“Far out in the ocean the water is as blue as the petals of the loveliest cornflower, and as clear as the purest glass.”
The opening lines of this fairy tale immediately set the tone. Reminiscent of fragrance and translucence, Anderson prefigures the ending of his tale, when the little mermaid will become an airy wind, flitting about the earth, and doing good deeps to gain an immortal soul. But in order to reach the heights, he must first bring us to the depths. So he brings us down, down, the height of many steeples stacked one upon the other, down to the depths of that world.
Then he describes it. In vivid, watercolor beauty, he takes four paragraphs (which I will not do) to paint the pristine and intricate image of life beneath the sea. This is a tale Anderson cared for, nurturing it like a mother with her babe, setting it out like a designer for a stage. He tells about the little mermaids living beneath the sea who arrange their garden plots, and offhandedly, gently, he introduces the youngest of them. “She was an unusual child, quiet and wistful, and when her sisters decorated their gardens with all kinds of odd things they had found in sunken ships, she would allow nothing in hers except flowers as red as the sun, and a pretty marble statue.”
This is not a story about a rebellious teenager, or a lover of trinkets and gadgets. This is a careful story, full of meaning, heart, and tender dreams. The Little Mermaid does not merely want a prince to fall in love with her; this desire, for her, is only the beginning of the journey. As her desire deepens, her world widens.
First, she loves the statue. It is beautiful and simple, and represents something she does not have. We can all relate to desire, since we all yearn for something more – something that beckons us to transcend the mundane and traverse the heavens. For her, the world above is what the universe is to us. She explores it and encounters the prince. He is a world beyond her own, and she watches him in his sphere above. But the more she “looks to the stars” in her own sense, the more she learns that there is something even beyond that. “Don’t they die, as we do down here in the sea?” she asks her grandmother, seeking to know more of these creatures, but not possibly imagining the magnificence of the answer.
‘”Yes,’ the old lady said, ‘they too must die, and their lifetimes are even shorter than ours….We are like the green seaweed – once cut down, it never grows again. Human beings, on the contrary, have a soul which lives forever, long after their bodies have turned to clay. It rises through thin air, up to the shining stars. Just as we rise through the water to see the lands on earth, so men rise up to beautiful places unknown, which we shall never see.”‘
Now the littlest mermaid knows there is a life even beyond her wildest dreams, and her former desires bow to it in reverence. Her entire being yearns, aches, trembles now for this new idea. “‘Why weren’t we given an immortal soul?'” she cries. “‘I would gladly give up my three hundred years if I could be a human being only for a day, and later share in that heavenly realm.'” Although she has been in love with the prince before now, this is the first time she expresses any concrete desire to be human. Her love for the prince caused her to discover something greater, as any human love ought to do.
Unable to shake free of the desire for an immortal soul, the littlest mermaid decides to go to the sea witch. For the mermaid knows if she can get the prince to love her as she loves him, and if he swears to love her for all eternity while a priest joins their hands in marriage, then she will gain an immortal soul and eternal happiness with her beloved. To make this come true, she endures a harrowing experience.
The witch is no fairy godmother. There is no sparkle and wave of a pretty wand, but a forest of frightening polyps who will strangle you. And the witch herself is hideous, bulbous, and crass. She is gleeful about the mermaid’s suffering, and bargains cold-heartedly for the girl’s greatest treasure, her beautiful voice. She must give it up on the bargain that the prince will love her, or else, if he marries someone else, she will turn into sea foam the very next day. She warns the girl she will endure terrible agony walking above ground: “‘every step you take will feel as if you are treading on knife blades so sharp that blood must flow. I am willing to help you, but are you willing to suffer all this?’ ‘Yes,’ the little mermaid said in a trembling voice, as she thought of the Prince and of gaining an immortal soul.'” The sea witch, despite Anderson’s description which paints her as a hideous and cruel being, perfectly capable of stepping into the role of villain (and indeed, taking that role in the Disney version), is not the antagonist of the story. The Little Mermaid is not Snow White and this is no moral tale warning against selfish witches. For the witch, in the tale, represents more than herself. She is the voice of terror, pain, and ultimately, evil itself. The Little Mermaid is not committing evil to be human, but she is willing for it to exert its influence upon her, so she can gain something greater than mere comfort. “‘Let us leap and bound throughout the three hundred years that we have to live. Surely that is time and to spare, and afterwards we shall be glad enough to rest in our graves;'” thus her grandmother had urged of her, but the little mermaid is not content to be comfortable for three hundred years – she wants more. She would “dare do anything to win him [the prince] and gain an immortal soul.”
If the witch is not the villain, and the mermaid has already gone through so much agony, then the ending of the story seems clear. The prince must fall in love with her, and she must, thereby, gain an immortal soul. But then the unimaginable happens. Though the prince loves her with a great love, he never makes her his bride, but falls for someone else and marries her instead. In her struggle to gain a soul, the little mermaid has sacrificed her voice, her tail, her home, her family, and now her life. She has given up everything for him, and now she will simply fade away, disappear like the ‘green seaweed – once cut down, it never grows again.’
Her sisters are terrified for her, and make their own bargain with the sea witch, and this time, the little mermaid must participate in evil in order to return to the depths. If the little mermaid stabs the prince in his sleep before the sun rises, she will return to the sea, a mermaid again, who can live on in comfort for three hundred years. They give her the knife and she enters the prince’s chamber. But she was never in search of comfort, and she had never acted out of selfishness. She would rather lose everything completely than betray her love, so she hurls herself into the sea and becomes light, frothing foam.
Just as her love for the prince first inspired her to yearn for a human soul, so her love for him redeems her in the end. “The little mermaid discovered…that she was gradually rising out of the foam.” Since the little mermaid has done her best and noblest to gain an immortal soul, she discovers that she can now spend three hundred years as a cool breeze doing good deeds to finally gain one. She can rise above, touch the stars, and live in eternity.
The little mermaid is not a story about the fulfillment of a human love. Anderson, instead, told a greater tale. It is the saga of how a heart, yearning for a deep fulfillment, was opened through human love to the possibility of something greater. Ultimately disappointed, as we all must be by mortals, in the love of a man, the heart finds in eternity that bliss we all seek. And the little mermaid, who through a lack of a soul could not weep before, ‘lifted her clear bright eyes towards God’s sun, and for the first time her eyes were wet with tears.’
Artwork courtesy of Artpassions.net
Translation of ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Anderson courtesy of Barnes and Noble: The Complete Fairy Tales, 2010 edition.