Beyond the Surface: Psychological Symbolism in Hans Christian Andersen's Little Mermaid

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Every telling of a story is going to have its differences. The most faithful adaptations and remakes are never a perfect match. Changes in the medium, culture, and voice through which a story is told make a world of difference to the overall experience.

Fairy tales and folklore are unique among stories, in that they pass through so many hands. Details of a folktale will often differ even from one town to the next; not even accounting for the biases of the ones who collect the stories.

Hans Christian Andersen is unique in that he lived at the intersection between worlds. Andersen’s stories bridge the gap between Europe’s folk tradition and modern authorial works; just as his life was lived between the poverty of peasants and the luxury of high society. It is only fitting that Andersen’s most lasting stories are those which occupy the liminal space between worlds.

This is clearly seen in works like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, in which the titular heroine is painfully torn between the worlds of land and sea. Elements of Hans Christian Andersen’s original telling may seem strange; from the mermaid’s painful transformation to the climax which sees her standing over the sleeping Prince with a knife in her hand. But approaching Andersen’s story on its own terms reveals a profound meaning that can only have come from the space that he occupied between two worlds.

The Image of the Other

The Little Mermaid is not given a name in Andersen’s tale, but her character is well established. A Princess of the Sea Kingdom, she is fascinated by the other world above the surface. Mermaids can only breach the sea’s surface when they turn fifteen, an age marking the transition into womanhood; so the Little Mermaid can only know the world above through tales of her older sisters’ brief encounters, and the artifacts which fall to the sea floor. Her sisters’ experiences vary; from a fearful storm, to a peaceful and clear night sky, to viewing the settlements of humans from afar. In every case, the Little Mermaid is wonderstruck, just as she is by the statue of a human Prince which once fell to the sea floor and serves as the centerpiece to her beautiful marine garden.

On her fifteenth birthday, the Little Mermaid crosses the threshold to the world above, ascending to the surface to witness a celebration aboard a grand ship. It is a birthday party for a Prince, and the Little Mermaid watches for hours, noting that the Prince resembles her statue.

As the night passes, a storm blows over the sea. The ship is broken beneath a great wave, and the Little Mermaid comes to the sudden realization that humans cannot breathe under water. The rushes toward the Prince and works to keep him above water, swimming him to a distant shore where she can see church towers marking a settlement. The Little Mermaid lays the Prince on a beach near a convent, and keeps watch until morning, when a young Sister finds and wakes him.

The Little Mermaid is changed by the time she returns to the sea floor; all of her attention is focused on the world above:

She had always been quiet and pensive, but now she was even more so… Many an evening and morning she would rise up to the spot where she had left the prince. She saw how the fruit in the garden grew ripe and was picked; she saw how the snow melted on the high mountains. But she did not see the prince, and so she always returned home sadder than before. There her only solace was to sit in her little garden and throw her arms around the beautiful marble statue that looked like the prince, but she neglected her flowers. As if in a wilderness they grew out over the pathways, weaving their long stalks and leaves into the branches of trees so that it was quite dark.

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Tiina Nunnally

The Little Mermaid’s garden presents a key point to understanding Andersen’s story. Where before the statue was the focal point of her garden, now the Little Mermaid’s infatuation with the statue makes her garden go untended, transforming it from a cultivated display of natural beauty into a dark wilderness. One cannot help but see the first signs of the Little Mermaid neglecting herself for the Prince; not even the real Prince but a cold, stone image of him.

The Little Mermaid frequently ascends to watch the Prince. Bound to the sea, her longing only grows deeper. The world above is entirely a mystery to her, so she asks her grandmother about it, “If humans don’t need water to breathe, can they live forever?” The Little Mermaid’s grandmother responds that humans do die; quite young, compared to a mermaid’s 300-year lifespan. But while a human body grows frail, the human soul is immortal; unlike mermaids, who simply turn to sea foam at the end of their time. The only way the Little Mermaid could gain a soul, her grandmother tells her, is if a human were to love her; in marriage a part of his soul would be transferred to her.

