Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon
Target Audience: Teen
Summary: Princess Margrethe has been hidden away while her kingdom is at war. One gloomy, windswept morning as she stands in a convent garden overlooking the icy sea, she witnesses a miracle: a glittering mermaid emerging from the waves, a nearly drowned man in her arms. By the time Margrethe reaches the shore, the mermaid has disappeared into the sea. As Margrethe nurses the handsome stranger back to health, she learns that not only is he a prince, he is also the son of her father's greatest rival. Sure that the mermaid brought this man to her for a reason, Margrethe devises a plan to bring peace to her kingdom. Meanwhile, the mermaid princess Lenia longs to return to the human man she carried to safety. She is willing to trade her home, her voice, and even her health for legs and the chance to win his heart…
Type of Adaptation: Retelling
It should come as no surprise by now, but I have incredibly high standards for adaptations of this fairy tale. I know, you’re all shocked, right? Anyway, bearing that in mind, Carolyn Turgeon’s Mermaid absolutely blew me away, and I cannot wait to tell you about it, so let’s dive right in, shall we?
This novel is told in two alternating voices: Lenia’s – the mermaid – and Margrethe’s – the girl on the beach. And, of course, we all know about my love/hate relationship with multiple perspectives in novels, but this one is done really well, and really suits the story. That’s really one of my markers – if the story were to be told from only one perspective, would anything important be lost, and in this case, the answer is yes.
Anyway, we meet Margrethe, a princess from the Northern kingdom who has been sent into hiding at a convent because her paranoid father believes that their Southern enemies will make an attempt on her life if she stays in the castle. The Northern and Southern kingdoms have been at war for years, and it taints everyone’s lives. When Margrethe’s mother was alive, it was better, for she tempered the king, but since her death two years before, the king’s lust for war has been growing, and the tentative peace is nearly in tatters.
So Margrethe is stuck in this convent, realizing for the first time just how little she knows about her own kingdom, when one day, she’s out on the wall, and she sees an utterly impossible thing – a woman with a fish tail, impossibly beautiful, dragging a young man to shore. The mermaid looks up at her, and speaks into Margrethe’s mind: Come. Save him.
The mermaid, of course, is Lenia, obsessed with the human world, gone to the surface for her eighteenth birthday. Through her side of the start of this story, we learn how fascinated she is by the idea of the human soul – a web of light, as she pictures it, that exists inside them and offers them the chance to live forever.
And here we have one of the things I really like about this adaptation – it doesn’t shrink away from the religion. Let’s be honest – Hans Christian Anderson was a bit heavy-handed at times with his Christian message, and it seems to be the trend to leave that aspect of the story out of a lot of retellings, and indeed, of the fantasy genre in general. But the fact remains that religion and the idea of the Christian soul plays a huge part in Anderson’s original, and this novelization did that justice. Christianity and Christian ideals were very present, but not in a way that anything was shoved down the reader’s throat – it was just a fact of the world in which the story was taking place. That’s a difficult balance, but Turgeon hit the mark solidly.
Anyway, Lenia’s birthday happens to fall on the worst storm in the history of anyone’s memory, but she’s insistent on going to the surface anyway, and that’s when she sees the shipwreck. She watches a sailor die, and is fascinated by it. She’s hoping to see his soul leave his body, but when she doesn’t, the horror of what she witnessed hits her instead, and she can’t bear to let that happen to all of them. So she picks the nearest drowning man and tows him to shore.
But she knows she can’t save him. She can save him from drowning, yes, but not from his other injuries, and so she reaches out for anyone who can help – and the person she finds is Margrethe.
So Margrethe saves the young man – Christopher, he reveals – and it isn’t until he’s being nursed back to health in the convent that Margrethe learns he’s actually Prince Christopher, of the Southern kingdom, and she’s supposed to hate him because he is her enemy. There’s just one problem with that – Margrethe is already halfway in love with him. The way he speaks to her doesn’t help. He believes that she saved him, that she sang with a beautiful voice and brought him back from death. He also has no idea who she is. He believes her to be a woman of the cloth, and since she’s supposed to be in hiding, she can’t exactly correct him.
But once he’s well and preparing to leave, he lets her know that wrong as it is, he will always hold her in his heart. This doesn’t help the crush Margrethe is working away on.
But then he’s gone, and she goes back to life as normal, except that now she knows mermaids exist, and she’s as fascinated with Lenia and the underwater world as Lenia is with humans and their world. And Lenia is as in love with the prince she rescued as Margrethe is.
Lenia can’t stop thinking about him, and Margrethe, and wondering if he survived, if she was able to help him. Her sisters all think she’s fallen in love with a merman, and they try to uncover who it is, and that’s when she reveals that she’s in love with a human. Her sisters are shocked and warn her how dangerous this is – not because of a parents’ wrath, but because of the law of the merpeople – that they and humans shall be entirely separate.
