Hans Christen Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is a classic fairytale of magic, transformation, and forbidden love. Most people know the Disney version, where the prince falls in love with Ariel and they live happily ever after. The original version was much darker and bleaker, and likely came about because of an event in Anderson’s personal life.
The original 1837 version includes a few gruesome details that would not have been good for Disney’s family-friendly image. Along with not being able to speak, the little mermaid’s every step felt as if she were walking on broken glass. An important detail of this version is that mermaids do not have souls, so if she dies she will turn into seafoam instead of going to heaven as humans do.
The mermaids in Anderson’s version visit the surface when they turn 15, returning to tell their families about their experience. The youngest princess becomes enamoured with a human prince, and saves his life when his ship crashes. She watches from a distance as women from a nearby temple tend to him. The prince believes that one of these women saved him, not the little mermaid.
She returns home and asks her grandmother how long humans live. When she learns that they have short lifespans, she longs for a soul so she can be with the prince. The little mermaid seeks out the sea witch, who gives her a potion to grow legs with the warning that if the prince marries another, she will die of a broken heart and dissolve on the waves. Each step will feel like she is walking on broken glass, and she will have to give up her voice.
The prince finds her on the beach, and though she cannot speak, she becomes the prince’s constant companion. However, he shows no signs of loving her.
His parents announce his engagement to the neighbouring princess, who happens to be the woman from the temple. They marry on a ship, and the little mermaid is in anguish. That night, her sisters catch her attention in the waves. They cut off all of their beautiful hair in exchange for a dagger from the sea witch. If the little mermaid kills the prince with the dagger, she can become a mermaid again.
She enters the prince’s chamber, but seeing him asleep with his new wife, she can’t bring herself to kill him. She throws herself off the ship to become sea foam, rejoining the ocean and sparing the love of her life. But before she dissolved, she transforms into a spirit called a Daughter of the Air. Because of her good deeds in life, she now has the chance to gain her own soul.
This version of the story is certainly tragic, but I find it more poignant. Some people interpret it as a religious narrative, with the Daughter of Air being angels. The storybook that I had as a child cut off this ending, which makes it a tale of tragic, unrequited love without the cushioning of the mermaid’s redemption. I prefer this version – to me, it warns against being taken advantage of by people who will never truly care about you. It is also about self-sacrifice and learning to let go; instead of punishing the prince for loving someone else, she frees herself from the pain caused by pretending to be someone she is not. This fairy tale does not have a happy ending, but it is beautiful in its melancholy.
As I mentioned before, The Little Mermaid may reflect some aspects of Hans Christian Anderson’s personal life. Theorists believe the story was a love letter dedicated to a man named Edvard Collin. Collin was engaged to a young woman, and around this time Anderson sent him a letter which said “I languish for you as for a pretty Calabrian wench… my sentiments for you are those of a woman. The femininity of my nature and our friendship must remain a mystery.”
The parallels are clear. A person falls deeply in love with someone who is unable to reciprocate, despite changing everything about themselves. The story reflects Anderson’s pain in this unrequited love; the mermaid’s loss of her voice might represent Anderson’s inability to confess his feelings publicly.
As a queer person myself, I loved learning that one of the most famous fairytale authors loved men, and it made me love the story even more. It’s a brilliant story impacted by the author’s own life, and it’s no wonder that we still tell it today.