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Behind the Folk Tale: The Little Mermaid

Ariel (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) in Once Upon a Time Photo: ABC
Ariel (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) in Once Upon a Time
Photo: ABC

Finally, finally Once Upon a Time has introduced a new folk tale this season! I thought we’d only have Peter Pan to watch for a lifetime! But, they deigned to give us The Little Mermaid to ponder over in this last episode.  Who didn’t love Disney’s The Little Mermaid when they were growing up? I know that for many young girls it was their favorite Disney film. I admit to Sleeping Beauty being my favorite, but The Little Mermaid came in a close second. Unfortunately, the tale by Hans Christian Andersen is not nearly as happy and carefree. Andersen’s tale doesn’t end with the mermaid marrying her prince. He meets someone else, a neighboring princess, and falls in love with her instead. In the end the mermaid has the option of killing her prince and becoming a mermaid again, but chooses to spare his life and end hers. In a belated attempt at a happy ending, Andersen has the little mermaid end up as a ‘daughter of the air,’ meaning she has gained a soul and will live on for eternity. Still, I don’t think this quite makes up for the tragedy of the mermaid dying without her prince’s love.

stepping on piercing needles and sharp knives

Many claim that this tale centers on Andersen’s deep interest in mutability and changes in identity. The little mermaid is a very curious character, interested in life outside of the water even before she spies upon her prince. She is willing to give up everything, even her life in the end, to experience the outside world. Andersen does not make this easy for her either. He has her tongue cut out in exchange for legs, with which each footstep feels like “stepping on piercing needles and sharp knives.” She is the ultimate silent sufferer, and was apparently the only character that actually emotionally moved Andersen as he was writing her. He admitted that “the only one of my works that has affected me while I was writing it…I suffer with my characters, I share their moods, whether good or bad, and I can be nice or nasty according to the scene on which I happen to be working.”

So, why does he put her through so much pain? He claims it is based on moral grounds. Her love for the prince is not as important as her desire for a soul. So, in the end, after going through much pain, she is able to gain a soul on her own and without the love of the prince. Unlike other stories written of mermaids at the time, Andersen has not “allowed the mermaid’s acquiring of an immortal soul to depend upon an alien creature, upon the love of a human being.” He gives her autonomy in this matter. I don’t know if I buy that the story is simply one of Christian morality and the obtainment of a soul.

Jack Zipes emphasizes (in Hans Christian Andersen: The Misunderstood Storyteller), The Little Mermaid ” is not only about Christian obedience, virtue, and salvation. It is, from a feminist perspective, a misogynist tale about dampening the sexual curiosity of a young female who wants to explore other worlds.”

sentimental, misogynistic and moralizing

Jackie Wullschlager, author of Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller, agrees: “To modern readers, the tale is distasteful as well as moving: sentimental, misogynistic and moralizing, it shows Andersen enjoying the Mermaid’s suffering and offering an oppressive mix of self–sacrifice, silence and expiation as ideals of female behavior.”

So, is that what this is? A story revealing the oppressive and painful female ideals of the time period, and being written by a none other than a misogynist? Wullschlager compares the negative view of female sexuality to other folk tales,

“Like ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ ‘Snow White,’ and ‘Rapunzel,’ it is a coming–of–age fairy tale in which a young girl at fifteen or sixteen is suddenly forced to cope with her own sexuality and the responses her beauty arouses. Like ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ it has images of blood which may symbolize the onset of menstruation, and it is imbued with an adolescent fear of sex which the 32–year–old Andersen shared.”

In the end, Andersen has the mermaid eschew physical life to become a pure “daughter of the air.” She becomes an almost Madonna-esque figure.

Disney most certainly doesn’t go this route. Ariel embraces the “other,” and the movie, rather than silencing it, celebrates her curiosity. Ariel is a much different heroine, as Jack Zipes comments,

“Ariel is a spunky heroine, who speaks and acts like a good, white middle–class heroine of the 1980s. It is true that she sacrifices her voice and fins for the love of a man, but it should be noted that this gesture can be read as an acceptance of the ‘other,’ an overcoming of xenophobia, a celebration of her curiosity. Though she marries a prince who has a similar background to hers, Eric is not a member of the merfolk, and Ariel goes against her father’s wishes when she pursues him. In other words, we have a mixed marriage in the end, an acceptance of the ‘other.’”

However, Virginia Borges suggests that the tale is not quite as feminist as we’d like to believe. “In fact, despite the movie’s initial “girl power” image, with Ariel not being afraid to defy her father and pursue her dream, the message underneath is anything but feminist. An alternate way of viewing the story, Zipes argues, is:

“A coming of age story about a feisty ‘American’ mermaid, who pouts and pushes until she gets her way: she is the charming, adorable, spoiled and talented princess, Daddy’s pet, who demonstrates that she deserves to move up into the real world by dint of her perseverance and silence. Ariel must learn to channel her sexual desires and suffer for a man before she can win him as a prize. . . .Ariel’s curiosity and desire to be part of another world almost causes her death as well as her father’s; the prince saves Ariel by piercing the witch with the phallic bow of his ship; thanks to him Ariel is retransformed from mermaid into a beautiful bride.”

In this way, the Disney movie puts Ariel into a restrictive compartment just as much as Andersen does; except, while Andersen’s is one of chastity, the Disney movie box is one of encouraged premature sexuality.”

I would say that this week’s episode of Once Upon a Time definitely conforms to Disney’s version of the tale. This makes me wonder which version is worse for young girls to be hearing, the tale of brutally repressed sexuality, or the one encouraging sexuality and adult decisions (Ariel has to decide whether to be with the prince or her family)? I certainly remember wanting to be just like Ariel when I was a child. But, take a look at the values and desires being pushed on the audience. Do you want your five year old pursuing this rather adult dream?

Borges suggests, “At least Andersen’s envisioning of the story is honest; he openly values the mermaid’s soul above what she has to offer sexually. The Disney version can be seen as more insidious, in that its pitfalls towards its young female audience are guised in bright colors and Caribbean beats.

The Little Mermaid is perhaps most dangerous, whether in the Disney version or Andersen’s original, because it so neatly describes what so many young girls want. As the little mermaid’s grandmother tells her when she asks how she can receive a soul:

“Only if a human being loved you so much that you meant more to him than his father or mother — and only if all his thoughts and feelings were devoted to you and he let the pastor put his right hand in yours with the promise of faithfulness now and for all eternity. Then his soul would flow into your body, and you too could share human happiness. He would give you a soul and still keep his own.”

And she’s correct. It is what we all want; to love and be loved. So, what will you give up in order to obtain it? That’s all for today. Tune in next week for Behind the Folk Tale!

Did you watch this week’s episode of Once Upon a Time? What did you think? Sound off below…



Take a look at the Top 20 Folk Tale Adaptations in Literature to Curl Up With on a Rainy Day.

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By on November 5th, 2013

About Rebecca Lane

Rebecca Lane grew up in the hot desert landscape of Tucson, Arizona where she decided early on she wanted to write, if only to mentally escape her blistering surroundings. She has always been enamored of the arts and literature. As a child she often wrote short stories, and rewrote the endings of novels that she simply could not abide. She received her Undergraduate degree from Sarah Lawrence College in New York, where she was lucky enough to also spend a year studying at Oxford University. While she began her journey dreaming of the day she would sing opera in a large Manhattan theater, she found in the end she could not stand waitressing and simply could not give up books and her hopes of someday writing them. She is currently working as a freelance writer/editor and earning her Masters in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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