(originally posted on Tumblr)
Mermaids are popular lately. I guess that makes now as good a time as any to talk about Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid.
Which desperately needs to be talked about. Seriously, the situation is dire.
(Mermaid, Jenny Prater, 2015)
Everyone knows the Disney version, which I happen to like very much, but it’s a different story, about different things. Starting with the Disney version, we’re all trained to see Prince Charming as the only possible happy ending.
Most people also know that in Andersen’s version, the mermaid dies in the end. And this is where things get difficult. First, there are a lot of picture books that end with her dying, and they have Andersen’s name on the front, so naturally everyone assumes they’re telling the original story. If you read a twenty page picture book that was just the Disney story condensed, until suddenly it ended with death, you did not read the original.
Also, there’s this idea going around that she committed suicide because the prince didn’t love her. That is not what happened at all, and I don’t know how the rumor got started, but it really bugs me.
So I’ve got a collection of Andersen’s fairy tales in front of me right now, and I’m actually really frustrated because the title page doesn’t name a translator, but it’s got 47 of his stories in it, and my dad bought it in Denmark. The Little Mermaid is 35 pages without illustrations, I have done my research, and I’m fairly sure it’s the real, full story.
On to the summary:
The mermaid’s got a bunch of sisters. They’re all kind of interested in our world, because they’re not allowed to go to the surface until they reach a certain age. But the novelty wears off for the others. Our mermaid, much like Ariel, is a little obsessed. Already, this is about more than a cute boy. The mortal world is something that fascinated her long before she met the cute boy.
And then she saves his life. And she’s got a crush on him. It’s bad. She spies on him a lot. Her sisters help her find his house. But she doesn’t actually do anything. Days pass. Maybe weeks. Probably weeks. And then she talks to her grandma, and finds out that although they have much shorter lifespans, humans have immortal souls.
This is important. The Little Mermaid is part of a large group of folk and fairy tales with this same basic idea. Humanoid creatures that are not human have human rationality, but lack human souls. It’s terrible, because they have the ability to understand exactly what they’re missing. So these creatures—fairies, elves, trolls, assorted sea beings—have one shot at a soul. Some stories say you only have to marry a human, others say you have to bear his children (sucks to be a merman, I guess).
She’s been obsessed with humanity forever, and she’s totally in love with this guy. But it’s not until she learns about the soul that she does anything. This is about the boy, yeah, but it’s also about the soul, and in the long run the soul is more important.
So she goes to the sea witch—who, by the way, warns her that this is stupid. And the deal is that she can become a human (which will be intensely painful), in exchange for her tongue (she cuts it out), and if he marries her, she gets the soul. If he marries no one, presumably she lives a normal human life, and dies in thirty or forty years with no soul. (The text really isn’t clear here.) But if he marries someone else, then she dies and turns into sea foam (which sounds weird but apparently it’s what all mermaids do when they die). Really, it’s a pretty generous deadline for a witch.
The prince finds her naked on the beach and takes her home, like a stray dog or something. A lot like a stray dog. Seriously. Let’s look at this relationship.
“Everyone was enchanted by her, especially the prince, who called her his little foundling…The prince said she was to stay with him forever, and she was allowed to sleep outside his door on a velvet cushion.”
A velvet cushion. Wow. Talk about your healthy romantic relationships. Not a bedroom. Not a bed. She is allowed to sleep on a cushion in the hallway.
What a privilege. I am so jealous.
Next, he has some boys’ clothes made for her so they can ride horses together.
Is she his pet? Is she is little brother? I have no idea. When I told my mom the story, she said, “So basically what he wants is a pet friend.” I think that sums up the situation pretty nicely.
But wait, there’s more!
“Day by day the prince grew fonder of her. He loved her the way one loves a dear, good child, but to make her his wife did not occur to him at all.