The Little Mermaid’s family holds a Royal ball to celebrate the long life that they are given; but my now the Little Mermaid’s fixation on the Prince has become an obsession, as it is now a matter of her eternal life or death. And it is no longer only the mermaid’s garden that will suffer for it, as she ties down her hair to brave the snake-filled ocean depths to reach the Sea Witch.

Between Two Worlds

While he never met a Sea Witch firsthand, Hans Christian Andersen also inhabited the space between worlds. Born to a shoemaker and a washerwoman in the relatively humdrum Danish town of Odense, he left alone for the capital of Copenhagen at age 14 to make a name in theater. Andersen lived for three years at the margins of society, until his soft, feminine singing voice and relentless telling of stories to all who would hear charmed the elites of high society into becoming his patrons.

Andersen, called “The Little Nightingale of Fyn” for his voice, was not a natural fit for the world of either the peasantry of Odense – where he was once forcibly stripped by a crowd of workers who didn’t believe someone with such a voice could be a boy – or the high society of Copenhagen – where as a lanky 17-year-old in school with pre-teen children he could not point to the city on a map. Yet Andersen was charmed by high society, and it was charmed by him, and along with him the storytelling tradition that he brought from the country.

And so it is not hard to see Andersen’s experience reflected in the Little Mermaid’s relationship with the world above the surface. Like the author of her story, the Little Mermaid sacrifices to reach the other world. To even reach the Sea Witch, the Little Mermaid must tie back her long hair, a common symbol of self-expression and free-flowing femininity. In her deal with the Sea Witch the mermaid pays with her voice – not through magic, but through cutting off her tongue. In return, she undergoes a painful transformation – describing the feeling of a sword tearing through her tail to form legs – and each step that she takes on the surface comes with pain as though she were walking on knives. And unless the Little Mermaid is able to gain a piece of the Prince’s soul, she will die, turning into sea foam when he marries another.

The Little Mermaid passes out from her pain on the shore near the Prince’s castle, where he finds her. The Prince asks where she came from, but without a voice the Little Mermaid can only look up in tender sadness. She walks with the Prince through the pain of each step; at the castle she is dressed in silk as they watch the court slave girls sing and dance; even without her beautiful voice, the Little Mermaid speaks to the heart with her graceful dance and emotion-filled eyes. All comment on her beauty and grace, entirely unaware of the pain below.

The Prince grows fond of the Little Mermaid, calling her his “little foundling,” but it is unclear where this falls between pity and love. The Little Mermaid sleeps on a velvet bed outside his door, and the Prince dresses her in boys’ clothes to accompany him on journeys. But being voiceless, the she cannot communicate a deeper love. The Prince explains his fondness:

“Yes, you are dearest of all to me… because you have the best heart of any of them, you are more devoted to me, and you look like a young girl I once saw but will probably never find again. I was on a ship that went down. The waves carried me to land near a holy temple where many young girls were in service. The youngest of them found me on the shore and saved my life… She was the only one I could love in this world. But you look like her; you have almost replaced her image in my soul.”

The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, translated by Tiina Nunnally

While the Prince’s affection for the Little Mermaid’s pure-hearted devotion is admirable, his final words make it clear that it is an image that he loves, not a true person. In fact, the Prince is utterly unaware of the Little Mermaid’s sacrifice; he sleeps peacefully while she goes each night to cool her burning feet in the water. On those nights, the Little Mermaid sees her sisters in the water, and her grandmother and the Sea King, her father, but she never dives back.

Hans Christian Andersen also felt his Little Mermaid’s pains of unrequited love. Over his years in Copenhagen the author pursued romantic relationships with a number of noble women and men; feelings which were in most cases unrequited and in others unstable. Perhaps he, like the Little Mermaid to the Prince, fell in the strange place between love and pity. Perhaps none were aware of the pain which came with each of the authors steps, focused on the grace of his words as onlookers are amazed by the mermaid’s dance.

The Eternal Soul

While much of his personal life was lost with the man who lived it, Hans Christian Andersen was without a doubt familiar with the stories of his day. Operating in the space between the classic folktale and modern authorial work, we can tell much about Andersen and his convictions through the details of his works, with their similarities to and differences from other popular tales.

