Reading Grimm's Complete Fairy Tales | Featured Image
Grimm

Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales: The Sole

“The fishes had for a long time been discontented because no order prevailed in their kingdom.”

A pike, gudgeon, perch, carp, sole, and “the rest” of the fish come together in support of a monarchial government in this fairy tale, and we learn why the sole looks the way it does.

The story lays out the situation which brought about the fishes’ decision to choose a king. All of the fish in this ecosystem swam and carried on chaotically, or “as they fancied,” which led to groups of fish blocking more independent swimmers, large fish injuring smaller fish with their tails, and so on. To diplomatically choose a leader, everyone opted for a race: “they met together to choose for their ruler the one who could cleave through the water most quickly and give help to the weak ones.” At a signal from the pike, the fish darted through the water. The herring ended up winning, and the sole, a slow swimmer, brought up the rear and reacted angrily at this result.

All at once, the cry was heard, “The herring is first. The herring is first!”
“Who is first?” screamed angrily the flat envious sole, who had been left far behind, “who is first?” “The herring! The herring,” was the answer. “The naked herring?” cried the jealous creature, “the naked herring?”
Since that time the sole’s mouth has been at one side for a punishment.

I’m quite familiar with a “red herring,” but a “naked herring” is not something I’m familiar with, or even certain is ‘something’. Yes, this is what I was initially fixated on when I read this story. My conclusion is that since herring swim in large schools, the herring in this fairy tale is “naked” because it swam alone. Or maybe “naked” is a terrible insult in the aquatic world…

And then there’s the more significant point of the tale, which is the punishment of the sole. Why the sole is hateful towards the herring is unknown to me, but the jealousy is there nonetheless. The explanation that the sole’s appearance is a punishment for jealousy, or wrath, holds an interpretive lesson that is quite pernicious; I’m far more convinced its appearance is due to an evolutionary need, and not whatever hatred is harbored in its heart (although evolutionary theories were being studied/written about during the Grimm brothers’ lifetime, Charles Darwin’s concepts were not published or widely considered until about the end of their livesβ€”it’s reasonable to believe the Grimm brothers would not have believed in it anyway).

That took a little bit of a turn…as many of my Grimm posts do when I grab hold of one detail and focus on it a little too much (I just spent the better part of the last hour reading about the history of evolution instead of analyzing this story). As always, I hope you will share your thoughts about the tale or where my own thoughts went in the comments below.

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