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The Folktale
Stith Thompson

Motif J2071

Three foolish wishes. Three wishes will be granted: used up foolishly. *Bédier Fabliaux 212ff., 471; Type 750; *Bolte Zs. f. vgl. Litgsch. VII 453; *BP II 212; *Fb “[ö]nske” III 1179a. – Breton: Sébillot Incidents s.v. “souhaits”; Spanish Exempla: Keller; India: Thompson-Balys; Japanese: Ikeda; Indonesia: DeVries‘s list No. 213, Coster-Wijsman 46 No. 56.

Part Two

The Folktale from Ireland to India

II – The Complex Tale

9. The higher powers

A. Justice

2. Wishes Rewarded and Punished

One of the purposes of the good teller of folktales is to see that wickedness is properly punished. It is not always easy to discover the unworthy or the evildoing. But, as all story-tellers know, one of the best ways to search the heart is to see what use one will make of unlimited power. If a person is naturally modest and kind, such power will be only a strength; but if he is overbearing and unkind, it will certainly bring about his downfall. So it happened in the amusing old story of The Fisher and His Wife (Type 555). As it is told in the German-speaking and Slavic countries, and occasionally in France and Spain, a poor fisher catches a fish who is really a transformed monster. He heeds the pleas of the fish to be put back in the water and is rewarded by the promise that all the wishes of the fisherman's wife shall be granted. In the Italian versions, and sometimes in the French, the granting of these wishes is secured in another fashion: the husband climbs a beanstalk to heaven, [191] and there secures this concession either from God or from the doorkeeper of Paradise. In any case, the wife begins to use her wishes. The principal point of the story consists in a description of the increasing extravagance of the wife's wishes and their amazing consequences. She wishes to be a duke, then king, then pope. When at the end she aspires to be God himself, she loses all her good fortune.

As we have indicated, this story is well known in both eastern and western Europe. It has been carried by the Spanish to Puerto Rico and by the Dutch to the East Indies. In Indonesia it is told alongside of similar tales, presumably native, but parallel to a story current in Japan. [192] In this tradition it is also brought into close relation with a cumulative story known as Stronger and Strongest (Motif Z41.2). A peculiar development of The Fisher and His Wife in a few variants among the Russians and Letts has the man as the maker of the foolish wishes.

Whereas The Fisher and His Wife would seem to be essentially an oral tale, the story of The Wishes (Type 750A), which the Grimms call The Poor Man and the Rich Man, has a long and somewhat complicated literary background. As usually told by the peasants of Europe, it belongs to the [p. 135] series of tales about the wanderings of Christ and the saints on earth, [193] a theme frequently treated in medieval literature. The other part of the story, the foolish wishes, was likewise popular in the writings of the Middle Ages, but belongs primarily to the literature of fabliaux and jestbooks.

Christ and Saint Peter are wandering on the earth as simple travelers. When they ask hospitality, they are sometimes refused and sometimes gladly entertained. In either case, the hosts are rewarded by being given the power of fulfilling three wishes. The story is very little concerned with the wise and successful wishing of the hospitable peasant. But the story-teller lingers on the foolish use made of the three wishes, and the consequent discomfiture of the man who has been unkind in his treatment of strangers. Three general types of foolish wishes appear in these stories. In his anger the man may make two extreme wishes (that his horse may have his neck broken, or his wife may stick to the saddle, or the like), and he must use the third wish to undo the first two. Or, frequently, he transfers his first wish to his wife, who wastes it on some trifle. In his anger, he wishes the trifle in her body, and then must use his third wish to remove it. In a third group of these tales, only one wish is given to each of the peasants, usually to keep on doing all day what one begins. The hospitable peasant begins some profitable action (getting good linen), whereas the other thoughtlessly throws water on his pig and must keep on doing it all day long. [194]

The details of these wise and foolish wishes vary a good deal, but the idea is always the same, rewards and punishments, based upon magic, for treatment accorded to holy or supernatural persons. In spite of the saints' legend atmosphere, the whole intent of the tale is facetious. It is therefore interesting as a combination of three traditions—the wonder tale (filled with magic), the pious legend, and the humorous story. It has entered into the folklore of nearly all countries of Europe. But in its complete form it does not seem to be known elsewhere. The three foolish wishes, not connected with the saints' legend, is also found over practically all of Europe and has analogues in Indonesia and Korea.

A very similar tale of Hospitality Rewarded (Type 750B) tells how the pious beggar is refused hospitality at a house where a wedding or other festival is going on, but he is graciously received in the home of a peasant, who kills his only cow to entertain his guest. The peasant finds that his cow has been brought back to life, or that in its place a number of new cows have appeared. This story is known over a good part of Europe, but the details differ considerably. Von Sydow has shown [195] that this goes back to a legend of Saint Germanus, which is found in Nennius as early as the eighth century, [p. 136] and which he considers to be of Welsh origin. A similar legend is well known in Scandinavian mythology in connection with Thor's journey to Utgard.

[191] Like Jack with his beanstalk; see Type 328.

[192] For discussion, see DeVries, Volksverhalen, I, 356, No. 1; II, 356, No. 100.

[193] For other tales of this kind, see p. 150, below.

[194] For the literary history of the foolish wishes, see Bolte-Polívka, II, 213; Bédier, Fabliaux, pp. 212ff. and 471. See also Motif J2071 with references there given.

[195] Danske Studier, 1910, pp. 91ff.


328, 555, 750A, 750B


J2071, Z41.2