Fairy Tale Friday: The Little Mermaid

July 17, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

FAR out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it: many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Sea King and his subjects.

I once had a disagreement with a professor when she argued that fairy tales always have happy endings. I had argued that no, they don’t always, and the example I used was Grimm’s “The Frog-King”, a story that ends with a little princess being married off essentially as punishment for judging by appearances. This, admittedly was an imperfect example, which made more of a feminist argument than an objective one. Were I to make this argument again, I would undoubtedly use Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” to make my argument.

For those of you who have only seen the Disney version, please go here to read the original full text of the story. For those of you who don’t have time for the full text, here’s a recap:

The little mermaid saves the life of a young prince, who believes his life has been saved by a young girl at the temple where he washed up after nearly drowning. The mermaid falls in love with this prince from afar, and goes to the sea witch to have her tongue cut out in exchange for a potion that will give her legs; however, every step she takes on those legs will be as if she is walking on sharp swords.

If the mermaid can get the prince to fall in love with her, she will gain an immortal soul, but if she can’t, then she will immediately dissolve into sea foam the morning after her prince marries someone else. She does manage to get to the surface, where the prince finds her. Despite her muteness, her beauty and her grace make her a favorite at the prince’s court, and the prince tells her that if he marries anyone, he will probably marry her…but only because of her resemblance to the temple girl, whom he believes to be a consecrated virgin.

Long story short, the prince ends up marrying the temple girl (not a virgin, just a princess educated at the temple). Though her sisters sell their hair to the sea witch in exchange for a potion that will turn the mermaid back into, well, a mermaid, if she kills the prince, the mermaid refuses to stab her love. Instead, she dissolves into sea foam like all mermaids do when they die. She is then accepted by some strange creatures called ‘the daughters of the air,’ who tell her that due to the excellent way she has lived her life, she can earn an immortal soul through good deeds done over the course of roughly 300 years.

Here’s the thing. On one end, this ends happily; the mermaid gets to live for 300 years among mortals, on the surface, a place she has always longed to be. She can get what she wants, which is an immortal soul, and she can do it without sacrificing anything to a sea witch of dubious reputation.

By Arthur Rackham

On the other hand, the mermaid has died. She doesn’t get the prince, whom she loves; her sisters have cut off their long beautiful hair to sell to the sea witch to try to get her back, and she has refused them; she will never be able to see her family again, she will never return to the bottom of the sea (which, by the way, is continually described as more beautiful than the surface could ever be). She’s suffered bleeding, painful feet, unrequited love, and separation from her home, only to be placated by the promise that after 300 years, give or take, she might be allowed to enter the kingdom of heaven. Essentially, it sounds like the mermaid is stuck in Purgatory, which I don’t think is a happy ending for anyone, feminist or not.

But all of the above is really my cynical, adult mind talking, the mind that has been twisted by ripping apart children’s books for class after class. Really, the moral of this story is that if you really work for what you want and are willing to suffer for it and not kill people, then you have a good shot at an ultimate reward — even if it’s not what you were working for in the first place.

And in that sense, it’s a very beautiful and rather practical story, in line with Mick Jagger’s assertion that you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you get what you need. The mermaid, at the end of this story, has gotten what she needs, a life of sorts on the surface, even if it’s not the traditional happy ending Disney has slapped on this tale (ha, tail).


Entry filed under: Children and Young Adult, Fairy Tale Friday. Tags: , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Corey  |  July 17, 2009 at 6:04 am

    I particularly like the part where the prince takes her aside and tells her if he were to marry, it would probably be to her…maybe…assuming that other girl doesn’t show up first…

    Anyway, I like your interpretation of the “happy” ending as the mermaid getting what she needed rather than wanted. It’s hardly as satisfying as her getting both, but I guess it is better than neither, right?

    This has always been one of those stories where I was impressed with Disney’s ability to create a happy ending where there clearly was not one. It’s quite the talent!

  • 2. KT  |  July 17, 2009 at 12:08 pm

    Actually, it’s pretty ingenious of them to turn the sea witch and the other girl into the same character! Good old Disney – no one can say they’re not creative.

    And yeah, that part is so weird. It’s like, um, great, Prince, but maybe you could try not to be such a jerk.

    • 3. Corey  |  July 17, 2009 at 12:32 pm

      I agree! Condensing villains in these stories is almost always a good Disney strategy. Wouldn’t want to confuse the kiddies with too much badness!

      Yeah. The Prince is a bit of a stinker, but he’s not very exciting in the Disney version either, now is he? (But at least not a jerk, a suppose…)

      • 4. Kim  |  July 18, 2009 at 2:50 pm

        He’s not too exciting, but he does play a mean snarfblat. =P

  • 5. Kim  |  July 18, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Um, actually in the version I read, the prince was ‘fond’ of the mermaid, but then the other chick showed up and he married her because he still didn’t know that the mermaid was actually the one who had saved him…

    • 6. KT  |  July 18, 2009 at 6:28 pm

      People can pretty much do whatever they want with the story now that it’s in the public domain, so there are a lot of other versions around — this post refers to the original Andersen one, though.

      • 7. Kim  |  July 21, 2009 at 4:02 pm

        UM, I thought that’s the one I read. It’s the one the library had, and you told me it would be fine. But I’ll read it in the book you gave me anyway. Maybe it’s different in there.

  • […] Fairy Tale Friday: Beauty and the Beast. I loved exploring the different variations on the Beauty/Beast theme with this post, which was a little more academic than my previous Disney-related FTF. […]


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