From The Mermaid Sets the Story Straight
By Debra Cash
Hans lied. He simply couldn't imagine
I would want to shed the blubbery tail
dragging behind me like a torn bridal gown
that I would prefer to stand on my own two feet
and walk on my own, love or no love.
Hans lied. He didn't know the prince was just an excuse
for me to change my life, to stop being a sister, a daughter.
He was right about the knives; even masochistic Hans
knew it hurts to walk alone even when the walk is downhill,
even when you know where you are going.
But it would have hurt my pride even more to stay,
modeling for those wooden women who face into the gale
steered by princes and merchants and pirates.
Of course I have a soul.
The foam of heaven, you know, is not that different
from the foam seething at the water's edge.
The full poem can be found here.
This month, I’ve taken on a lot. I found Mermaid by Carolyn Turgeon in the library, back in March, and took it as a sign that my next feature should be The Little Mermaid, or to give it Hans Christian Andersen’s original title, The Little Sea Maid. Obviously, that meant I needed to read Mermaid, The Little Sea Maid, and re-watch Disney’s The Little Mermaid, and all this in a month where I’ve not felt overly inclined towards writing at all! Despite literally having to force myself to sit down and begin writing this, I’m glad that Mermaid found me. It’s been interesting.
I’ve always adored the story of the Little Mermaid. I have a strange addiction to the sea, which is what led to us moving to live near it at the end of last year. When I’m standing looking at the sea, I find it really hard to tear my eyes away, or to concentrate on anything else but the water: the way that it looks and sounds and feels. It always seems to blur everything else out, and so reading and watching all the different versions of the story this month has been really calming for me, making me feel kind of like I’ve been submerged under the sea, floating around in the clear water, the sandy sea bed dappled with patches of sunlight, befriending cute little fish... obviously the sea in my head is Disney sea, not actual sea! My apologies if this gets a little long and/or feminist ranty. It wasn’t intended that way, but in my submersion, lots of issues have come up.
Hans Christian Andersen first published The Little Mermaid in 1837, and, unlike Rapunzel, my March feature, it doesn’t have too much of a history in the folklore or oral tradition. Andersen was its’ original creator. Undine, by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque is thought to have had an influence on the tale, and The Little Mermaid has been seen as a reaction to it. I’m still in the process of reading it - if anyone’s interested, it can be found here.
I’d had Andersen’s story read to me as a child, and remember being really sad about the ending, where the little mermaid’s heart breaks because the prince doesn’t love her, and she turns into foam, but the version that I’m most familiar with, and I think this probably holds true for most people, is the animated Disney film. Honestly, having now read a lot about the little mermaid, I think I prefer the original.
Of the three, my favourite was actually Mermaid. I don’t know if it’s a little bit blasphemous to prefer a rewrite to the original – I feel like it might be, but at the same time, rewrites have more to build on, and Carolyn Turgeon’s version was, surprisingly, very close to the original story. In both Mermaid, and Andersen’s original, the mermaid saves the prince from a storm and drags him to shore, where another young girl from a convent discovers him. This is the girl whom he believes has saved him. In both stories, the girl in the convent is actually a princess, destined to marry the prince, and in both stories, the mermaid is given the false hope that the prince can love her, and eventually cast aside. In both stories, the mermaid refuses to kill the prince. However, while both mermaids are naive and tragic figures, Mermaid balanced the character of the mermaid, Lenia – similar to Disney’s Ariel, but with a lot more backbone and strength – not one to just hope things go her way - who would do anything for love of the prince, with the tough determination and independence of Princess Margrethe, the girl in the convent. Turgeon has given her story a context; Margrethe is the daughter of the King of the North, Christopher (the prince), the son of the King of the South. When she helps Lenia rescue Christopher, Margrethe is in hiding in a convent. For many years there has been war between North and South, and although it is ostensibly a time of peace, the King still fears for her safety. However, when she finds out who the beautiful young man that she rescued is, she hatches a plan of her own. By offering to marry the son of the King of the South, she hopes to bring peace between the two kingdoms, with the added bonus that she gets to be with the guy she’s in love with, but I’m sure that hadn’t occurred to her at all, and it was all in the name of politics...
The rest of the story occurs in similar (although definitely much more adult) fashion to the Disney film. The mermaid trades her beautiful voice for legs with the sea witch (who, interestingly, isn’t the horrible monster she is in the Disney version, but rather just someone with a lot of wisdom, who knows that sometimes you have to let people make their own mistakes..), the prince finds her on the shore, and is convinced she is the girl he dreams about, until he discovers that she cannot speak. Nevertheless, he takes her back to his castle, and proceeds to fall in love with her. They have a very touching relationship, which is interrupted by the arrival of Margrethe, and the insistence of Christopher’s parents that they marry.
