“The Little Mermaid” (According to Cassie)
Right from the Get-Go Disclaimer: If you read this expecting to see the story told by Disney, then you need to hang your head, receive a mild smack on the wrist, and put up with me shaking my finger and saying “Shame on you!” until you go read the beautiful original short story by Hans Christian Anderson. Or, you know, you could just read my version (but you really should also read his).
So! Basically, deep under the sea lies a kingdom inhabited by the Sea King and his people. Through Anderson’s descriptions, you see that their world is not so different from ours, but it is different enough that we, as the reader, find ourselves fascinated with the descriptions of its wonder and its beauty and its strangeness, and this is important for reasons we’ll discuss in a minute.
Anyway, in this kingdom lives the widowed Sea King and his mother and his six daughters, all of whom are each more lovely than the last, so that the youngest in the loveliest of all. All of them love to hear stories of the world above the water from their grandmother, but none more so than the youngest, who has long been captivated by that world. She asks for more stories with more details, and her garden is shaped like the sun rather than like something of the water.
The deal is that when a mermaid turns fifteen, she can venture up to the ocean’s top and see for herself the land above. The littlest mermaid, who wants most of all to see that world, has to wait the longest, but as each of her sisters go up, they come down with wonderful stories of everything they’ve seen, which of course just makes the youngest want to go even more, but like a good girl, she follows the rules and waits for her birthday.
When she goes to the surface, though, she doesn’t content herself with just viewing things from afar as most of her sisters did. No, she heads straight for the nearest humans she can find – on a ship in the middle of the ocean, and she watches them on deck for hours, completely captivated by these people so different from herself, particularly one handsome young man who happens to be a prince.
The mermaid is supposed to return after a few hours, but she is so enthralled that she can’t tear herself away, and it’s kind of a good thing because a storm comes up suddenly, and the ship is destroyed. She watches the prince sink beneath the waves, and at first, she’s pleased because it means he can live under the water with her, but then she remembers that he’s human and can’t breathe water and so would just die, so she saves him instead. This is a nice little twist on the traditional Siren mythology.
She takes him to shore, but she can’t do any more than that for him. However, she can’t bear to leave without knowing that he’s safe, so she waits until some girls come out with the daylight, find him, and take him in to care for him. Once the mermaid knows he’ll live, she returns back home.
Once home again, she refuses to share her adventure with anyone, and partially at least, it’s no wonder. We’re told that her sisters have reached the age where going above the surface is something they can do at any time, so the novelty has worn off, and they’re pretty much over it. But the littlest mermaid isn’t. In fact, she’s more obsessed than ever, especially after her grandmother tells her that though humans can’t live for hundreds of years the way mermaids can, they do have souls, and so gain eternal life after their deaths.
And the little mermaid wants a soul desperately. Once she hears about this, she can’t get it out of her mind, just like the human world and her young prince. But the only way to get a soul is for a human man to love her more than anything else in his world, to agree to marry her, and so share his soul with her.
The little mermaid becomes obsessed with this idea, and with the prince she saved, who she has taken to watching from the sea as often as she can, and eventually, the obsession reaches the point (as they always seem to) where she goes and does Something Very Stupid.
She knows that if anyone has the power to help her get what she wants, it’s the Sea Witch. The Sea Witch is terrifying and powerful, and no one really goes near her because of those reasons, but the little mermaid gathers her courage and goes for a visit, and can I just say? The Sea Witch is one of my favorite characters in this story, and a lot of that has to do with the very first thing we hear her say:
“I know what you want,” said the sea witch; “it is very stupid of you, but you shall have your way, and it will bring you to sorrow, my pretty princess.”
Yeah. I love her.
Basically, this is a character who honestly does her damnedest to try and make the little mermaid see sense. She says, straight off, ‘this is a really poor choice, honey. I can do what you want, I can take your tail away and give you legs and make you human, but it’s gonna hurt, constantly. Every step you take will feel like you’re walking on knives, and you’ll bleed all the time. You sure you want that?’
And the little mermaid says yes. And then the Sea Witch says, ‘okay, but full disclosure, because there’s more, you can’t ever become a mermaid again. Once you’re a human, you’re a human. Even if he never loves you, even if you don’t get what you want. This is permanent. You can never see your kingdom or home or family again. You have to live above sea forever, oh, and if he doesn’t love you and share his soul with you, if he ever marries someone else, you will die and become sea foam the morning after.’
And the little mermaid says, yeah, I get it, let’s get on with it. And the Sea Witch says, ‘okay, look. Seriously, this is really bad deal. Because I’m not done yet. You don’t get something for nothing; I need payment. And because of the seriousness of the spell, it requires the most precious thing you have to give – your voice. You will never be able to speak or sing again, and you’ll have to rely on your form and your grace to win him over. Do you really want to do this?’
And then little mermaid says yes. And the Sea Witch basically shrugs and says, ‘okay, kid. Your funeral.’ And it all goes down exactly as the Sea Witch said. The mermaid has her tongue cut out, and she is given legs and deposited on the shore where the prince will find her. Sea Witch didn’t have to do that, by the way. She just threw it in for free.
