Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Little Mermaid: a Tale of Woe

In college, I took a children's literature course and I learned that many of the classic fairy tales we hear growing up, from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, are actually really dark and gnarly.  Many of these stories have been Disney-fied and sanitized.  A perfect example of this is The Little Mermaid.

Today, I read the original version of The Little Mermaid, by Hans Christian Anderson, and it is super dark and sad.  The story begins much like the Disney version.  There is a little mermaid princess, the daughter of the king of an underwater kingdom, who longs to see what things are like for the humans who live on land.  One day, she saves a prince from drowning during a shipwreck and she falls madly in love with him.

The little mermaid makes a deal with a sea-witch, who gives her a potion that will transform her fins into legs.  But there is a heavy price to pay.  The sea-witch says: "Now I shall make a special potion for you; before the sun rises you must swim with it to the land, sit down and drink it up.  Then your tail will divide in two and shrink into what those humans call a lovely pair of legs.  But it'll hurt; it will be like a sharp sword going through you.  Everyone will say that you are the loveliest child they have ever seen.  You will glide along--ah, more gracefully than any dancer, but every step you take will be like treading on a sharp knife.  If you are willing to suffer all this, then I will help you."  The sea-witch also literally cuts off the little mermaid's tongue.  The little mermaid agrees to this awful deal.  She makes her way to dry land, drinks the potion, and thus begins her journey of suffering that will not end well.  

She meets the prince and he takes her to his palace, where they are waited on by "slave-girls."  The prince and princess begin an amiable friendship, and they hang out a lot.  All the while, the little mermaid is suffering in silence.  She is tongueless and "every step she took made her feel as if she treading on pointed swords, just as the witch had warned her--yet she endured it gladly."

Unfortunately, the prince decides to marry another woman, the princess of a neighboring kingdom.  It is essentially a political marriage.

The little mermaid attends their wedding celebration and dances for her prince.  She is, of course, suffering a lot: "Sharp knives seemed to cut her delicate feet, yet she hardly felt them, so deep was the pain in her heart.  She could not forget that this was the last night she would ever see the one for whom she had left her home and family, had given up her beautiful voice, and had day by day endured unending torment, of which he knew nothing at all.  An eternal night awaited her."

On the night of the wedding, the little mermaid is visited by her sisters, who have made a deal with the sea-witch and given up their hair in exchange for a chance to save their sister.  Here's the plan: "She has given us a knife.  Look!  See how sharp it is!  Before the sun rises you must plunge it into the prince's heart; when his warm blood splashes your feet, they will grow together into a fish's tail and you will become a mermaid once again, just as you used to be."

But the little mermaid cannot bring herself to kill her beloved and bathe in his blood.  Instead, she chooses suicide: "Then she threw herself from the ship into the sea, where she felt her body dissolving into foam."

The little mermaid's one consolation is that, upon dying, she is transformed into a spirit with an immortal soul, who must wander in a kind of purgatory-state for 300 years, after which she may be allowed to enter "the kingdom of heaven."

As with all fairy tales, there is a moral attached at the end.  It's definitely not the moral I would arrive at, but here it is.  One of the other purgatory-spirits explains to the little mermaid: "Unseen, we glide into human homes where there are children, and whenever we find a good child, one who makes its parents happy and deserves their love, God shortens our time of trial.  The child never knows when we fly through the room; if its goodness makes us smile with pleasure, a year is taken from the three hundred.  But if we see a naughty, evil child, then we must weep tears of sorrow, and each tear added one day more to our time of waiting."

This "moral" feels like shameless guilt-mongering.  If I had to deduce a moral, it would be something like this: Don't sacrifice your identity and gifts for love, you are beautiful just as you are.  Don't commit suicide for love.  If you feel you must give up the most beautiful parts of yourself for love, then it is not love.

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