Fearsome Fairy Tales

8. The Little Mermaid

The version you know

Disney’s 1989 musical fantasy film The Little Mermaid follows the life of 16 year old mermaid Ariel who is dissatisfied with her life under the sea and dreams of a life as a human. Accompanied by her fishy friend Flounder and sometimes lobster court composer Sebastian she frequently visits the surface ignoring her father (King Triton, ruler of Atlantica) and his rules that contact between humans and mermaids is forbidden, she collects human artifacts and visits Scuttle the Seagull who offers humorous but inaccurate facts about life on land.
One night the three visit the surface to see Prince Eric who Ariel has fallen in love with as he is celebrating his birthday on board a ship, during the course of the evening a storm wrecks the ship throwing Prince Eric into the sea. Ariel saves him and takes him to the shore, where she sings for him while she waits for him to regain consciousness, swimming away as soon as he wakes up so as to avoid being found. Fascinated by her voice Prince Eric upon waking vows to find the woman who sang to him.
Noticing a change in his daughter Triton wrings the information out of Sebastian that she has been visiting the surface, he finds Ariel in her grotto where her and Flounder store their human artifacts and destroys most of her items. After her father leaves she is visited by two eels named Flotsam and Jetsam who urge her to visit the sea witch Ursula.
Ariel visits Ursula who offers her a trade: voice for legs, Ariel will have three days to receive true love’s kiss or she will turn back into a mermaid, she agrees and Ursula stores Ariel’s voice in a shell around her neck and Sebastian and Flounder carry Ariel to the sea’s surface.
Mistaking Ariel for a shipwreck survivor Prince Eric takes Ariel in at the castle, after spending time together the pair grow closer and almost kiss, but are thwarted by Flotsam and Jetsam. Ursula disguises herself as a young woman named Vanessa and sings using Ariel’s voice, causing Prince Eric to believe that it was her who save him from drowning.
On the third day Prince Eric and Vanessa are to be married, Scuttle discovers that Vanessa is actually Ursula and Ariel pursues the wedding ship, Sebastian informs King Triton. Scuttle with the help of other animals attempts to delay the wedding as much as possible, during the chaos the shell around Vanessa’s neck is broken restoring Ariel’s voice causing Prince Eric to realise that it was Ariel who saved him. Ursula returns to her sea witch form and kidnaps Ariel who has turned back into a mermaid before Prince Eric could kiss her.
King Triton gives up his trident and takes Ariel’s place as Ursula’s prisoner, a fight ensues between Ursula and the others during which she accidentally kills Flotsam and Jetsam, before being killed herself by Prince Eric. When King Triton returns to his merman form he sees Ariel loves Prince Eric and willingly changes Ariel into a human, blessing their marriage. And they all lived happily ever after.

The original version

The Disney story is based on the Danish folk taleDen lille havfrue (literally translated as The Little Mermaid) by Hans Christian Andersen first published in 1837. The Danish folk tale tells of a young mermaid who is fascinated by the human world, living in an underwater kingdom with her father, grandmother and five older sisters (unlike the Disney version where there are seven sisters to represent the seven seas). Unlike the Disney version the sisters are not prohibited from visiting the surface, however they must wait until they reach the age of 15 to visit the surface and view the human world.
When her time comes the Little Mermaid visits the surface and saves a prince from drowning and takes him to a temple on the shore, she waits until a young girl finds him and then returns to the sea, remaining unseen by both the prince and the young girl.
Back underwater she asks her grandmother the differences between humans and mermaids and she learns that humans do not live for 300 years like mermaids, but they do have a soul which lives on eternally whereas when a mermaid dies they simply cease to exist and dissolve into sea foam.
Having fallen for the prince the Little Mermaid longs for legs and a human soul and so she visits the Sea Witch and asks to be turned into a human. The Sea Witch offers her a potion which will make her human but she will be mute, trading her beautiful and enchanting voice for legs, however she will feel as though a sword is passing through her slicing her fin in half to form legs, every step she takes will feel as though she is stepping on sharp knives and as though her feet are permanently bleeding but she will be able to dance as no human has ever danced before.  Once she becomes human she will not be allowed to return to the sea and if she wishes to obtain a human soul she must find true love’s kiss and part of his soul will flow into her, if she doesn’t find true love’s kiss then the morning after he weds another the Little Mermaid will die from a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam.
Once on land the Little Mermaid meets the prince and dances for him despite the pain she suffers when dancing, he is captivated by her beauty and the way she dances despite her being mute. The prince is ordered by his father to marry the daughter of the neighbouring king, the prince refuses and tells the Little Mermaid that he can only love the girl from the temple who he believed saved him from drowning. The girl from the temple however turns out to be the daughter of the neighbouring king and their wedding is announced.
The morning after the wedding the Little Mermaid sits awaiting death, contemplating what she gave up for a human life and how she will now never have a human soul. Her sisters appear at the sea’s surface offering her a knife having traded the Sea Witch their long hair for the knife. If she slays the prince and lets his blood drop onto her feet she will become a mermaid again, her pain will end and may return to the sea. But she cannot bring herself to kill him, and at dawn she throws herself into the sea and dissolves into sea foam and ceases to exist.

Andersen re-wrote the ending some years later so that it had a very slightly happier ending, instead of ceasing to exist when she turns to sea foam the Little Mermaid becomes a “daughter of the air” and is told by the other daughters of the air that as she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal human soul she has become a daughter of the air and that she must do good deeds to earn her soul and reach heaven.

Kat Lawson
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