman thought of her son, and what would happen if he were still king when she came home. Again she called out,— "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me.” Nothing happened, nothing at all. A third time, with the tears running down her face, she called out in her windy, creaky, quavering old voice,— "Head in air and tail in sea, Fish, fish, listen to me."


Suddenly there was a loud noise, louder and louder over the sea. The sun hid itself. The sea broke into waves, and the waves piled themselves one upon another. The sky and the sea turned black, and there was a great roaring wind that lifted the white crests of the waves and tossed them abroad over the waters. The golden fish came up out of the storm and spoke out of the sea. "What is it now?" says the fish, in a voice more terrible than the voice of the storm itself.


"O fish," says the old woman, trembling like a reed shaken by the storm, "my child is worse than before. He is tired of being king. He wants to be the ruler of the seas, so that all the waters shall obey him and all the fishes be his servants.”


The golden fish said nothing, nothing at all. It turned over and went down into the deep seas. And the wind from the sea was so strong that the old woman could hardly stand against it. For a long time she waited, afraid to go home; but at last the storm calmed, and it grew towards evening, and she hobbled back, thinking to creep in and hide amongst the straw.


As she came near, she listened for the trumpets and the drums. She heard nothing except the wind from the sea rustling the little leaves of birch trees. She looked for the palace. It was gone, and where it had been was a little tumbledown hut of earth and logs. 


It seemed to the old fisherwoman that she knew this little hut, and she looked at it with joy. And she went to the door of the hut, and there was sitting her grown-up son in a ragged shirt, cleaning out a saucepan, and singing in a creaky old voice.  And this time, he was glad to see her, and they sat down together on the bench and drank tea without sugar, because they had not any money.


They began to live again as they used to live, and the old woman grew happier every day. She fished and fished, and many were the fish that she caught, and of many kinds; but never again did she catch another golden fish that could talk like a human being.

Let’s Think!
  1. Who is happy at the start of the story? Who is unhappy?

  2. When was the son happiest?

  3. Should the old woman have done what her son told her to do?

  4. Is there such a thing as having too much?

  5. What can happen if all your wishes come true?

  6. Did all the wishing make the son unhappy?!