A Mermaid, 1901 oil painting by John William Waterhouse.

"The Fisherman and his Soul" is a short fantasy story for children by the Irish author Oscar Wilde. It was first published in 1891 as part of the anthology House of Pomegranates, which also includes "The Young King", "The Birthday of the Infanta" and "The Star-Child".

The plot of "The Fisherman and his Soul" is set in motion when the title character accidentally catches a mermaid in his net. He falls in love with the Mermaid and tells her that he wants to marry her. She tells him that he can only marry her if he sends away his soul. From a Witch, the Fisherman learns how to send his soul away. The Soul makes several attempts to persuade the Fisherman to take him back, eventually convincing him to do so with the tale of a beautiful dancer who lives nearby. Too late does the Fisherman discover that the soul which he sent out into the world without a heart has become evil.


The Mermaid of Zennor, 1900 watercolor painting by John Reinhard Weguelin.

A young Fisherman is surprised to find that there is something very heavy in his net. He believes at first that he has either caught all the fish in the sea or a monster. He discovers instead that he has caught a Mermaid. He finds the Mermaid very beautiful and grabs hold of her. The Mermaid begs him to let her go, explaining that she is the only daughter of the Sea-king who will be very lonely without her. The Fisherman agrees to let her go but only on the condition that she comes whenever he calls for her and sings whenever he asks her to do so. He asks for this because he knows that fish love the sound of mermaids' songs. At first, the Fisherman uses the Mermaid's song to lure many fish to his net. Soon, however, he calls on her simply because he enjoys listening to her beautiful song himself and he allows vast numbers of fish to pass by him.

As time goes by, the Fisherman finds himself falling ever more in love with the Mermaid. One day, he tells the Mermaid that he wants to marry her. She replies that he cannot do so because he has a human soul. She goes on to say that he could marry her if he could send his soul away but adds that she does not know how to do that. The Fisherman asks the Priest how he can send his soul away. The Priest is horrified by the idea of somebody wanting to get rid of his soul and is equally horrified by the idea of a human falling in love with one of the Sea-folk. He sends the Fisherman away, after having told him that the Sea-folk are no better than animals and that there will be no salvation for all people who have anything to do with them. The Fisherman tries to sell his soul to some merchants. They make it clear that they consider a person's soul to be worthless and have no interest in buying it.

Witches' Sabbath, late 18th century oil painting by Francisco Goya.

The Fisherman goes to see a young Witch who lives nearby. She reluctantly agrees to tell him how to send away his soul, on the condition that he dances with her at a Witches' Sabbath to be held on top of a mountain that night. She tells the Fisherman that "He" will be at the Sabbath but will not say who "He" is. That night, the Fisherman dances with the Witch at the Sabbath. He notices a pale man dressed in black who appears to be constantly watching him. When the Witch starts to lead the Fisherman towards the pale man, saying, "Come let us worship", the Fisherman makes the Sign of the Cross. The pale man and all of the other witches flee. However, the Fisherman keeps hold of the young Witch and forces her to keep her promise. She tells him that he can be free of his soul if he stands on the seashore with the moon behind him and cuts away his shadow from his feet with a knife.

As the Fisherman makes his way to the seashore, his Soul begins to speak to him. The Soul begs the fisherman not to cast him out into the world without a heart. He asks the Fisherman to give him his heart. The Fisherman refuses, saying that he could not love the Mermaid without a heart. The Fisherman frees himself from his soul, which looks identical to the Fisherman once it has been detached, and goes to live with the Mermaid beneath the sea. The Soul, however, tells the Fisherman that he will return each year and call to him from the seashore.

At the end of the first year, the Soul tells the Fisherman that he has been to the East because "From the East cometh everything that is wise". In a temple, the Soul was shown the Mirror of Wisdom, which was worshiped as a god by the temple priests. The Mirror allows anyone who looks into it to see all things that are happening in the world and, consequently, to know everything. The Soul stole the mirror and hid it. He tells the Fisherman that, if he takes him back, he will show him where the Mirror is hidden, thus giving the Fisherman the gift of wisdom. The Fisherman refuses, saying that love is better than wisdom.

Portrait of Bayezid I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, from the Manial Palace and Museum, Egypt.

At the end of the second year, the Soul tells the Fisherman that he has been to the South because "From the South cometh everything that is precious". Unlike everybody else, the Soul refused to bow down in front of the Emperor. For that reason, the Soul was brought to the Emperor's palace. When the Emperor found that he could not kill the Soul, he concluded that he must be a prophet. Since the presence of a prophet in the city would mean that he was no longer the most powerful man there, the Emperor asked the Soul to leave. The Soul agreed to do so, on the condition that the Emperor gave him a lead ring, which the Soul recognized as the Ring of Riches. The Soul tells the Fisherman that, if he takes him back, he will tell him where he has hidden the Ring and that, "He who has the Ring is richer than the Kings of the world". The Fisherman refuses, saying that love is better than riches.

At the end of the third year, the Soul tells the Fisherman that there is a dancer with beautiful white feet in a city only a day's ride away. The Fisherman is reminded of the fact that his Mermaid wife has no feet and cannot dance. He reasons that, since the city is nearby, he can reunite with his soul for a short while, see the dancer and then return to his wife beneath the sea. He lets the Soul enter his body once more. The Soul leads the Fisherman to three different cities, none of which is the home of the beautiful dancer. In the first city, the Soul persuades the Fisherman to steal a silver cup. In the second city, he persuades him to strike a child. In the third one, he persuades him to murder a kindly merchant. The Fisherman realizes that the Soul has become evil. The Soul explains that this is because he was sent away from the Fisherman without being given a heart. The Fisherman tries to cut his shadow away from his feet again but this does not work. The Soul explains that someone can only send his soul away once and that he and the Fisherman will now remain united forever.

The Fisherman makes a home for himself by the seashore. He calls out to his Mermaid wife three times a day each day for three years. However, she never responds to his call. The Soul tries to tempt the Fisherman to do evil deeds but finds that he can resist because of his strong love for the Mermaid. The Soul tries to tempt the Fisherman away from his home by telling him that he can go out into the world and help the poor. However, the Fisherman's strong love for the Mermaid keeps him at home. The Soul asks the Fisherman to let him back into his heart. Believing that this would stop the Soul being evil, the Fisherman agrees. The Soul, however, finds that he cannot enter the heart because it is full of love for the Mermaid.

Drawing of a priest giving a sermon by Pearson Scott Foreman.

One stormy day, the Mermaid's dead body is washed up on shore. The Soul tries to persuade the Fisherman to move away from the body, telling him that he will be drowned by the huge waves. The Fisherman, however, does not move. The Soul manages to reenter the Fisherman's heart before he dies.

The next day, the Priest finds the bodies of the Fisherman and the Mermaid on the beach. Certain that the Fisherman is damned for loving one of the soulless Sea-folk, the Priest orders that both bodies be buried in an unmarked grave in a corner of Fullers' Field "where no sweet herbs grow". Three years later, the Priest is preparing to give a sermon on the Wrath of God. He notices some flowers of a kind which he has never seen before on the altar. He unexpectedly finds himself giving a sermon on God's love instead. Although nobody can tell the Priest what kind of flowers those on the altar are, he is told that they grew in a corner of Fullers' Field. The following day, the Priest blesses the sea and the Sea-folk.

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