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The Little Mermaid

By: Hans Christian Andersen

"The Little Mermaid" is a Danish literary fairy tale written by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen. The story follows the journey of a young mermaid who is willing to give up her life in the sea as a mermaid to gain a human soul. The tale was first published in 1837 as part of a collection of fairy tales for children. The original story has been a subject of multiple analyses by scholars such as Jacob Bøggild and Pernille Heegaard as well as the folklorist Maria Tatar. These analyses cover various aspects of the story from interpreting the themes to discussing why Andersen chose to write a tragic story with a happy ending. It has been adapted to various media, including musical theatre, anime, ballet, opera, and film. There is also a statue portraying the mermaid in Copenhagen, Denmark, where the story was written and first published.

The Little Mermaid lives in an underwater kingdom with her widowed father (Mer-King), her dowager grandmother, and her five older sisters, each of whom had been born one year apart. When a mermaid turns fifteen, she is permitted to swim to the surface for the first time to catch a glimpse of the world above, and when the sisters become old enough, each of them visits the upper world one at a time every 365 days. As each returns, the Little Mermaid listens longingly to their various descriptions of the world inhabited by human beings.

 

When the Little Mermaid's turn comes, she rises up to the surface, watches a birthday celebration being held on a ship in honor of a handsome prince, and falls in love with him from a safe distance. A violent storm hits, sinking the ship, and the Little Mermaid saves the prince from drowning. She delivers him unconscious to the shore near a temple. Here, she waits until a young woman from the temple and her ladies in waiting find him. To her dismay, the prince never sees the Little Mermaid or even realizes that it was she who had originally saved his life.

 

The Little Mermaid becomes mad and asks her grandmother if humans can live forever. The grandmother explains that humans have a much shorter lifespan than a mermaid's 300 years, but that, when mermaids die, they turn to sea foam and cease to exist, while humans have an eternal soul that lives on in heaven. The Little Mermaid, longing for the prince and an eternal soul, visits the Sea Witch who lives in a dangerous part of the ocean. The witch willingly helps her by selling her a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue and beautiful voice, as the Little Mermaid has the most enchanting voice in the world. The witch warns the Little Mermaid that once she becomes a human, she will never be able to return to the sea. Consuming the potion will make her feel as if a sword is being passed through her body, yet when she recovers, she will have two human legs and will be able to dance like no human has ever danced before. However, she will constantly feel as if she is walking on sharp knives. In addition, she will obtain a soul only if she wins the love of the prince and marries him, for then a part of his soul will flow into her. Otherwise, at dawn on the first day after he marries someone else, the Little Mermaid will die with a broken heart and dissolve into sea foam upon the waves.

 

After she agrees to the arrangement, the Little Mermaid swims up to the surface near the prince's castle and drinks the potion. The liquid felt like a sword piercing through her body and she passes out on the shore, naked. She is found by the prince, who is mesmerized by her beauty and grace, even though she is mute. Most of all, he likes to see her dance, and she dances for him despite suffering excruciating pain with every step. Soon, the Little Mermaid becomes the prince's favorite companion and accompanies him on many of his outings but he does not fall in love with her. When the prince's parents encouraged their son to marry the neighboring princess in an arranged marriage, the prince tells the Little Mermaid he will not because he does not love the princess. He goes on to say he can only love the young woman from the temple, who he believes rescued him. It turns out that the princess from the neighboring kingdom was the temple woman, as she was sent to the temple for her education. The prince declares his love for her, and the royal wedding is announced at once.

 

The prince and princess celebrate their new marriage on a wedding ship, and the Little Mermaid's heart breaks. She thinks of all that she has sacrificed and of all the pain she has endured for the prince. She despairs, thinking of the death that awaits her, but before dawn, her sisters rise out of the water and bring her a dagger that the Sea Witch has given them in exchange for their long, beautiful hair. If the Little Mermaid kills the prince and lets his blood drip on her feet, she will become a mermaid once more, all her suffering will end, and she will live out her full life in the ocean with her family. However, the Little Mermaid cannot bring herself to kill the sleeping prince lying with his new wife, and she throws the dagger and herself off the ship into the water just as dawn breaks. Her body dissolves into foam, but instead of ceasing to exist, she feels the warm sun and discovers that she has turned into a luminous and ethereal earthbound spirit, a daughter of the air. As the Little Mermaid ascends into the atmosphere, she is greeted by other daughters, who tell her she has become like them because she strove with all her heart to obtain an immortal soul. Because of her selflessness, she is given the chance to earn her own soul by doing good deeds for mankind for 300 years, and will one day rise up into Heaven.

 

Book Details

Language

English

Original Language

Danish

Published In

1837

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Andersen's fairy tales, consisting of 156 stories across nine volumes and translated into more than 125 languages, have become culturally embedded in the West's collective consciousness, readily acces...

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