Fairy Tales 101: The Little Mermaid

Foreword

Fairy Tales 101 articles discuss a hidden aspect of apparently innocent tales with happy endings. The stories tackled in this series were part of countless childhoods and helped to shape the personalities and lives of kids around the world. Due to the huge influence of such tales, these 101 series of articles aim to delve deeper into the beginning of Fairy tales, track the original manuscripts of some of the most popular fictions, and analyze the changes made throughout the decades. The articles will also look at these fairy tales through a psychoanalytical lens, to try to decipher the implicit symbols and meanings.


Fairy Tales 101 is mainly divided into 6 articles, as follows:

The Origin of Fairy Tales

Once upon a time: The Oldest Fairytale; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Midnight Mystery: Cinderella

Cursed to Slumber: Sleeping Beauty

The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid

• The 21st Century Fairytale: A modern twist on traditional works.

The Ultimate Sacrifice: The Little Mermaid



Fairytales tend to have common, familiar, and discernable features that the avid reader can easily spot. Some of them include the beautiful and innocent girl, the brave and handsome prince, the cruel villain, and the happy ending that often consists of a wedding. In Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837), Ariel gives up her tail and voice for a pair of human legs and a shot at true love. Much like the tales previously studied in this series, the story seems suitable for children as it comprises an enchanted setting, a classic romantic plot, and a happy ever after. However, it is mandatory to question these tales because of how deceptive, loaded, and psychologically twisted they can be. In this article, the aim is to skeptically look at Andersen’s story, unfolding its numerous meaningful layers.

Figure 4: Ivan Bilibin’s drawing of Русалочка (1937)

Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was first published in 1837 in Danish but wasn’t translated to English until 1845 when it finally gained proper recognition. However, Disney’s animated interpretation of the tale in 1989 is arguably the most renowned and familiar version. Thus, it seems significant to give a small reminder of the original plot written by Andersen: Ariel is fascinated by human life and wishes to possess an immortal soul, which can only be obtained through human love. She falls in love with the prince and, to win his affection, she trades her voice for a set of legs in a deal with a sea witch, on the condition that the prince marries her or she will turn into sea foam. Despite his affection for the little mermaid, the prince falls in love with and marries another woman. The little mermaid, heartbroken, jumps into the sea, but owing to her goodness and God's protection, she changes into a "daughter of the air," capable of earning an eternal soul from good deeds. When looking at the original storyline, two main points should be addressed: to begin with, Ariel’s purpose is completely altered in Disney’s adaptation. In Andersen’s version, Ariel has a more philosophical and existential goal that is later reduced to a physical and shallow attraction to a stranger. Sun and Scharrer (2004) argue that “Many of the important messages in Andersen’s story were left out or sugar-coated by Disney” (p.43). This argument applies to moral dilemmas as well as taboo and sensitive topics such as suicide and attempted murder that is present in Andersen’s account, yet disappear in Disney’s take on the story. However, Andersen’s tragic ending was highly criticized and even rejected by some who believe that fairytales are bound to have a happy ending.

Figure 3: Gordon Browne’s illustration from Fairy tales from Hans Andersen (1906)

Another point worth mentioning here is Eric’s rejection of Ariel: The Little Mermaid is possibly the only fairytale where the supposed “princess” is rejected by the prince. It is a sort of tradition that the prince ought to chase after his true love and marry her, yet that is not the case in Andersen’s account. Hastings (1993) claims that: “The romantic failure of Andersen's mermaid may be seen as the inevitable heartache of human love, a heartache Andersen knew firsthand: she is destined not simply to be rejected, but to be ignored by the object of her desire” (p. 88). Not only does Prince Eric marry another woman, he drives Ariel to a disguised suicide as she cannot get him to love her as the sea witch ordered. It is only through divine intervention that Ariel transcends and becomes an immortal spirit. This happy ending diverges entirely from other famous fairytales, but because of Disney’s reinvention of the original ending, few people get to appreciate the story’s psychological and moral depths.


Furthermore, Ariel is presented as a rebellious and adventurous character that dares to break free of her father’s domination and decide her own path. O’Brien (1996) mentions that “She learns all she can about the forbidden human world and she rebels against the constraints of the patriarchal system until she falls in love with Prince Eric” (p. 170). Also, Ariel is ambitious as she wants to be part of a new society, very different from her own. Zuk (1997) points out that “the story of the mermaid's struggle to transcend the physical difference and cultural and spiritual conditions of her underwater race problematizes imperialist and class-based morality” (p. 166). In addition, she is one of the earliest fairytale protagonists to act instead of waiting for her prince to rescue her. She is the one to save Prince Eric after the shipwreck. Still, she goes on another quest that encapsulates her once again within the traditional gender norms as she tries to charm the prince and convince him to take her as his wife. O’Brien (1996) continues by saying: “Where once she wanted to become human to explore her intellectual curiosity, she now wants to become human to be with her love” (p.171).


Figure 4: George Cruikshank, The Mermaid! 1822, British Museum.

Moreover, one of the story’s main themes is sacrifice: Ariel sacrifices her life for a chance at immortality and love, and Ariel’s sisters sacrifice their hair to save her from becoming sea foam. The latter part showcases familial morals, but also female empowerment as the so-called “powerful” father figure is not present to save his beloved daughter. Both choices were conscious ones as the sea witch, Ursula warns them of the possible repercussions. This is considered to be odd coming from the villain of the story: Ursula makes the rules of the trade extremely clear and takes Ariel’s consent before taking her voice away. Thus, although being portrayed as evil, Ursula is actually honest and genuine.

