The Little Mermaid

H.C. Andersen (1805-1875)

By Dorthe Sondrup Andersen, master's degree in literature and culture writer, 2006

I’ve heard that story before! 

It is Hans Christian Andersen’s great misfortune that parents use his fairy tales as bedtime reading for their children. He deserves better, and hence there are good reasons to read The Little Mermaid, for example. 

A perfect gem 

Although almost everybody knows the story, attention is rarely paid to the way in which Hans Christian Andersen tells his fairy tales, and that is a pity. The story of The Little Mermaid gets off to a slow start. First we have to go far out in the blue ocean and then deep into the crystal clear water where no anchor chain can reach.

Here we find a coral castle, its windows of the clearest amber and its roof formed of shells. They open and close as the water flows over them and in each lies a glittering pearl. This is the castle of the Sea King, and here live six little sea-princesses with the most beautiful fishtails. The youngest sister is the prettiest of them all; her skin as clear and delicate as a rose leaf and her eyes as blue as the deepest sea. But she is an outsider musing and longing for something she cannot put into words. 

Dream prince 

All children know that feeling, but a grown-up reader would more likely be struck by the unhappy love story. The beautiful ocean princess loves a prince of the land and to win his love she undergoes a painful metamorphosis to become a human being. The princess carefully steps ashore on her two new legs, but the prince is not the least bit attracted to her. He cares for her, he even amicably gives her a nickname and brazenly discusses his love affairs with her.
However, when the prince dresses her in men’s clothes, we should pay attention, for is the fairy tale really about the relationship between two men? One who is attracted to women, and one who is more attracted to other men? In short, the story of a young homosexual man who falls head over heels in love with his heterosexual friend. If that is the case it is no surprise that the girl in men’s clothes cannot speak, suffers a world of agonies and does not get the one she loves. 

The little Mermaid has achieved international icon status. Edvard Eriksen's sculpture (1913) is immortalized by millions of tourists, but also exposed to actions. Vandalism or destruction of cannon? Photo: Brian Bergmann/Scanpix
H.C. Andersen. Budtz Müller og Co, 1872. Det Kongelige Bibliotek.
H. C. Andersen

Did you know?

Kilde: Jens Andersen: Greveligt godt: H.C. Andersen og herregårdene. Gyldendal, 2004.

H.C. Andersen was himself a real water dog who dived in the oceans everywhere where he came. In 1839 he took one lesson in swimming at Holmen before going to Nysø Gods to meet the vital Thorvaldsen, who had just returned from his exile in Rome. Together with the estate's eccentric baron Stampe, which every morning took "air baths" in naked figure in its window, the gentlemen dipped themselves in Præstø Fjord.

The committee's justification

By the Committee for Literature, 2006

“I would willingly give up all of my hundreds of years to be a human being for only one day, and so become entitled to that heavenly world above” 

The Little Mermaid is blossoming and attracted to the human world. Her grandmother has told her that mermaids live for three hundred years, then become foam on the surface of the sea. Humans, on the contrary, live only for a short time but have immortal souls. A mermaid can share in the “heavenly world” if a human loves her, but if not, she will suffer certain death. The sea witch cuts off her tongue in return for getting rid of her fishlike tail. 

The Little Mermaid saves the prince instead of luring him into the deep ocean from whence she came. Only able to communicate with her eyes and gestures, she fails to win his love. However, just like Andersen’s other righteous characters, she is given one more chance. She can become a mermaid again by killing the Prince. She chooses instead to throw the knife into the ocean, and by doing so she becomes one of the daughters of the air, who can gain an everlasting soul through good deeds. It will take three hundred years; however, the time can be shortened by children behaving well in the families where the story is told. The adventure is inspired by oral folktakes and contemporary poetry. Fra Undine (1811) by German author Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué is seen as the inspiration for the mermaid’s longing after an immortal soul and her dissolving into the waves.


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