Was The Little Mermaid Hans Christian Andersen himself?
Andersen was better than Disney
The Little Mermaid (with sequels) is a popular animated movie, made by Disney, but if we are not aiming at just plain entertainment, the original fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen offers much more.
Andersen's Little Mermaid is one of his best, but also most sad stories with many autobiographical elements.
Shall we examine the surprising history of this tale, where even the great master of storytelling lost control?
Disney changed it into a family movie in sequels
Who wrote Little Mermaid, anyway?
Although we have to give the credit of authorship to Andersen, we should note his Little Mermaid is not completely original. The basic plot is copied from Undine, written by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque.
Undine is a romantic novel, based on french folk-tale and was one of the most popular books in 19th century. Andersen was familiar with it for sure. While he copied combination of the improbable love between a human and a fairy creature with a quest for soul, he also made many original twists and enriched the story with many autobiographical elements.
How can writing expose the writer
Even if we never heard about the other versions of Little Mermaid and don't really care about Andersen's personal involvement in writing, we can spot few moments in the story where things don't look just they supposed to. Here are three of them:
1. The situation where the mermaid rescues the prince, but backs up, when she could take the credit for her bravery is pretty contradictory with her character as it is presented before and after that.
But it tells us more about Andersen's personality than he probably wanted to tell in any of his three (!) autobiographies, written during his life. He was extremely shy in personal relations and he never overcame the problem of expressing and confronting his true feelings. Although being in love more than few times, he never managed to build an intimate relationship.
2. The scene where the title character gets a chance to get even, if she kills the prince, is wrong from the very beginning. Well, not exactly wrong, but certainly not written in the tradition of folktales.
With all the painful self-sacrifice it actually looks more like a passage from Holy Bible. Hans Christian Andersen was very religious and he found deep consolation for his numerous personal problems in faith. If we look at the fairy tale about the little mermaid as the retelling of his situation in real life, it totally makes sense to understand this particular fairy tale as kind of religiously inspired statement.
3. The afterword with explanation of the rules by which can the mermaid achieve her main goal (immortal soul) sooner if children behave and later if they don't. This definitely sounds more like a preaching, not storytelling.
Listeners don't appreciate this kind of blackmailing and we can say the writer of Andersen's quality should never afford to do that.
All this can used as a proof showing how deeply was Andersen involved in the story, if he made such 'mistakes', but we can actually confirm the theory with documents: personal letters and writer's diary.
Instead of doing that, we'll try to stay on the brighter, although a bit yellowish side and explain who are the real people, who inspired Andersen's retelling of this popular fairy tale.
What do you think about this problems in Andersen's story?
Real characters in the story of Little Mermaid
Real Little Mermaid
The title character is Hans Christian of course. She doesn't only resemble his personal love story (unfulfilled), it resembles some of his characteristics too. Both are secluded, both very curious, both fascinated with new, unexplored places, and being both of royal origin (Andersen believed he was an illegitimate son of Christian VIII) seek for attention from nobility.
There is more. The greatest storyteller of all times tried to enter the world of theater (his initial plan, when he left his home was 'to become famous') as a singer and dancer much before he wrote the first lines of any kind of fiction. He was even accepted in Royal Danish Theater thanks to his marvelous tenor, but his voice soon changed and he lost the job. As a dancer, he was not so deprived of skill than elegance because he was too tall. All details are closely related to the mermaids' sacrifices who lost her family and voice and exchanged fishtail for human legs (she could dance gracefully, but every step hurt).
As we can see, the mermaid is making a sacrifice after a sacrifice, to get closer with the prince, and it is obvious he likes her company as well. On the other hand, he stays distant and in some cases their relationship doesn't even resemble friendship. When we find out he allows her to sleep at the doors of his bedroom, we get the feeling he thinks about her more like about a pet.
Who was the real prince in Andersen's life? Who was nice, polite, but always reserved in all communications with the famous storyteller? If we recognized the writer in the mermaid, can we presume the prince was actually a lady?
Not at all! Although Hans Christian Andersen was seriously in love several times, biographers agree the prince in The Little Mermaid could be only one person: Edvard Collin.
Edvard Collin was a son of Jonas Collin, director Royal Danish Theater and benefactor of Hans who arranged him some additional education and convinced King Frederick VI to pay for it. Hans Christian and Edvard became good friends but with time Andersen's affection grew into infatuation.
When he confessed his love, Edvard stayed friendly, but kept the distance. He never even accepted Andersen's proposal to be addressed as a friend and family member (they were living under same roof for years after all) and insisted to stay formal to the very end of their lives.
On the other hand he didn't mind to be on more friendly grounds with members of upper middle class (like Wilhelm Wanscher for instance) which family Collin belonged and Andersen didn't.
Henriette Oline Thyberg
Henriette Thyberg was a family friend who married Edvard Collin in August 1836 (1836 is the same year when fairy tale The Little Mermaid was written). She was also a member of bourgeois class and a perfect match for Edvard.
They had four kids: three daughter (two died as kids) and a boy and they all became sort of extended family for Hans Christian who wasn't very skillful with paperwork and used all the help he could get from Edvard with publishing contracts and other business aspects of his creative work. In return he build a monument to Edvard and Henriette's daughter Gerda, which died when she was only four in another masterpiece: The Snow Queen, where the main character of the story is designed (and named) right after the deceased girl.
Although Henriette in way defeated Hans in 'fight' for Edvard's heart, they all remained friends through all their lives and were even buried in the same grave for several years. So we can't be surprised to find how the mermaid could not harm the prince, when she saw him sleeping in the bed with his bride.
What about other characters?
We could go on and on with decoding the fairy tale, maybe starting with Little Mermaid's sisters who tried to get her back in their kingdom underwater just like the writer's real family members on several occasions unpleasantly reminded him of his origin, but there is no need for that.
The fact is this particular fairy tale was not meant to be read to children. It was not even meant to be published. The initial intention of H. C. Andersen was to write a beautiful, sad and slightly accusing love letter to the biggest love of his life. Yes, just like we can say The Puss in the Boots could be read as Perrault's cynical biography, we can understand The Little Mermaid as a romantic love letter in which, despite some above mentioned imperfections is one of the best literary works ever.
The reason is probably very simple. We can all relate to the pains of the rejected siren, just like we can all relate with a Cinderella in certain points of our lives. When a story is able to touch so many hearts in the audience, it is a great story and we don't need a literary critic for further explanations.
About my resources and further reading
My main source for this article was my examination of H. C. Andersen's life which is (in short version and in Slovene language) published here:
Another rich resource was a mythology surrounding mermaids. We can find them in many cultures and they almost always represent interesting mixture of allure and shiver. You can find more about them here:
So we can look at Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid as a very special love letter or as a starting point for further explorations of mysterious imaginary worlds. Have a great journey!