Figure 5: A Concept Drawing by Kay Nielsen for The Little Mermaid

Additionally, Ariel’s metamorphosis is the key element in the tale and holds numerous overlooked connotations. First and foremost, Ariel goes through unspeakable pain during her transition, as Andersen (1974) describes:

"Your tail will divide and shrink until it becomes what human beings call 'pretty legs.' It will hurt; it will feel as if a sword were going through your body. . . . [E]very time your foot touches the ground it will feel as though you were walking on knives so sharp that your blood must flow. If you are willing to suffer all this, then I can help you." (p. 68)

Physical and emotional pains seem to be attached to a woman’s attempt at love as if being punished for any sensuality and sexuality that she might reveal. Wilson (2020) remarks that “the mermaid in Andersen’s narrative undergoes multiple metamorphoses: mermaid, human, seafoam, air sprite, and though often seemingly passive, she nevertheless actively seeks a number of these mutations through initial inquisitiveness to self-sacrifice” (pp. 120-121). However, physical pain is removed from the equation in Disney’s version, making it more suitable for children at the cost of a more one-dimensional protagonist.


Figure 6: Nika Goltz’s Русалочка (2012)

The loss of Ariel’s voice is one of the most obvious anti-feminist symbols in the fairytale genre. The mermaid trades her voice for a pair of legs: in other words, she exchanges her opinion, presence, and entire existence for a physical attribute to charm her prince. This plan does not go as planned as she is now incapable of convincing Eric of her worth. Hansen (2000) argues that “the tale of The Little Mermaid highlights the importance of voice and body for the construction of subjectivity, and it speaks about the chances, even deadly ones, one might take in the pursuit of desire and happiness” (p. 285). In his story, Andersen only goes to show that a beautiful exterior, without any intellectual influence to back it up, is useless, as is represented through Eric’s marriage to another “speaking” woman. Hansen (2000) elaborates further saying that “her silence prevents her from ever fully materializing as an embodied subject, and it prevents her from letting him know how his construction of her subjectivity fundamentally endangers her” (p. 285). Hence, Andersen emphasizes the role of women as active and thinking agents in society rather than just mute beautiful figures. According to Wilson (2020), “the mermaid is positioned in silence and subjugation, as the desirable but grotesque other” (p. 118). Thus, a pair of pretty legs did not win the prince’s love, but some might argue that Ariel’s initial beautiful voice and intellectual curiosity could have gotten her the happy ending she desired.


To sum up, recent audiences have been blinded to the real story of The Little Mermaid, because of the success and prevalence of its Disney film adaptation. Nevertheless, once presented with the original manuscript by Andersen, it quickly becomes clear to the reader that the plot holds significant psychological, religious and social importance. The story includes unique features that deviate from the typical cliché fairytale: a love triangle, a sympathetic villain, self-sacrifice, and a holy intervention. All of these characteristics exhibit Andersen’s genius, unconventional and avant-garde approach to fairytales.


References

Andersen, H.C. (1974) "The Little Mermaid." The Complete Fairy Tales and Stories. Tr. Erik Christian Haugaard. Garden City: Doubleday, 57-76.

Hansen, L. (2000). The Little Mermaid's silent security dilemma and the absence of gender in the Copenhagen School. Millennium, 29(2), 285-306.

Hastings, A. W. (1993). Moral Simplification in Disney's The Little Mermaid. The Lion and the Unicorn, 17(1), 83-92.

O'Brien, P. C. (1996). The happiest films on earth: A textual and contextual analysis of Walt Disney's Cinderella and The Little Mermaid. Women's Studies in Communication, 19(2), 155-183.

Sun, C. F., & Scharrer, E. (2004). Staying true to Disney: College students’ resistance to criticism of The Little Mermaid. The Communication Review, 7(1), 35-55.

Wilson, B. (2020). Mutilation, Metamorphosis, Transition, Transcendence: Revisiting Genderism and Transgenderism in The Little Mermaid Through Gake no Ue no Ponyo. In Asian Children’s Literature and Film in a Global Age (pp. 117-137).Palgrave Macmillan, Singapore.

Zuk, R. (1997). The Little Mermaid: Three Political Fables. Children's Literature Association Quarterly, 22(4), 166-174.


Picture References

Gordon Browne (1906), from Fairy tales from Hans Andersen [Illustration], London, retrieved from https://href.li/?https://archive.org/details/fairytalesfromha00ande

George Cruikshank (1822), The Mermaid! British Museum, retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317262415_Monster_or_Missing_Link_The_Mermaid_and_the_Victorian_Imagination

Kay Nielsen, The Little Mermaid, retrieved from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/03/16/kay-nielsen-disney-and-the-sanitization-of-the-modern-fairy-tale/

Ivan Bilibin (1937), Русалочка [Illustration], retrieved from http://book-graphics.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-little-mermaid-illustrator-ivan.html

Nika Goltz (2012), Русалочка [Painting], retrieved from http://kids-pix.blogspot.com/2012/05/blog-post_09.html#more



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Elsa Abdallah

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