A Fishy Tale

Lent: a fishy time.

For Catholics, at least: and for those countries which were catholic by default for centuries.

Fish were big business in mediaeval times. During Lent meat was forbidden at table, but fish was permitted: and so the monasteries which thrived at the time made ample provision.

They built huge fish ponds to farm the creatures.

Stick a pin in a map and you will find traces of them: try Clairveaux Abbey in North Eastern France. It is a ruined abbey incorporating, to the east, the clear shapes of fish ponds, which have long drained and run dry.

Far more startling is Meare Fish House in Somerset. Here the Abbot of Glastonbury had a fish pond to end all fish ponds: the River Brue was used to fill a lake 5 miles in circumference, and taking up 200 acres. It had its own Water Bailiff to watch over it, with a tall stone house at the lake’s edge.

The Abbey was dissolved, along with so many others, in 1539. Its lake has been drained this 200 years.

Yet for centuries it was stocked with the choicest fish: carp, of course; and pike.

Pike. The Russians believed evil spirits inhabited them; and having watched a pike devour whole broods of ducklings from the glassy surface of a pond, I can see why. TH White chose it as the wily,evil, arrogant seducer of small fish in the moat of Arthur’s childhood castle.

But sometimes it was a benign enchanter. In one Russian tale, it transforms the life of a ne’er do well; with no strings attached.

The lazy third son in the story never gets his come-uppance for questionable morals. Rather, he is celebrated for them. Is this the Russian sense of humour?

You must judge for yourself.

Emelya was the third of three brothers. The first two were success stories; merchants who made it large and married beautiful wives.

But somehow, EmelyaΒ got the shallow end of the gene pool. He was pot-bellied and ugly, and his personality did not redeem him. He spent much of his time sleeping on the warm stove.

One day, the story goes, the brothers were called away on business. Well, they reflected, looking at each other aghast; this is awkward. For we must leave our wives in the hands of a fool who sleeps on the stove.

They lectured Emelya for hours on the importance of looking after the two women. Yes, yes, he acquiesced: anything to shut them up so that he could go back to the stove and sleep.

Next morning, bright and early, those pretty shrill voices were demanding help from the slothful Emelya. “Please Emelya,” they asked, “we need water for our day. Would you go and get some?”

“Go and get it yourself,” mumbled Emelya, and turned over to find a more comfortable position.

The woman looked at each other: they were prepared for this. Emelya loved red clothes: and they bribed him with a sumptuous scarlet outfit.

He got up. He scratched his belly. He shambled off towards the river.

The third son filled the pails, and then he spotted a pike in an ice-hole. Mmmm, rumbled Emelya’s tummy. That pike would be a delicious meal: and he caught it.

Whereupon the pike began talking to him in a human voice.

“Don’t eat me, Emelya,” he pleaded. “If you spare me I will bring you fortune. Just ask for anything by sayingΒ ‘By the pike’s wish, at my command,’ and it shall be done.”

The pike was as good as its fishy word.

At first Emelya used his enchantment to send the pails of water home by themselves, and collect firewood for the demanding wives; but he soon saw the wider applications of such spells.

His sleigh, on its way to collect firewood, had knocked down several innocent passers-by. When the police came he summoned a large cudgel to beat them back to the station.

His behaviour reaching the Tsar’s ears he was enticed to the palace for further examination. But he would not move from his warm stove: no, he commanded it to convey him to the palace.

When he saw the princess it was but a few pike-invoking syllables to ensure she fell in love with him; and when the Tsar tried to solve the whole sorry mess by casting the lovers out to sea in a barrel the pike’s magic found them a safe island and built them a palace.

And it transformed Emelya into a tall handsome prince stereotype.

So that, by the time the Tsar arrived to visit, the pike had taken care of so many little inconveniences that the Tsar burst into tears and begged his forgiveness.

Pikes: grumpy monster-toothed tyrants of the murk: tasty Lenten feasts; or enchanted spirits?

Maybe they are a little of all three.


47 thoughts on “A Fishy Tale

  1. Gosh golly, I like this so, so, so much. Pike, the adversary of choice for those who take fishing to the next level. To include the imagination as they fish. As the pike is that illusive monster which most anglers wish to conquer and subdue. I won’t bore you with my fishing tales of pike -an all truthful I might add. When it comes to pike I respectfully release them, to fight another battle on another day. Oh you have me dreaming now.

  2. Another part of the fish story: a large part of European diet was salted herring and other fish. The church was able to corner a large part of the market(real capitalists they) and the number of feast days began to increase to profit more from fish sale and requirement. See book FISH ON FRIDAY.

  3. *smugly* Our fishpond outdoes that 200-acre one by far. It stretches to Australia and beyond!

    The Russians are truly weird. Anyone less deserving of such an accommodating pike is hard to imagine. But then, in our fairy tales, some of the heroes are questionable characters, like Jack of beanstalk fame. The princes in others didn’t have much derring-do to do to win their brides, either.

  4. Perhaps the author of that “fish tail” was tired of being a small fish in a big pond and wanted to believe that, with a bit of fishy magic, he could be a BIG fish, on a small island, in a BIG castle, with a gorgeous wife . . . all, without any effort on his part, other than catching a magical fish.

    Or, perhaps, he’d just eaten one too many pike for Lent and had indigestion while writing. πŸ˜‰

    Well told tale either way, Kate!

  5. A whole new take on loaves and fishes at the monastery. Harumph. I’m always amazed at the ingenuity of so many clergy, politicians, rulers, and the like and we still can’t keep our poor fed.
    Loved hearing the story of the pike.

      1. They are small little fish found in cold freshwater πŸ™‚ On the east coast in our little community they use to have smelt frys it was my least favorite thing to go too…

  6. When I was a child, I adored lent because we had fish on Fridays. I’m glad that I never read this tale for it wouldn’t have felt right eating something that had such powers ~

  7. I heard a news item a while back about a fisherman who was posing for a photo with the pike he’d caught. Before the photo was snapped, he turned his head and puckered his lips as if to kiss the fish. The pike responded by biting down on the fisherman’s nose and not letting go. His buddies dropped the camera and, unable to get fish to release the nose, cut the pike’s head off. The pike persevered.The fisherman had to be taken to the emergency room where the pike was surgically removed.

    So it appears that not all pikes grant wishes. American pikes, at least.

  8. I found the movie “The Big Fish” enchanting…and that’s about all I know about fish tales! I’m a very picky eater when it comes to fish–meat in general, and I think it may be stories like this which have contributed to my finickiness. πŸ™‚ What a tale, Kate! Much better than a story about magic beans! Debra

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