Last week, I talked about how tragically the Fisherman was treated by the Priest. However, this doesn’t mean the world treats him any better, as can bee seen when he goes to the marketplace:
“When the merchants saw him coming, they began to whisper to each other, and one of them came forth to meet him, and called him by name, and said to him, ‘What hast thou to sell?’
‘I will sell thee my soul,’ he answered: ‘I pray thee buy it off me, for I am weary of it. Of what use is my soul to me? I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it.’
“But the merchants mocked at him, and said, ‘Of what use is a man’s soul to us? It is not worth a clipped piece of silver. Sell us thy body for a slave, and we will clothe thee in sea-purple, and put a ring upon thy finger, and make thee the minion of the great Queen. But talk not of the soul, for to us it is nought, nor has it any value for our service.’”
Next, the young Fisherman goes to a young witch with wild red hair who lives near the sea. She promises everything – from wealth to women to revenge…but for a price.
“‘My desire is but for a little thing,’ said the young Fisherman….I would send my soul away from me.’”
This is not what the Witch expected. She “grew pale, and shuddered, and hid her face in her blue mantle. ‘Pretty boy, pretty boy,’ she muttered, ‘that is a terrible thing to do.’” But he laughs, and replies “‘My soul is nought to me….I cannot see it. I may not touch it. I do not know it.’”
The World’s View of the Soul
I’ll admit, I really struggled with this post, and all the myriad ways it could go. I’m not completely satisfied with it…but I think that’s because it’s a segue piece. You need to understand how the Fisherman understands his soul in order to make sense of the rest of the story.
The Fisherman’s words are key, for they give us a window into the unspoken thoughts and beliefs of non-believers. They cannot see or touch their souls…and so they do not “know” them – meaning, I think, that they give them little thought or value in this life.
The Lure of Money and Power
And so, there are several things non-believers can do with their souls. First, they can sell it for power and wealth. I find the merchant scene very fascinating, for the slavery portion of their speech is all but glossed over. They offer power second only to the Great Queen…the price? Slavery.
Most non-believers know that power and riches won’t ultimately make them happy, and yet they still often become enslaved to the brutal master of money (Matt. 6:19-24). They know it won’t make them happy…and yet they cannot help but want “the next big thing.”
Actually, we all – believer and non-believer alike – are seduced by what the merchants offer. Most of us do try to resist, like the Fisherman. But that doesn’t mean he is ready to see value in his soul – it doesn’t mean that non-believers are ready to accept salvation. After all, a soul – i.e. salvation – can separate us from the things of the world that we love…and for the young Fisherman, that means separating him from the little Mermaid.
Two Meanings of “Soul”
At this point, we could interpret the story two ways. The first is that the Young Fisherman is walking away from salvation out of love for another; however, the Fisherman isn’t saved, so how can this be?
But there is a second path. It’s a bit confusing because, I think, Oscar Wilde himself was confused over the role of soul, character, and salvation. But it seems as if Oscar Wilde regards a soul as the inner part of your essence, your true being, that you must keep watch over and guard from evil.
Reconciling the World to their Souls
To me, this seems vital in understanding non-believers. If the soul is the essence of a person, then it’s goodness must be based on a person’s deeds; for what else is there to see if someone’s soul is beautiful?
But as Christians, the soul is the eternal part of us that engages in a relationship with a Holy, Merciful, Just God. It is not measured by it’s goodness; it is given the goodness of Jesus Christ upon salvation. Thus, we see a soul measured by lost or saved, not good or bad.
And so we are at a critical impasse: Christians viewing the soul as one thing, and non-believers as something quite different.
This is crucial, and oh so important for us to understand. It won’t make sense to talk about salvation if our listeners don’t understand the importance of their soul in light of eternity. I think that’s partly why many non-believers think of Christians as self-righteous and/or hypocrites. They view a Christian’s soul by their deeds, and not their faith in Christ.
The fact that the soul is the character of a person is why the young Witch is so horrified by the Fisherman’s proposition. Interestingly, she is more honest than the merchants who peddle wealth and power. She tells him there is a price for everything, and tells him it is horrible to try and separate one’s soul from one’s self. What’s interesting is that she does not say – or perhaps know – the price of getting rid of one’s soul.
But she does know the price she’ll demand for showing him: dancing with her under the light of the full moon…
 The Fisherman and His Soul by Oscar Wilde in Heidi Anne Heiner’s Mermaid and Other Water Spirit Tales from Around the World (Nashville, TN: SurLaLune Press, 2011) 370.
 Ibid., 371.
 The Fisherman and His Soul, 371.
 Ibid., 372.