Who is the king of the fishes? I will explore this pressing question in a four-part series on a short fable that appears in Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It is somewhat similar to the well-known story of the birds that have a flying contest in order to decide who will be king of winter, where the little wren wins by hiding underneath the eagle’s feathers, thus becoming king (indeed, winter-king is a name the wren still carries in some Germanic languages). The fishes, too, want to decide who is to be king, and how better to decide than by having a swimming contest? Soon enough the winner is announced: “The herring is first. The herring is first!”
Back in the day, the Atlantic herring was indeed sometimes called the “king of the fishes”, and the 18th century Dutch naturalist Martinus Houttuyn suggests this might very well be because it outswims other sea creatures, but perhaps also because of its “usefulness to mankind”. This of course refers to the fact that the people around the North Sea, especially the Dutch, caught, ate, and exported a lot of herring. Houttuyn is impressed by the sheer numbers in which herrings roam the seas (he speaks of “mountains of fish”) occasionally making it virtually impossible to sail a ship through a school of herring. He reports that in some places, when the herrings migrate, it is said that the sea consists of “one third water, two thirds fish”, and that when they mate, “the whole sea turns turbid and whitish.”
And yet, despite these enormous numbers, herring schools show very coordinated behaviours, moving and turning in unison, much like a flock of starlings. This impressive performance brings us right back to the Grimm story for why do the fishes need a king in the first place? It is “because no order prevailed in their kingdom. None of them turned aside for the others, but all swam to the right or the left as they fancied, or darted between those who wanted to stay together, or got into their way”. I guess a herring would indeed be the right fish to fix that.