“The Little Mermaid” is perhaps my favorite fairy tale; it was the initial jumping off point for my college capstone, and if I had to cite an all-time favorite fairy tale, it would be this one.
Published in 1837 by Hans Christian Andersen, this story follows a little mermaid on her quest to obtain an immortal soul. In the world of this story, merfolk do not have souls. Merfolk can live for three-hundred years, but when they die their body turns into sea foam and they cease to exist. Humans, on the other hand, live much shorter lives, but when they die, their soul continues on in the afterlife. The little mermaid, when she finds out this piece of information, longs for an immortal soul just as much as she longs for the love of the prince, if not more.
The sea witch’s conditions are deterring, but the little mermaid takes them anyway. Drinking the potion that will transform her tail into legs will hurt, and every step on those legs will feel as if knives are boring into the soles of her feet. To get a soul, the little mermaid must marry the prince, but if the prince marries someone else the little mermaid will die a mermaid’s death and turn into sea foam and cease to exist. And then there’s the payment: the little mermaid must give up her tongue, and therefore her ability to speak.
The prince does marry someone else. He marries the princess from a neighboring kingdom, who he believes is the woman who saved him. The night after the wedding the little mermaid prepares for her quickly approaching death when she is given a second chance: if she wants to live all she has to do is stab the prince, let his blood drip onto her feet, and her legs will transform back into her mermaid tail. The little mermaid almost does this, but when she’s standing over the sleeping prince, she can’t make herself hurt him.
So she throws herself into the sea, prepared to die. But she doesn’t. Instead, she becomes a daughter of the air, a spirit who can gain access to heaven after doing good deeds for humans for three-hundred years. She gets her soul after all. The little mermaid gets her happily ever after. It may not be the happily ever after most readers hope for, but I find it much preferred to a happily ever after in which the little mermaid marries the prince.
Because the prince doesn’t treat the little mermaid very well. He calls her his “my silent child” and the bed he gives her is a pillow outside his door. Because the little mermaid cannot speak, the prince is able to assume what she is thinking, and he is often wrong. All of this leads me to dislike the prince much more than I dislike any other character. Even the sea witch tries to tell the little mermaid that transforming into a human is a bad idea. I like that this story has no overt antagonist.
Hans Christian Andersen often aspects of his own life and wrote them into his fairy tales. Andersen was attracted to both men and women, and some scholars argue that “The Little Mermaid” was written in response to Edvard Collin, a man Andersen was attracted to, getting engaged to a women. Different scholars say different things about the exact relationship between Andersen and Collin, but it remains very plausible that Anderson was indeed heartbroken by Collin.
“The Little Mermaid” is a beautiful story that I thoroughly enjoy revisiting.
The full text of the “The Little Mermaid,” for those interested in reading it, can be found here.