history of mermaids part 2 (The Little Mermaid)

Continued from Last Week’s Post ‘the history of mermaids part 1

With modern technology and the ability to instantly share stories, pictures, and thoughts, a lot of mer-memes have become more homogenized.  In fact, due to Disney’s rendition of Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Little Mermaid”, most people instantly visualize the red headed Ariel when they hear the word “mermaid”.  But let us dive deeper.

In Andersen’s tale, The Little Mermaid, six sea princesses await their fifteenth birthday in order to journey to the surface of the ocean and experience what is on dry land.  The littlest princess must listen to the stories of her sisters once they come back from the surface, and she gets more and more jealous and excited for her turn.

the little mermaid and her prince
the little mermaid and her prince

When she turns 15,  she is adorned with pearl-flowers by her grandmother, and rises “as light as a bubble” to the surface of the ocean, where she chances upon a ship, with a handsome prince on board. She watches the celebrations that take place on the boat late into the night, when suddenly the ship is overtaken by a violent storm.

The ship sinks and the prince is cast into the ocean, where he struggles to stay afloat but eventually turns unconscious and begins to drown.  The young mermaid cannot help herself, as she has never seen anyone so beautiful, and saves the prince, swimming him to land and laying him in the surf, watching until a young girl finds the prince, and he awakens.  She returns to the palace.

The mermaid is sad and misses the prince, and is vaguely annoyed that he didn’t know she was the one to save him.  She learns from her grandmother that humans die much younger than mermaids, and that they have souls that go to heaven (mermaids have no souls),  and that humans would think her fish tail quite ugly.  She obviously begins to resent being a mermaid, cursed with an ugly tail and a 300 year long life that ends with (instead of eternal bliss in heaven) turning into sea foam in the ocean.  She cuts a deal with the sorceress to get some legs and take back the prince that she so desires.

But of course, nothing is free, and this deal comes with strings attached.  The first string is that each step she walks will feel like walking on hot swords.  The second string, and much worse if you ask me, is that the mermaid will only gain an immortal soul if she can convince the prince to marry her.  If he marries another, her heart will break and she will turn into sea foam.  Oh yeah, also she can’t woo him with talking, since she has to give up her voice.  GOOD LUCK.

the little mermaid, watching over her prince.  "The Little Mermaid" Statue in Copenhagen.
the little mermaid, watching over her prince. “The Little Mermaid” Statue in Copenhagen.

So the princess, with her legs and her beautiful face and her empty cup of a body waiting to be filled with a soul heads to the surface to win the heart of the prince.  And what happens? He treats her as a pet, giving her the love of a child, but never the love of a wife.  It turns out, he has a vague memory of the mermaid who saved him, but realizes he’ll never see her again and has settled for second best! The maiden who found him on the beach after the mermaid had ACTUALLY saved him.  Pretty crushing.

The Little Mermaid's Sisters, by Ann Anderson.  See them desperately try to convince her to come with them.
The Little Mermaid’s Sisters, by Ann Anderson. See them desperately try to convince her to come with them.

The mermaids five sisters return to the youngest the night before the prince’s wedding; they have also cut a deal with the sea witch, to save her life.  They traded their long beautiful hair for a knife.  If the little mermaid stabs the prince in the heart, then she will  once again become a mermaid and be able to spend her life with her family, in the ocean that misses her.

But she is unable to kill him, she loves him too much and for some reason she’s even really cool to the chick who won the prince in her place.  By daybreak, the spirits of the air take pity on her, and instead of turning into sea foam, she is transformed into a spirit of the air, to wait 300 years when she may travel to the kingdom of heaven and gain an immortal soul. The Prince and Princess rush around looking for her, I imagine in the same way I went running around looking for my cat when she was hiding under the bed once. Then they moved on.


The last page of the handwritten manuscript of The LIttle Mermaid.  You can see that Andersen also had doubts about the ending. Sea foam?
The last page of the handwritten manuscript of The Little Mermaid. You can see that Andersen also had doubts about the ending. Sea foam? Seriously? Air Spirits?

You may have caught some of the Disney differences and similarities, as well as similarities with previous mer-tales.  The little mermaid is vain, the little mermaid is preoccupied with looks, the little mermaid took someone from the sea and spared their life by returning him to the shore.  The mermaid has many sisters, and she gives up her ENTIRE life and family and voice and identity for a man that she hasn’t ever (and will never be able to) talk to.

The main difference between Andersen’s version and Disney’s version is the ending: the mermaid is pretty toothless and wussy in both tales. She voluntarily gives up her entire life, but in the Disney version it’s justified when she is able to marry her man, maintain her class position (royalty, obvs), and live happily ever after with everything.  In Andersen’s version, she gives up everything, but it’s a bad bet. She loses her family, she loses the prince, and she even loses the privilege of having a corporeal presence, now she is just an air spirit.

But because the mermaid meme has been around since long before Disney, and long before Andersen, I think it’s time for us modern mermaid gals to re-appropriate the meme.  Instead of being about a fish willing to sacrifice her family, her voice, her identity, her home and her ocean, we should be strong merbabes who refuse to sacrifice ourselves and our ocean.  Maybe the modern mermaid walks on land, but also loves to swim in the sea.  The modern mermaid meme can take from the old tales, but learn from the new ones as well.

have you hugged a mermaid today?
have you hugged a mermaid today?

Many of these stories are about women turning into mermaids out of grief, but maybe we should turn into mermaids out of our love of the ocean.  I think the modern mermaid meme is about conservation, preservation, education, and love; love of the ocean and it’s inhabitants, love of the feeling that the sea brings us, love of the connection the ocean offers the world. Also a sense of protection and duty we must offer back to the ocean, for our lives are inexplicably connected  to it.

modern day


signing out.

What do you think the modern day mermaid meme is?

Want to read The Little Mermaid for yourself? Click here for one version.

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