I started drafting this over a month ago but it’s ended up being quite topical, so apparently being far too busy to finish this in time had a silver lining!
Disney’s The Little Mermaid is a love story about a mermaid who is granted humanity (though personally, I think Ariel comes across as giving up her agency for a man but that’s a whole other kettle of fish). The original version is much darker and if you’ve been reading my series on fairy tales so far, you’ll know that I am fascinated by this aspect.
In the case of Andersen’s fairy tale, the little mermaid sacrifices in order to get what she wants. As was often the case with Western fairy tales, this story has overtly Christian elements which is one of the main differences. Get ready for some grim reading and let’s begin!
Some Background Information
Author: Hans Christian Andersen
Fairy tale tropes featured: magical witch, potions, magical deadlines
Den lille Havfrue or The Little Mermaid
Deep down in the ocean, lives the Sea King and his six daughters, the youngest of which is the protagonist of our tale. When the Little Mermaid (or LM) turns fifteen she is allowed to rise to the surface and look at the world. She swims to the surface and finds a ship sailing on the water, with a party on board for a young prince, just turning sixteen.
Soon a storm hits and the ship goes down, the prince with it. LM is initially pleased with the idea that she and the prince can be together, but then remembers that pesky humans tend to drown. So she rescues him, bringing him to shore and quickly becomes obsessed with the prince and the human world.
Through the help of her sisters, LM tracks down the prince to a palace conveniently next to the sea and proceeds to stalk/watch him from a distance. Her grandmother also tells her about human souls. Here’s where it gets Christian: mermaids become seafoam when they die whereas humans have eternal souls. The only way to get a soul is to find a man to love you and marry you.
This is the thing that LM desires the most: an immortal soul.
One night LM sneaks away to find the sea witch. She asks the sea witch to transform her and the sea witch, despite telling her it’s a stupid thing to do, agrees to help. The sea witch outlines the hazards; it will be painful, like a sword slitting her tail and every step will be like standing on knives; she won’t ever be able to come back and, if the prince marries someone else LM will die. (But she’ll be the prettiest human anyone has seen and will be able to dance very gracefully.)
For some utterly mad reason, the Little Mermaid says yes.
Then the witch asks for payment – LM’s beautiful voice and yes Disney pretty much copies the source material here:
‘But if you take away my voice,’ said the little mermaid, ‘what is left for me?’
‘Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart.’
The witch creates the potion, cuts off LM’s tongue and LM goes to shore to drink it. The transformation is painful and she faints.
When she wakes up, she finds the prince standing over her. She attempts to walk and it is like walking on needles but she bears the pain ‘willingly’. She is nude and mute so the prince takes her in and clothes her.
He opts to keep her, almost like a pet (she sleeps at his door on a velvet cushion and follows him everywhere) and grows to love her. One problem, he doesn’t fall in love with her. Ironically, he is waiting for the woman who saved him
“Do you not love me the best of them all?” the eyes of the little mermaid seemed to say, when he took her in his arms, and kissed her fair forehead.
“Yes, you are dear to me,” said the prince; “for you have the best heart, and you are the most devoted to me; you are like a young maiden whom I once saw, but whom I shall never meet again.”
Eventually arrangements are made with the neighbouring kingdom for the prince to marry. The prince only wants to marry the woman who saved her and says that if he were ‘forced’ to choose a bride, he’d choose LM (that’s some compliment there mate).
They travel to the neighbouring kingdom and when the princess appears we discover that she is the woman the prince first laid eyes on when he was rescued.
“It was you,” said the prince, “who saved my life when I lay dead on the beach,” and he folded his blushing bride in his arms. “Oh, I am too happy,” said he to the little mermaid; “my fondest hopes are all fulfilled. You will rejoice at my happiness; for your devotion to me is great and sincere.”
The irony is bitter and excellent but my god, I hate this man.
LM is fated to die but she dances on the last night of her life, the pain in her heart outweighing the pain in her feet.
Her sisters visit her and tell her that they cut off their long, beautiful hair in exchange for an enchanted knife from the sea witch. They tell LM that she must plunge it into the prince’s heart and when his blood falls to her feet, she will change back into a mermaid.
LM takes the knife and makes her way to the prince’s chambers but she can’t do it. She throws the knife into the sea, where the water turns blood red and LM dives in after it, imagining herself dissolving into seafoam.
Plot twist: she doesn’t.
She floats as a ghost-like figure instead, surrounded by other ethereal figures. They tell her they are the daughters of air and explain that they can win a soul by doing good deeds.
“After we have striven for three hundred years to all the good in our power, we receive an immortal soul and take part in the happiness of mankind. You, poor little mermaid, have tried with your whole heart to do as we are doing; you have suffered and endured and raised yourself to the spirit-world by your good deeds; and now, by striving for three hundred years in the same way, you may obtain an immortal soul.”
The little mermaid, happy at last floats away.
The Little Mermaid: pretty with a beautiful voice and I’ll cut her some slack because she’s young but she is exceptionally foolish and a martyr. Time and time again she is shown to bear grievances that no one should be expected to.
The Sea Witch: where witches in fairy tales are characters who hold grudges and have personal stakes in the game, in the case of the sea witch, she just seems to be evil for the sake of it. Yes, she tells the little mermaid that she’s foolish but she doesn’t make any efforts to make the deal enticing for her. When we enter the scene, she’s also described as having a toad sitting in in her mouth, eating from it as well as snakes slithering on her chest. She’s grotesque as well as evil.
The Other Mermaids: I really want to give a shout out to the little mermaid’s sisters and grandmother. We have dead parent syndrome (the Sea King hardly makes an appearance) and her loving grandmother fills the maternal role, indulging the little mermaid with stories about the human world. The mermaids watch from a distance when she is living with the prince too. Her sisters are loyal to the bone, helping her find the prince, coming the closest to land during the surface visits and of course their sacrifice at the end.
The prince: I haven’t saved the best for last, simply I wasn’t sure whether I was going to include him at all. The prince in this story is trash and the little mermaid deserves better. The tale doesn’t even specify what it is about him that makes him vaguely attractive is that he is her route to getting a soul. He is no prince charming.
Potions: the sea witch’s draught is the only thing that can change her into a human, and it requires her blood to do so. But honestly, it’s a shit potion and I am inclined to believe that it is a terrible deal by design.
Knives: a recurring image that manifests into an actual weapon at the end is quite poetic. LM’s resistance to inflict the same kind of pain she endures may have been
Happily Ever After?
This is a fascinating story to unpack, and probably the most interesting of all the fairy tale origins I’ve explored. Andersen certainly thought this to be a happy ending but I’m not sure. On the one hand, she is promised that she will get her immortal soul. On the other hand, she sacrifices so much, suffers so much and she still isn’t guaranteed it. The implication, I think, is that eventually she will earn a soul but it’s not clear cut.
What did you think of this Fairy Tale Friday?
I like that the Little Mermaid isn’t simply sacrificing everything for a man BUT the fact that her dream relies on finding a husband undoes that a little. The subject of mermaids being sentient and have the same capacity to love, experience and think that humans do but still don’t qualify for a soul is also interesting from a theological perspective too.
Quotes are from an online archive of Andersen’s fairy tales which can be found here.