In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid,” perhaps the most famous, influential Western mermaid story, a young woman trades her voice and personality for the ability to pass as “natural” in a new world. Disney’s modern version pits Ariel against other women, and focuses on her physical beauty and lovely singing voice over her actual character, somewhat missing the metaphor… (Although that also avoids the the tragic ending of the original Andersen tale.) Which is a shame because the concept of mermaids provides a rich source of stories that can be used to comment on all kinds of things, from the personal to the societal.
Dianda (One Salt Sea)
Duchess Dianda Lorden isn’t regent of the Undersea Duchy of Saltmist because of a mere title (passed down through generations of the Merrow). Nor because of her infamously hot temper, as volatile as the storms from which she and other sea-dwelling Fae draw their powers. No, it’s because in a fight on land, she will first come at her opponents on both legs, then transform into her true self and finish the job with her very muscular tail.
Then her two sons are kidnapped.
Why would you provo…anyway, October Daye, the titular hero of Seanan McGuire’s multi-book series, is tasked with retrieving Dianda’s two sons before Merrow just outright declares war on the land. All land. Dianda’s aggression flips the idea that humanity is the dominant force on the planet; that exist at the mercy of another species altogether.
Mermaid (In Other Lands)
Sarah Rees Brennan’s In Other Lands is a deconstruction of portal world fantasy stories that follows the bratty 13 year-old Elliot Schafer as he leaves our world and attends four years of school in The Borderlands. This means lots of lessons in battle and military tactics in a land where all the old alliances are shattering. Elliot is…not okay with battles…and opts into training within his fantasy school’s small diplomacy program. (And he definitely has a lot to learn about not charging into diplomatic situations with your emotions flailing all about…)
Really, Elliot sticks around because he wants to meet mermaids. To him, mermaids are the gold standard for a fantasy world, glittering and unobtainable. So of course Elliot must find a way to meet one. But—In Other Lands wonders—has Elliot made himself worthy enough to do so?
Golden and Silver (The Lure)
Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s 2015 film The Lure stars two badass mermaids, Golden and Silver, who become entranced with the ‘80s club scene. They form a band called The Lure, and spend their nights making music…and murdering humans. Because this is a riff on The Little Mermaid, there is a complicated merperson/human romance—but things don’t go quite where you’d expect.
Marianas Mermaids (Into the Drowning Deep)
As we’ll see, Seanan McGuire (here under the name Mira Grant) gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of mermaids. Into the Drowning Deep follows a crew as they investigate claims that the Marianas Trench–the deepest point of the ocean on Earth–holds mermaids.
Thing is, they’re not the first crew to have made the attempt. A reality TV mockumentary group made the same attempt years ago, but were never heard from again.
Into the Drowning Deep uses the concept of mermaids as fuel for a horror story about media and entertainment, but also as a surprising examination of real world issues that are impacting humanity right now.
Syrena (Mermaid in Chelsea Creek)
Michelle Tea’s Mermaid in Chelsea Creek is the first in a trilogy about a swear-y Polish mermaid. Chelsea, Massachusetts is a fading town where everyone feels their best lives are behind them…but where everyone holds out hope that a fabled girl will come to restore Chelsea to its old glory. Sophie Swankowski isn’t sure if she’s The Girl, but every time she’s unconscious she has visions of a potty-mouthed mermaid, and an increasing sense that there’s some sort of power just beneath the filthy Chelsea Creek, just waiting to be tapped. (Mermaids as key to economic revival? Interesting…)
Cora (Beneath the Sugar Sky)
Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series features the kids who follow rabbits down holes, who clamber all the way to the back of the wardrobe, who firmly believe that Oz is their home, thankyouverymuch. Cora is one such girl—mocked and bullied in our world, she takes drastic, one-way action involving a pool and some pills. But she doesn’t die. Instead, she wakes up in a watery world with gills, a beautiful tail, and bright coral- and seaweed-colored hair. Cora’s strength and grace is unhindered in the water, but instead of her time in this portal world being an escape, being a mermaid confronts her with the same overwhelming issues that drove her from the real world. She embarks on a quest into the Nonsense world of Confection in Beneath the Sugar Sky, restored to her original body, but did she lose the harmony between world, body, and mind that she had as a mermaid? Or is there yet more to understand of the give-and-take between our wishes and the worlds they play within?
Umbriel (Futurama, “The Deep South”)
Fry and company encounter Umbriel in the Lost City of Atlanta, which sank into the Atlantic Ocean after first moving offshore in an attempt to attract beach-seeking tourists. Thanks to caffeine from the submerged Coca Cola plant, the Atlantans rapidly evolved into Southern-accented merpeople. Umbriel develops a crush on Fry, brings him under the waves with her, and introduces him to her white linen-suited daddy. The rest of the Planet Express crew worry about the interspecies romance, but Fry’s love is true. He decides to forsake life on land and stay with Umbriel… until the episode finally takes its own premise seriously and she explains how merpeople reproduce.
Mermaids (Stormwrack series)
When most of your world is underwater, as is the case with the mystical parallel universe of Stormwrack, it becomes a lot more difficult for humans and merfolk to ignore one another. In A.M. Dellamonica’s series, “part of your world” isn’t so much a wish as a fact of life. But instead of acting as the archetypal sirens luring sailors to their deaths, these mermaids work alongside seafarers as salvagers, providing intelligence about trade routes and other happenings in the Fleet of Nations, and even ocean rescue. That said, they do still lure humans—but it’s to join them underwater in new lives. In Stormwrack, mermaids didn’t evolve on their own, but rather they are constantly adding to their ranks with humans who would rather have tails. As Dellamonica explained in an interview, mermaids especially fixate on humans who are paralyzed, believing that they are offering a new opportunity for mobility. But the transformation itself is a harrowing process involving willingly letting a fish swallow one’s legs; you can read a passage here.
Tumblr is full of gorgeous merfolk art, featuring peoples of all shapes, colors, sizes, and combined with countless underwater creatures. (This recent two-page comic from trianglart features a queer mershark who gets a crush on the local beach lifeguard. Mer-shark!) They fly under the radar, but you can find a lot of comics on Tumblr and DeviantArt and so forth that use mermaids as a template for explorative small stories that cross and mix gender, race, species, and more. The metaphor is intriguingly accessible. Under the waves you can float and mix and love and defend as you feel comfortable. You just have to jump in the water.