The heart of mermaid lore in the West is one of the great fairy tales, as told by Hans Christian Andersen: The Little Mermaid. She is much beloved in Europe; her statue in Copenhagen is a point of pilgrimage for travelers to Denmark.
It’s been a long, long time since I read the original. My memory of it is a little warped by the Disneyfied versions (which I will talk about in the next article or two). I remembered it as a tragedy of a mermaid who gave up everything for a prince who didn’t even know what she’d done, or why she did it.
That is definitely part of it. Like the selkie story, it casts a dark light on the role of women in Western culture. I’ve read somewhere that for boys, puberty expands their horizons, but for girls, it sharply contracts them. Boys grow up to rule the world. Girls grow up to be ruled by men.
For the Little Mermaid, who doesn’t even have a name (though to be fair, neither do any of the other characters in the story), puberty is both a rite of passage and a death sentence. She’s the youngest of six daughters of the king of the sea. She’s shy and quiet, and of course exquisitely beautiful, with the loveliest voice in the world. Each of the sisters, on her fifteenth birthday, is finally allowed to swim to the surface—to come out, as Jane Austen fans might say.
The youngest sister is both jealous and impatient, but she doesn’t rebel. She’s fascinated by her grandmother’s stories about the human world (there’s no mother in this story; she’s never even mentioned—which is its own kind of interesting). She listens eagerly to her sisters’ accounts of their first time out. They all lose interest in a few days or weeks, and come back home to the sea.
When at long last she has her own birthday and her own coming out, she emerges as a ship passes by. On it, a beautiful young prince is having his own birthday, his sixteenth. She is enthralled.
A storm rises in the night, and the ship is wrecked. She searches desperately for the prince, because she knows that humans can’t live under the sea. Finally she finds him, carries him up to the air, and brings him to land.
She leaves him there, to be found by a group of young human girls. He wakes, and believes that the leader of the girls is his rescuer; he never sees the mermaid who actually saved him, nor knows what she did.
The rest plays out in the tragic mode: the mermaid’s obsession, her journey to the lair of the sea witch, the terrible bargain she makes. In order to be with the prince, she gives up her whole life in the sea, her fish’s tail, and her beautiful voice. Every step she takes on her human feet is pain. And if she fails to win his heart and his hand in marriage, if he marries another, on the very next day she’ll melt into sea foam. There is no going back from this. Once she’s paid the price, she’s bound forever.
What I had not remembered was the real reason why she does this. She is fascinated by the human prince, and she does seem to love him, or at least to like him very much. But it’s not romance she’s after. It’s something much more powerful.
Mermaids, her grandmother has taught her, do not have immortal souls. They can live for three hundred years, but when they die, they melt into foam and vanish into the sea. Humans, on the other hand, live much shorter lives, but their souls endure forever.
That’s what the mermaid sacrifices everything for: to have a soul. The only way she can get it is to marry a human man. Then part of his soul will enter into her, and she will go wherever souls go after the body dies.
Because she can’t speak, she can’t tell the prince that she’s the one who rescued him. He treats her as a pet, indulges her like a child, and fails to see her as a potential wife. She still dares to hope, because the girl who found him on the beach was apparently a priestess in a temple; she’s cloistered from the world, and it’s unlikely the prince will ever see her again. All the mermaid has to do, she thinks, is be patient, and he’ll come to his senses and marry her.
But when he sails to a neighboring kingdom, the princess of that kingdom turns out to be the girl from the beach, and that’s it. That’s all he thinks he needs to know. He marries her, and the mermaid faces her doom.
But again, I had not remembered the actual ending. First, that her sisters come to her and tell her they’ve struck a bargain with the sea witch. If the mermaid kills the prince with the knife they’ve brought, his heart’s blood will restore her to her former self, fish’s tail and all, and she can go back home.
She can’t do it. She can’t take his life. She falls into the sea, and melts—but her consciousness doesn’t die. She finds herself surrounded by spirits of air, who tell her that because she’s made such great sacrifices, she gets a second chance. Three hundred years as a spirit of air, doing good in the world, and in the end, she’ll have earned an immortal soul.
It’s not a tragedy after all. It’s not a romance, either. The prince is a means to an end. When that fails, she still gets what she wants, though she has to be patient, and work at it.
It’s quite a Victorian conclusion, and pretty openly Christian, though the story talks about temples (but also about church bells). Good girl works hard and does good works and wins her way to heaven. She doesn’t have to get married (i.e., have sex) to get there. There’s a second, longer and probably harder, but just as effective way. She becomes a disembodied spirit, a creature of pure (good)will.
Andersen pulls out all the stops on his scene-setting. He describes the sea-king’s palace in loving detail. The sea witch’s realm is suitably horrific, complete with predatory sea creatures, whom the mermaid must pass both coming and going, and try not to be eaten. We see the land and its flora and fauna as a mermaid would see them: birds as a peculiar kind of airborne fish, and trees as dry-land kelp.
We even get a glimpse of mermaid fashion. Mermaids decorate their tails with oysters, each of which contains a pearl. The grandmother, the dowager queen, wears more oysters on her tail than anyone else; she’s quite firm about her place in the hierarchy. She wears twelve. Other high-ranking mermaids only get six.
When the youngest mermaid gets ready for her birthday journey, the grandmother adorns her with eight oysters, two more than usual. When the mermaid protests that they pinch, her grandmother says, essentially, Beauty is pain. Swim and bear it. Which is a foreshadowing of the bargain she’ll make with the sea witch, trading her tail for feet and pain.
It’s all, ultimately, to win herself an immortal soul. By Victorian and Christian standards, that’s the best of causes.
Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks. She’s written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.