The Little Mermaid
History of the Tale
Many cultures around the world have tales of mermaids and other magical human-like creatures of the sea in their folkloric traditions.
The first known mermaid tale appeared in ancient Assyria, more than 3,000 years ago. The goddess Atargatis was in love with a handsome shepherd, but accidentally killed him. In her guilt and shame, she leapt into a lake and took the form of a fish but the waters would not conceal her divine beauty. So she was caught as a human above the waist and a fish below.
In Greek mythology, mermaids are linked with sirens, beautiful yet dangerous creatures that lure sailors to the death with their enchanting and irresistible singing.
There is a similar tale in German folklore, telling the story of a beautiful young maiden named Lorelei who threw herself headlong into the river in despair over a faithless lover. Upon her death she was transformed into a siren and could from that time on be heard singing on a rock along the Rhine River.
One Thousand and One Nights includes several tales featuring ‘sea people’, though they do not have fish-tails, but only the ability to breathe and live underwater.
China has tales of a mermaid who ‘wept tears which became pearls’, while in Thai storytelling traditions there is a character called Suvannamaccha (lit. golden mermaid). Mermaids and mermen also appear in Philippine folklore, where they are known as sirena and siyokoy.
From Scotland and Ireland come tales of selkies, said to live in the sea as seals but able to shed their sealskins and walk on the land in human form. (I have just had a children’s picture book published called Two Selkie Tales from Scotland).
Melusine is another mermaid-like creature found in French fairy tales. She is sometimes depicted with two fish tails, or with the lower body of a serpent, and usually lives in forest pools and rivers. The story of Melusine inspired the very popular 19th century book Undine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, in which Undine, a water spirit, marries a knight named Huldebrand in order to gain a soul.
It is said to have inspired the most famous mermaid tale, Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" which was first published in 1837. Anyone who only knows the story because of the Disney remake will be shocked to read the original, which is far darker and crueller.
In the original version, The Little Mermaid is the youngest daughter of a sea king who lives at the bottom of the sea. She saves the life of a prince on a ship and falls in love with him, and so goes to the sea-witch to ask her for a spell to give up her tail. The sea-witch cuts out her tongue, and tells her every step she takes will be like stepping on knives:
"I know what you want," said the sea witch. "It is very foolish of you, for it will bring you to grief, my proud princess. You want to get rid of your fish tail and have two stumps instead, so that you can walk about like a human creature, and have the young Prince fall in love with you, and win him and an immortal soul besides … But every step you take will feel as if you were treading upon knife blades so sharp that blood must flow. … Well, have you lost your courage? Stick out your little tongue and I shall cut it off. I'll have my price, and you shall have the spell."
However, the prince marries another and the little mermaid has sacrificed all for nothing. Her sisters come to her with a dagger and tell her she can only become a mermaid again if she stabs him in the heart, but the Little Mermaid cannot bear to do so. She flings herself in the ocean instead and drowns.The spirits of the air save her and tell her that mermaids who do good deeds become daughters of the air, and after 300 years of good service they can earn a human soul.
It is thought The Little Mermaid was written as a kind of love letter to Hans Christian Andersen’s dear friend Edvard Collin. Andersen, upon hearing of Collin’s engagement to a young woman, wrote to him:
‘I long for you as though you were a beautiful Calabrian girl … my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.’
Edvard Collin turned Andersen down, disgusted. Andersen then wrote The Little Mermaid to symbolize his inability to have Collin just as a mermaid cannot be with a human. He sent it to Collin in 1836 and it goes down in history as one of the most profound love letters ever written. When he died, Andersen’s will left most of his money to Collin.
The Little Mermaid, as it was originally written, had an even more tragic ending with the Little Mermaid dying.
Motifs & Meaning Of Tales
Unsurprisingly, most feminist scholars see Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid as both violent and misogynist.
The Little Mermaid sacrifices her voice, her mermaid tail, and ultimately her life, for the Prince, thus reinforcing a cultural stereotype which subordinates women.
The scholar Robert W. Meyers describes the cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue as “the relinquishment of her right to be heard, the loss of her creativity and the wound of castration”.
According to Meyers, Andersen had a strong feminine identification which he repressed. He then instilled his own subconscious desires into his characters. The cutting out of the little mermaid’s tongue is essentially Andersen’s way of repressing his own feminine identity and sexual desires. He metaphorically removes sexuality from his character.
However, some feminists see the tale as a warning to women to choose not to be like the Little Mermaid – i.e to not accept any kind of abuse in the name of love.
Others focus on the spiritual transformation of the heroine, from a creature of the sea, to a creature of the land, to a creature of the air – showing her spirit’s progress up towards God. This is reflected in the themes of wounding, self-sacrifice and the idea of love defeating death.
In 1961, Shirley Temple Theatre broadcast a television version of "The Little Mermaid", starring Shirley Temple as the Mermaid.
In 1989, Walt Disney made a very popular animated musical fantasy based on the story (though in it the mermaid gets her prince). ‘The Little Mermaid’ was the first Disney fairy tale retelling since Sleeping Beauty in 1959. The film rights of 'The Little Mermaid' had been a Disney property since 1941, with Walt planning to include the much darker Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale in a planned anthology film of his works. The idea was shelved in 1943.
Favourite Books of Mine which feature mermaids or selkies:
Ingo by Helen Dunmore
Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon
Sirena by Donna Jo Napoli
Sea-Hearts by Margo Lanagan (selkies)
Secrets of the Sea House (selkies)