As a child I was infatuated with fairy tales. I can still hear my mother sigh as I re-watched ‘The Little Mermaid’ for the third time on the same rainy Sunday afternoon. Now I’m in my late twenties and still addicted to fairy tales. Who wants to grow up anyway? What fascinated me then was the image of a red-haired princess who has a seagull and a cheery yellow fish for friends. What fascinates me now is an entirely different mermaid. Where does she come from? Who created her? And why is this tale so tragic?
The story that Andersen penned in the 19th century couldn’t be more different than the Disney version. I often wonder how I would have felt about ‘The Little Mermaid’ if Andersen’s tale had been told or read around a warm fireplace instead of lazily watching the adaptation that we had lying around on VHS.
When I first started reading the fairy tales on which Disney has based its success, I was always shocked when I discovered how gruesome and brutal these original tales sometimes are, and ‘The Little Mermaid’ is no different.
Where does the mermaid come from?
In the image above you see Vilhelm Pedersen’s (1820-1859) depiction of ‘The Little Mermaid.’ Pedersen is an important figure when it comes to Andersen’s fairy tales since he illustrated most of them. And yes, Ariel definitely looks more cheerful and inviting, but the more I came to know about Andersen’s little sea maiden, the more that this image seems ‘true’ for me.
The Little Mermaid was first published in 1837. It’s easy to guess where Andersen got his inspiration from. Mermaids have been around for a very long time. Just think of the Sirens, which you can find in Greek mythology. They had the body of a woman, but the wings of a bird, and were accused of seducing non-suspecting sailors with their enchanting music and other-worldly singing voices to their deaths.
Another popular mermaid tale which Anderson must undoubtedly have read is ‘Undine’ written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. It tells about a water spirit who marries a knight so that she can gain a soul. This story might have been based on the legend of Melusine, and so we can go on and on, which makes me think that this might be a subject worthy of a separate blog post.
The story – life in the sea
So, I’m not going to try retelling Andersen’s tale. I would never be able to do it any justice, but here’s a brief summery (which is still a bit too long, but I just can’t help it).
The story starts in the same vein as Disney’s film. Our nameless sea maiden is the daughter of a sea king and grows up in her father’s palace together with her sisters. They all love listening to grandmother’s stories (who doesn’t?) and they’re all about the men above who cannot survive in the sea for very long.
The little mermaid starts to collect objects which humans have lost. She looks forward to the day when she will turn fifteen, for then she will be allowed to rise up out of the sea and see the human world for herself.
When that day finally arrives she witnesses how a handsome prince celebrates his birthday on a ship. The joy is suddenly disturbed when a heavy storm carries the ship away. The prince falls into the salty water and the mermaid swims after him and carries the unconscious prince to the shore.
Grandmother had often told the mermaid that humans were repulsed by the sight of fishtails, so the mermaid leaves the prince there and watches what happens from a safe distance back into the sea. She sees how the prince is found by a pretty young girl who lives in a great white building. She sees how the prince wakes up and how he smiles at the girl while he thanks her.
How could the mermaid not fall in love with such a handsome creature? She employs the help of her sisters, and they quickly discover where he lives. Every night she swims to the castle in the hope of seeing him, nowadays we would probably call it stalking 😉
Here, the story starts to differ from the Disney film. The mermaid asks her grandmother many questions about the humans. Her grandmother tells her that merfolk can live for three hundred years, after that they turn into foam on the surface of the water. Humans have a much shorter life, but their soul is immortal. Merpeople can only have an immortal soul if a human falls in love with them, and promises to be faithful for the rest of their short life.
Our little mermaid is determined. She wants the prince, and she wants an immortal soul.
The mermaid decides to take a risk. She swims to a place in the ocean where she has never been before. She has heard many whispers about a sea witch who lives in an underground forest and surrounds herself with fearsome snakes and violent polypes. She has also heard that the witch is the only one who can help her.
The witch knows why the mermaid knocks at her door. She agrees to help by preparing a potion that will cut the mermaid’s tail in half and give her two legs instead. The witch’s potion comes with a warning, every step that the mermaid will take will feel as if she’s walking on sharp knives, but despite that the mermaid will dance most gracefully. The maiden says that she doesn’t mind.
The witch also tells her that she can never become a mermaid again, and that if she fails to make the prince fall in love with her, she will become foam on the morning after he has married someone else.
You would think that this is enough, wouldn’t you? But the witch still has to be paid, and she demands the mermaid’s voice. When the mermaid agrees, the witch takes her voice and cuts off her tongue, after which she prepares the drink.
The story: life on land
The mermaid goes to the shore and drinks the potion. It feels as if a two-edged sword splits her body in half, after which she faints. When she opens her eyes she sees the prince standing before her.
The prince takes her with him into the castle. Everything is like the witch has said. She cannot speak or sing. Every step feels as if she’s walking on needles, and her feet bleed but no-one can see the cuts. Yet, she’s happy, for she’s with her prince.
Soon everyone in the castle comes to know her as the prince’s little foundling. She’s allowed to sleep before his door on a cushion, and he even instructs the tailor to make a page’s uniform for her.
The prince still dreams about the girl who he believes has saved him. The girl who discovered his unconscious body on the shore and alarmed everyone in the great white building. Thinking of her also makes him sad, for that great white building is a holy temple, and those who are educated there will never come into the world.