Lenia knows all this, of course, but it doesn’t change how she feels, and one day, she can’t take it anymore, so she swims back to the surface, and there she encounters Margrethe, and I love this scene. They have a conversation about the realities of these other worlds and how they used to be connected. They talk of the prince, and they both recognize that they are both in love with the same man. But far from being a rivalry, it is, at this point, just one more connection, because he’s an impossibility for both of them. For Lenia, he’s another species. For Margrethe, he might as well be. This scene is so beautifully done, and I love what it sets up later, that they were aware of each other so early on. It really does ensure that this story belongs to the both of them, equally. It’s a parallel journey they’re on, and it’s wonderfully done.
Unfortunately for all involved, Margrethe’s father learns that the convent sheltered the son of his enemy, and he flies into a towering rage and takes Margrethe straight back home, convinced he can protect her better at the palace. It doesn’t matter how Margrethe tries to tell him that Christopher had no idea who she was, the king remains convinced that this is the next step of the devious South in launching war again. The stories that fly around are insane – that the evil Southern prince broke into the convent to ravage and assassinate Margrethe is the most common.
And Margrethe can’t reason with anyone, and she knows her father is going to use this as an excuse to start the war again, and she can’t stand by and let that happen. Between her and her old tutor, a plan is formulated. They will send a proposal to the Southern king in secret, offering Margrethe as a bride to Christopher, in a marriage that will unify the kingdoms. For Margrethe’s tutor is convinced that the Southern king is as weary of war as many of the Northerners are. And so, to stop the violence, Margrethe is willing to make this sacrifice. The fact that she loves Christopher and believes he loves her in return is secondary, really.
But Lenia provides a complication. Because while all this has been going on, Lenia has been to visit the Sea Witch, Sybil. And though Sybil does everything in her power to talk Lenia out of trading her tail, tongue, voice, and lifespan for a chance at a human soul, Lenia is headstrong and determined, and she will do this thing.
Sybil is wonderfully drawn. I’ll gush more in the checklist, but man. There’s a mystery about her that’s never resolved, a sadness and a personal touch to the warnings she gives Lenia that force you to imagine just what she’s been through in her own lifetime.
Lenia asks one last favor of Sybil, that she’ll tell Lenia’s family what happened, and that Lenia chose this, and that she’s happy. And then she has her tongue cut out, and man. Turgeon does not shy away from these descriptions. She is very blunt and very forward about exactly all the pain and agony that Lenia goes through in this transformation – but not in a graphic or distracting way. Just in a way that forces the reader to realize the extent of this decision, and I think that’s important. Too often with this story, we focus on the romance of the sacrifice without really considering exactly what it would have meant.
And Lenia, now human, washes up on shore in the Southern kingdom, without a tongue, without a voice, and without the protection against cold and injury that being a mermaid afforded her. Luckily, she’s found by the princess, who is taken with her strange beauty and wants to introduce her to her brother, the prince, who’s been moping since he returned from his expedition to the North some time before.
And here’s another thing I really love – watching Lenia traverse this world that is so utterly foreign to her. We watch her bathe for the first time, wear clothes for the first time, feel dry hair for the first time, and it all just drives home the fact that she is literally out of her element.
And the prince is immediately taken with her, as his sister knew he would be, and because this is a gritty and realistic look at very human characters, he takes the little mermaid to bed, and we get to be with her when she has sex for the first time. Again, not graphically, it’s very tastefully done. But it’s a remarkably mature upgrade of this story that really takes it out of the fairy tale world and puts it into a world of court intrigue where, yeah, this stuff happened all the time.
And it is fascinating. Because love isn’t the same as marriage, which is what the little mermaid has to achieve. And sex isn’t the same thing as love, though Christopher does, in fact, grow to love Lenia, while simultaneously being in love with the mystery girl who found him on the beach – who, though he doesn’t know it, is both Margrethe and Lenia. It’s deliciously complicated, and I love it. Because love isn’t simple, despite what fairy tales tell us. Love is an incredibly complicated emotion, and this novel really drives that point home.
Back to Margrethe, the Southern king has agreed to the plan, and Margrethe and her maid are set to travel to the Southern kingdom in secret, because Margrethe knows her father will never agree to the marriage unless given no other choice. But when they arrive, they learn that this isn’t going to be the fairy tale ending Margrethe was hoping for – Christopher was never told of the arrangement, and he’s not particularly happy about learning it in front of the whole court. He wants to chose his own bride, not have one thrust upon him, and on top of all that, learning that Margrethe is both the princess and the girl on the beach, he’s as pissed at her as he is at his father.
