The Queen of the Fish
by Gérard de Nerval; translated by Garrick Sherman
Note: My prose translation for class, and also the first (and by far the shortest) of the three stories from Nerval’s Contes et Facéties that I will be translating for my thesis. The French text of all three stories is available here (“La Reine des poissons” begins on page 97). I’ve also added links to the allusions and regional references when possible in hopes of making the text a bit more accessible.
A few quick notes on links that delve deeper than necessary: 1) The day of the transformation is Saturday. 2) The Edda describes swan maidens, and the ballet Swan Lake is related. 3) The “son of Odin” is Thor, who is associated with oaks. 4) The Druids are religiously associated with oak trees; the name druid is possibly related to the Celtic word for oak.
Once there was a little boy and a little girl who sometimes met on the banks of the little rivers in the Valois countryside. The boy’s uncle, a lumberjack named Twist-Oak, forced him to gather dead wood. The girl’s parents sent her to catch little eels that the season’s subsiding waters allowed her to glimpse in the silt. Having nothing else better to eat, she also had to reach between the stones for crawdads, which were very plentiful in some spots.
But the poor little girl, always bent over with her feet in the water, saw how the fish squirmed after she took them from the river. She was so sympathetic to the animals’ suffering that most of the time she put them back. She only took home the crawdads, who often pinched her fingers so hard they drew blood, which made her less charitable.
The little boy, on his side making bundles of dead wood and boots of heather, often found himself the victim of Twist-Oak’s reproaches, either because he had not brought home enough or because he had been too busy chatting with the little fishergirl.
There was one day of the week when the two children never met. What day was it? The same day, no doubt, that the Melusine fairy changed herself into a fish, and that the princesses of the Edda transformed themselves into swans.
The day after one of these days, the little lumberjack said to the fishergirl: “Do you remember that yesterday I watched you pass by, there in the waters of Challepont, with all the fish forming a procession… even the carps and the pikes? And you yourself were a beautiful red fish, with sides of gleaming golden scales.”
“I remember it well,” said the little girl, “because I saw you, too, standing on the banks of the water. You looked like a beautiful green oak, and your topmost branches were of delicate gold. And all the trees of the wood bowed to the ground for you.”
“That’s right,” said the little boy, “I dreamed that.”
“I dreamed it, too. But how did we meet each other in the dream—?”
At that moment, the discussion was interrupted by the appearance of Twist-Oak. He smacked the boy with a large club and reproached him for not having collected a single bundle of wood.
“And at any rate,” he added, “didn’t I tell you to twist off the weaker branches and add them to your bunches?”
“It’s just that the forest ranger would put me in prison if he found fresh wood in my bundles,” said the boy. “And besides, when I tried to do what you wanted, I heard the tree groan in pain!”
“Like me,” said the little girl. “When I carry fish in my basket, I hear them sing so sadly that I throw them back in the water. Then I’m beaten at home!”
“Shut up, you little phony!” said Twist-Oak, who seemed to have been drinking. “You distract my nephew from his work. I know who you are, with your pointed pearly teeth—you’re the queen of the fish! But I know that I can catch you on a certain day of the week. You’ll perish in the net—in the net!”
Twist-Oak’s drunken threats were soon realized. The little girl found herself netted as the red fish that fate forced her to become on certain days. Fortunately, when Twist-Oak made his nephew help take the net from the water, the boy recognized the beautiful red fish with golden scales that he had seen while dreaming. He knew it was the unintended transformation of the little fishergirl.
He dared to defend her against Twist-Oak, and even kicked him with his clogs. The furious man grabbed him by the hair in an attempt to knock him down, but he was surprised to find great resistance. The child held his feet to the ground with such force that his uncle could not knock him down or lift him up. He tried twisting the boy this way and that, but the boy would not budge.
Just as the child’s strength was almost vanquished, the trees of the forest trembled with a dull sound. The quivering branches let the wind whistle through the wood, and the roar repulsed Twist-Oak, who withdrew to his shed.
The young prince of the forests had figured out his royal lineage, which his uncle, the usurper, had tried to hide. The trees protected him, but only with their mass and their passive resistance.
In vain, the shrubs and the buds entwined on all sides to stop Twist-Oak in his tracks. He had called his fellow lumberjacks, and they carved a path through these obstacles. Trees that had been sacred since the days of the Druids fell before their hatchets and axes.
The queen of the fish had lost no time. She had gone and thrown herself at the feet of the Marne, the Aisne, and the Oise, the three great neighboring rivers, and begged them to stop Twist-Oak and his companions. If they did not, the clear cut forests would no longer trap the clouds that form the rains that flow into the streams, the rivers and the ponds. The springs themselves would dry up, no longer spouting water to nourish the rivers. The fish would quickly die, along with the forest creatures and birds.
Together, the three rivers overflowed. As Twist-Oak and his terrible lumberjacks continued to destroy the trees, still trying to reach the young prince of the forests, the ground flooded. The deluge did not cease until the assailants were completely destroyed.
It was thus that the prince of the forests and the queen of the fish could start back up with their innocent chats.