Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Fisherman's Wife and the Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle

This evening, my friend Isidora and I had special post-birthday drinks at my favorite neighborhood bar. I’ve known her since third grade, but when she moved to England, we wove in and out of contact for years, and did not meet again until the summer of 2002. We now live in the same city. I am used to thinking of her as the artist and myself as the storyteller, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that she had once told the folktale, ”The Fisherman and his Wife,” in a classroom setting. However, when Isidora visited the classroom afterward, she overheard references to the story from the teachers along the lines of, “Now, class, remember the fisherman’s wife! Be content with what you have, and don’t ask for more.”

I brooded upon that for awhile. That interpretation never sat well with me. I finally realized that what was wrong with the Fisherman’s Wife was not so much wanting more, but not being grateful for each gift she had. The final insult was hubris in wanting power over the rising and setting of the sun. The Fisherman was culpable in that he did not set proper boundaries. The Fish, too, kept giving and giving, growing more irritated all the time, but still giving.

For the record, I prefer the more humorous version of this tale-type, made popular by Dr. Margaret Read MacDonald,”The Old Woman Who Lived in a Vinegar Bottle.” Self-recognition is much clearer when levity is part of the instruction. It is much too easy for me to look upon the Fisherman’s Wife with contempt. The Old Woman in the Vinegar Bottle, however, is another story. I look upon her with recognition.

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