She becomes the prince’s confidante, his little dancer, and while he does love her, he loves her like a sister. He calls her his little mute foundling, and he confides to her the things closest to his heart – that he fell in love some time ago with the girl who rescued him, but she was a member of a convent, and so they can never be together, and now his father is forcing him to marry a foreign princess he’s never met.
So his heart is breaking because he loves this temple girl but can’t tell her or win her love, and her heart is breaking because she loves him but he’ll never reciprocate that love. But then, hope! Because the prince declares he won’t be forced into marriage – he says he’ll go see this foreign princess and meet her, but that if he doesn’t like her, he’ll choose his own bride, and that he’d rather marry his mute dancer than a foreign stranger.
But just as the little mermaid allows herself hope, it is snatched away again, for when the prince goes to meet the princess his parents want him to wed, lo and behold, it is the girl who saved him on the beach, who was being taught at the holy temple, and so of course, he confesses his love and learns that she loves him, too, and so they are to be married and live happily ever after together.
The little mermaid’s heart is crushed. But seeing him so happy, she cannot bring herself to do anything that might destroy that happiness. She helps prepare the wedding, and she carries the bride’s train, knowing all the while that she will die in the morning. But because he is happy, she will not fight it.
Her sisters discover what has happened, though, and that night, the appear, having gone and made their own deal with the Sea Witch. In exchange for their hair, they have procured an enchanted knife. If the little mermaid kills the prince before the sun rises, his blood will change her back into a mermaid, and she can live out the rest of her years in the sea. All she has to do is kill the man she loves.
She refuses. She throws the knife away into the sea and then dives into the water after it, fully prepared to die. But before she can become sea foam, she is taken by the air spirits, who tell her that they, like the mermaids, have no souls. But if they serve humanity for 300 years, doing good in the world, they will be rewarded with a soul, and because the little mermaid has struggled so hard to do good in her dealings with the prince, they offer to change her to an air spirit and give her the same chance. She agrees. The end.
My thoughts? I love this story. I think it’s heart-breaking and tragically beautiful, and I love it. I love that we have a fairy tale here whose ultimate message isn’t that true love conquers all, but that the happiness of others is more important than our own happiness. Is the little mermaid reckless and stupid in the deal she makes with the Sea Witch? Absolutely. But, she learns. She grows, she changes, and what she comes to understand in the end, that truly loving someone sometimes means letting them go, is an incredibly important and human message, far more realistic and meaningful, in many ways, that the idea that true love conquers all.
So what am I looking for in an adaptation?
Exploration of the human characters – there is a truly beautiful love story in this tale: a prince lies abandoned on a beach, close to death. A girl finds him, takes him home, nurses him back to life. They fall in love, but because he is a prince and she is a temple girl, they can never be together. They’re separated. He’s promised to someone else. But when he meets her, who should she be but the girl who rescued him, a princess in secret! It’s a wonderful story. It just doesn’t involve the titular character. So I’d like to see these two and their love story explored. Which leads us right into . . .
No villainization of the side characters. Not naming any names *coughDisneycough* there are a lot of people who really polarize some of the characters in this story, like the Sea Witch. They turn her into a horrible villainess who wants to destroy the little mermaid. But reread that story, folks. The Sea Witch is trying to help the little mermaid. She tries three separate times to talk her out of making a deal, and she gives her an out through her sisters. Yeah, she makes the potion anyway, but that’s because she’s a morally gray character, and it’s the mermaid’s decision in the end, not hers. This is such a fantastic character, and turning her into a black and white villain takes away her awesomeness.
Similarly, the girl on the beach is often given the same treatment, purely because she’s not the little mermaid. But think about it – this girl saved the prince just as surely as the little mermaid did. The little mermaid saved him from drowning. But the girl on the beach nursed him back to health and saw him home. The fact that her existence creates a love triangle is no reason to make her anything other than a three-dimensional character, and I will call you out if you do it.
Finally, the message in the end. I’ll be asking this question: How does your story end? If it ends with the prince and the little mermaid getting a happily ever after, well . . . then we’re probably going have a problem, and here’s why. There are thousands of stories out there about a prince and a girl finding love with each other despite massive odds. This story? Isn’t one of them. This story was written with an altogether different end goal in mind. The message behind this original story is beautiful and heart-wrenching, and while an adaptation’s message doesn’t have to be exactly the same, if you reduce this beautifully tragic story to a “true love conquers all” story, then I have a problem with you. Because why pick an Anderson story in the first place? Put it another way:
Are you adapting Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” or Disney’s? If you’re adapting Anderson’s, great. I look forward to seeing what you do with it. If you’re adapting Disney’s, run, because I’m going to come find you and smack you (disagree all you like, and many of you might, but this is something I believe very strongly about).
That being said, here’s our reading list for the month:
Week 1: Teenage Mermaid by Ellen Schreiber
Week 2: Midnight Pearls by Debbie Vigue
Week 3: Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon
Week 4: Fortune’s Fool by Mercedes Lackey
Feel free to read along!