Sunday, April 26, 2009

Learning to be human from The Little Mermaid

The Little Mermaid at Stanley Park
The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen was my favourite fairy tale as a child. For reasons I could not then name, I found it deeply satisfying, even if the little mermaid didn't end up with the prince. Revisiting it as an adult, I see now how marvellously rich and complex a story it is. Andersen's lush descriptions and enchanting plot fully capture a child's imagination. At the same time, the story easily resonates with adults because it grapples with the deepest longings of the human heart.

"Far out to sea…" The opening lines of the story sweeps us away with the swiftness of a speedboat to a magical, underwater kingdom inhabited by the mythical mermen. The heroine of the story is the sea-king's daughter. The youngest and fairest of six girls, her fascination with the world above the surface sets her apart from her sisters. Her love for the human prince ultimately causes her to leave her home and loved ones for a painful and uncertain future. Andersen manages to imbue the little mermaid’s alienation with real and intense emotion, translating into her character his own feelings of being an outsider (see Bredsdorff’s excellent biography, Hans Christian Andersen: The Story of His Life and Work).

Andersen also makes the little mermaid a true protagonist, in charge of her own destiny. She is not your usual fairytale princess, the kind that waits for the prince to kiss her awake or for her turn to try on the glass slipper.

First of all, and quite remarkably, the little mermaid saves the prince’s life, rescuing him from a shipwreck. In a valiant attempt to win his love and an immortal soul, she then visits the sea-witch, who strikes a terrible bargain: in exchange for a pair of legs, the little mermaid must give up her voice.

The witch also warns her that the transformation of her tail into legs will feel like being torn into two with a sharp sword, and every step on dry land will be as if she were walking on sharp knives. Even more painful will be the separation from her home and loved ones: never again will she live underwater, and if she fails in her attempt to win the prince, she will turn into sea-foam. The little mermaid agrees to everything, and with characteristic fairytale violence, the witch cuts out her tongue.

The prince of the story, on the other hand, is practically unconscious. He has no idea that the little mermaid was the one who really saved him from drowning. He treats her like a beloved pet, “but to make her his queen did not occur to him at all”.

However, the little mermaid remains faithful and devoted to him to the end. Even after he falls in love with and marries another, she refuses to take advantage of an enchanted knife, kindly provided by the sea-witch, which if plunged into the prince’s heart would cause his blood to splash onto her legs and turn them into a fish-tail once more. The little mermaid would rather face “an endless night without thought or dreams” than kill her love.

The little mermaid doesn’t end up with her prince, but she doesn’t turn into sea-foam either. It is neither a fairy-tale ending nor a tragedy, and features another unique twist: the little mermaid apparently has turned into an angel-like spirit, with a chance to win immortality. Ultimately, it is the only fitting reward for her tremendous love, courage, and selflessness. 


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Meaning of Home

Last November my parents made what is hopefully the last big move of their married life, and left Vancouver for Montreal.

After a tearful goodbye at the airport, I got on the bus that would take me to a Skytrain station, and so on to Surrey, where I had been living for the past year – during the week, anyway. I still went “home” to Aldergrove most weekends – even if they consisted mostly of cleaning up and clearing out while the realtor brought around prospective buyers. As long as my parents still lived in Aldergrove, that was home to me, no matter where I laid my head during the week.

Don’t get me wrong. I will be eternally grateful to this good friend of mine who had offered me not only the extra bedroom and bathroom in her spacious townhouse, but also the space on the landing for my reading lamp, chair, and books; half her linen closet and kitchen storage; and the entire back end of her garage for all my extra stuff. Not to mention the fact that she herself is quiet, orderly, undemanding, and eats anything I cook for her (even the weirdest Pinoy food). I knew that when I got back to “our place” all would be clean, tidy, and peaceful. But as I made my way back to Surrey on that November day, feeling like an abandoned orphan, I was amazed to find that I was also homesick. I wanted to get on the bus that would take me over Langley's long green hills to Aldergrove. I wanted to walk down the street from the bus stop and see the yellow siding and gray shingle roof peeking through the trees that separated our yard from the neighbour’s. I wanted to open the front door and find everything and everyone still there where they belonged – including the dog (and she had been dead for a year).

When you live someplace for a long time, you tend to put down roots, and it’s a wrench to pull them back up. Or worse, leave them behind: the neighbours whose children grew up along with your siblings, all the wonderful folks at church, the cashiers at the supermarket who know you by name, your fellow regulars at the gym, the waitress at the corner Japanese restaurant who doesn't have to give you a menu because she already knows exactly what you’re going to order. The roses and peonies you set out in the garden; the cotoneaster, now running riot, that started out as seven small plants; the lilac bush that over the years became a tree. In the garden outside and in the empty rooms within are the ghosts of small children now grown up and gone, laughter over long-forgotten jokes, and echoes of conversations around a dining table that’s been packed up and moved away.

You know you will always remember them, and wonder if they will remember you.

And after a while you realize that the only cure for homesickness is to put down new roots and start being happy where you are.

To me, the word home will always bring to mind a picture of our happy little yellow house. Fortunately, my parents gave me the blueprints and tools to duplicate it, wherever I happen to be.

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