It’s no secret that I love mermaids. The Little Mermaid, naturally, is one of my favourite Fairy Tales. While the musical numbers in the Disney production are catchy and fun it’s the Hans Christian Andersen version that I really like; you know, the original (as always the book is better than the movie). It amazes me how far from the source material the Disney version strayed. The messages in the Disney version are completely antagonistic to the messages of the HCA original. While you could sum up the message of the HCA version as “it’s best to be yourself and to be loved for who you are” (which is my reading of it, I’m confident that HCA had intended a different message) the Disney version basically tells girls that in order to get their man they need to change everything they are to be the person that their man wants them to be. Have you read the original? Here’s my synopsis of both versions:
HCA: TLM (The Little Mermaid) goes to the sea witch to become human so she can get the Prince to marry her. Sea Witch grants her wish but the magic has side effects, TLM can’t speak, feels like she is walking on knives when she uses her legs, and if the Prince doesn’t marry her she’ll die and turn to sea foam. The Prince falls in love with someone else and makes TLM attend the ceremony on his boat. TLM’s sisters rock up with a dagger and tell her that if she kills the Prince and his bride she can return to the ocean with them. TLM refuses to kill the Prince and jumps into the ocean to her death. She dies and becomes sea foam. Some versions have a bit added to the end where she can work for 300 years to have an afterlife but it’s all a bit theological.
Disney: TLM goes to the Sea Witch to become human so she can get the Prince to marry her. The Sea Witch has her own agenda and grants her wish but takes her voice from her as payment. Prince actually falls in love with TLM so the Sea Witch transforms herself and then puts a spell on the Prince to fall in love with TSW (The Sea Witch). TLM manages to stop the wedding, a battle ensues with TSW who eventually dies and TLM gets her happily ever after.
About the only thing these two tales have in common, besides the focus on the Prince, is TLM losing her voice as a part of her transformation. As symbolism goes this can be interpreted in so many ways! First there’s the patronising implication that women shouldn’t have a voice; that their desires and needs are unimportant. Secondly there is the implication that TLM’s personal power has been stripped from her; her voice has been taken away. TLM suffers in silence, embodying the proverb “silence is golden”, and with the religious overtones of the society HCA lived in, we cannot disregard HCA’s own rigid religious experiences. This part also seems to link up with TLM being able to toil for 300 years to enjoy an afterlife. HCA has really played on the idea that part of the road to heaven is suffering, an idea that was part of his religious education and a reflection of the times in which he lived and wrote. From the research I’ve done, it seems that HCA himself often felt voiceless, and that he wrote a lot of his own experiences into his stories, often in metaphors. So we can learn a lot about the messages of TLM in studying the life of HCA himself.
That’s all I really wanted to say about the two versions. If you’ve enjoyed this post or the post I published last week about Little Red Riding Hood I suggest you check out this fantastic podcast series Myths and Legends. The narrator is really knowledgeable, and I find his re-tellings hilarious. While he definitely modernises the language the essential story remains unchanged and he is very entertaining. I’ve been listening to these episodes for at least a year now and I highly recommend them. Most of these stories I’m familiar with from my Uni studies and my own research but it’s always enjoyable to me to listen to, even when I know the story backwards. I don’t recall him covering Little Red Riding Hood but I know he’s covered the original The Little Mermaid and it’s well worth a listen. He also does a classical literature series called Fictional which is also worth a listen. If you like one I’d say you’d like the other. He brings the same humour and energy to Fictional that he brought to Myths and Legends. I’ve been listening on Apple podcasts but these are also now available on Spotify. I’m not getting paid to promote this podcast, I just really enjoy it and I think you would too.