Saturday, December 5, 2009

Daughter of the Air: A Look at The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen

“Oh, if only he knew that to be with him, I had to give up my voice for all eternity!" -The Little Mermaid, Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Tiina Nunally

(spoilers for The Little Mermaid book and movie)

This November, Disney's version of The Little Mermaid turned 20 years old. It's hard for me to admit or believe that any movie that came out during my lifetime could be that old, but that's how it is. Being only two years older, I've known The Little Mermaid pretty much all my life. It was one of my favorites as a kid. There's an old home movie of my third birthday party with me standing in front of a huge TLM poster tacked to the garage and proudly announcing it as my favorite movie. It's the reason I once brushed my hair with a fork (not to be confused with a dingle hopper) and why I was initially so reluctant to try flounder (even though I am really glad I did). I acted out that scene (and you know which scene I'm talking about) in the bathtub more times than I can say and still know all the words to Part of Your World. Many girls my age can probably say the same.

The Little Mermaid, as told by Disney, is the story of a headstrong young sea maiden named Ariel who dreams of exploring the human world. After she saves a prince from drowning, she finds herself in love and more desperate than ever to become human. She trades her beautiful voice to the local sea witch, Ursula, in exchange for a three day excursion on land during which she must earn the love of (read: seduce) her prince so that he will kiss her by the final sundown. If she succeeds, everything's hunky dory. If she fails, she must return to the sea and be the witch's prisoner forever. Of course, though trials arise and monsters appear, all's well that ends well and Ariel and her prince live happily ever after as humans.

I still love watching The Little Mermaid. The music by Alan Menken and the late great Howard Ashman never fails to give me goose bumps, the voice cast and animation are fantastic, and the story packs a punch. However, it's not the story Hans Christian Andersen originally wrote in 1837. Unlike the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, Andersen wrote literary fairy tales, meaning that although many were inspired by folklore, they were still his own invention. The Little Mermaid as Andersen wrote it, is a tragedy. In his story, the nameless Mermaid, knowing she must either marry him or die, is forced to watch her prince love another woman. On his wedding night, her five elder sisters appear with a knife, saying they have made their own pact with the Sea Witch. If she kills the prince, she'll be allowed to turn back into a mermaid and return home. But the Mermaid loves him too much to kill him, throws the knife out to sea, and jumps off the ship to await her death.

It's easy to see why Disney changed the ending. The 80's saw the release of both The Fox and the Hound (which arguably has the saddest ending of any Disney movie) in 1981 and The Black Cauldron (a genuine zombie movie) in 1985. When production on The Little Mermaid began in the mid-80's, they probably used these movies as examples of what they wanted to get away from. A return to the fairy tale meant the return of iconic Disney images: a princess dreaming of love and happiness, a dashing prince, a dastardly villain, a hefty dose of magic, and, of course, a happy ending. Also as far as sad stories go, The Little Mermaid is a doozy. She doesn't just die at the end: her suffering, loneliness, and longing is evident on almost every page of the tale. As a mermaid who wants so much to be a part of the human world, she is in a constant state of alienation, even before she meets the prince. Her transformation is so painful Andersen likens it to a sword being driven through her, cutting her in half. With every step comes agonizing pain; she sometimes leaves behind bloody footprints. She can't even cry for her prince because mermaids have no tears and this goes on to affect her as a human making her suffering even more painful. Disney has brought to life its fair share of sad moments (Bambi's mother, the murder of Mufasa) but perhaps, a version of The Little Mermaid with its heroine and ending in tact would have been too sad. Imagine if Dumbo had ended, not with the little elephant flying, but falling to his death after trying to.

