The Little Mermaid (Fairy Tale Fridays)

Hans Christian Andersen, what did you do to my beloved Disney classic?!? 

Okay.  Deep breaths.  Before everyone starts angrily clicking the "Leave A Comment" button... I *know* that the 1836 story of The Little Mermaid predates the 1989 movie, but the movie, it's soundtrack, and associated bedsheets were an integral part of my childhood.  I haven't seen the movie in a few years but I can still sing every lyric of "Part of Your World" and its reprise from memory without batting an eye.  I was familiar with the original story, in that I knew the fairy tale didn't have a happy wedding with a rainbow ending, but I didn't realize just how cruel and violent HCA's writing of the story actually was, until I revisited the story for this week's edition of Fairy Tale Fridays.  (FTF is a weekly meme hosted by Tif of Tif Talks Books). 

To their credit, I will say that the Great Mouse Company did do several things right in adapting this fairy tale to film.  Much of the beginning of the story was accurately translated to the movie - the sea king resides in an underwater palace; the mermaid in the story is the youngest of several sisters and has the most beautiful voice among them; she is captivated by thoughts of the surface world and fascinated by a marble statue of a human; she saves a prince from drowning and trades her voice to the sea witch for the chance to become human.  In the scene of the tale where the mermaid is talking with the sea witch, their conversation is as follows,

“But if you take away my voice,” said the little mermaid, “what is left for me?”

“Your beautiful form, your graceful walk, and your expressive eyes; surely with these you can enchain a man’s heart. Well, have you lost your courage? Put out your little tongue that I may cut it off as my payment; then you shall have the powerful draught.”

On reading this my mind instantly jumped to the parallel scene in the movie which takes place in the song, "Poor Unfortunate Souls".  From memory it goes,

"But without my voice, how will I-"

"You'll have your looks!  Your pretty face!  And don't underestimate the importance of body language - hah!  The men up there don't like a lot of jabber.  They think a girl who gossips is a bore.  On land it's much preferred for ladies not to say a word.  It's she who holds her tongue who gets her man!"

Granted, there's no cutting out of tongues in the kid's movie, but I like how this scene and the persuasiveness of the sea witch was preserved.  But in the original story there's an extra sacrifice that the mermaid makes.  The witch tells her that in order to have legs and walk as a human, "at every step you take it will feel as if you were treading upon sharp knives". 
Ugh.  It was difficult enough in the movie to watch the poor girl give up her family and life at the chance of true love, but to add agonizing pain to that bargain sort of makes me wish she looked elsewhere for a boyfriend.  Of course, adding to the flip side of the bargain in Anderson's telling is "that the young prince may fall in love with you, and that you may have an immortal soul."  So it becomes legs and a chance at a soul, versus goodbye to family, no voice, and major pain.

She chooses the former.  I could argue that there's a moral in the benefit to taking a risk in this choice, but things do not end well for the mermaid.  The prince (you have no idea how much I want to call him Eric, but he is nameless in the tale) takes a fancy to the mysterious maiden with no voice, but he does not fall in love with her and ends up marrying another.  As much as I want to say there is a wacky battle in which seagulls, sea lions, a fish and a crab help the mermaid stop the wedding, that's not how things go.  

The prince goes through with the wedding which should be a death sentence for the now-human-mermaid.  Under the terms of the curse, she should become sea foam.  And yet, her sisters make their own bargain with the sea witch and in exchange for their hair, if their youngest sibling will cut out the prince's heart, she can become a mermaid again.  It doesn't seem to be too bad a deal to kill off the guy who wronged her and caused her a boatload of pain, but the mermaid's heart is too good and she can't kill the prince.  Instead she flings herself into the sea to accept her life as foam.

And yet, Anderson doesn't end the story there.  The mermaid instead becomes an air spirit, a mystical being with the chance at the eternal life and gaining the soul that the mermaid sought by hoping to marrying the prince.  Interestingly, the air spirits that she joins tell her,

“After three hundred years, thus shall we float into the kingdom of heaven,” said she. “And we may even get there sooner,” whispered one of her companions. “Unseen we can enter the houses of men, where there are children, and for every day on which we find a good child, who is the joy of his parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know, when we fly through the room, that we smile with joy at his good conduct, for we can count one year less of our three hundred years. But when we see a naughty or a wicked child, we shed tears of sorrow, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial!”

This part of the story to me is almost like the alternate ending on a DVD.  It's the bedtime story moral giving children one more reason to behave.  The reader or listener is never told what happened to the prince and his new bride or the fate of the mermaid's sisters who sacrificed of themselves to have her back.  It's not quite a happy or satisfying ending, but it does seem to conclude with an admonishment of "be good, sleep well".

What do you think of Andersen's version of The Little Mermaid?  (Click the title to read an online version of the complete tale.)  Any thoughts on the Disney film?  Share a comment here or post your own blog and join in the Fairy Tale Fridays fun over at Tif Talks Books!    Next week's story: The Old Grave-Stone.

6 Response to "The Little Mermaid (Fairy Tale Fridays)"

  1. Sandy says:
    October 15, 2010 at 11:06 PM

    I think I'll stick with what Disney gave me...the original is just too sad! (I like my sweet endings ;D) And that part where she turns into an air spirit and watches to see who's a good child or not? It's almost a subtle message of be good or ELSE. o.O

    Yay! I'm glad to hear that you're enjoying Shadow Hills-it's a good book and Zach is such a cutie ;)

  2. Sam (Tiny Library) says:
    October 16, 2010 at 7:36 AM

    I like both the original and the Disney. The Disney film was the first film I ever saw at the cinema, so I will always love it :)

    And I like the idea of Fairy Tale Fridays!

  3. Toyin O. says:
    October 16, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    Love the original Disney.

  4. Tif Sweeney says:
    October 16, 2010 at 11:07 PM

    LOL!!! When you mentioned Eric, I thought the same thing . . . except, I caught myself not using Ariel a multitude of times when I was writing my post!!! :)

    And, can I just say that when you quoted "Poor Unfortunate Souls," I actually heard the song being sung in my head!! :)

    Great post and I agree about the ending with you!

  5. Anonymous Says:
    October 18, 2010 at 1:59 PM

    The whole daughter of the air thing really threw me for a loop.

  6. Anonymous Says:
    June 23, 2011 at 12:00 PM

    Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts

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