So what does he do? Makes it clear to both of them that he has his chosen love already – Lenia, who he’s been sleeping with for some time now, and who is carrying his child. Yeah. That happened.
And Lenia recognizes Margrethe, though Margrethe doesn’t recognize Lenia. And now the relationship between them changes utterly from what it was on the beach. Now, they are rivals. Now, they hate each other. Margrethe, to Lenia, stands in the way of her gaining a soul. And Lenia, to Margrethe, is keeping her from marrying Christopher as she believes God is willing her to do. And it doesn’t help that Christopher is in love with both of them, even angry as he is with Margrethe.
This is so wonderfully done. And that makes it all the more heartbreaking when Lenia realizes that she isn’t going to win this. She’s going to lose Christopher, because he’s a prince and she has no identity in this world. Because he could never have married her, despite his talk. Because the future of both kingdoms is at stake, and he and Margrethe have to be married, and he does love her, too.
Watching Lenia realize this is heartbreaking. But what’s even more heartbreaking is the moment when Margrethe realizes exactly who Lenia is. That changes everything, because now, it’s not just some random girl – it’s this mermaid she shared so much with so long ago who has sacrificed everything to be human and in this world and with the prince. The scene that truly broke my heart was the scene where Lenia was giving birth and Margrethe ran to be with her, and confessed that if it was in her power, she would give up Christopher for Lenia. “I would die right now, to let you have him,” she says, but it’s out of her hands. And this comes from only knowing all that Lenia gave up, not even that she’ll die as soon as Margrethe and Christopher are married.
But Lenia has come to terms with that. With the birth of her daughter, she knows, she has gained a kind of immortality, and she can be content with that. But she wants to be by the sea when she dies, so on Christopher and Margrethe’s wedding night, she slips away, down to the sea. But Margrethe sees her go, and, thinking she is going to kill herself, follows her to try and stop her. Instead, she overhears Lenia’s sisters offering her the knife and begging her to kill the prince, to spill his blood, and become a mermaid again. Lenia refused, and throws the knife away. It lands near Margrethe, and in that instant, she knows what she has to do.
She runs to the castle to get the baby, then runs back down to the beach just as the sun begins to rise. She tells Lenia she overheard everything, and she knows what must be done. “I am his wife,” she says. “His blood is my blood, and his soul is my soul.” And she uses the knife to cut her leg, and lets her blood spill onto Lenia’s legs.
And it works. Margrethe’s sacrificed blood undoes the magic on Lenia, returning her voice and turning her back into a mermaid. Margrethe swears that she will raise Lenia’s daughter as if she were her own child. And Lenia says goodbye to them both and the life she was willing to give up so much for, and returns to the sea.
This novel . . . it’s everything I wanted an adaptation of this story to be. Seriously. This is masterful, adaptation at its very best, and I am thrilled that it exists. But let’s to the checklist.
Exploration of the human characters? Check, check, and check. One check for Margrethe, one for Christopher, and one for all the side characters. Everyone in this novel is so fully and beautifully drawn. Their struggles were real and present, and I never once felt that Turgeon was making anything easy for anyone. What Margrethe and Christopher and Lenia went through and faced and had to struggle with, it was marvelously complicated and real and genuine.
No villainization of the side characters? Check. Sybil in this version fascinates me. She’s not in the novel all that much, but I have an incredibly amount of sympathy for her. She’s got a story, and though we never explicitly get it, we can guess. She has a much different flavor than Anderson’s sea witch, but I like her just as much. She’s not a villain. She’s someone with a history, and she’s warning Lenia away from some personal experience, and I love guessing what that is.
Message in the end? Okay, so no, the little mermaid doesn’t die in this version. She is rescued, in a sense. She’s allowed to live out her life as a mermaid instead of turning to foam or living her life as an air spirit. Do I have a problem with this? Not in the slightest. Why? Because the sacrifice is still there. She would have died. She was fully prepared to die. She had come to terms with it. It was Margrethe who couldn’t let it happen. And even though Lenia didn’t die, she still has to sacrifice everything she loved in the human world in the end – her love, her daughter, her friend. She has to leave it all behind and never return. And so the message is there and intact. There’s no easy happily ever after in this book, and I love that. No one is untouched by the complexity of this story. Christopher will forever be in love with two women. Margrethe will forever bear the burden of Lenia’s sacrifice. And Lenia has to leave her life behind her. They all live, and I think they’ll all find a way to be happy in the end, but because of what they’ve been through and the sacrifices they’ve all made, it will be a more mature and therefore better earned happiness, and I’m entirely satisfied with that ending.
Beautifully done. Absolutely beautifully done. This novel did this story justice, and I’m so glad.