However, watching the end of Disney's version, it's hard not to compare it to the original especially in light of the life of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. Andersen once said, "the history of my life will be the best commentary on my work." Read in this way, The Little Mermaid comes across not only as a tragic fairy tale but also as the powerful psychological memoir of a complex artist. Andersen was a master at making his characters suffer. Whether they eventually find happiness or not (the Mermaid is not the only character in his work to meet a tragic end), so many heroes from the Ugly Duckling to Thumbelina to Gerda and Kai of The Snow Queen have to suffer at least a little bit. Andersen himself was no stranger to suffering. The son of impoverished parents, Andersen grew up gawky and alienated. He was a constant target for neighborhood bullies and dreamed from an early age of leaving his native city (Odense) and making a name for himself in Copenhagen. He picked up many of the tales that inspired his own stories as a child while working alongside his grandmother in an insane asylum. Though he eventually made it to Copenhagen and enjoyed fame and success in his own lifetime, he could never get past his humble beginnings and despite years of travel, he never found a place where he felt he fit in. These same feelings of isolation plague the Little Mermaid. As the youngest of her sisters, she must wait the longest for her turn to go up to the surface (a privilege granted on a mermaid's 15th birthday) even though she wants it more than any of them. Years before she sees it, she arranges the flowers in her garden to look like the sun, and decorates it with a statue of a handsome human boy years before she discovers the real article. Her loneliness is also very prevalent. Her father, the Sea King, is almost a non-presence in this story, and though her grandmother tells her stories of the human world and her older sisters pity her, none of them understand why she so badly wants to be human. Even the Sea Witch calls her stupid for making the trade.

The Mermaid's having to sacrifice her voice in order to achieve her dream also has a basis in Andersen's life. As a young boy, Andersen had a beautiful, highly acclaimed singing voice and traveled to Copenhagen at 14 to perform onstage. Then he hit puberty, his voice changed and he found he could no longer sing. Ultimately, he had to give up his acting aspirations and turned to writing. No doubt, he understood all too well how it felt to be deprived of your voice when you needed it most. For Andersen, the desire to be human may have represented his desire to escape his impoverished childhood. However, like the Mermaid, once he achieved his goal, true happiness still eluded him.

The Little Mermaid is very much a meditation on unrequited love. For the Mermaid, the Prince is unattainable in every way. First of all, they are literally from two different worlds and they do not have the "right" bodies to be together (sexually and physically). When her grandmother and the Sea Witch tell her she must trade her tail for legs, it's implicitly understood that she also needs what's between them. Then even after changing herself irrevocably, giving up her home, family, and beautiful voice, she still can't win his love. Plagued by crippling insecurity and a lifelong fear of sex, Andersen had many unfortunate love experiences with both men and women. He proposed to two different women and was refused by both and suffered from a doomed love affair with acclaimed singer Jenny Lind (the inspiration for another of his classic stories, The Nightingale). However, the chief inspiration for the Prince in The Little Mermaid was very likely Edvard Collin, the son of Andersen's benefactor. Like the Prince, Collin was from a high social class and represented the world that Andersen so longed to be a part of. Andersen wrote passionate letters expressing his love for Collin (some of which were never sent) and even went so far as to court his sister (unsuccessfully) just to stay close to him. Collin had no romantic or erotic feelings for Andersen and their relationship remained platonic. At the time that he was writing The Little Mermaid, the 32-year-old Andersen escaped from Copenhagen to the island of Fyn to avoid Collin's wedding making the fact that the Mermaid must attend the Prince's wedding and smile through it despite her pain all the more poignant. Andersen also makes you feel the Mermaid's frustration (and his own I'm sure) when describing her life with the Prince.

Disney's Prince Eric was never a favorite of mine (give me Prince Phillip or the Beast any day) but every time I reread the story, I find myself hating the Prince to my core. He and the Mermaid share a strange relationship. He calls her "my little foundling" (ugh) and has her sleep on a pillow outside his closed bedroom door--you know, like a dog. He dresses her in men's clothing and takes her riding. He turns her into a confidante, telling her how much he how would like to marry her, but he must marry the girl who saved him from drowning because she is the only one he could ever love. The girl he's referring to is a girl from a convent on the beach where the Mermaid left him who sheltered him and saw him home. And wouldn't you know, she turns out to be the foreign princess his parents want him to marry. When he discovers this and tells the Mermaid "Oh, I am much too happy...the best thing of all, what I never dared hope for, has been granted to me. You'll rejoice at my happiness, since you are more fond of me than all the others" the sense of injustice and cruel irony is almost overwhelming. He never finds out it was the Mermaid who actually saved him and marries the princess happily. I don't know how Andersen wants us to feel about the Prince as a character. He comes across as so cruel and so thoughtless that the bulk of my sadness for the heroine comes not just from her suffering but from the fact that she's suffering over a guy who is so not worth it. Perhaps Andersen painted Collin like this as a way of venting his own frustration. Either way, the story acts as an allegory of this painful relationship. Like the Mermaid, Andersen didn't have the "right" body to be with the one he loved and no amount of change or self-advancement could earn reciprocation. As he wrote Collin, "If you looked down to the bottom of my soul, you would understand fully the source of my longing and--pity me. Even the open transparent lake has its unknown depths which no divers know." Matching the Mermaid's longing and despair, this sounds like something Andersen's heroine would tell her prince if only she could speak.

