"The Little Mermaid" (Danish: Den lille havfrue) is a fairy tale by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen about a young mermaid willing to give up her life in the sea and her identity as a mermaid to gain a human soul.
Plot[edit | edit source]
The Little Mermaid dwells in an underwater kingdom with her father (the sea king or mer-king), her dowager grandmother, and her five older sisters, each of whom had been born one year apart. When a mermaid turns 15, she is permitted to swim to the surface for the first time to glimpse the world above, and when the sisters become old enough, each of them visits the upper world one at a time every year. As each returns, the Little Mermaid listens to their various descriptions of the world inhabited by human beings.
When the Little Mermaid's turn comes, she rises up to the surface, watches a birthday celebration being held on a ship in honor of a handsome prince, and falls in love with him from a safe distance. A violent storm hits, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. She delivers him unconscious to the shore near a temple. Here, she waits until a young woman from the temple and her ladies in waiting find him. The prince regained consciousness and mistook the temple woman for his rescuer. To her dismay, the prince never sees the Little Mermaid or even realizes that it was she who had originally saved his life.
The Little Mermaid becomes melancholy and asks her grandmother if humans can live forever and if they can breathe under water. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter lifespan than merfolks' 300 years, but that when mermaids die, they turn to sea foam and cease to exist, while humans have an eternal soul that lives on in heaven. The Little Mermaid, longing for the prince and an eternal soul, eventually visits the Sea Witch in a dangerous section of the ocean. The witch willingly helps her by selling her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue (as the Little Mermaid has the most enchanting and beautiful voice in the world). The Sea Witch warns that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea. Consuming the potion will make her feel as if a sword is being passed through her body, yet when she recovers, she will have two human legs and will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. However, she will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries another woman, the Little Mermaid will die brokenhearted and disintegrate into sea foam upon the waves.
The Little Mermaid agrees to this arrangement, and the Sea Witch cuts off her tongue. The Little Mermaid swims to the surface near the castle of the prince and drinks the potion. She is found by the prince, who is mesmerized by her beauty and grace, even though she is considered by everyone in the kingdom as mute. Most of all, he likes to see her dance, and she dances for him despite suffering excruciating pain with every step. Soon, the Little Mermaid becomes the prince's favorite companion and accompanies him on many of his outings. When the prince's parents order their son to marry the neighboring princess in an arranged marriage, the prince tells the Little Mermaid he will not because he does not love the princess. He goes on to say he can only love the young woman from the temple, who he believes rescued him. It turns out that the princess from the neighboring kingdom is the temple woman sent there only temporarily to be educated. The prince loves her, and the royal wedding is announced at once.
The prince and princess celebrate on a wedding ship, and the Little Mermaid's heart breaks. She thinks of all that she has sacrificed and of all the pain she has endured. She despairs, thinking of the death that awaits her, but before dawn, her sisters rise out of the water and bring her a dagger that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid slays the prince with the dagger and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more, all her suffering will end, and she will live out her full life in the ocean with her family.
However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his new wife, and she throws the dagger and herself off the ship into the water just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warm sun and discovers that she has turned into a luminous and ethereal earthbound spirit, a daughter of the air. As the Little Mermaid ascends into the atmosphere, she is greeted by other daughters who tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. Because of her selflessness, she will be given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds to mankind for 300 years and will one day rise up into the Kingdom of God.
Publication[edit | edit source]
"The Little Mermaid" was written in 1836 and first published by C.A. Reitzel in Copenhagen on 7 April 1837 in Fairy Tales Told for Children. First Collection. Third Booklet. 1837 (Eventyr, fortalte for Børn. Første Samling. Tredie Hefte. 1837). The story was republished on 18 December 1849 as a part of Fairy Tales. 1850 (Eventyr. 1850) and again on 15 December 1862 as a part of Fairy Tales and Stories. First Volume. 1862 (Eventyr og Historier. Første Bind. 1862).
Debate over ending[edit | edit source]
Some scholars consider the last sequence with its happy ending to be an unnatural addition. Jacob Bøggild and Pernille Heegaard point out that::
- One of the crucial aspects which any interpretation must confront is the final sequence of the tale, in which the little mermaid, against all odds, is redeemed from immediate damnation and accepted into the spiritual sphere, where the "daughters of the air" reside. In this, she is apparently promised the "immortal soul", which it has been her main motivation to obtain — along with the prince, of course. This ending has baffled critics because the narrative that precedes it points rather to a tragic conclusion than to a happy one.
— Jacob Bøggild & Pernille Heegaard, Ambiguity in Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid, Andersen og Verden [Andersen and the World] (1993)
The working title of the story was "Daughters of the Air". The daughters of the air say they can earn souls simply by doing three hundred years' worth of good deeds, but Andersen later revised it to state that all this depends upon whether children are good or bad. Good behavior takes a year off the maidens' time of service, while bad behavior makes them weep and a day is added for every tear they shed. This has come under much criticism from scholars and reviewers; one commenter writing, "This final message is more frightening than any other presented in the tale. The story descends into the Victorian moral tales written for children to scare them into good behavior." P. L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins and noted folklore commentator, says, "But a year taken off when a child behaves and a tear shed and a day added whenever a child is naughty? Andersen, this is blackmail. And the children know it and say nothing. There's magnanimity for you."