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The Little Mermaid

Page history last edited by Amber Autry 12 years, 4 months ago

"What would I give to live where you are..."

          (Title Credit: Lyrics from “Part of Your World” written by Alan Menken and Howard Ashmanv, featured in the Disney film “The Little Mermaid.”)

Tales of mermaids, water spirits, and sirens have permeated folklore throughout the world for centuries; from Homer’s Odyssey, to Rowling’s Harry Potter. However the fairy tale of “Den lille Havfrue”, or “The Little Mermaid”, is unique in that it tells the story of a mermaid as a heroine, rather than a demonic or seductive side character. The Danish writer, Hans Christian Andersen, considered the “father of modern fairy tales”, penned this original work in the 1830s. Drawing on themes from older, oral folk culture Andersen’s piece removed the traditional conflict of the Christian versus the pagan to produce a “tragic story of impossible love.”


The original version of “The Little Mermaid” begins by describing the realm of the Sea King and his subjects. The Sea King, a widower, his mother, and his six daughters make up the mentioned Royal family in the tale. The youngest of the daughters in noted as “the prettiest of them all”, and, although all mermen and mermaids can sing, she has the most beautiful voice. This daughter is referred to throughout the story as “the little mermaid”; neither she nor any of the other characters have names. They are, instead, recognized through a generic title such as “the Prince” or “the Sea Witch.” Most retellings give the little mermaid a name, such as “Sirenetta”, “Marina”, or “Ariel.” Andersen describes the little mermaid as “a strange child, quiet and thoughtful”, but in the Disney version of the story Ariel is portrayed as spirited, rebellious. Another inconsistency between the original version of the story and it’s more recent counter parts is the little mermaid’s fascination with human objects. Although the little mermaid is captivated by the idea of being human, “her sisters would be delighted with the wonderful things which they obtained from the wrecks of vessels” while “she cared for nothing but her pretty red flowers.” The one object that the little mermaid obtained from a ship wreck that she cherished was a white marble statue of a boy, and this is true of the most well known version of this story.


The little mermaid in the original tale must wait until her 15th birthday before she can rise above the surface of the sea, however in the newer versions it’s portrayed as dangerous, and Ariel is even forbidden to go. Andersen’s character patiently obeys the rules of her culture and waits until she is allowed to go to the surface, but in the Japanese cartoon and the Disney version the little mermaid rebels against her father’s wishes and goes early. The little mermaid’s first visit to the surface occurs in much the same fashion in all version. She comes across a ship carrying none other than the prince celebrating his birthday with fireworks and dancing. And, in every version, a storm comes and destroys the ship leaving the Prince to sink to his death. The little mermaid saves him and takes him to a beach. In Andersen’s plot the prince never sees the little mermaid. He is awakened on the beach by a girl being raised in a convent. The little mermaid witnesses this meeting and becomes said because “he knew not that she had saved him.”


This is where the major differences in the stories occur. The little mermaid begins to watch the prince in his castle and falls in love with him, though he has never seen her. She goes and tells her grandmother about him and asks if humans live forever. Her grandmother tells her that humans do die, however they have a soul which is immortal. Mermaids live about 300 years and when they die they become sea foam. But in exchange for this longer life on earth they have no immortal soul. This is a common theme found in fairy tales, where supernatural beings do not have souls. However, the grandmother tells the little mermaid that if she can get a human to fall in love with her she will receive a piece of his soul which will ensure both of them life after death. This news motivates the little mermaid to visit the Sea Witch.


Common in all version of the plot is the Sea Witch with the power to change the little mermaid’s tail into human legs…for a price. Each version has the little mermaid exchange her voice for the ability to look human, however in the original tale the transaction involves the Sea Witch cutting out her tongue. This detail is replaced with a less gruesome sequence in the modern versions. This transaction gets the little mermaid a potion that will change her fish tail to legs, but she will only remain human if the prince marries her. Another side effect of becoming human is that whenever the little mermaid walks it will feel as if she’s walking on knives or needles, and it will be painful to the point of bleeding; a plot point which is left out of more modern adaptations. In the Disney version a time limit of 3 days is placed on the transformation, after which, if she is unable to get the prince to kiss her, she becomes a captive of the witch. In the original telling, there is no time limit on wooing the heart of the prince, but, if the prince should marry another, on the morning after his wedding the little mermaid would die.


The Disney version ends happily with Ariel being transformed into a human by her father and marrying Prince Eric. This is not the case in the original story. After the prince finds the little mermaid they become close friends, but he is in love with the girl who saved him. Since the prince believes that she is unable to marry, being part of a convent, he mentions that, if he must marry, he’ll marry the little mermaid who bears a resemblance to the girl form the convent. This gives the little mermaid hope, but, it turns out that the girl from the convent is actually the princess of a neighboring kingdom. They prince marries the princess in a wedding on the sea, and the next morning as the sun is about to rise the little mermaid looks out over the ocean. There she sees her sisters come up out of the water sans their hair. They tell her that they went to the Sea Witch and traded their hair for a knife, and if the little mermaid kills the prince and lets the blood flow over her legs they will turn back into a fin. The little mermaid tries but cannot do it, and as a result she is turned into sea foam. Andersen’s version, by some opinions, does end happily, for when the little mermaid dies she is admitted into the “daughters of the air” who are spirits working to earn a soul. So, although she didn’t win the prince, she can still get a soul. Many people think that this ending involving the “daughters of the air” doesn’t fit with the rest of the story and that Andersen added it at the last minute to give the story a moral. So, rather than trade everything for love and end up with nothing the little mermaid is rewarded for her quest.

Check out the story for yourself



  • Mortensen F.(2008). The Little Mermaid: Scandinavian Studies. Retrieved from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA.
  • Trites R. (1991) Disney's sub/version of Andersen's The Little Mermaid. Journal of Popular Film & Television. Retrived from: Academic Search Complete, Ipswich, MA.
  • Warner, M.(1994). From the beast to the blonde: On fairy tales and their tellers. New York; Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Zipes, J. (2000). The Oxford companion to fairy tales: The western fairy tale tradition from medieval to modern. New York; Oxford University Press.


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