Monday, March 31, 2008

The Little Mermaid

The little mermaid drew back the crimson curtain of the tent, and beheld the fair bride with her head resting on the prince’s breast. She bent down and kissed his fair brow, then looked at the sky on which the rosy dawn grew brighter and brighter; then she glanced at the sharp knife, and again fixed her eyes on the prince, who whispered the name of his bride in his dreams. She was in his thoughts, and the knife trembled in the hand of the little mermaid: then she flung it far away from her into the waves; the water turned red where it fell, and the drops that spurted up looked like blood. She cast one more lingering, half-fainting glance at the prince, and then threw herself from the ship into the sea, and thought her body was dissolving into foam. The sun rose above the waves, and his warm rays fell on the cold foam of the little mermaid, who did not feel as if she were dying. She saw the bright sun, and all around her floated hundreds of transparent beautiful beings; she could see through them the white sails of the ship, and the red clouds in the sky; their speech was melodious, but too ethereal to be heard by mortal ears, as they were also unseen by mortal eyes. The little mermaid perceived that she had a body like theirs, and that she continued to rise higher and higher out of the foam. “Where am I?” asked she, and her voice sounded ethereal, as the voice of those who were with her; no earthly music could imitate it.
~from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (1836)

The original fairy tale is remote from the Disney rendition, for Andersen's story of forbidden and impossible love is characterized by sacrifice on the part of the heroine for her beloved. In failing to win the prince's heart, the mermaid must stab him if she wishes to return to the sea. The little mermaid, however, chooses to die herself rather than to kill.

One has a sense of the heavy price that is paid for disobedience, especially disobedience to a parent. Although it is obviously a story for children, there is the underlying theme of the consequences of bending the laws of nature. The little mermaid wanted to be human; she wanted to be other than what she was, and was willing to make a pact with the powers of darkness in order to have her way. As with all such bad bargains, the naive party cannot win. The little mermaid is doomed, but she ultimately finds redemption in her self-renunciation, and comes to a better place.

(Artwork by Edmund Dulac) Share


Catherine Delors said...

You just made me remember that the very first book I was given was the Tales of Andersen. It was late at night, and I was already in bed when one of my aunts brought it to me.
I may have been two or three years old, and could not read yet, but what a gift it was! How many times I cried over the fate of the Little Mermaid... Andersen has the gift of capturing the poignancy of life.
Your illustrations are beautiful too, on a par with the quality of the text.
Thank you!

elena maria vidal said...

It is a story which I always loved as well! "The Snow Queen," too!

Alexandra said...

We have the non-Disney version, and I love it as well. Some of those original fairy tales were really heavy, especially the Russian ones and the original Grimm's fairy tales. They gave me nightmares as a child! We are bit tender hearted here(whimpy really) far we've stuck with the warm and fuzzy stories like Swedish brownie tales.

I love Edmund Dulac's illustrations - just beuatiful!

hummingbird said...

What a great analysis... Yes, the story shows the consequences not only of trying to bend the laws of nature but also of trying to do a bad thing in order to do a good thing.

It also helped me to better appreciate the importance of being human, and of having an immortal soul, since much of the poignancy of the mermaids is that they lack such immortality, although the heroine eventually seems to gain some kind of existence after death, as a special dispensation... Of course, in reality, if such creatures existed, they would have to have immortal souls, since they are rational beings... But still, it makes a great story.