Last week, as part of my work, I read a book of Hans Christian Anderson fairy tales.
I paid close attention to The Little Mermaid.
I couldn’t help but think about how different the original was from the Disney version. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched The Little Mermaid (and I have no plans to revisit it), but the biggest difference between the two is that in the original fairy tale, the little mermaid pays a huge price for leaving her home and does not get her immediate desire.
In the original story the little mermaid (she’s not given a name) wants to become human and marry the prince (he’s also not given a name). She wants this because she wants an immortal soul. You see, apparently, mermaids live for about 300 years and then…poof! They turn into sea foam. The little mermaid does not like the idea of turning into sea foam; she wants to be like the humans she sees who become immortal and are reconciled with God.
The little mermaid REALLY wants to marry the prince and is willing to pay the price and sacrifice anything to get what she wants. So far the story is the same as the Disney version. The little mermaid goes to the sea witch, trades her beautiful voice for the chance to grow legs, and heads up to land. Here is where we start to see the differences though.
The little mermaid not only loses her voice, she also gives up the ability to see her family…forever. She is cursed with tremendous pain when her tail splits and forms into legs. She is in agony during this process—it feels like someone has taken a knife and sliced her in two.
For every gift the little mermaid is given, she is cursed with something equal. She is beautiful, but mute. She is graceful (more graceful than anyone can imagine), but every time she takes a step it feels like she’s walking on knives. In one scene her feet bleed while she is dancing. The little mermaid is the one who saved the prince from drowning, but he believes it is some other woman. The little mermaid desperately wants to marry the prince, while he desperately wants to find this other woman so he can marry her. If the prince marries someone else, the little mermaid will die, turning into sea foam.
In the end the little mermaid does NOT get the prince. The little mermaid does NOT get her voice back. The prince meets the other woman and marries her. So not like the Disney version!
In the end the little mermaid kills herself. Her death is noble, actually. She is given the opportunity to turn back into a mermaid and live out her 300 years. To do so she has to kill the prince. If she plunges a knife (bewitched by the sea witch) into his heart, his blood will turn her legs into a tail, and she can return to the sea.
The little mermaid refuses and throws herself (as a human) into the sea.
She becomes not part of the sea foam, but part of the air. The “daughters of the air” can become immortal by doing good deeds for 300 years. The little mermaid floats up with the air, ready to do good. At the end of her 300 years she will float up to the kingdom of heaven.
This is all so very different from the Disney version.
I like the original so much better. I like it that the little mermaid has to make real sacrifices to get what she most wants, no turning back. I like it that her sacrifices involve real pain. I even like it that she doesn’t get what she wants immediately, but by her good deed she gets what she wants in the end. It reminds me of that saying, ‘when one door closes, another opens.’ She doesn’t get the prince, but her love for him (she shows this by not killing him) opens the door for her to do good for 300 years, rather than live a life as a selfish princess.
I wonder if this is all a difference in our cultures. Our modern American culture is very self-centered and we don’t like or seem to understand sacrifice and pain. The Disney Ariel gets everything she wants with very little sacrifice. How often does life actually work like that?
I think the original tale teaches something much more valuable to children. It teaches them that to get what you want you have to make serious sacrifices, you have to endure pain, and in the end what you thought you wanted might not be what you get. Isn’t that more like life?
I’ll take that over “happily ever after” any day.
What do you think? Do the old fairy tales teach a better lesson to children than our modern fairy tales?