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Fairytale Friday: Souls and Sacrifices Among Fish

December 14th, 2012


Quite dead Little Mermaid
(Statens Naturhistoriske Museum, Copenhagen)

Once upon a time, when yours truly taught drama to tweens, she got this brilliant idea that the kids were to perform The Little Mermaid…
The original inspiration for this most excellent of plans was that I had found some lovely, glittering fabrics that I thought would look great as mermaid tails:

 The pretty fabrics in question

Of course I knew the story of the Little Mermaid, so I didn’t bother to read up on it before I – armed with fabrics and resolve – went to do my job as an instructor. I gathered the starry eyed tweens around me and opened my tomb of a fairytale book, I started reading aloud, to make sure we were all working with the same version of the story. The version in question was of course the original story, as penned down by its author: HC Andersen, and as I read – and the words dawned on me, I suddenly remembered that this was no Disney. The tweens’ trusting gazes faltered slightly as I – unable to stop now – read to them about tortured feet and mutilation, ripped out tongues and sacrificial suicide. Needless to say; this was not what the tweens, used to sugar coated pink and fluff, expected. To their credit, none of them cried. In fact they took this (to them) new spin on the story in strides. I, however, was a bit flustered, but it was too turn: the arts and crafts class upstairs was already knitting seaweed as stage props – and the “damage” was already done. I explained as well as I could that the feisty red-head Ariel from the Disney movie was perhaps not the mermaid the author had in mind when he wrote the original fairytale. We played around with the story a bit – and in the end gave a wonderful performance, complete with mutilation and suicide. The parents never complained they just applauded: their kid was on stage after all…

The Little Mermaid – be it Andersen’s or Disney’s – is a horrible role model for little girls. In both versions the playful and curious mermaid gives up her voice to gain a husband. She also gives up her home and family, everything that is her is wiped clean. In the prince’s world she is a silent bystander, unable to act and communicate her desires. In Andersen’s original version, the story doesn’t even have a happy ending: the prince marries another woman, and the mermaid is to him nothing but a mute child, a pet, that he allows to sleep on a velvet cushion outside his bedroom door. Also, the transformation from fish to human didn’t go all smoothly, and she is seared by agonizing pain every time she walks. When her on land time is almost up, according to the Sea Witch’s instructions, and she is offered a chance to return to the water world by killing the prince, she chooses not to and is about to dissolve into foam (which is the fate of dead mermaids). Our heroine does not become foam though; she is miraculously saved by ethereal beings of the air and offered a chance to earn her immortal soul by doing good deeds for 300 years. Andersen himself was very proud of this twist, and called it a purer, better way to gain a soul than marrying a human (the mermaid’s original plan).

This never happened.
(Movie: Disney’s The Little Mermaid, 1993)

The question of the soul was important to Andersen, and very apparent in the text. Fey folk, like mermaids, were in those days believed not to have souls like Christian folks did. The Little Mermaid’s motivation was therefore not only to be with the man she had saved from drowning, but – through marriage – gain an immortal soul. She is, in other words, on a quest to save herself from the foam. Yet, the soul gaining idea becomes just a back drop, as it is her desire to walk on land and marry the handsome prince that is the vehicle of the story. Her obsession with man made things like ship wrecks and her spying on the passing ships seems to have more to do with idolizing a world she cannot have than an existential yearning.

A Russian Little Mermaid
(Animated movie: Rusalochka, Soyuzmultfilk, 1968)

There’s not much soul in Disney’s Little Mermaid. It is a coming of age story, but not a particularly healthy one. As Jack Zipes notes: (The story is) …about a feisty ‘American’ mermaid, who pouts and pushes until she gets her way: she is the charming, adorable, spoiled and talented princess, Daddy’s pet, who demonstrates that she deserves to move up into the real world by dint of her perseverance and silence. Ariel must learn to channel her sexual desires and suffer for a man before she can win him as a prize. . . .Ariel’s curiosity and desire to be part of another world almost causes her death as well as her father’s; the prince saves Ariel by piercing the witch with the phallic bow of his ship; thanks to him Ariel is retransformed from mermaid into a beautiful bride. The young mermaid’s sexuality is dampened and controlled until she has earned her right to be a “real woman”.