One day, the king and queen decide that it’s time for the prince to marry the daughter of a king who rules a neighbouring country. The prince tells the mermaid that he shall not marry her, for he could never love her. He will marry the mermaid instead, because she reminds him of his lost love. First they must travel to the neighbouring kingdom, and respectfully decline the marriage proposal. The mermaid couldn’t stop smiling. Soon, he would be hers.
The prince meets the king’s daughter. He’s amazed. She’s the one who saved him. She’s the one who discovered his body. She’s the one whom he thought he would never see again.
The wedding is splendid. The mermaid has been gifted a beautiful golden dress for the ceremony and she has been given the honour of holding up the bride’s train. While the prince and princess exchange vows, the mermaid’s heart breaks. She has failed to win the love of the prince, she will never have an immortal soul, and she will die tomorrow.
The story: happily ever after?
On the same evening the newlyweds board a ship to travel to the Prince’s country. The mermaid sees her sisters rise out of the sea, but is perplexed when she sees that their long beautiful hair has been cut off. They have paid the sea witch with their locks so that they could save their little sister’s life. They give the mermaid a knife. With it she must stab the prince in the heart. When his blood falls on her feet, she will have a fishtail, and live in the sea again. The girl accepts the knife and goes to the chamber where the newlyweds are fast asleep.
She watches as they breathe in and out, the arms of the prince wrapped tightly around the princess’s slender body. The mermaid sighs. She runs out and throws the knife into the sea. Then she throws herself into the sea. As she feels her body dissolve into foam, she doesn’t understand why she can still think.
She startles when a spirit suddenly floats next to her. The figure explains that she is now a ‘daughter of the air.’ As a daughter of the air she will live for three hundred years and can gain an immortal soul by traveling the world and doing good deeds.
The former mermaid looks down on the ship and sees the prince and princess staring at the sea. It is as if they know that the prince’s little foundling has jumped into the water. Her airy figure gives the bride a warm kiss on the forehead, before she flies off.
Disney and meaning
Walt Disney saw the potential of turning Andersen’s tale into a feature film very early on. The idea started forming in his head in the late 1930’s but for some reason we had to wait until 1989 to see the story make it to the big screen.
If there’s one thing which the Disney film added to the story it are names. Besides that there’s red hair, a very funny fish, and a seagull. The Disney mermaid is a lot more energetic and optimistic than the mermaid in Andersen’s tale (although that might be because Ariel doesn’t have to walk on needles every day). I don’t have to convince anyone that Disney’s story is a lot more child-friendly, and that’s probably the case with most fairy tales.
From the perspective of an adult I do think that Andersen’s tale has more meaning. There are some very clear messages. For me, it’s about self-sacrifice and the perils of giving up your whole world and identity for someone that you love. We all make sacrifices for those who stand closest to us, but if someone doesn’t like you for who you are, are those sacrifices even worth it?
The mermaid wants to become someone who she isn’t. At least that’s one way of how you can interpret her desire to gain an immortal soul. Maybe the message here is that we should all be happy with who we are and our place in the world. Maybe that’s also why Andersen decided that hope should prevail at the end of the story.
To me it seems impossible to fall in love with someone without exchanging a single word. The idea that you can fall in love with someone on first sight is where the Disney film goes a bit wrong for me. As a child Disney princesses were my life, so I had a very rude awakening once I discovered that ‘love’ just doesn’t work that way. Despite the fantastical creatures and magical potions Andersen’s fairy tale is more realistic and down-to-earth when it comes to expectations and human psychology.
Disney isn’t the only one who has adapted the story.
One of the most notable is a ballet piece which was performed by the Royal Danish Ballet. It was first performed in 1909 and featured Ellen Price (pictured) as the little mermaid. The ballet piece was so popular that eventually one of Denmark’s most famous monuments was created, a bronze statue which depicts a mermaid becoming human. You can find the statue in Copenhagen.
Another work that deserves to be mentioned is the Czech opera piece Rusalka, the music for this piece was composed by Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904). Besides the wonderful music, the most interesting about this work is that the story is based on several fairy tales about mermaids. Poet Jaroslav Kvapil (1868-1950) wrote the story that accompanies the music, and it’s even more gruesome than the tale of Andersen’s mermaid.
The story begins in the same way as the fairy tale and Disney’s adaptation. Rusalka, a water-nymph falls in love with a handsome prince. She visits the witch who gives her a potion but warns that she will lose her voice and immortality. Even worse, if the prince fails to love her back, he will die and be doomed for eternity. Rusalka is confident and drinks the potion.
Unfortunately for Rusalka her sacrifices have been for nothing. The prince is already passionately in love with another princess. When he rejects Rusalka she goes back to the witch who gives her a dagger and says that Rusalka can save herself if she kills the prince. The mermaid refuses. Having lost her immortality she now becomes a spirit of the death. Her only purpose is to lure humans to their deaths.
One day she meets the prince again. She kisses him, and as he dies in her arms she prays that he his soul might still find peace. After that last tragic scene she swims away and continues to life her life as a spirit of death.
That’s quite enough from me about mermaids, but I would love to hear what you think!
Do you prefer the original tale, Disney, or another version? What do you think are some of the major similarities and dissimilarities? And what about other adaptations? Also, don’t hesitate to call me out if I have made any mistakes.
Let me know what you think in the comments!
Note: all images used are in the public domain. Contact me if you want to know more about them.