Thursday, June 1, 2023

The Pain, Humanity, and Ascension of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”

 From TOR:

Hans Christian Andersen’s earliest years were marked by extreme poverty. His parents did not live together until nine months after his birth, leading Andersen and others to wonder if his father of record—also named Hans Andersen, a shoemaker—was indeed his father. Highly dubious legends later insisted that Andersen was the illegitimate scion of noble, even royal blood, but if so, noble and royal money was distinctly absent in those early years. His maternal grandmother died in a poorhouse, as did his mother. His (probable) paternal grandfather became mentally ill later in life, and also landed in a poorhouse, leaving his wife and children in desperate financial straits. A cousin landed in jail for begging.

What saved Andersen’s soul, then and later, were fairy tales about magical things like little mermaids.

Andersen probably first heard traditional folk tales from his grandmother and other relatives, tales he later worked into his own fiction. Despite the family poverty, the young Andersen also managed to attend, if irregularly, two infant schools and the town’s charity school, which gave him the ability to read a book that transformed his imagination: The Arabian Nights. He also discovered the theatre, another source of magic. When he was fourteen, he travelled to Copenhagen to work in a theatre there, a job that brought him the opportunity for more schooling and exposure to more books. Slowly, he became a writer and creator of new fairy tales.

His initial fairy tales tended to stay close to their oral roots, but gradually, Andersen began to add his own elements to his tales, creating stories that combined elements of folklore, romance, angst, social commentary, angst, delicate magical details, and, for a change, angst. His first volume of fairy tales, which initially appeared as a series of three thin booklets between 1835 and 1837, included a mix of retold folktales and original work, including “The Little Mermaid,” which was first translated into English in 1872.

Andersen had undoubtedly heard legends of mermaids and selkies and sirens and other creatures of the water. The stories date well back into ancient times, and European interest in mermaids had recently resurged thanks in part Frederick de la Motte Fouque’s worldwide bestseller Undine (1811), the tragic story of a water spirit and a knight. Andersen certainly knew the book; he may also have known the E.T.A. Hoffman opera based on the book, first performed in 1814. It reminded him that not all fairy tales need to have a happy ending, and that the quest for a soul can be a dangerous one.

“The Little Mermaid” opens happily enough, with a rich description of the underwater palace of the Sea King. Andersen, unlike other fantasy writers who told stories of similar underwater kingdoms, makes no attempt here for any oceanographic accuracy: his intent here is to build fantasy, and so the palace windows, for example, are made of amber, not exactly a sea product—although later, the little mermaid has to pass through what sounds suspiciously like fire coral, very definitely a marine product, to reach the sea witch.

The little mermaid is the youngest of six sisters, eagerly waiting her chance to head up to the surface of the water where she’ll be able to see humans and other surface wonders as well. The minute she does, things go wrong: she sees glorious fireworks and a handsome prince, but the ship she sees is almost immediately wrecked, with no survivors other than the prince, who only lives because the little mermaid drags him to the shore.

That’s the first hint that the story will not go well. The little mermaid becomes obsessed with the prince—she kissed him a few times in the water—and starts following him as much as she can, and collecting information about him. From this, she learns he’s a good guy—I have my doubts about this, but let’s move on for now—and decides to become human, so she can be with him. The sea witch she consults counsels her against this, since if it doesn’t work out, the mermaid will die, but the mermaid is determined: she gives up her voice, and heads to the surface, to walk on legs that cut like knives at every step.

Once on the surface, the prince dresses her up as a pageboy, and occasionally kisses her passionately on the forehead and says that he might—he might—just marry her. And then he marries someone else—the girl he thinks saved his life, who is also very beautiful, and, I might note, not dressed up as a pageboy, and who does not ask any pointed questions about the beautiful voiceless girl who has been sleeping at the prince’s door on a velvet cushion. Prince, I feel we need to talk about a few things, including the sleeping arrangements you’ve made for little voiceless foundling girls that you occasionally kiss on the forehead, but we may not have that kind of time. (Read more.)


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