The coming of age motive is apparent in Andersen’s text too – and in the very anatomy of the (virginal) mermaid. When the Sea Witch transforms the mermaid it is described as “splitting her in half with a double-edged sword”. The Sea Witch herself is the mermaid’s complete opposite: she is literally a man-eater, living with her two snakes in a cave built with bones from drowned sailors. Where the Little Mermaid is pure and inexperienced, the witch is brimming with unrestrained sexuality – and power.

The Sea Witch
(by Deviant artist MaryInZombieland

 … A kind of power that HC Andersen himself did not have… One really ought not to look to the author in order to explain a story, but in the case of The Little Mermaid it seems like a reasonable thing to do as the man and the tale are mirroring each other:

HC Andersen was born in Odense, Denmark in 1805. He was a poor cobbler’s son with an artistic temper. As a child he wrote, but he was also dreaming of acting, singing and dancing. They were odd dreams for a young boy whose parents could not afford to send him to a proper school, and where hunger always lurked. What HC Andersen heard of fairytales as a child he picked up from the women in the spinning room at the local insane asylum where his grandmother worked. His family also kept a volume of 1001 Nights at home, which served as first inspiration for the budding author. Yet, unlike the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, HC Andersen never retold existing fairytales. He was not a scholar, but a Fantasy writer: A pioneer of the field of Tolkienesque dimensions. Terri Windling explains his impact on the contemporary literature:  …the field of children’s fiction was still in its very early days and was still dominated by dull, pious stories intended to teach and inculcate moral values. Andersen’s magical tales were rich as chocolate cake after a diet of wholesome gruel.

HC Andersen

As a young man Andersen tried his luck at the theatre in Copenhagen, but was dismissed from school at age 17, being told that he had no future on the stage. He then moved on to writing plays, and one of his manuscripts was seen by Jonas Collins, the influential Financial Director at The Royal Theatre. He recognized that Andersen had talent, but lacked in formal education and organized an educational fund for him. HC Andersen remained close to the Collins family even after he became a celebrated writer. He became especially close to the family’s son; Edvard, believed by Andersen-scholars today to have been the great love of his life. The Little Mermaid was written in 1836, shortly after Edvard Collins got married, and it is easy to believe that he channeled his feelings of heartache into the mermaid: she was as dear to the prince as Andersen was to Edvard, but not in an amorous or sexual way.

It is not only in the unrequited love we can see HC Andersen in the fairytale:
Though he made many friends in the upper-classes, and even the nobility during his adulthood, he never quite assimilated into their world. The upper classes never ceased to treat him with a bit of condenscension due to his poor upbringing.  Like the Little Mermaid he could walk in “their” world, but would always be set apart – always desiring to be “a part of”.

Though he had great success in his life, HC Andersen remained uncomfortable and awkward when it came to love and relationships. Maybe he saw some of his own awkwardness and inexperience in the playful mermaid’s attempts to grow up. He openly courted two women in his life, but privately he leaned towards men. This too must have made him feel like an outsider in his contemporary society where the Victorian values ruled. He was prone to melancholia – something that clearly seeps onto the pages of The Little Mermaid.

The Little Mermaid was special to Andersen, and her fate moved him deeply. Maybe the real reason why he was so proud of the twist at end of the story, was because he was looking for a similar miracle for himself? Virginia Borges quotes Jackie Wullschlager: …the hopeless love of the mermaid for the prince is a reflection of Andersen’s own hopeless love for his best friend. In giving the mermaid salvation beyond the prince, Andersen hopes to be able to receive his own salvation beyond Edvard. The mermaid hopes to be saved by God; Andersen by his art. For both, however, the goal is immortality.

(Art by Nina Kurnosova)



Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid

Terri Windling: Hans Christian Andersen, Father of the Modern Fairy Tale
Virginia Borges: A Million Little Mermiads 


Camilla Bruce, 2012

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