Is a fairy tale mermaid the stuff of heroines? The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson
was one of my two most favorite fairy tales to read growing up; Beauty and the Beast is the other favorite. The original story, which has a very different ending than the Disney "happy" version, was part of a fairy tale anthology book that was part of our library growing up.
I found myself contemplating this fairy tale as I was working out in my container vegetable garden today. At first, I thought that the original version, in which the mermaid doesn't get her prince and jumps into the ocean and becomes sea foam, is too dark and tragic to be read by children. Then I paused and remembered I read it as a young child. Then I changed my mind and decided that this is the kind of fairy tale more children today should be reading. After all, this story embodies some important lessons for children and adults alike.
The tale begins with the mermaid saving a prince from a shipwreck and in the process she falls in love with him. She makes a bargain with the Sea Witch: in exchange for her tongue the mermaid gets legs and the ability to live on land and pursue her love. What she doesn't realize is that her tongue is what she needs to have a chance at winning the prince---I can't help but think if she had been able to speak, she could have told the prince it was she that saved him and maybe that would have made the difference. Sure, he and his bride come to love her as a friend, but the bargain with the Sea Witch stipulates that she must become his bride or she turns into sea foam the morning after his wedding. Her sisters, frantic to save her, trade their hair for a dagger. If she kills the prince before dawn the day after his wedding, she can return to them and the sea. But she does the right thing, and throws both herself and the knife over the side of the ship that they are traveling on.
I'm not a literary critic and I am not sure if there has been a literary review of this fairy tale. To me, this fairy tale teaches several lessons: first, that we don't always get what we want in life. It also is a cautionary tale, advising you to think about what you give up in order to pursue a dream. Throughout, the tale stresses that doing the right thing is important, even if doing the right thing is personally painful for you.
The little mermaid didn't obtain her dream and in the end maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Hans Christian Anderson gives her the opportunity to gain a immortal soul instead, something mermaids do not have. Because of her good deeds and pure heart, she is transformed from sea foam into a "daughter of the air" with the chance to obtain an immortal soul in 300 years. Maybe that is why this fairy tale is one of my favorites: a reminder of the promise of heaven if you do good things and have a pure heart.
The lessons The Little Mermaid teaches is what make her one of my personal heroines.