Ariel is grand, but you don’t know the tale of the little mermaid until you’ve read Hans Christian Anderson’s version. His decadent and mournful twist on mermaid lore has shaped our imaginations for centuries, and shines a searing light on the pains of growing up, identity crises, and, of course, unrequited love, which can snap an indescribable place in the heart. Cloaking this particular hurt in a macabre mythological tale gets this feeling precisely right, especially if you throw in the problems of bisexuality in an especially unaccepting time.
Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytales stay with us, and will continue to, because they are dazzling cloaks dressing his personal pains. He was raised by poor parents who told him they were descended from a noble line, and even though that wasn’t true, it no doubt filled his head with kernels of the royal fantasies he would later write about. He got a taste for writing, art, and theater at a young age, and through these interests befriended the middle class Collin family, who financed a boarding school education for him when he was 14 so he could continue to study his passion.
Andersen also fell in love with two of the children of the Collins family. Just like many of the writer’s love interests, neither Edvard, or his sister Louis, returned Andersen’s romantic feelings. He also found himself an outcast at school and was abused by the schoolmasters. He’s said these school days were the worst times in his life.
These are the stories he told again and again: tales about outsiders, secret royalty, and unrequited love. Stories inspired by the folktales the elderly women from his hometown of Odense told him married with his personal narrative. This is something we all strive for in self expression, how to make our own pain interesting to others. When we succeed in that, as Andersen most definitely has, it ends up helping other people.
Andersen’s feelings for Edvard are evidenced by a 1835 letter in which he wrote, “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.” When Collin married a woman, “The Little Mermaid” was Andersen’s response. Collin later said in his memoir, “I found myself unable to respond to this love, and this caused the author much suffering.” From the wreckage of Andersen’s shattered feelings he built a mesmerizing mermaid world, a beautiful place that became a hell for the little mermaid when she tasted thew wonders of another world, felt the pull of love, and reached for a promise of immortality.
I’m a bit of a mermaidphile, not a huge one, but I get a tinge of fondness when I see a lovely mermaid form. There’s something exciting about mythological creatures, especially when they are so beautiful and inhabit a world we could never know. The sea is terrifyingly gorgeous, and full of mysteries we still haven’t uncovered. Even if we had gills, and were not trapped by the fragile limitations of our lungs, it would be dangerous to live there. Mermaids are not only lovely, they seem to be a less fragile version of ourselves, and throughout the history of their lore they’ve been quite sinister and dangerous. They are symbols of a secret knowledge.
While Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid (and Disney’s Ariel,) desperately yearns for our strange world, we yearn back. A large part of humanity is simply entranced by the idea of them. As a child I had rollicking fantasies about the perceived freedom of swimming as a mermaid. It’s a comforting kind of flying, a way to go in all directions while being suspended in a gentle water embrace. There is no way to fall. No literal way, anyway.
For The Little Mermaid, her downfall was upwards. When she finally gets what she yearned for her whole childhood, her quinceanera trip to the surface, she encounters wonder, adventure, crisis, and heartbreak in such a short time span that when she returns to her family, the shock of it spins her into a depression.
She had always been silent and thoughtful, and now she was more so than ever. Her sisters asked her what she had seen during her first visit to the surface of the water; but she would tell them nothing. Many an evening and morning did she rise to the place where she had left the prince. She saw the fruits in the garden ripen till they were gathered, the snow on the tops of the mountains melt away; but she never saw the prince, and therefore she returned home, always more sorrowful than before. It was her only comfort to sit in her own little garden, and fling her arm round the beautiful marble statue which was like the prince; but she gave up tending her flowers, and they grew in wild confusion over the paths, twining their long leaves and stems round the branches of the trees, so that the whole place became dark and gloomy.
In this fragile emotional state, her grandmother gives her liberal doses of more bitter pills, fully pulling her into an orbit of obsession and torture. She learns that humans have immortal souls while mermaids live several hundred years before disappearing into the sea foam. According to grandmother, human souls rise “up through the clear, pure air beyond the glittering stars.” After dispensing this troubling information, grandmother advises the young mermaid to not think about it, and then tells her that she can achieve this immortal life if she could get a human man to wholly fall in love with her.
What a mindfuck this is. How can she not try to obtain love and eternal life once she has learned of and tasted these things? Like a desperate addict, cleaving to an unshakable obsession, she seeks out a seeming solution, a source of relief. She goes to see a dreadful sea-witch, who prescribes a tonic that will transform her but leave her in desperate pain. “Every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives, and that the blood must flow,” the sea-witch explains. She warns, “The first morning after he marries another your heart will break, and you will become foam on the crest of the waves.” In return the witch takes her tongue, which steals both her beautiful singing voice, and her hope for direct communication. (Apparently mermaids can speak the same language as humans, but don’t read or write.)
The cursed transformation leaves gives her a helpless charm that inspires pity in the prince more than anything else. She cannot tell him the pertinent details that, while possibly not inspiring love, would cast her in a far different light in his mind. He doesn’t know she saved him, he doesn’t what she gave up for him. Because the prince’s romantic motivations seems to be towards some lost maiden he feels has saved him, these hidden details are especially important and scarring.
Still, she dances for him, through the constant intense, sharp pain in her enchanted legs. She peers up at him with hopeless eyes, and he takes her in and “loved her as he would love a little child, but it never came into his head to make her his wife.” It’s dreadful enough that he turns his attention to another woman, but the worst part is that he thinks this other woman is the one who has saved him. Oh, this is a wicked irony, but does it really matter as much as it seems to at first glance? Whether she saved him or not, the little mermaid has given up practically everything on whim, on a chancy obsession. It’s a bit unnerving to come into his life this way, to have broken herself to such a helpless state just to be near him. It’s a cautionary tale of the dangers of wrapping up your identity too much in a romantic longing. Those feelings can feel like your whole world, your whole life, but once you’re able to move on from them (with or without losing your voice and spirit to them,) you can see it for the illusion that it is.
Many scholars have argued that the hopeful ending to the story, where the little mermaid is transformed into an air spirit instead of dissolving into seafoam, seems forced and tacked on, and I have to agree. At least for me, the force of the story is in its dark and relentless twistedness, and the ending feels as if it was woven to make the story easier for children to take.