Sunday, July 29, 2012

Was the Little Mermaid after the Prince or a Soul?

I was asked in the comments after I shared the poem "The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight" whether I agreed that Andersen's Little Mermaid was really as desperate for a man as Debra Cash made her out to be.

I had to reread the Andersen version, because the Disney is so prevalent it can be easy to fill in the blanks of what I've forgotten with the details found in Disney.

In Andersen's tale, the youngest mermaid sister is not the only one with a fascination with the world on land-all of her sisters eagerly await their turn (at age 15) to finally visit the surface. They all enjoy collecting items from shipwrecks, and the littlest sea maid is actually unusual in that the only human relic she has in her garden is a statue of a handsome boy. The sisters are not given any prohibition not to show themselves to the humans-in fact, one sister swims over to a group of children, who all ran away from her in fear. In general I think the reader of fairy tales can identify with a fascination with Otherness, and it can be entertaining to think of our own culture through the eyes of a different species.

The elder sisters took on characteristics of sirens as well-"many an evening hour the five sisters took one another by the arm and rose up in a row over the water. They had splendid voices, more charming than any  mortal could have; and when a storm was approaching, so that they could apprehend that ships would go down, they swam before the ships and sang lovely songs, which told how beautiful it was at the bottom of the sea, and exhorted the sailors not to be afraid to come down. But these could not understand the words, and thought it was the storm sighing; and they did not see the splendours below, for if the ships sank they were drowned, and came as corpses to the Sea King's palace." Already we see mermaids in quite a different light than Disney's Ariel-there is a darker and dangerous side to them, as they don't have particular regard for human lives.

This is what makes the youngest mermaid stand out from her sisters-her concern for the Prince, when she saves his life. From then on, she does sort of stalk him...she finds out where he lives and watches his palace from the sea. In her defense, it's not totally love at first sight-she overhears fisherman speaking good of the Prince, and began to care about people in general.

Also, the mortal/immortal issue in Little Mermaid is kind of confusing: according to Andersen, mermaids can live to three hundred years, but once they die, they simply cease to exist; whereas humans, although they live shorter lives, has an immortal soul. It when she learns this that the mermaid desires an immortal soul herself, and asks if there were any way she could win one herself, and learns that "only if a man were to love you so that you should be more to him than father or mother; if he should cling to you with his every thought and with all his love, and let the priest lay his right hand in yours with a promise of faithfulness here and in all eternity, then his soul would be imparted to your body, and you would receive a share of the happiness of mankind."

From then on it seems her desire for the Prince and for the soul are equally her two passions, although she never sought such drastic measures until after she learned about the soul, so you could argue she never would have risked so much just for the prince. (Recap of what she gave up: not only her voice, but her tongue was cut out; the pain of her fins becoming legs would feel as if a sword cut through them and each step would be as if walking on sharp knives. To top it all off, if she didn't win the prince's love she would not only lose her chance at an immortal soul but never have a chance to become a mermaid again.)

The Prince, may I add, is a total player. He tells the mermaid that though he must see the Princess for his parents' sake, he does not wish to marry her and would rather have the former mermaid for his bride, and "kissed her red lips and played with her long hair, so that she dreamed of happiness an of an immortal soul." He marries the other Princess pretty much immediately though, because she was beautiful and he thought she was the one who saved him from the shipwreck.

The Mermaid knew she would die at sunrise. She was given a chance to kill the prince and return to her mermaid form and live out her three hundred years, but declined. It was because of this that she became a spirit, who would gain an immortal soul in three hundred years.

So: Do I agree with Debra Cash? I don't think so-I think she definitely missed the emphasis put on the soul, although the Prince was definitely more than a means to obtaining her immortality. Maybe Cash's poem should have read, "Disney lied." It's kind of sad that the Andersen version should be so tainted by our perceptions of the Disney version, which is my least favorite of all the fairy tale Disney movies...
I have to say-this is one of the fairy tales I've changed my mind about over time. I used to look down on the mermaid for her obsession with a man she hardly knew, but that was before I had been in any relationships of my own. I'm definitely guilty of having watched other people and saying, "I would NEVER lose my head over a guy like that," only to do the exact same thing I'd sworn I would never do. So I have more sympathy for the little mermaid now...although it's still a good reminder to guard your heart, as much as possible, for not every romance turns out the way we'd like it to.

Illustrations: Edward Matthew Hale, Jennie Harbour, Howard Pyle, W. Heath Robinson


  1. I love this fairy tale as well.

    It's so frustrating how the prince leads her on!

  2. When i read the actual version it broke my heart....

  3. Also do you cover anything about Succubus/incubus?

    1. I never have, I haven't come across them much, but just reading briefly about them on wikipedia, they are definitely fascinating! I may post on them in the future