“’Of course I love you best,’ said the prince, ‘for…You are devoted to me, and you resemble a young girl I once saw but will certainly never find again…She was the only one I could love in this world. But you look like her…and so good fortune has sent you to me. We shall never be parted!’”
Then his parents want him to go meet a princess. He tells the mermaid,
“I cannot love her. She doesn’t look like the beautiful girl in the temple, whom you resemble. If I should ever choose a bride, you would be the more likely one, my mute little foundling with the sparkling eyes!”
And this is where it gets really interesting:
“And he kissed her rosy mouth, played with her long hair, and rested his head upon her heart, which dreamed of mortal happiness and an immortal soul.”
Which she’s never gonna get. Why? Because this guy’s a loser.
You give a girl a nice little doggy bed. You treat her like a boy. You talk to her like a child. You tell her you love someone else. And what do you do next? You kiss her.
This is not Prince Eric. This is not Disney. Reading this story, I don’t want her to end up with this prince. That’s not a happy ending at all. He doesn’t even treat her like a person, and she deserves so much better.
So the prince goes and meets this princess. And the princess ends up being the girl that he loves from the temple. (He thinks she saved his life. Actually it was the mermaid. I’m really curious about what would have happened if he’d learned the truth.)
He’s going to marry her immediately. The deal with the witch says our mermaid dies the first morning after the wedding. She holds the bride’s train. She participates in the wedding that’s going to kill her, because she’s a sweet person who really loves this guy who treats her like a pet, and it is devastating.
Her sisters are also really sweet. They made a deal with the sea witch, too. In exchange for all of their hair, they get a knife, and they tell our mermaid:
“Before the sun rises, you must plunge it into the prince’s heart! And when his warm blood spatters your feet, they will grow together into a fishtail, and you will become a mermaid again and can sink down into the water to us, and live your three hundred years before you turn into the lifeless, salty sea foam.”
His life for a do over. I’d totally take that deal.
Maybe not. But I have a long list of fictional people I would like to slap, stab, or strangle, and he is definitely on it.
Anyway, the little mermaid is a much better person than me, and she’s not gonna kill this guy. She jumps into the sea. I think this is where people get the suicide idea, but the sun is just coming up now. She’s about to turn into sea foam, and being a very considerate sort of person, she’s going to do it in the water, so no one has to clean her up. She is literally seconds away from a natural death. She’s not killing herself. Knowing that she’s going to die regardless, she is choosing a place to die in.
And it’s quote time.
“Once more she gazed at the prince with dimming eyes, then plunged from the ship down into the sea. And she felt her body dissolving into foam.
“Now the sun rose out of the sea. The mild, warm rays fell on the deathly cold sea foam, and the little mermaid did not feel death…she saw the clear sun, and up above her floated hundreds of lovely transparent creatures…The little mermaid saw that she had a body like theirs. It rose higher and higher out of the foam.”
So she becomes a Daughter of the Air. Daughters of the Air create their own souls with good deeds. It takes about three hundred years. So basically she gets to hang around for the length of her normal mermaid lifespan, and then she’ll have a soul and she can go to Heaven. Also she gets to talk again. This is not actually a tragic ending. She wins. She gets the soul. She doesn’t get the prince, but I have a feeling the Daughters of the Air are gonna treat her a lot better than he did, so who cares? She’s going to Heaven.
(Now at the very end Andersen mentions that if the Daughters fly past a naughty child, they’ll get another year added to their 300, but mostly this seems to be a scare tactic for young readers, so let’s just focus on the happy part where the little mermaid does technically die, but also gets eternal life.)
Also, if you want to read more of this type of story, where marriage=soul, you should totally check out Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué. It was written before The Little Mermaid, it also involves a sea person, it’s much more painful, it’s a little more explicitly religious, and it is absolutely beautiful. Also it’s free online, and George MacDonald Approved:
“Were I asked, what is a fairytale? I should reply, Read Undine: that is a fairytale ... of all fairytales I know, I think Undine the most beautiful.”