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Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid
Posters of Little Mermaid are still in demand
Hans Christian Andersen and Original Little Mermaid
The Little Mermaid is one of the most popular fairy tales in the world, and very likely the most known story for children with an unhappy ending. It actually depends on which version are you familiar with. What do you consider as a happy ending, anyway? Today majority of American readers or viewers know her as Ariel, the name given by Disney Company.
Disney changed a very personal narration by Hans Christian Andersen into family fun with some classic romantic elements. They made a great job, but the depth and occasional darkness of original Little Mermaid were replaced with showy music scores and predictable outcome.
Ops, did I use the word original? We have to say few words about that term too.
(Intro image: Evelyn Stuart Hardy, all used images are in public domain)
From Folklore to Pop Culture
Disney designed Ariel after Andersen's tale, but Danish writer was also inspired by today less known novella by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque. This German romance was one of the most popular stories in the 19th century and although today not considered as material for children George MacDonald once used it for his famous definition of a fairy tale.
But Undine is far from being an original work of art as well. La Motte Fouque's most famous writing is actually rewritten legend about Melusine, a water sprite who married a knight on condition he doesn't see her on particular day in the week (Saturday). What was her secret? She changed her shape on this day to be a mermaid. This so-called shapeshifting was very popular in folk tales and legends (just think about werewolves, frogs turning to princes, the tale about The Belle and The Beast, ...) and is still very popular in today's culture (think about vampire sagas).
So here we are - a traditional tale, known in many variations, written as a classic love story, and then reshaped as a story for kids with strong personal involvement. I believe the secret of success of The Little Mermaid lies right here. Andersen wrote it in a very special state of mind. It's actually his personal story of unrequited love. It became an endless source of guesswork for historians and an immense inspiration for generations of artists.
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen as a Book
Although you may know the story of the adaptation, Andersen's fairy tale offers much more than Disney on several artistic, dramatic and emotional levels. If we limit the comparison to only the main goal of the major character, we can note a Little Mermaid is on the quest for the eternal soul while Ariel is just looking for a husband. Or: one is a tragic romance and the other kind of reality show.
This edition is illustrated by some of the greatest names in the history of books for children: Anne Anderson, Harry Clarke, Arthur Rackham and others offer a unique look into the imaginary world of the greatest storyteller.
Why is the character of little mermaid so special?
She is one of the most memorable characters in the world literature and definitely not a stereotypical lady in trouble waiting for the prince on the wild horse. On contrary - she is the one who saves him, despite the fact he marries another woman.
This is even more important if we think how many stereotypes are present about girls and women in the folklore.
Andersen's mermaid is brave and curious, what gives her a very special place on the list of best tales for kids ever.
To be honest ...
I already mentioned the courage, bravery, and inquisitiveness of the Little Mermaid, what is not so often in western folklore. But on the other side, just to be honest, cautionary tales, like The Little Red Cap or The Bluebeard share at least some similar characteristics with her. Especially curiosity is often portrayed as a rich source of all sorts of danger.
It's interesting to note how mermaids changed their role in the history. They were at first praised for their role in nature (bringing fertility to the soil near water), but later more and more used by storytellers to scare children from the rivers and similar bodies of water. We all know water as one of the biggest risks, not just because of the possibility of drowning, but also because different predators love to hide near water waiting for their pray.
Similarities between H. C. Andersen's personal life and the Little Mermaid
There is a well-developed theory about this fairy tale actually being a love letter of the author to his friend who got married (it was written around the time of wedding). In this article we'll try to focus only on similarities of the characters: the fictional mermaid and author himself:
1. Both are fascinated with the world up there. Although they are both of royal origins (Andersen believed he was an illegitimate son of a king), they craved to become important in different, more glamorous world which is apparently reserved for the upper class.
2. Both of them experienced the loss of voice. We know how Andersen entered the world of theater thanks to his beautiful tenor just to be excluded when his voice changed (puberty). As an already established writer, he didn't care about the voice anymore, but he was still very concerned about his writing as an ultimate communicating tool. He was aware of his problems with grammar (these persisted to the very end of his life) and still afraid of being abandoned.
We can also add his problems with expression of his feeling to people he loved and we can clearly see how little mermaid resembles him.
3. There is a very touching part of the story where we find out how prince treats his friend. He likes her and even let her sleep in front of the doors of his bedroom. This looks more like a treatment for a pet, not a friend, and it certainly echoes the way how Andersen himself felt on many occasion when he was included in high society, but always left somewhere at the doors.
4. The mermaid is dreaming about immortality just like Andersen himself. Death, religion and the quest for immortal soul were important part of Andersen's life, what is obvious from his diaries.
5. For the final touch, we can extrapolate similarities to another important writer who was also very popular but always on the margins of society - Oscar Wilde used Andersen's tale about the mermaid as inspiration for his Fisherman and the Soul, where he made an interesting twist. Instead of using a love story as a starting point in the quest for soul we learn about love being the reason for a lost soul.
Do you believe the title character was actually author himself?
It seems this lovely fairy tale is not only inspirational, it is an endless source of controversies as well. When Andersen died, Disney took over. In the case of Ariel (with sequels), we can find many controversies, but the main problem with the movie adaptation is probably how the main character is not satisfied with her friends, her relatives, and her body. She wants to become the part of the very different world (which is completely unknown to her) and she is willing to sacrifice her major talents for that.
She also without any hesitation leaves behind her old life, just like Andersen left when he moved from Odessa to Copenhagen.
On the other side, prince judges her only by her look, they never talk, what is definitely not the best message for young girls and boys. They didn't stop here. Disney Company even remodeled the main villain - Ursula - to became more fashionable: slim.
Little Mermaid on video
My resources and further readings
A fairy tale can be simple, but when you start to explore them, they can easily turn into very complex projects. Here are only a few of my resources and some suggestion on more info for everybody who is interested in H. C. Andersen and his work.
- Fairy Tales written by H. C. Andersen
He used folk motifs, but enriched them with his personal experience and unique humor.
- Was The Little Mermais actually a love letter?
Interesting exploration of the scenery behind the writing of the fairy tale about the little siren.
- Everything about Mermaids in Pictures
A lot of interesting info about mermaids and their relatives with a lot of pictures made by famous artists.