Illustration from Andersens Märchen. Paul Hey, illustrator.

“The Little Mermaid” by Hans Christian Andersen

Disney’s movie The Little Mermaid came out in 1989 when I was 14 or 15, but it was the only version of the story I can honestly say I was fmiliar with before I read the original for today’s Fairy Tale Friday post. So I was of course expecting a happily ever after ending. Even looking at other fairy tales, Cinderella and the princess who sleeps on the pea get their prince, I assumed the Little Mermaid would too. I was wrong.

After longing to see the world above the gorgeous undersea kingdom and hearing about its wonders from her older sisters and her grandmother, when the Little Princess is 15 she’s finally allowed to swim to the surface wherever she would like. When she swims to the top, she sees a boat where a prince is having a birthday party. She is enchanted, but then the ship wrecks in a storm. She saves the prince, but has to leave him on the beach and he never knows she rescued him.

The Little Mermaid decides she will give up her life under the sea to go to her prince, who she’s hoping of course will fall in love with her. In order to have her fish tail turned into legs, she has to visit the witch who is not nearly as nasty as the movie version.

“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess.”

The witch does of course require payment from the mermaid, her voice. She cuts out the girls tongue, leaving her mute. So, yeah, the witch is not good, but she’s not really evil either. She warns the mermaid, is clear about the costs and in no way alters the outcome.

The mermaid does go on the land and meets her prince, but he doesn’t fall in love with her. He treats as a companion, loves her as a younger sister perhaps, but marries another. Of course, by not marrying the mermaid he has unknowingly sentenced her to death which was part of the witch’s potion. The mermaid has the chance to kill the prince and save her own life, but chooses not to.

Right when she is to die though she joins the Daughters of the Air because of her good deed. This is part of the story that I was never aware of before. The Little Mermaid is not only looking for true love when she goes on land, but also an immortal soul. Mermaids do not have a soul. When they die they become part of the sea foam, there is nothing beyond, unlike humans.

“Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, lives after the body has been turned to dust. It rises up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars. As we rise out of the water, and behold all the land of the earth, so do they rise to unknown and glorious regions which we shall never see.”

The only way for a mermaid to be immortal is by having a man fall passionately in love with her and marry her. Then he gives her a soul and keeps his own too. I’m not really sure how that would work exactly, but that’s what the story says. So, by not winning the prince’s love she has no hope for eternity and by not killing him she has no hope for an earthly, or oceanly, life. But she joins the Daughter of the Air instead of dying.

“A mermaid has not an immortal soul, nor can she obtain one unless she wins the love of a human being. On the power of another hangs her eternal destiny. But the daughters of the air, although they do not possess an immortal soul, can, by their good deeds, procure one for themselves. We fly to warm countries, and cool the sultry air that destroys mankind with the pestilence. We carry the perfume of the flowers to spread health and restoration. 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.”

So she still has hope for an immortal soul, even if she has no hope of ever finding true love. It’s really a very Christian story, with eternal life in the glorious realm being even more important than love or family, having a soul being more important than having a voice. I would have to argue about being able to earn your way to heaven, but that’s beside the point. It’s a rather preachy fairy tale.

There’s actually a lot in this tale to think about, even aside from the eternal life theme. There’s the mermaid who left her loving family, made her choice and stuck with it, no complaints. Without her beautiful voice, she couldn’t sing for the prince or remind him that she was the one who saved him. She couldn’t talk to him and make him see her as more than an amusing friend, but she stayed with, even smiling and dancing at his wedding, although it was killing her.

Mermaid legends that have been worked in to the story. It has been said that mermaids would sing to lure sailors to their death. In this story, the mermaid’s sisters sing to sailors during storms, telling them of all the beauties there are under the sea and that the sailor shouldn’t be afraid of falling into the water. The innocent mermaids don’t remember that the sailors would drown and by the time their bodies reach the palace they would be dead.

At the end, Andersen has even included a warning to children, that if they’re good they can speed up the time it takes the Daughters of the Air to earn a soul, but if they’re bad they can prolong it.

The story is actually beautifully written and more complicated than I’ve been able to summarize. If you get a chance, read it and let me know what you think. You can find it here, among other places.

Tif, from Tif Talks Books, is the hostess of this great feature, Fairy Tale Fridays. Head over there to see her take on “The Little Mermaid” and to share your own thoughts. Next week we’ll be looking at “The Old Gravestone” by Hans Christian Andersen, which sounds perfect for October although I have no idea what it’s about.