I have returned to my essays about my own intense childhood relationships to certain fairy tales. I am sketching and mulling for an essay about why I was so drawn and held by The Little Mermaid. And I don’t mean the Disney version that came roughly 150 years after the original; I’m talking about the Hans Christian Andersen telling. The only similarity between these two stories really is the setting and the premise—the mermaid lore integral to both. In tone, plot and resolution, they are worlds apart. Oceans apart. And the child who was me was caught in the silvery net of the original, perhaps the saddest and most tragic of all the fairy tales I loved.
The Disney Empire recognized the story’s power to enchant—Ariel’s underwater world and the romance that awaits her as a human—and filled the 1989 animated version with bright colors, comical voices and calypso music. The original story, based on many ancient myths and legends about mermaids and sea sirens, featured a young mermaid, the youngest of 6 sisters, but she is nameless; Andersen calls her ‘the little mermaid’ from beginning to end. She alone of her sisters longs for connection with the human world, and in this state of longing, she rescues a drowning prince who has been tossed from his ship in a terrible storm, bringing him to shore. In the Hans Christian Andersen version, the mermaid goes through a terrible ordeal to obtain legs, so that she can be rejoined on dry land with her beloved prince. She must endure chronic pain in order to walk and she has given up her voice in exchange for her legs—she is mute and suffering.
But perhaps the most extreme difference between Andersen’s fairy tale and the Disney movie is the fact that the mermaid is never reunited with her prince. The story ends tragically with a melancholy and highly moralistic final paragraph. No calypso music here, no joyous wedding celebration. The poor girl dissolves into sea foam, and that is that.
And so in my essay, I am exploring elements of this amazing and powerful fairy tale, but also finding my way to some personal reasons, personal fears and wanderings from my Michigan childhood that would explain why this particular story had such power over me, despite its darkness and coldness, and the deep sorrow at its core.