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. 

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1 comment:

alvarocan said...

Quite the departure from the Walt Disney version of the same story, and yet at the same time one that I don't believe is beyond the understanding or intuition of children. Perhaps with the right kind of discussion, it is possible to help them grasp the truth of the human condition without sugar-coating it!

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