In the original, the prince falls at the feet of princess, once he realises that she is the girl he thinks saved him, but not so here. After he realises Margrethe is the girl from the convent, , there are multiple times when he wants nothing to do with Margrethe, and many times he takes the (now pregnant with his child) Lenia’s side. Eventually, however, Margrethe and his parents wear him down, and he agrees to marry her, and it was the ending I thought, which was the most interesting of all. In Andersen’s version, the prince marries the princess, and the next morning, knowing that the mermaid will turn to foam, her sisters come to her, having traded their hair with the sea witch, for a knife, which, if used to spill the prince’s blood, will save the mermaid from death. The mermaid goes to the prince, and seeing him asleep with his new wife, and so happy, is unable to use the knife. She dives into the water and turns to foam.
In Turgeon’s book, the same thing happens. Lenia refuses to kill the prince, but Margrethe, seeing that Lenia is about to die, spills her own blood, saying that it is equal to Christopher’s now that they are married. She saves Lenia, who returns to the sea with her family, and raises Lenia’s child as her own. It was the bond between the two women which really made the book for me, and I loved the fact that the story was determined, even in the original, by the actions of the women.
The Disney film, I love for its’ sense of yearning. The entire film is about wanting, striving, being able to overcome everything, and I really do love that. I know it’s very simplistic, but if I’m honest, I quite often wander round my house, belting out ‘I wanna be where the people are’ at the top of my voice. Doesn’t everyone, particularly during adolescence (and basically the little mermaid is just a teenager, being a teenager..) wish they were somewhere else from time to time? Doesn’t everybody dream of a different world they’d like to belong to? Even if you don’t do it now, I bet you did as a kid. I wanted to live in Never Never Land with Peter Pan. I even used to sit out on the low roof outside my bedroom window, waiting for him, until my dad would come in and make me go to bed. As an adult, I still dream about ‘belonging’ to the ‘world of writers’. I have a vision of exactly what this would entail (for some reason it involves a heavy amount of gorgeous big oak desks, rooms lined floor to ceilng with books, and many many gorgeous notebooks...). My point is, that the longing of the little mermaid to be ‘part of that world’, is something that a lot of people can relate to. It resonates, or at least it does with me. The original version, and Turgeon’s reimagining both allow the mermaid some degree of inclusion, before finally excluding her, proving that people belong where they are, and there is very little room for movement, but the Disney version (because it’s Disney) allows Ariel complete acceptance into the human world, ending with her marrying the prince and living happily ever after.
Anderson does allow his mermaid redemption at the end of the story, when she is basically taken to purgatory, with the Daughters of the Air, and given the chance to gain an immortal soul and get into heaven, after three hundred years. It ends with a nice little moral for kids:
“’Invisibly we float into the houses of men where children are, and for every day on which we find a good child that brings joy to its parents and deserves their love, our time of probation is shortened. The child does not know when we fly through the room; and when we smile with joy at the child’s conduct, a year is counted off from the three hundred; but when we see a naughty or wicked child, we shed tears of grief, and for every tear a day is added to our time of trial’”
(p89, Hans Christian Anderson: The Complete Tales)
I love this! It’s like telling your kids that if they’re bad, they’re denying the little mermaid her chance to get a soul. After all she’s been through. Tut tut, disappointed head shake, sigh. This is how I will be reading this story to my kids/nieces and nephews one day! Yes, I may very well be a tiny bit evil round the edges..
The poem I’ve extracted at the beginning of this article, I really like, as I’m very into feminist reworkings of fairytales in any form. I love the mermaid claiming her own voice, and speaking for herself over the (male) voice of her author. She totally asserts herself: why should she have to have a man as an excuse to want to stand on her own two feet? In the end, I find this the most hopeful of all. By its’ essence, The Little Mermaid, in any of the versions I’ve been discussing, can’t really help but be tragic and hopeless, when seen from a feminist point of view (and I can’t seem to help reading fairytales with at least a tiny bit of a feminist slant, I blame the dissertation obsession!), as happy ending or unhappy ending, either way she is subsumed by a man. Although I do love that the final image I had of Mermaid was of the strength of Margrethe, eventually, although she is the strongest character, she is just an aide to Christopher, who has wreaked havoc on Lenia, without even realising it. Margrethe is the saviour, but he is the King.
Now my brain hurts from thinking about the ‘oppression of women in fairytales’, and although I will doubtless in future months write much more eloquently on the subject, this month doesn’t seem to be the time for it, so I will direct any and all who may be interested here, to someone who puts it much better (although in relation to Russian fairytales specifically) than my tired brain can at the moment! I’ll just finish by saying that regardless of all I’ve said, I still love love love The Little Mermaid, in all of its’ formats, and I really do think that the story of wanting to belong is as important for adults as it is for children.
I also read this book for the Once Upon a Time Challenge!
I also read this book for the Once Upon a Time Challenge!