While Anderson’s Little Mermaid was mostly an original work, elements of the story can be clearly traced to earlier tradition. Most notably the strange detail of Little Mermaid lacking a soul comes from Undine, a German novel of the early nineteenth century that has influences dating from medieval legend. Undine tells the story of a love triangle between a Knight, a Lady, and a Water Spirit who marries the Knight to gain a soul. As the love triangle in Undine comes to a tragic end, with the Knight being drowned in the tears of the Water Spirit, one might expect the same unhappy fate to await Andersen’s Prince.

When the Prince’s wedding to a foreign Princess is announced, an unfortunate end seems even more likely. When it is revealed that the Princess is in fact the young girl who woke the Prince on the beach, who had been studying her faith in the convent, the Little Mermaid loses her last bit of hope. The object of her affection is to marry another, costing the Little Mermaid her chance at a soul. Voiceless, she can only watch in pain as vows are said in a ceremony out at sea.

That is, until that night, when another opportunity presents itself. As the Little Mermaid stares out to sea, eyes on the foam that she will dissolve into at dawn, she sees her sisters rise up from below. Their heads are shaved – signs of a bargain with the Sea Witch – and they offer her a red knife. The Mermaid’s chance to be given the Prince’s soul in marriage may have passed, but the Sea Witch’s knife offers her the chance to take it. As dawn approaches the Little Mermaid opens the fold of the tent where the Prince and his new wife are sleeping unaware, holding the knife in her hand above them; but she casts it out to sea, where it dissolves into a red foam upon contact with the water. As the sun rises, the Little Mermaid casts herself off the deck as well, dissolving into foam on the sea.

This ending provides a tragic look into the consequences of an untrue love that is only an infatuation with an unknown other. But you would be forgiven for finding it unsatisfying – Andersen thought so, too.

That is why, when the Little Mermaid dissolves into sea foam, she does not experience the endless void that she was expecting, but is lifted up into the sky by hitherto unseen beings. They are the Daughters of the Air, and like the Mermaids, they are not born with immortal souls. But unlike the Daughters of the Sea, the Daughters of the Air can earn their souls, traveling on the breeze to answer prayers. In a Letter, Hans Christian Andersen discussed his decision:

I have not, like de la Motte Fouqué in Undine, allowed the mermaid’s acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon an alien creature, upon the love of a human being. I’m sure that’s wrong! It would depend rather much on chance, wouldn’t it? I won’t accept that sort of thing in this world. I have permitted my mermaid to follow a more divine path.

Hans Christian Andersen, letter to a friend dated February 1837

And as a note to any parents with unruly children, Andersen adds that the Daughters of the Air stop in homes on their travels; each well-behaved child they see brings them one year closer to a soul, while each tear that they cry at the sight of a poorly-behaved child brings them one day further.

Conclusion: Earning a Soul

Returning to the subject of variation stories across time and teller, Hans Christian Andersen’s decision to tell The Little Mermaid as he did is a clearly deliberate one. The story was written in the period between his early faithful retellings of folklore, and his later, fully original fairy tales. This makes The Little Mermaid a fascinating case of introspection into the individual psyche through the medium of existing story tropes.

And looking back at Andersen’s Little Mermaid from our time, we can take this further; it has become a folktale in its own right, being adapted into ballet, film, books, opera, and more. Sarah, the librarian and writer behind the fantastic blog Writing In Margins details the changes to the ending of the story over time, from the familiar ending of our time in which the mermaid is saved by the prince’s kiss, to those in which the mermaid simply dies, with no chance at redemption; both of which appeared in Disney adaptations, believe it or not. Sarah’s article is linked here.

But Andersen’s ending is particularly moving, because it comes from a man who occupied the same liminal space as the Little Mermaid. From someone who struggled to fit in in either of the worlds he occupied, the message is profound: it is not someone else’s love that can save us, but only our own actions that can earn us a soul.


Date: 2024-03-02 19:28:00 - Views: 114