Lastly, a vital part of Andersen's tale is missing from the Disney movie. In the story, the Mermaid's longing to be a human and to marry the prince are both inexorably tied to her longing for an immortal soul. Mermaids, her grandmother explains, live for 300 years but when they die, they dissolve into sea foam and that is the end of them. Humans, however, go on to another never-ending life of eternal joy in Paradise because they have immortal souls. For a mermaid to gain an immortal soul, her grandmother says "Only if a human were to love you so much that you were dearer to him than his father or mother. If he clung to you with all his thoughts and love and had the priest put his right hand in yours, promising faithfulness now and for all eternity, then his soul would fly into your body, and you too would share in the happiness of humans. He would give you a soul and yet keep his own. But that will never happen!" This makes the Mermaid long more than ever to be human, "I would give all three hundred years of my life to be human for just one day and then have a share in the heavenly world." She never thinks about her desire for the Prince without also mentioning her desire for an immortal soul, and when she sees the Prince marry another, she grieves not only for her love but also for her chance to know Heaven.

This one element of the story saves it from being a complete tragedy. When the Mermaid dies, she does dissolve sea foam but as Andersen describes, "she does not feel death." Instead she sees the radiant Daughters of the Air, lovely spirits with beautiful voices who raise her up and take her out of the ocean. They tell her they are beings who are working to earn immortal souls by doing good deeds and that "you've suffered and endured, raising yourself up to the world of the syphs. Now, through good deeds, you too can create an immortal soul for yourself at the end of 300 years." Though her prince and a life on land were denied her, the Little Mermaid's wish to see Paradise will be granted and one day she'll live an endless life of eternal joy. Unlike her family and the Prince, the Daughters of the Air are kind and understanding. Also her voice is restored to her so beautiful now "no earthly music could reproduce it." There's a wonderful sense of joy and poignancy in the line "the little mermaid raised her clear arms towards God's sun, and for the first time she felt tears." Legend has it that when Disney briefly attempted to adapt The Little Mermaid as a short animated film in the 1940's, they planned to retain her death but nix the Daughters of the Air. Thankfully, that never came to fruition. I've heard many people complain that The Little Mermaid is too sad, but never that it isn't sad enough. Walt Disney and the story artists obviously disagreed. The omission of the desire for an immortal soul strips the story of what is ultimately its emotional core. Being human and marrying a prince are both desirable but they are both extensions of the heroine's desire for an immortal soul. Her arc is tragic but the ending is, in its way, a happy one.

Maria Tatar of The Annotated Hans Christian Andersen claims Andersen saw suffering as the key to spiritual superiority, perhaps as a tonic to guide him through his own suffering. The Little Mermaid gets her final, perhaps greatest wish because she has suffered so greatly and yet still acted unselfishly. Perhaps, this bittersweet ending reflected Andersen's own hope for joy in the afterlife or simply for the joy and emotional compensation provided by his successful literary career despite all personal failures. Either way, I can't help wondering what he might have thought of Disney's interpretation of his story. The writer in me naturally assumes that he would be horrified to see such a personal story changed so completely, but I can't help thinking that part of him--perhaps only a fleeting, ship-in-the-night part of him--would like seeing his little mermaid get everything she wanted in the end. If she was serving as his alter ego, it might have eased his pain to transfer her success onto himself. But then who knows? That could just be the Disney fan in me talking.
Below is a link to The Little Mermaid complete with annotations (not mine) provided by the lovely SurLaLune.


  1. Great article! My visual key to Hans Christian Andersen - illustrations to The Snow Queen by artist Vladyslay Yerko:

  2. Thank you very much for reading and thanks for the link. What beautiful illustrations--I love The Snow Queen.